For Better or for Worse: The Real Christian View of Marriage

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Call me a sap, a romantic, a bleeding heart. I don’t care. Coming down off the emotional high of my anniversary (yesterday) is a slow process.  I love my wife, I love being married, and I  love reflecting on those two facts. But our anniversary was also a chance to reflect on something else…the slightly uncomfortable fact that I am, in a very real sense, an anomaly.

According to the same Pew Research I quoted in a previous post, 77% of my peers think that more people living together without getting married is either a good thing for society or it makes no difference at all. Fewer people in my generation view having a successful marriage as a primary life goal than in any previous generation.

The popular understanding of the Christian view of marriage has suffered as well. In reaction to the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s, much of the Christian church has propagated a message about marriage that sounds a lot like this:

“God says do not have sex until you are married. We agree that sex is nice. So you should get married if you want it.”

If you think that is too harsh a recounting of the popular Christian message, you may be right.  Nevertheless, that is what many of my peers have heard from the lips of their youth pastors, Christian school teachers, and parents…and they have rejected it in droves.

The popular Christian message on marriage has been found wanting by a generation that thinks in terms of utility. “Do what works,” is the maxim that is applied to the contemporary American life, and for many Millennials marriage does not seemed to have worked.

Only 62% of Millennials say that their parents were married during the time they were growing up. That compares with 71% of Gen Xers, 85% of Boomers and 87% of Silents. (53, Millennials)

Our culture is full of examples of lives that seem to “work” better as when not married. Ross and Rachel lived together on Friends, after Ross’ multiple failed marriages. Lenny Briscoe, detective on Law & Order, constantly makes mention of his ex-wives’ and their proclivity toward making his life miserable.

In a recent conversation with a Christian person who is living with his/her significant other, I asked the question, “So you’ve been together for years now. Why not get married?” The answer, essentially was this: “I don’t see any good reason. We are happily living together now. We are sharing income. We have had a child. We are committed to each other. But if (God forbid) we want to split up, this arrangement is a much less messy.” It struck me that no one has ever told this person what the real Christian perspective on marriage actually is.

And it is simple. God uses marriage as a symbol of his union with and faithful love for his people. Marriage is a way for Christians to proclaim their faith in a God who is committed to his people “for better or for worse.” Marriage, a covenant (or public promise), is a way of living toward another person like God lives toward us…with full faithfulness and complete commitment. One of the biblical writers, Paul, wrote:

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32)

In other words, God has supremely shown his faithful love to his people through Christ’s love and sacrifice for the church, and he has used marriage to show us what that would look like between two people.

Now, I am not saying that every Christian should be married. Some people prefer to remain single. Some people would prefer to marry but aren’t able to for one reason or another. There are many ways of displaying God’s promise-keeping, unconditional love to others.

But Christians should have a high view of marriage. This view is not the ‘popular Christian’ view proclaimed above, nor the cultural utilitarianism of my peers. While ‘sex within the marriage relationship’ fits into this view, it is not some prudish 1950’s sexual repression stunt. Sexual ethics are a product of Marriage ethics, not the other way around.  And when I am making any ethical decisions (including decisions about marriage) instead of asking myself, “What works?” I should ask, “What’s right?”

Marriage is about proclaiming God’s unconditional, promise-keeping love by living a life characterized by that kind of love to another human being.  And in doing that, we proclaim that kind of love to a world so desperately in need of our kind of God.

3 Responses to For Better or for Worse: The Real Christian View of Marriage

  1. Pingback: Top Ten Marriage Sites to help your Christian marriage grow « AFFAIRCARE

  2. Nathan Jeremie-Brink says:

    So a little feedback (also unqualified)…

    I’m not clear on what you’re saying about “Millennials” (a group to which we conveniently enough belong – and about whom I feel a little funny discussing in the third person as if I’m objectively outside the paradigm). We aren’t buying the shallow-youth-pastor-variety abstinence spiel. Okay. What does that imply about that sales-pitch and us as consumers or protesters? You offer related (are they?) environmental explanations that statistically we are more likely to be the love-children of the “sexual revolution” and the witnesses to divorce and the sponges of a media challenging traditional constructs. How are these all connected? What are you saying about us, in your generational-oriented reflection?

    I think many rejections of the Christian sex/marriage presentation are not connected to “Millennial” environmental excuses or resultant higher levels of hedonism; I think many in our generation reject the Church’s presentation because the presentation has been weak. Among Evangelical Protestantism our problem is less the fruit of “Friends” and more the junk-food of Josh Harris (I Kissed Dating Goodbye). Many of us as teens were asked to digest the stale sex-talks of the repressive 1950’s that had been regurgitated to us by the “Boomers” (and willing “X’er” accomplices) along with the stench of Bartles & James and Camels-smoke as proof of their failures. Worst of all, this vomit was packaged in a tissue-paper-strength biblicism and slapped with gaudy labels by Evangelical presses. Further borrowing from commercial capitalism, such productions allowed well-meaning parents to give their kids the book and the commitment card and the study guide and the journal and the bracelet, ring, t-shirt, or chastity belt that would ensure no sexual exploration could take place. I could go on, but won’t.

    I believe you and I share a desire to experience more theologically-robust discourse on these subjects in our culture and in the church. And many of our peers stand with us. This is a call not just for our critique, but our construction and reconstruction. I am inclined to think that the environmental considerations you mention regarding our generation have not stifled us in this respect, but have gifted us with important and specialized tools for these tasks at hand.The narrow thought and shallow presentations we received in our adolescence are not the breadth of our Christian tradition in any age and not reflective of the depths on the subject we will examine in ours.

    But, I am confused by your statement that “sexual ethics are a product of Marriage ethics, not the other way around.” I agree that we need to challenge shallow ethics of marriage. But you are in error placing marriage at the core of both ethical discourses. We are all inherently sexual beings (I can’t treat possible exceptions in this space). We are not all inherently married beings or beings made to be married. Therefore, in limiting sexual ethics to be merely the product of marriage ethics you shut single experience out of the sex discourse. I think you are forcing two important and disparate (but at times overlapping) discourses to occupy the same location with one enveloping the other. Let’s promote Christian marriage ethics that are intellectually rigorous, Scripturally rooted, theologically sound, culturally aware, and socially engaged. Let’s also promote Christian perspectives on sex that connect on all of the same levels without presenting the marriage discussion as the only platform for discussion.

    • kbrooksy says:

      Nate –
      Thanks for the feedback. I appreciate you reading carefully and thoughtfully enough to offered this valuable critique. You raise a lot of concerns in your response, so forgive me if I don’t satisfactorily address every one. I will do my best.

      As for discussing “Millenials,” I have no qualms. I have as few qualms discussing this group of which I am a part as I have discussing other groups of which I am a part (North American Christians, Reformed Christians, mid-twenties males, etc.). Using the term Millenial does not make me outside the paradigm. It’s just a term. And my (and your) reflections are the more valuable for being set inside the paradigm.

      You raise the question whether or not the environmental explanations are related to the rejection of the aforementioned ‘abstinence spiel.’ While anyone who has taken a psychology (or philosophy) class knows that correlation does not equal causation, correlation does equal correlation. They might be related as cause-effect, or two effects of the same cause, etc. Notice that I did not say anything like, “These anti-marriage presentations in our culture have brainwashed a generation into anti-Christian morality.” I don’t see these things correlated in a simple cause-effect relationship. Undoubtedly, it is more complex than I could express in a blog post, but I connected my generations’ consumption of the ‘Friends’ worldview (a consumption backed up by Pew Research) through what I perceive as our predominantly utilitarian ethical system.

      However, that does not take away from the validity of your critique of the typical Christian presentation of marriage and sexual ethics. In my opinion, it is not an either/or but rather a both/and. If the world presents to us an option between unthinking prudishness (“the stale sex-talks of the repressive 1950′s”) and ‘functional’ easy-come-easy-go relationships that have resulted from the 60’s and 70’s, it is no surprise that the majority of us choose the latter (again, hard data confirms this). So I think that your critique of the weak presentation of Christian ethics is valuable. That’s part of the reason for writing this post.

      You wrote, “I am inclined to think that the environmental considerations you mention regarding our generation have not stifled us in this respect, but have gifted us with important and specialized tools for these tasks at hand.” There is no doubt that our generation has tools, both intellectually and culturally, that are uniquely suited to speak into this discourse. (Unique–not better–lest we fall into a kind of chronological snobbery.) I could have been more gracious in my presentation of our surrounding culture. I don’t think it’s all bad. That being said, just because our culture has provided us with unique resources does not mean it hasn’t presented us with unique burdens as well.

      As for your last paragraph, I appreciate your critique. More importantly, I appreciate your concern for people who are single for whatever reason. I have the same concern and attempt to express it in the blog (“Now, I am not saying that every Christian should be married. Some people prefer to remain single. Some people would prefer to marry but aren’t able to for one reason or another. There are many ways of displaying God’s promise-keeping, unconditional love to others.”). However, I would like to offer a tentative critical response off the top of my head.

      I don’t except an anthropological structuring of ethical categories. I do not think it stands to reason that, simply because we are all sexual beings but not all married beings, marriage ethics cannot be a primary category. Ethics is not as concerned with who we are (anthropology) as it is concerned with who we ought to be (not that they’re unrelated topics). That is NOT to say that we all ought to be married. But we are blessed with the calling the show the publicly committed, unconditional love that God shows us to other human beings.

      Ethical structuring needs to be based in scriptural theology rather than anthropology. The Bible doesn’t present marriage as the appropriate context for sex arbitrarily, but rather theologically. I briefly explain that in the post. As far as many of the occasions in Scripture where sexuality seems to be discussed outside of the theology that governs marriage, I wouldn’t be so sure that it does. For example, EVERY time you find the word for idolatry in the new testament, you find the word for sexual immorality. Idolatry is a breaking of the covenant of love that God made with us (also cf. Hosea). That is the same covenant we are imaging in marriage. I would say that the marriage relationship is perhaps more directly and clearly connected to the theology from which both sets of ethics are derived, but both sets of ethics are derived from covenant theology. I was just arguing of a trajectory of thinking in terms of the clearer to the less clear, the more robustly developed to the less robustly developed.

      Finally, if God has placed proper sexuality in the context of marriage for the foregoing reasons, then marriage ethics concern the single. Just because you aren’t married, doesn’t mean they don’t apply. However, sexual ethics absolutely do need to be more fully developed than “don’t have sex until your married,” — an oversimplification I argued against in the post.

      Thanks for your contribution and helping us get to a more theologically robust view of sex and marriage.

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