When Can We Stop Calling Marriage an ‘Institution’?

April 17th, 2014

Something in me dies every time I hear someone talk about marriage as an institution. The word “institution” seems to take all the spirit out of the word “marriage.”

When you prod me to protect or challenge me to change the “institution of marriage” I feel like you’re asking me to invest in a company or cast my vote as a board member. I feel like you’re asking me to institutionalize myself, like in the “Shawshank Redemption.”

For me, calling marriage an institution feels like desacralizing and degrading it.

When Jesus attended that wedding in Cana, if we were to go up to him and ask him, “What do you think about the institution of marriage,” he’d probably first ask us if we’ve been drinking too much of the fresh wine he’d just made. I don’t even think those words would belong together in an ancient person’s vocabulary. The Bible certainly never refers to marriage as an institution.

I find the use of “institution” especially interesting in an American church — liberal or conservative — that is trying so desperately to re-evaluate contemporary marriage. The conservatives are concerned that not enough or not enough of the “right” people are joining the institution. And the liberals are concerned that not enough of the “right” people are allowed to join the institution.

In fact, the more I think about it, the less surprised I am that Americans would choose such a word to describe marriage. Leave it to a group of post-industrialized capitalists to institutionalize love and family. Leave it to a bunch of people who see corporations as the backbone of society to talk about family like it’s one of those corporations.

But what I have with my wife — regardless of who is included or excluded from the married club — is not an institution. I am not an 11-year-institutionalized man. My wife and I are not two CEOs on the board of a family corporation. Marriage is not a prison we are surviving or a company in which we are investing stock. And in this, I think I speak for everyone who loves their spouse, regardless of their political position.

I understand I probably have a generational bias here. I understand I’m part of an anti-institutional generation. And I understand that almost no one is going to call marriage a “corporation.” But we need to see that when we talk about marriage like this, we are undercutting the personal, loving, relational aspects by rhetorically dehumanizing it.

And no matter one’s position on marriage, the last thing we need to do is dehumanize it. The last thing we need to do is talk about it like it’s just another cog in our capitalist machine. Spouses are human beings. Soon-to-be spouses are human beings. Wanna-be spouses are human beings. Marriage is a highly relational, highly human experience. Calling it an institution just doesn’t seem to do it justice.

Okay, your turn. What do you think? Some have chosen the word “covenant” instead. Others refer to marriage as a “contract.” What word would you choose? What are the implications of your word choice?

This post originally appeared on Tom's blog, Tom1st.comSubscribe to his blog to receive new posts via email.

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