Stephanie Coontz continues to make the case for homosexual marriage, appealing to a principle that is increasingly popular among evangelicals: the state should keep its grubby hands off marriage.
Coontz appeals to history for her case, arguing that the State and the Church viewed marriage as a private decision for sixteen centuries.
But Coontz’s argument is suspect. While common-law marriages have always existed (even in our own country), they were—and are—exceptional. Though the Church may have recognized such marriages, such recognition does not entail what Coontz wants it to—a repudiation of the institutional and social nature of marriage.
In addition, the notion that ‘consent’ was the only criterion for marriage (for either the Church of the State) is misleading. In the middle ages, for instance, families would exchange promises, provide dowries, and then hand over the daughter. Ironically, the Church introduced the principle of consent to curb these practices.
Likewise, the situation in Roman society was equally complex. The late Roman state had a system that approximated the modern state’s control and influence over marriage, and that suggested marriage had public ramifications.
Moreover, in the Coontz system, people who lived together and explicitly chose NOT to be married will find themselves nonetheless held to legal obligations they explicitly did not sign up for (even though they had the chance! With something called “marriage”!). Is that fair? Maybe when there is a child involved we’ll all agree it’s fair, but what if there isn’t? Do you owe financial payments to a girlfriend you lived with for 18 months? Can she tell the hospital whether to pull the plug after you suffer brain damage in a car accident? In the Coontz system, who knows?
As Knippenberg writes, “In other words, government support for, or acquiesence in, the free choices of individuals could in the long run lead to the elimination of government support for the family. This can’t be good for children, but, then, who cares about them?”
There is good reason, then, for Christians to resist Coontz’s suggestions. Not only are they historically dubious, they are impractical and could undercut the position of the family within contemporary society.
By virtue of the fact that it unites two human persons–social creatures, as Aristotle understood–marriage will always resist the totalitarian privatization of those who wish to fashion it according to their own ends.
And for that, we can be extraordinarily thankful.
 See “Marriage in Medieval Culture: Consent Theory and the Case of Joseph and Mary,” by Irven M. Resnick. Church History, Vol. 69, No. 2. (Jun., 2000), pp. 350-371.
 See, for instance, “The Registration of Marriage under Mediæval Roman Law,” by J. E. G. de Montmorency. Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation, New Ser., Vol. 14, No. 2. (1914), pp. 390-399.