At the end of Part 1, I said, "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."
To elaborate on this further, I should explain 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 would I say to a friend regarding the purpose and perceived benefits of marriage? My response would be 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.
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.