Culture

What’s Your Definition of Marriage?

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We have seen the dawn of God’s new world and we have been wooed out of darkness into God’s marvelous light. We have received King Jesus and have come alive in the light of his love.

As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him (Colossians 2:6).

For married couples, this exhortation means holding on to your spouse with faithfulness and fidelity. The winds and waves of secularism continue to pound against this foundational tradition of the church. But more than that, Christian marriage also seems to be slowly dissolving even from within the Church into something unrecognizable.

Marriage is now often spoken of—even by believers—as an unnecessary legal entanglement. Others enjoy the physical rewards without entering into the covenant of marriage. And still others think of Christian marriage as a convenient partnership that lasts only as long as things are good. There are believers and non-believers alike who want to “redefine” marriage to mean the union of any two people regardless of gender. But I wonder: does the average Christian in N. America even have a working definition of Christian marriage?

The state of Christian marriage is in flux. I do think we need to define marriage, but not in a way that accommodates Christian marriage to the demands of the modern world. Let’s define marriage in the ancient ways of Christian discipleship.

Here are five components I believe a definition of Christian marriage needs to have.

#1 Marriage is part of God’s good and ordered creation.

Marriage has fallen into disrepair by those who consider it a convenient contract, or a necessary social arrangement in a broken down world that works for only as long as it is found pleasing.

When Jesus was tested by the Pharisees regarding the legal justification for divorce, a conversation broke out about the law of Moses. The Pharisees cited the law where a man was permitted to send away his wife if he found some “indecency” with her. Jesus responded by quoting from the creation narrative in Genesis 1-2. Jesus said:

But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two but one flesh (Mark 10:6-8 ESV).

Jesus answered a question about divorce not by appealing to the law, but by appealing to creation. In fact, Jesus grounds discussions of the nature of marriage in creational monotheism. What does this tell us?

Marriage is a part of God’s good creation. It is a part of the good and ordered world God made. This is what we read in Genesis and it is how Jesus spoke of marriage. Furthermore, Genesis bears witness to the God who creates complementary pairs to comprise a beautiful and ordered wholeness—light and dark, land and sea, soil and plants, skies and birds, waters and fish, and yes, male and female. Before the church, before Israel, before the giving of the law, and before the call of Abraham, the one God of creation ordered marriage as a man plus woman covenant. The prototypical husband and wife existed as one flesh in reflection of the unity of the God who made them. They were the crowning achievement of God’s creation.

God saw that this was all good. Accordingly, we too must uphold marriage as very good—an expression of God’s good, created order.

The prototypical husband and wife were the crowning achievement of God's creation who created complementary pairs to comprise a beautiful wholeness. Click To Tweet

#2 Marriage is covenant faithfulness.

When asked about why people choose to get married, the common response is “love.” This response is not altogether out of step with Christian discipleship, but love is a tricky word. We only have one English word for the word love. We love our mom and we love our sports team and we love our dog and we love chocolate ice cream, but these are not the same kind of loves. Marital love has been co-opted by an oversexed culture to mean a relationship built upon infatuation—that is, love primarily as a feeling.

A healthy marriage cannot avoid affectionate love. All married people want to feel desired by the one they are married to. But Christian marriage is less about infatuation and more about fidelity. In a 2016 interview with Plough Quarterly, Stanley Hauwerwas called the idea of falling in love as the prerequisite to marriage a “deep bedevilment.” Marriage for Christians, according to Hauweras, is rooted in faithfulness:

Marriage is not something to be done because two people think they love one another. Rather it’s based on faithfulness to one another in the community such that over a lifetime, we’re able to look back on the relationship and call it love. Faithfulness becomes the defining mark of Christian marriage. 

For Hauwerwas, marriage is “lifelong commitment to be faithful to one another.” [1] This kind of faithfulness is rooted in God’s covenant with God’s people where God promises to be their God in an unbroken alliance. Sexual immorality as defined as sexual activity outside of the confines of Christian marriage undermines the very covenant that is intended to cement a husband and wife together.

Infatuation is not the mark of a Christian marriage; fidelity is. Click To Tweet

#3 Marriage is an icon of God’s love.

The faithfulness expressed in marriage as a product of God’s good creation rooted in the very covenant faithfulness of God can rightly be called love, but not merely the love between a husband and wife. Marriage itself is an emblem of God’s love for the world. In an apostolic exhortation entitled Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis described the iconic nature of Christian marriage:

Marriage is a precious sign, for when a man and a woman celebrate the sacrament of marriage, God is, as it were, “mirrored” in them; he impresses in them his own features and the indelible character of his love. Marriage is the icon of God’s love for us. – Pope Francis

Pope Francis describes God’s love in the context of the Trinity. [2] Christian marriage is an icon of God’s love insofar as it reflects the kind of other-focused, self-giving love experienced among the members of the Trinity as they dance together in perfect unity. Trinitarian love seeks not to take, but to give. It doesn’t try to dominate, but accommodate. As I have written elsewhere, even the Spirit as the love between the Father and the Son doesn’t close the heart of God, but opens the very life of God to the other. Marriage as an icon of the love of God expresses this same kind of self-giving love reaching towards serving one another and honoring one another.

Trinitarian love seeks not to take, but to give. It doesn't try to dominate, but accommodate. Click To Tweet

#4 Marriage is sacramental.

Our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters honor marriage as a sacrament. Most Protestants hold up baptism and communion as the only sacraments of the church, but Protestants can learn something from Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians concerning the sacramental nature of marriage. The relationship between a husband and wife may not be one of the means of grace like holy communion, but the union between a man and a woman in the covenant of marriage breathes in the presence of God in a real way. This is why many Protestant wedding ceremonies open with the line,

Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together… [3]

In his book Heavenly Participation, Hans Boersma argues for a return to a “sacramental ontology” where we begin to see that all reality and all of creation not only points to something greater than itself, but that all of life is itself participating in the life of God. According to Boersma,

Sacraments actually participate in the mysterious reality to which they point [4].

Marriage is sacramental in that it participates in the Triune life of God. So we can rightly redefine marriage as both symbolic as an icon of God’s love and sacramental as lived reality in the presence of God.

#5 Marriage is a sacred gift.

In nearly every marriage ceremony I officiate, I remind the couple (and the congregation) that marriage is a gift. In using words from The Book of Common Prayer, I often say:

Marriage is a gift and therefore it is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.

We did not invent marriage. We have received it as a gift.

Christian marriage has been an institution of the church from the beginning. It belongs to the people of God. It has been handed down to us as a part of the great tradition and therefore, “let marriage be held in honor among all” (Hebrews 13:4 ESV). As faithful followers of Jesus, I believe we need to work together to honor it and pass it on for the sake of our children and our grandchildren.

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[1] https://www.plough.com/en/topics/community/church-community/why-community-is-dangerous

[2] https://w2.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia_en.pdf

[3] “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage,” The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 423.

[4] Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 23.

 

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