Everyone who is not comatose knows that a huge debate is unfolding in this country about the legal basis, and definition, of marriage. Is marriage between one man and one woman, or simply a relationship between two consenting adults (e.g., same-sex marriage), or perhaps more than two adults (polygamy is making a legal comeback, no joke)? The Washington State Supreme Court, in November 2005, ruled in favor of de facto parenthood. This concept is a growing popular option, for courts in about out ten states, to decide the visitation rights and legal relationships between children and adults who are not biologically related and not legally married. The particular case in Washington involved two lesbians who ended a relationship and then debated their respective rights to the child that one of the women had conceived through artificial insemination more than six years ago. Her partner assisted in the process and thus now claims parental rights to the child they were rearing together.

Judges can now award legal status to an adult who filled the “function” of a parent for “a sufficient length of time.” The rise of de facto parenthood is seen as a great victory for gays and lesbians, who can’t establish legal parenthood via marriage, at least not yet. For reasons that I do not yet fully understand gay couples could seek second-parent adoptions legally but generally do not prefer to pursue this option.

The implications of this legal trend are huge. In a Massachusetts court a dispute between a father, who served away from home in the military, and an aunt who cared for his eleven-year old child while he was away, was settled on an appeal to the same type of de facto marriage idea.

Sara Butler Nardo, writing in the Weekly Standard, observes that “In principle there is no numerical limit to the number of de facto parents a child can have. Custody battles between two parents can get ugly enough—imagine custody battles among three or four” (“De Facto Parenthood,” March 13, 21).  She adds, “While the courts have attempted to create objective criteria for de facto parenthood, the category remains far fuzzier than parenthood as traditionally defined” (page 21). Rather than asking if the adult has a biological or adoptive relationship to the child the relationship can now be defined by “parent-like” relationships, a broad definition if the law ever found one.

Nardo concludes, and I believe she is profoundly correct:

In reality, de facto parenthood serves adults more than children, as it continues adults’ liberation from marriage, strengthening  their ability to found or join a family however they wish, without marrying first, or ever.

This new circular definition of parenthood —a parent is a person who performs the function of a parent—is part of a larger trend in family law that sees the laws as the creator of the family, rather than one of its many custodians (page 22)

Not only is there a wide-open battle, culturally and legally, for the meaning of the word “marriage” there is also a huge battle now for the meaning of the term “parent.” Is there anyone, at least with a moral compass left, who seriously doubts that the sexual revolution has sown the whirlwind and now we are reaping the bitter fruit of the post-Kinsey era with a hellish vengeance? The real tragedy is to be seen in the children of this experimentation. I believe these children have become the new mission field, especially for our city churches. Some understand this well, most are asleep and complaining about the political battles without real concern for the missional implications. Only a missional perspective will “see” these new fields as white for harvest and know how to prepare workers to bring in a spiritual harvest that could impact a decaying culture rather powerfully. When all is said and done the gospel is still the “power of God” that can transform people, marriages, homes and communities.

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  1. Steve Scott March 30, 2007 at 12:47 am

    As a matter of fact, I am one who seriously doubts that the sexual revolution has sown the wind here. And I do believe that I have a moral compass. The real culprit sowing the wind here (long before the sexual revolution came on the scene) is the Caesar worship that Christians have been engaged in for a century or so that allows the state to define marriage and the family in the first place. Just what did we expect?
    If you remember the bible story of the two prostitute roommates, one of whom smothered her child to death during the night, then switched children, whose case came before King Solomon. He used his wisdom to discern the real mother by threatening to divide the child in two with a sword. He had no concern that she was a harlot, or that she had a roommate who was also a harlot and an irresponsible child killing liar. She was the mother. Imagine that case coming in to the courts today.
    The only consistent Christian response to all this mess is to repent of our own Caesar worshipping idolatry, and to promote separation of marriage and state and separation of family and state. We can’t have our cake and eat it too.

  2. Adam March 30, 2007 at 11:46 am

    I tend to agree with Steve. When the church is the one that defines marriage for the church, then it doesn’t matter what the state calls it. We inside the church don’t have our house in order on marriage. Clearly there are a massive amount of legal implications for issues around parenting, divorce, etc. But when the church has a radically better system of marriage then we will be able to speak with moral authority. Right now our kids are having sex outside of marriage at about the same rate. Our marriages end in divorce at about the same rate. Our people have affairs at about the same rate. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from singles that their church singles program is rampant with people having sex with one another. We need to look to your other post John, about actually having some action along with our beliefs.

  3. jls March 30, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    Adam and Steve raises important points, but I cannot agree that “it doesn’t matter what the state calls it.” The definition of marriage as one man united with one woman pre-dates the Fall. It is so basic to human nature that societies and governments ignore it at great peril. We should uphold marriage in public policy and law as vigorously as we uphold the right to life. This is not a matter of the separation of church and state. If we are accused of imposing our subjective Judeo-Christian values on others, so be it; that’s the price we will have to pay. Our moral authority to speak on these matters does not come from church norms but from Jesus, who upheld the sanctity of marriage at a time when it was routinely abused by religious people.
    I strongly agree with Adam that the church needs to get its own house in order regarding marriage. The social scene on high school and college campuses–and, sadly, in churches–makes it difficult or impossible for young people to explore possibilities for marriage without entering into damaging extramarital sexual relationships. Responsible Christian courtship is dead. Adults have failed to provide young people with role models and socially prescribed rules for behavior that can help them to make the choices that will lead to successful marriage. There’s a fascinating and disturbing report by Glenn and Marquardt (2001) that talks about this:
    Until parents, youth leaders, pastors and other responsible persons are willing to take a more pro-active role to prayerfully guide young people in dating and marriage-related decisions, we should not expect things to improve.

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