Traditional marriage and evangelical celebrity culture have collided the last week. I often think that the evangelical church has missed some important needs and opportunities around the topic of marriage and its role in God’s kingdom. I hope to contribute something helpful here.
It probably goes without saying that not all government sanctioned marriages, traditional or non-traditional, reflect God’s good purposes for the institution. Note that I define traditional marriage more strictly than is often used in Christian circles, particularly in terms of politics. While true traditional Christian marriage is between a man and a woman, it is also a binding covenant. I write from the United States where no fault divorce was first introduced in California in 1970 and is available in most states with very short waiting periods. In that sense, I don’t think our nation has held to traditional Christian marriage for the majority of my life.
Consider the point of a contract. I could agree to pay a bank back for a home loan without entering a contract with them. They could give me the money, and I could start paying them back every month. But the point of the contract is two-fold. It provides security for the one loaning the money (and for the one paying it back). But how does it provide that security? Not by mere good will or affection but by binding the parties so that they can not default on their promise without severe consequences. When the going gets rough and I have a hard time making my house payment, the contract causes me to work hard to preserve the relationship. Get a second job. Receive financial counseling. Sell an extra vehicle. Eat ramen for a month. Whatever the sacrifice I have to make, the contractual obligations I have are incentive for doing the work necessary to keep the relationship.
This too is the point of the Christian marriage covenant. We gather witnesses before God as we make solemn vows of faithfulness until death do us part. We do so because this solemn commitment before God provides security to both parties, a security that is necessary for human flourishing in long term relationships. We all know someone who is insecure in a relationship. Most of us at some point have felt insecure in a relationship. It is very hard to live confidently in the world in a close but insecure relationship.
The point of marriage vows is to introduce security in the relationship through commitment in the image of God, who is eternally committed to His covenant with His people. Yet, many men and women in the church have experienced a harmful lack of commitment to covenant vows. This was a problem in Jesus’ day as well.
3 Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” 4 And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” 7 They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
(Though in Scripture the issue was primarily men putting away the wife of their youth, women in many modern cultures have reached equality with man on this issue.)
The same men who would later throw the woman caught in adultery at Jesus’ feet to be stoned want to continue the practice of putting away a wife for any reason in this interaction with Jesus. Conservative Christians often mourn the acceptance of the label of marriage for civil unions between those of the same sex. But I wish we would spend equal or more energy discipling in the value of persevering in relationship when it is hard to honor covenants made before God. Our society has been harmed greatly by sexual promiscuity outside of marriage and the easy breaking of covenants in marriage. Because we haven’t understood or celebrated such traditional marriage, we have lost moral high ground to stand on other issues.
With a stricter definition of traditional marriage, a binding covenant that restrains a man and a woman in a family unit for life, there are two particular ways to approach the gospel and traditional marriage. First, the gospel is visible in traditional marriage. And second, the gospel is needed for traditional marriage.
The Gospel Visible in Traditional Marriage
Marriage was given by God to both accomplish His purposes and to give testimony of His relationship with His people. As to the first, I imagine that God could have set up His creation with only one gender, but He didn’t. He created two similar yet different genders, and He did so with a conversation within the Trinity of creating mankind, male and female, in His/Their image. There is something in the yin and yang, give and take, tug and pull of two different genders who think similarly about some things and very differently about others, who overlap in ways and are distinct in others, that was good and helpful for God’s purposes in creation. This yin and yang of two genders extends past marriage. Dads need daughters, moms need sons, sisters benefit from brothers, and grandsons from grandmothers. This extends to relationships in the church and work environment as well. There is benefit to two overlapping but different genders approaching a task together in God’s kingdom work.
Marriage between a man and a woman was also given as a visual testimony of the gospel. Paul says this explicitly in Ephesians 5. Husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church. Wives respect their husbands and align with their mission as the church aligns with Christ’s.
But these image-bearing purposes instituted before the Fall and the potential testimony of the gospel after the Fall show the utter need of the next point.
The Gospel Needed for It
Such image-bearing purposes and gospel testimony are impossible after the fall of man without a robust understanding and application of the gospel. After the fall of man, these differences between men and women which should have worked together for God’s holistic purposes instead cause chafing. They catch on each other instead of flowing smoothly in and out of each gender’s giftings. Frankly, apart from Christ it is much easier to be in close relationship with someone who thinks just like you.
Many who put away orthodox views of traditional marriage do so because it is hard. If, because of your personal inclinations you feel attracted physically or emotionally to the same sex, then enduring in such close relationship with someone of the opposite sex seems too hard to try. But for those who do feel attraction to the opposite sex, it remains hard, and the temptation to quit on the covenant commitment remains strong, whether you experience same sex attraction or not. We need more than idealistic notions of romance to sustain us in traditional marriage. We need hope from the good news of Jesus Christ. We need to know God’s good plans for man and woman in the garden and how Jesus equips us once more to be image-bearers of God. We need to understand the Creation Mandate of Genesis 2 and 3 and Jesus’ reclamation of it in the Great Commission of Matthew 28. We need inspiration through Jesus to persevere in something that gives testimony of Jesus’ love for His Bride not because it is easy but by the very fact that it is hard.
Of course there are circumstances that call for divorce, abuse and infidelity being the primary issues. Jesus allowed for divorce, but he limited it because He knew, when the going got tough and the bloom of the wife of their youth had worn off, those with power would try to get out of marriages because the grass seemed greener in someone else’s yard. Traditional marriage gives a testimony of the good news of Jesus and His love for us, His people. But it is also this very good news that is the singular hope we have to endure and even flourish in a relationship that by definition involves two different people coming together as one, with all the struggle and work involved.
Proverbs 5:18 Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth.