Book Review: What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense


In this review I summarize and engage What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (hereafter, WIM) by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George.[1] Here are a few general comments before I present a more focused discussion below. First, I found the book immensely helpful as a logical argument in service of an apologetic for the traditional view of marriage (hereafter, TVM), even though it was tough reading at times simply because of the design of the work as a legal brief. The challenge was not that the book is unnavigable due to a lack of clarity or poor writing quality, but that I had to stretch my mind to think in the closely argued and sometimes tedious manner of legal parlance, though I did find the stretch quite enjoyable once I adjusted my expectations. Further, I had to remind myself (and a classmate!) that this book was not intended to provide a biblical or theological argument in favor of TVM, at least not explicitly, though the authors certainly provide implicit arguments for the value of general revelation and natural theology, which are both part of the Christian message. So, the apologetic benefit was primarily the role it serves in bolstering the traditional view of marriage through philosophical argumentation without appeals to special revelation. The book is nothing short of impressive simply as an example of the giftedness of the authors, especially Girgis, whose work on the book and in other contexts related to the TVM discussion reminds me that apologists come from varied backgrounds and sometimes appear in cultural and intellectual contexts that some in the church are tempted to conclude are territories long ago lost to the enemy. I have in mind here Girgis’ academic circumstances at Yale and Princeton, neither one a bastion of Christian orthodoxy or cultural conservatism, and yet, there he is defending the TVM.

Summary and Engagement

The authors begin by stating that, “What we have come to call the gay marriage debate is not directly about homosexuality, but about marriage. It is not about whom to let marry, but about what marriage is.”[2] Given the timing of the book’s release (pre-2015 and the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States), I find something poignant about these words, especially since most of my experience as a pastor regarding the TVM debate has centered more on homosexuality and less on marriage. Only now have I and other Christian leaders realized we may have had our guns trained on the wrong target, missing the opportunity to focus on marriage and make a positive apologetic argument about it because it was too easy to pick-off the low-hanging fruit of homosexuality through a negative apologetic engagement with the more extreme advocates of same-sex relationships. It appears the enemy’s diversion was somewhat successful, especially as the Christian army now scrambles to reorient itself to the new realities it faces amid its waning influence on Western culture. Not that I have lost hope, but the task before us is daunting and fraught with difficulty, which makes WIM’s insight about the need to focus on the nature of marriage all the more pertinent.

            Thus, to help focus the discussion on marriage, the authors distinguish between two views of marriage: the conjugal view and the revisionist view. The conjugal view “is a vision of marriage as a bodily as well as an emotional and spiritual bond, distinguished thus by its comprehensiveness, which is, like all love, effusive: flowing out into the wide sharing of family life and ahead to lifelong fidelity.”[3] The revisionist view offers “a vision of marriage as, in essence, a loving emotional bond, one distinguished by its intensity—a bond that needn’t point beyond the partners, in which fidelity is ultimately subject to one’s own desires. In marriage, so understood, partners seek emotional fulfillment, and remain as long as they find it.”[4]

            There are at least two striking differences between these views. First, the revisionist approach to marriage—though sharing with the conjugal view an emphasis on the place of a loving bond within marriage—reduces to something that is ultimately subjective and impermanent, based on an emotional fulfillment that is sometimes ephemeral and at least given to wax and wane according to the challenges faced by the couple. Second, whereas the conjugal view implicitly entails a heterosexual understanding of marriage based on its emphasis on bodily union and family sharing, the revisionist view does not require any specific expression of human sexuality since the focus of the marriage becomes emotional fulfillment and nothing specifically procreative.

            These differences in understanding what marriage is provide the opening that advocates of same-sex relationships took advantage of in making their case for gay marriage by reducing the discussion to something that is both real and helpful for a relationship, i.e., the emotional bond, and around which a rallying cry was easy to develop: Who are you to tell me who I can and cannot love? The approach worked and an entire cultural norm has been changed, making sexuality and gender fluid constructs of little consequence in the rush to defend the value of emotional bonds as the locus of the marriage definition. As the authors of WIM labor to make clear, the problem is that the revisionist view introduces an intractable instability into its new definition of marriage. When emotional fulfillment becomes the determiner of permanence there is nothing permanent about marriage—feelings change, and relationships begin and end accordingly.

            The outcome, and one that becomes more obvious as the societal implications of the revisionist view work their way into everyday life, is that “any remaining restrictions on marriage [become] arbitrary” and “genuine marital union” is lost along with the culture dependent upon it.[5] At this intersection of culture and the revisionist view of marriage there are a number of pernicious implications, and this is where I find what I think is one of the most compelling aspects of WIM’s argument. The authors identify several outcomes from the revisionist view of marriage: spousal well-being declines; child well-being declines; the possibility diminishes for substantive friendships between those of the same gender; religious liberty is infringed for those holding the conjugal view of marriage; and the state’s role expands to intrusive levels.[6]

            There is a sense of clarity and foreboding that build as the authors make their case across the seven chapters of WIM: clarity regarding exactly what marriage is and what the revisionist view entails, and foreboding regarding the seeds of destruction sown by the revisionist redefinition of marriage adopted by the Supreme Court in the years following the publication of WIM. The authors make a penetrating and prescient statement in their concluding chapter, explaining that “there is no neutral marriage policy.”[7] Nor is there anything neutral about the conjugal and revisionist views of marriage, and this is the point of WIM—marriage is not some inconsequential ad hoc societal construct that one may take or leave based on preferences. “Almost every culture in every time and place has had some institution that resembles what we know as marriage…. Marriage understood as the conjugal union of husband and wife really serves the good of children, the good of spouses, and the common good of society.”[8]

Relevance for Apologetics

At this point I would like to highlight that the Christian apologist can learn a few valuable lessons about apologetics from WIM’s approach. First, regarding apologetic methodology, what WIM’s authors provide is a cumulative case approach to the discussion of same-sex marriage. Notice how their case builds based on clear definitions, well-thought out implications, and appeals derived from the positive and negative conclusions warranted by the discussion. Rather than a merely deductive approach, there is a certain appeal in the abductive build-out of the argument for the conjugal view of marriage; a certain let-this-sink-in-for-a-moment momentum that has a potentially powerful epistemic effect on all sides of the discussion. Christians concerned about this topic would do well to follow this pattern, especially in our increasingly affect-driven, truth-claim-suspicious culture.

            Second, by delineating the negative effects resulting from the revisionist view, the authors of WIM heed the biblical command to “answer a fool according to his folly” (Prov. 26:5) as they expose the unavoidable outcome of redefining marriage according to emotional fulfillment.[9] This aspect of the argument pairs nicely with WIM’s positive articulation of the conjugal view and its definition of marriage as “a comprehensive union of persons.”[10] In this regard the authors of WIM also obey the Bible’s command “do not answer a fool according to his folly” (Prov. 26:4), as they make their strong case for the conjugal view. Thus, there is a certain apologetic flow to the presentation in WIM, moving from challenging the revisionist view by articulating the conjugal view, and then teasing out the implication of the revisionist view for individuals and culture.

             Third, and this is more of an ecclesial and less apologetic observation, as Girgis explains in a presentation to church leaders about the topic of same-sex marriage, the church has the answer that the revisionist definition seeks to address.[11] The church is the community in which meaningful emotional bonds can and should be formed, and the church has a special calling to those who think they can only find this type of relationship in same-sex marriage. It is the church that gives special significance to the ultimate and mystical meaning of marriage as an eternal bond between Christ and his bride, and it is within the context of the church that all other relationships have a place that is also ultimate and mystical, though marriage need not be redefined for these relationships to be enjoyed.


Sadly, since the publication of WIM, the revisionist view of marriage has won the day in the United States and the implications are staggering. Ironically, the very ones most concerned to see their welfare affirmed and their relationship freedoms enshrined will only continue to find that they are attempting to fetch water from a dried-up well. Thus, the views of the authors of WIM are as important now as ever, and the conjugal view of marriage can and should be explained, defended, and sought to be restored to the culture so dependent upon it. God, help us.

WIN_20180516_09_43_40_Pro (2).jpg

T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at


[1] Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2012), Kindle.

[2] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 70.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 78.

[5] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 162-169.

[6] Ibid., Kindle location 162-193.

[7] Ibid., Kindle location 1369.

[8] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 1411-1419.

[9] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotations are taken from The Holy Bible: New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1982).

[10] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 371.

[11] Sherif Girgis, “Better together: Marriage and the Common Good,” Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, podcast audio, August 23, 2016,