“Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday.”
Last week, I began a series of blog posts on sexuality and relationships, and laid a foundation with a need for and a proposed theology of sex. This week, I turn my attention to marriage. This May will be my second wedding anniversary, so while my experience will factor into this post, it’s my goal to get out of the way and let Scripture and those wiser than me speak.
Before talking about marriage, I want to make a brief comment. The Church has done a terrible job in recent decades on valuing and honoring singleness. We treat single people like lepers, and often say things like, “Oh, your time will come”, or “That special someone is out there for you too.” We treat singleness like it’s something to suffer through, instead of a status that can have as many benefits and be just as glorifying to God as marriage. Marriage is not the ultimate state we can achieve, and neither is singleness. If you want to know how we’ve fallen short in this regard, just ask a single person in your church.
A Theology of Marriage
If you were to take an impromptu poll in your church on what marriage is about, I imagine you’d get several different answers. They would certainly include happiness, raising children, and that marriage is just what you do, it’s the next step. My hope is that the majority of the answers would not be that shallow, but the rate of divorce within the church, and the presence of loveless, lifeless marriages on top of the divorces, leads me to believe that we’re falling short in this area. (The Church also has to be better at being involved in people’s lives so that we can help them before they get to divorce proceedings – but we also have to be better at being involved in their lives and showing them the transforming grace of Jesus when they have gone through divorce) I think the reason marriage is such a ubiquitous yet tenuous thing is because we are lacking a theology of marriage.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I think it’s extremely important for us to know why we believe what we believe. Marriage is such a life-defining thing that we are foolish to go into it without knowing what it’s all about. And when we enter marriage with a shallow idea of what it’s for, we’re doomed. The book that has shaped and impacted my theology of marriage the most addresses this very thing. Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas is my first recommendation to everyone, because Thomas builds his whole book off this great truth: “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” Marriage is not meant to make us happy, but to make us holy. One reason for this is that happiness is fleeting, and we are not promised happiness as followers of Christ. If marriage is meant to make us happy, what do we do when we’re not happy? If God does not promise us happiness (but instead joy), then why would the purpose of marriage be happiness?
Thomas turns his readers’ attention to Ephesians 5, the most well-known passage on marriage and one that is referenced in almost every Christian book on marriage. Here are some portions of what Paul writes:
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish… ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
A theology of marriage has to include this truth, that marriage is a picture of Christ and his Church. In a God-honoring marriage, a husband loves his wife in such a way that Christ’s love for his people is demonstrated so clearly. The purpose of marriage is holiness, to reflect God’s covenantal relationship with us.
The holiness that marriage is meant for is our holiness. As those of you who are married know, marriage offers countless opportunities for us to grow in holiness. We are called to serve our spouse, to grow in love, peace, patience, kindness, etc. But because marriage is a picture of Christ and the Church, it is also meant for the holiness of the world. Our theology of marriage has to include this outward focus. When we realize that marriage is part of our witness to the world, we have to be saddened that we’ve given such a crummy testimony.
Our theology of marriage must include this piece, that marriage is designed to make us holy and to reflect Christ’s love to the world. And while it is not intended to make us happy, if our marriage is focused on holiness, joy, pleasure, and blessings will come. Our theology of marriage also has to include where the strength for this God-honoring marriage will come from. Paul David Tripp phrases it well in his book What Did You Expect?: “A marriage of love, unity, and understanding will flow out of a daily worship of God as creator.” Marriage is not separate from our relationship with Christ. The only way we will have great, God-honoring marriages is if we are worshipping God and allowing the strength of the Holy Spirit to work in our marriage. When we don’t have a theology of marriage, we end up with happiness-focused marriages that we try to make work in our own strength. No wonder we’re not seeing an abundance of thriving marriages.
I’ve already mentioned 2 books in this post, and wanted to offer you 2 more that are worthwhile: The Meaning of Marriage by Tim and Kathy Keller and You and Me Forever by Francis and Lisa Chan. All 4 of these books are great, and focus on the why behind marriage. Start with Sacred Marriage, especially this edition.
What does this have to do with youth ministry?
If you are married and in youth ministry, you know the need to balance ministry responsibilities with those at home. Maybe you need to be challenged to hear Paul’s words of submission in Ephesians 5 and understand that your husband or wife at home cannot and must not be sacrificed for your ministry. By seeing the importance of marriage as a part of our witness, we have to see the way our marriage is a witness to the teenagers we work with. Whether they have a fabulous model of marriage at home, or a nonexistent one, they greatly benefit from seeing our marriages pursuing holiness and honoring God as well.
We also need to teach our teenagers a theology of marriage as well. In a world that is conditioning them to think that marriage and sex exist solely for their pleasure and to make them happy, we need to point them beyond that to the true meaning of marriage. We need to help them build a strong foundation so that if they do marry later in life, they know what it’s for. Alongside this, we can also help them understand the role and blessing that celibate singleness can have. If we present a good theology of marriage, we should be squashing the notion that marriage is the ultimate purpose.
As usual, my goal is not to provide an exhaustive discussion of marriage, but rather to start the work. And to encourage you to continue thinking through this on your own. The more we expand our theological frameworks, the more we’ll know why we are doing certain things and what God has called us to. Let’s continue to pursue excellence together.
 Thomas, Sacred Marriage, 17.
 Ephesians 5:25-27, 31-32 ESV
 Tripp, What Did You Expect?, 36.