Monday, June 18, 2007
The purpose of marriage in light of the reign of God
"Is marriage worth it?"
A few months ago, a friend reached out to me with this question as she struggled with her approaching marriage. It seems that the wedding preparations and stresses of life caused conflict between her and her fiancé, sending her on an emotional rollercoaster about the prospect of getting married. Her question was deceptively simple. Because of the true happiness and fulfillment I find in my own union, I could have answered very quickly, “Yes! Of course marriage is worth it!” But, I discerned that I needed to give this matter more thought. I would like to share my deliberations and conclusions with you and I invite your response.
In her exasperation, my friend asked if marriage was worth the trouble, but I think what my friend was really asking is “What is the purpose of marriage?” That is to say, what are we, the married persons, going to receive from it that makes the marriage covenant worth adopting and upholding for life? Or, perhaps even more pertinent, what is God, the author of marriage, receiving from the marriage relationship of two persons that makes it worth entering? There are many ways one could answer this question, for the Bible offers much wisdom about marriage and our Creator’s intention for it. Yet, I will argue that in the Kingdom of God, inaugurated and established by Jesus Christ, there is really only one primary purpose for marriage. Before getting into that, however, let’s consider the other options available to us.
One might argue that we should derive the purpose for marriage from Genesis 1-2. Certainly, it is wise to start at the beginning of the story. In Genesis 1, the order and rhythm of creation is displayed for the reader and the “crown jewel” of creation is saved for last. God creates human beings in his image, according to his likeness, for the purpose of “ruling” the fish, birds, animals, all the earth, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth (Gen. 1:26). After creating human beings “male and female,” God blesses them and commands them to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it” (1:28). These commands are similar to those given to the birds and sea creatures in 1:22, where he tells them to “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the waters of the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.” The major difference, of course, is that human beings alone are given the command to “subdue” the earth.
Those who use Genesis as the basis for the purpose of marriage usually suggest that 1:28, with the command to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it,” is the underlying reason for the marriage relationship. In this point of view, bearing children and ruling over the earth is the primary reason for marriage. (One can understand, therefore, why the matter of birth control can be so contentious when the primary purpose of the marriage relationship is seen as bearing and raising children. Yet, this is not the time or the place to get into this tertiary issue.)
Without denying the importance of these commands to the marriage relationship, I would like to point out that a close reading of Genesis 1 reveals that the institution of marriage is not mentioned at all. Instead, the focus is upon the order of creation, with human beings coming last. There is continuity between animals and humans as created beings (both are to “be fruitful, multiply,” and “fill the earth”), but also discontinuity between them (humans are to “subdue” the earth). Moreover, God makes a point to instruct human beings in what things are given to them and every animal for food: “every green plant.” Yet, one must admit, marriage as an institution is not considered in a recognizable way at all. Instead, the focus is upon the human race as a whole and the purpose of the human race upon the earth in God’s good created order. I would like to suggest that Genesis 1:28, although not irrelevant or unimportant to the matter, is not an appropriate basis for the purpose of marriage.
What about Genesis 2? Here we get a little closer to our topic, for the author provides details of God’s interactions with the first man and the woman God formed for him. We are told that God understood that it is not good for the man to be alone and that he needed a helper who corresponded to him in the way that all the other animals have corresponding mates. So, God formed a woman from the man’s body and presented her to the man. The poetic exclamation of the man at the sight of the woman is beautiful: “This one, at last, is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh; this one will be called woman, for she was taken from man” (Gen. 2:23). This statement is modified by the narrator, who informs the reader, “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh” (2:24).
From this description of woman’s creation for man, what would the purpose of marriage seem to be? Perhaps the intention is that the two would have intimate relationship, not simply in the sexual sense, but in the emotional closeness of two beings in perfect harmony. This coincides with our belief about the Godhead, which exists in perfect Triune relationship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The emphasis on intimate relationship is supported by the commentary of the narrator that begins “This is why…” as if to say, “This is why men and women marry, for God created woman to be with man in intimate partnership.” With this in mind, it is even more tragic that after sin enters God’s good world, the perfect couple is expelled from Eden following the reception of their respective judgments, and from that point forward marriages are a mess in the story of Israel. (Say what you want about the patriarchs, certainly they were not the models of loving relationship, fidelity, and loyalty to their spouses.)
Again, I do not deny the truths of Genesis 2:23-24, for there is much here to recommend. I think it is clear that Genesis 2 provides more insight for the purpose of marriage as an institution than Genesis 1, where the purpose of human beings as a whole is in the spotlight. Even so, I am not satisfied with building our foundation for marriage chiefly on Genesis 2:23-24. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most important is that as Christians, we should read and interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Covenant and the teachings of Jesus. Since we proclaim and live under a New Covenant, I think it is important to ask whether Jesus reaffirmed Genesis 2 as the primary purpose of marriage or did he revolutionize this institution as he did so many other aspects of the Old Testament (“You have heard it said…but I tell you…”). As we consider marriage through the lens of the New Covenant and the coming Kingdom of God, what do we find?
A New Testament option for deriving the purpose of marriage is increasingly popular in American Christianity today: Ephesians 5. Here, following his instructions on being “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18), which concludes with the description of “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ” (5:21), Paul provides corollary exhortation to wives and husbands. In the instructions for husbands, Paul uses the Christ’s love for the Church, as the illustration for the kind of love husbands should exercise for their wives. This kind of love is self-sacrificing, cleansing, honoring, and sanctifying, for that is how Christ loved his Church. Many teachers and preachers adopt this profound imagery as the main purpose of marriage: to model and reflect the love of Christ for the Church to the watching world. This sounds very good and, indeed, I do not deny the significance of Paul’s illustration in Ephesians 5. Yet, I am wary of elevating a metaphor—one that Paul himself calls “a profound mystery” (5:32)—to the status of rule. That is to say, while it is legitimate to use Paul’s illustration to describe the marriage relationship, I’m not sure it is appropriate to conclude that it is also the purpose of the marriage relationship.
I know that I am stepping on toes with this line of reasoning, but please stay with me. Notice what Paul does NOT say in this passage: “You should get married because it is a mysterious picture of the love of Christ for the Church.” He doesn’t say anything like this. Instead, Paul is addressing those already married and instructing them on how they can live within their marriage bonds as ones “filled with the Spirit” and “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.” So, while the image of Christ and the Church is to be a source of inspiration and a model for married persons, it is not an appropriate foundation for the overall purpose of marriage.
Before I go any further, let me reiterate that I do not believe the above options to be completely off the mark. It is not my intention to disqualify the viewpoints discussed above, for they contain relevant instruction for Christians on the purpose and outworking of marriage. Instead, I have come to the conclusion that, in light of the New Covenant and the Kingdom of God, there is a higher purpose for marriage that both Paul and Jesus understood and advocated. Before you jump out of your seats and holler, “Heretic!” please follow my thinking very closely.
If you have read my previous post on the Gospel, you would know that my understanding of the Gospel is as follows: The Gospel of the reign of God is the power of God through which the exalted Christ, on the basis of his death and resurrection, restores all of life by his Spirit to be subject to his authority and word. I believe this was the content of Jesus’ preaching, Paul’s preaching, and the preaching of all the Apostles and the early church. Moreover, it was the lens through which they viewed and understood all matters of life: social structures, politics, economic concerns, ethics, etc. Everything, EVERYTHING, was about the proclamation and expansion of the Kingdom of God.
In the matter of marriage, I think this is best illustrated by Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 7. Far from a mystical or creative discussion of the merits of marriage, Paul presents what is really a very pragmatic approach to marriage, all based upon two major suppositions: (1) the End is near and (2) the Gospel of the Kingdom must not be hindered. It is with these two concerns that Paul dispenses Spirit-inspired instructions on marriage.
Paul’s basic conclusions are these: because of the threat of fornication, married persons should have sexual relations (1 Cor. 7:2-5); persons married to unbelievers should remain married unless the union is broken by the unbelieving spouse (7:10-16); each person should remain in the situation they were in when called of God (7:17-24); virgins and unmarried men are better off remaining unmarried if their passions allow it, because the End is near (7:25-31); because unmarried people are able to focus solely on the things of God, they are better off remaining unmarried (7:32-35); in case of impropriety, people can be married if they must, though they are better off unmarried (7:36-38).
(I feel constrained to offer one parenthetical observation. How many sermons or lessons have you heard lately on the virtue of singleness for the cause of the Kingdom of God? I venture to guess, not many. This is curious indeed since Paul was so adamant that it is “better” for people to remain unmarried. The perspective of Paul is crystal clear: “each person should remain with God in whatever situation he was called” [7:24] and only be married in situations where fornication is a threat. How curious that we have made marriage and family the focus of most church efforts [Focus on the Family?], whereas Paul viewed even the institution of marriage in light of the End Times and the coming Kingdom of God. It is interesting to me that Paul’s preference that women not instruct men in Timothy’s congregation has been elevated to the level of dogma [1 Tim. 2:12], but Paul’s preference for singleness among the people of God has not been given the same honor.)
Jesus viewed marriage through the lens of the Kingdom of God as well. He remained unmarried throughout his life. Also, he affirmed the calling of those who remain unmarried, even recommending the state of the “eunuch” as something to be “accepted” by anyone who can (Matt. 19:11-12). Perhaps most alarming to many Christians today, Jesus affirmed a reward for those who “left houses, brothers or sisters, father or mother, children, or fields” because of the Gospel, especially having in mind the sacrifices of his twelve closest disciples (Matt. 19:29; Luke 18:29-30). Moreover, he taught that in the fullness of the Kingdom of God, there will be no marriage (Matt. 22:30).
Perhaps the most powerful statements of Jesus related to the institution of marriage are in his so-called “cost of discipleship” exhortations. Here, Jesus makes it very clear that his calling trumps every other position or responsibility of life: “If anyone comes to me as does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, and even his own life—he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26; cf. 9:57-62; 12:51-53; 18:24-30). In other instances, Jesus affirms that the preaching of Kingdom of God will put families at odds with one another (12:49-53; Mark 13:12-13).
Am I suggesting that Jesus was against marriage? No. What I am suggesting, however, is that Jesus understood marriage only in conjunction with his overarching mission to proclaim and embody the Kingdom of God. In light of Paul’s views on marriage, overviewed above, I suggest that Paul had a similar perspective. While neither Jesus nor Paul advocated divorce, or anything that could be seen as a denigration of the marriage institution, neither advocated marriage as such either. Instead, they taught that everything one does should be viewed in light of the Kingdom of God and what will forward God’s reign on the earth.
I propose that we use this line of thinking as the basis for the purpose of marriage in the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. Rightly understood, therefore, marriage is a holy institution, inaugurated by God in the beginning of history as a means to populate the earth, but now to be seen primarily as a means for the propagation of the Gospel and the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Where the person in question is able to live without a spouse and fulfill these purposes (in their own personal discipleship and their outward service), the person should do so, for singleness provides ultimate freedom for missional living, particular in places of the world where danger is imminent for preachers of the Gospel.
So, what did I say to my friend regarding the purpose and perceived benefits of marriage? My response was three-fold: (1) You should get married if you have become convinced that the Kingdom of God is best served by your union. That is to say, the reign of God is advanced more by your doing life together rather than apart. (2) You should get married if you have become convinced that the person you are marrying is the best person to be your partner in discipleship to the Lord Jesus Christ and participation in the Kingdom of God. (3) You should get married if you have determined that God desires for you both to live missionally in a context wherein marriage and family is significant for the propagation of the Gospel and the advancement of the Kingdom of God.
Let me acknowledge a few things before I close. First, this initial foray into a “theology of marriage” is a first word on the matter and not a last word. I do not pretend to have researched and studied in enough depth to declare that the issue is closed. I have not even interacted with any other scholars on the matter and what I have written contains the fruit of my personal study only. As a result, I am open to learn more and modify my ideas.
Second, if my explanation of the purpose of marriage seems “off the mark” to you (perhaps overly pragmatic), I assure you that it feels strange to me as well. Yet, my study of the scripture has convinced me that I’m headed in the right direction toward the best understanding of marriage. I remind myself that the Kingdom of Jesus Christ is “not of this world” (John 18:36), so I should not be surprised when God’s ways look different from my own.
Finally, as we interact about this issue, please do not insinuate that I am against marriage or seeking to denigrate the institution of marriage. May it never be! From my perspective, viewing marriage in light of the reign of God serves instead to elevate the institution to a high calling, something to be entered into with “fear and trembling” only when convinced that it is the best course of action in order to better fulfill the purposes of God.