Most readers of Modern Reformation are well aware of the steady “drift” by evangelical Protestants in this country away from their historical moorings. And, sadly, the widespread doctrinal ignorance within the church today is not the only proof that American evangelicalism has become, for the most part, a ship without a rudder. Despite all the banter about traditional family values, it would seem that marriage and family life among American evangelicals does not fare much better than our theology. Recent surveys show that evangelicals are just as likely to divorce, and almost as likely to have engaged in extramarital affairs, as their non-believing neighbors. Two-thirds of the Christians surveyed considered “divorce a reasonable solution to a problem marriage,” and almost half thought divorce to be an acceptable solution in spite of the consequences that it would have upon their children. (1) Even more lamentable is the fact that born-again Christians, while remaining staunchly opposed to abortion ideologically, nevertheless still opt for it–and at a rate no less frequent than those who profess no faith at all. So much for our “family values.”
As shocking as these statistics may sound, though, perhaps they should not surprise us. For what affects ethics as much as theology? Indeed, as an evangelical pastor, I am convinced that it is no accident that both our theological convictions and family values have become equally bankrupt in the modern church. This is not to suggest that sound doctrinal belief and happy, fulfilling marriages are coterminous (after all, there are many non-Christians who enjoy the latter without the former); nor is it to say that the Bible should be treated as a prepackaged marriage manual (indeed, Scripture warns that “if for this life only we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men”). (2) It is merely to point out that, even with good intentions, it is still very questionable whether a fallen creature can “glorify God and enjoy him forever” when he takes his views of God, self, and the world–including his primary assumptions about marriage–from the precepts of the self-esteem gurus. Yet this is exactly what many professing Christians attempt to do.
What appears to some to be a harmless blending of the “best of both worlds” is, in fact, anything but harmless. In terms of a genuinely Christian world view, such an approach is tragic–since our assumptions about God invariably affect our understanding of the “chief end of man.” If, for example, one embraces a view of God that suggests the redemptive value of the Cross is to be found primarily in its moral utility (i.e., God wants to show us how much He loves us, and really only wants to make us “happy”), can we honestly expect that person, having already defined redemption in such a manner, to be any more than superficial and self-serving in his own human covenants? In short, how can we expect a person with a man-centered theology to produce a God-honoring marriage?
“But,” someone may object, “marriage is an ordinance of creation, not redemption.” That is absolutely correct! One does not have to be a Christian in order to enjoy the fruits of God’s common grace in this “holy estate.” Nevertheless, as believers in Christ, if we begin with faulty notions about the Creator, how can we ever hope to gain an accurate understanding of his purposes in creation–whether it be in marriage, family life, work, government, or culture–or to fathom the deeper meaning behind why God has placed these institutions into his world in the first place?
Yet when it comes to marriage, most of us want to jettison theology altogether and run straight to the “practical.” Think, for instance, of how many sermons the average parishioner has had to endure on Ephesians 5 in which the minister waxes authoritatively on the proper “roles” within marriage; yet, more often than not, this is done without ever so much as mentioning the first two-thirds of that book, which spell out the entire theological basis for our relationship to God and one another! This fact is even more remarkable, when one considers that Paul himself states explicitly that he is “talking about Christ and the church” in this standard text on marriage (Eph 5:32).
What, exactly, is the “mystery” to which Paul refers in this passage? Throughout the New Testament epistles, Paul uses the word musterion (moos-tay’-ree-on) to refer to truths which cannot be discovered through general revelation, but rather are kept hidden, i.e., secrets or “mysteries,” until God chooses to make them known through special revelation (cf. Eph 3:4-6). (3) A musterion, therefore, pertains not merely to those things that we do not understand in this life but, specifically, to God’s purposes in redemption that one can never understand apart from special revelation. Surely, the “mystery” of marriage is no exception. To be sure, when Paul uses this word he is normally referring to something being revealed through the common medium of ink and paper about God’s eternal purposes. In this case, however, something is being revealed about God, not in words, but through another aspect of the created order: the ordinance of marriage.
The implications of this are profound. Among other things, it explains why Paul contends that the proper relationship between husband and wife is one which typifies the relationship between Christ and His bride, the church. Marriage is a “mystery” insofar as this temporal, earthly covenant between a man and a woman foreshadows God’s eternal, holy covenant with those who are the objects of his special love. For example, the Divine promise in creation that the man will be “united to his wife,” and by so doing will become “one flesh” with her (Gn 2:24), corresponds–in typological fashion–to the believer’s union with Christ. Hence the institution of marriage, while wholly “common” in one sense, is nevertheless a “holy estate” insofar as it can teach us, when viewed within the covenantal framework, about God’s saving purposes in Christ.
“But what,” you may ask, “does all of this have to do with how I relate to my spouse?” Simply this: what we believe to be true about God and his purposes in this world will not only affect our ultimate convictions about the “chief end of man,” but also the way in which we seek to relate to others. Like it or not, our theology does matter–even in marriage! As the great Reformed minister Martyn Lloyd-Jones once remarked: “A Christian is something before he does anything…the gospel puts a much greater weight upon what we are than upon what we do.” (4) Does this imply that our behavior in marriage (or the Christian life) is irrelevant? Of course not! If that were the case, the second half of Ephesians would not have been written. Nevertheless, one must be in Christ before he can live out the implications of his faith. In short, even in the process of sanctification, “it is not I, but Christ who lives in me.” (5)
To be sure, Scripture is also full of many “practical” exhortations regarding human marriage. For example, Paul states that marriage is to be based upon mutual submission (Eph. 5:21). Mutual submission implies mutual service, as evidenced by the fact that the wife vows to honor and obey someone who has committed himself to laying down his life for her welfare. So, too, the husband vows to love unconditionally someone who has committed herself to following him. (6) Apart from the obvious parallels to our faith in Christ, what could be more “practical” than a life-long relationship based upon mutual love and submission? In Christian marriage, the husband and wife are called to be, first and foremost, the servants of one another.
Admittedly such practical exhortations are not unique to Christian marriage. Indeed, in the last two chapters of Ephesians, Paul applies the exact same principles of love and mutual submission to virtually every relationship imaginable-man, woman, child, slave, and master. Nevertheless, the marriage relationship is unique in one sense. For while the problems that one encounters in marriage may not be any different qualitatively (for the most part) from those of other interpersonal relationships, they are certainly more “revealing,” due to the unique demands placed upon the parties involved. (7) In that sense, Christian marriage is “revelatory” in almost the same sense as the Law. For even as Paul asserts that “before the law came I did not know sin,” (8) marriage can be a very convincing tutor.
Let me explain. The Christian–as virtually every pagan knows–is called to serve God with all of his heart, mind and strength, and also to love his neighbor as himself. Nevertheless, as every true believer must learn (eventually), it is not until one actually tries to fulfill this command that he discovers the depth of his own depravity. In this sense, marriage is a great “lab practical.” Nothing shatters the illusion of our own decency quite like the intimacy of marriage. After all, it is easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are basically “good,” loving people, until we are forced into a situation where we really must sacrifice our own self-interest for that of another. It is no accident that the first years of marriage can be so “difficult.” For every son of Adam and daughter of Eve are born self-centered by nature, and perhaps nothing illuminates this fact better than the day-to-day reality of having to share one’s most intimate space with another human being. This is especially true when the “other” becomes one flesh with us! Caring for one’s spouse even as we “love and cherish our own bodies” (Eph 5:28-29) goes against every grain of our fallen condition.
No doubt this is why, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul places his instructions regarding the marital covenant within the context of Christian sanctification. The apostle states:
Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God…Now we ask you and urge you to do this more and more. It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to live with his own wife in a way that is holy and honorable.” (9)
This verse does not guarantee that marriage will inevitably produce sanctified people; nor does it imply that a single person cannot grow in godliness. But it does suggest that at least one of God’s many purposes in marriage is the growth of the Christian believer. To overlook or deny this fact is to make a serious mistake in learning how to live “lives that are pleasing to God.” Indeed, when all is said and done, perhaps the most important question that can be asked of any marriage is simply this: how much more does our spouse reflect the image and glory of God because of it?
1 [ Back ] As cited by George Barna, 1993 Church Report.
2 [ Back ] 1 Corinthians 15:19.
3 [ Back ] Cf. Ranald Macaulay and Jerram Barrs' discussion of this text in Being Human: The Nature of Spiritual Experience, (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 1978), p 173.
4 [ Back ] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies on the Sermon on the Mount, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), p. 96.
5 [ Back ] Galatians 2:20.
6 [ Back ] See Dick Keyes' excellent treatment of this topic in Beyond Identity: Finding Yourself in the Image and Character of God (Ann Arbor, MI.: Servant Books, 1984), pp. 211-225.
7 [ Back ] Ibid.
8 [ Back ] Romans 7:7, 7:9.
9 [ Back ] 1 Thessalonians 4:1, 3-4. See NIV footnote for variant reading.