The Spirit Filled Marriage 4: The Institution of Marriage
- What makes a marriage?
- What keeps a marriage?
What is marriage? One mother says, ‘marriage is just a fancy word for adopting an overgrown male child who cannot be handled by his parents anymore.’ But speaking more seriously, modern views of marriage are descriptive not prescriptive. Anthropologists observe marriage as they find it, or as it have been practised and then give as broad a definition as possible, here is an example, Edvard Westermarck says marriage is ‘A more or less durable connection between a male and a female lasting beyond the mere act of propagation till after the birth of the offspring.’ He adjusted his view to incorporate polygamy and wrote, ‘a relation of one or more men to one or more women that is recognised by law.’ Other more legally minded people have sought to give a definition to marriage as a set of legal rights. For example, marriage exists to establish a legal mother or father for a child. To give monopoly of one’s sexuality to one’s spouse. To give monopolistic or partial rights to domestic labour or services. To give your spouse total or partial control over property belonging to the other. To establish a fund of property for the benefit of the children.
We have been talking about the Spirit filled foundation for marriage and we are just about to move into the roles and responsibilities of husbands and wives. However, before we go and do that we need to say a few things about marriage itself. What is it that we are trying to make work? It is merely a tradition handed down from our parents, is it an unquestioned relic that is irrelevant to modern life, it is primarily legal in character, is it man centred and should be arranged according to the purpose of serving man’s happiness, is it a relative social convention that has no rules? Marriage is being challenged and is deeply misunderstood even by Christians so we have to clarify our definition of marriage and the nature of it before we can commit to making our marriages work.
Let me give a biblically informed definition: Marriage is a God-wrought, universal, life-long covenant between one natural man and one natural woman; a mutually beneficial partnership with distinct roles and responsibilities for men and women; that exists for the purpose of companionship, procreation, mission, holiness and imaging God’s redemptive grace.
Let’s unpack that just a little.
- By ‘God-wrought’ we mean that marriage is God’s idea not man’s idea. He is the one who made it, designed its distinctive features and can determine its definition, purpose and boundaries. There is a second part to this meaning where we recognise that God actually unites people. marriage is finally legitimised not by the state or family but by God making them one, and therefore we should not separate what God has put together.
- By ‘universal’ we mean that marriage can be found in every culture because it is one of those things like law and family that God has written upon our hearts. The endless variety we find in the many forms of marriage illustrate the many ways we as sinners go our own way, but the pervasive reality of marriage cannot be denied. It is a universal institution and commandment applicable to all.
- By ‘life-long’ we mean that marriage is intended to be until death do us part. Marriage is a life-long partnership between a husband and wife and so we have to reject marriages for the purpose of sexual relations like Shiite Muslims in Iran who technically marry sex workers to legitimise their activities. We recognise that divorce is always the result of sin and is undesirable. And we likewise reject any definition of marriage that sociologists are suggesting where a relationship of convenience for 15 years is entered into and is up for review.
- By ‘covenant’ we are reflecting the biblical view that marriage is viewed as a covenant made vertically with God and horizontally with our spouse, Prov. 2:17, Mal. 2:14. It is solemn promises given before God and witnesses in order to bind ourselves to our promises in the most serious fashion. This is the highest order of commitment and for the Christian especially is more weighty that the rule of law, culture or tradition.
By ‘between one natural man and one natural woman’ we are affirming with Christ that monogamous and heterosexual marriages are God’s norm.
- By ‘mutually beneficial’ we are stressing that the marriage relationship does not exist for the exclusive benefit of the husband or wife, nor does it heap responsibility on one side or the other, but by mutual servanthood and commitment both husband and wife are benefited and are intended to flourish in a marriage.
- By ‘partnership’ we are recognising that husbands and wives are given their unique roles in order to work together and compliment one another’s strengths.
- By ‘with distinct roles for men and women’ we are recognising the differences between the genders and the God given roles of male leadership and female helping.
- By ‘for the purpose of companionship we are recognising that God made marriage to alleviate the problem of loneliness and see marriage as a friendship implying all the responsibilities of maintaining the most intimate friendship we have.
- By ‘procreation’ we are acknowledging that one of God’s purposes, but not the only purpose for marriage is to produce godly offspring. By stating this we are critical of those who have defined their marriage by their careers and have cast off the God given purpose of parenting.
- By ‘social stability’ we are acknowledging that marriage is the basic building block of society and that marriage is part of what God builds a stable society with. Marriage is not only a personal institution made to serve selfish ends but is interlocked with all of life.
- By ‘mission’ we are acknowledging that every Christian family is also part of the church and God’s larger scheme to bring salvation to the nations. This mission involves all we do as a Church as well as how we live out our lives as Christian families at home and work as well.
- By ‘holiness’ we are stating that the differences and disagreements we have in marriage are used for good by God to mould our characters into Christlikeness. The conflicts that are inevitable in marriage as seen as ‘good’ for the purposes of our holiness. This also implies our call to pray with and for one another and to serve one another with all the gifts God has given us for the purpose of edifying one another.
- By ‘and imaging God’s redemptive grace’ we are alluding to Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:22-33 where Paul tells us that marriage is intended to be a picture of Christ’s relationship to the church. We image His love, servanthood and forgiving grace.