Marriage: There is More at Stake Than You Think

Marriage: There is More at Stake Than You Think

“…we affirm that some believers are called to be married. As defined in Genesis, “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) The marriage covenant, a reflection of the covenant between God and the people of God, is one of exclusive sexual fidelity, unselfish service, and social witness. A woman and a man publicly devote themselves to one another as a witness to the way God loves. Marital intimacy is intended to reflect the union of Christ and the Church, a mystery of grace. . .” —Church of the Nazarene 2017-2021 Manual, ¶31

“It’s not a big deal.” My neighbor spoke those words with conviction as we chatted over the fence, and then she walked back to her house. Her relationship with her live-in boyfriend was over. They were splitting and going their separate ways, and her words implied that none of it mattered. Yet somehow, I was not convinced. Apparently, the upcoming separation was the result of a new job opportunity for her. She wanted me to believe that forfeiting her relationship was little more than a minor inconvenience, the unavoidable price of chasing a career dream.

Her family had certainly looked and functioned like a typical family over the two years they lived next door. They traveled, biked, and laughed together. They hauled in groceries, barbecued, and played together. They smiled and waved at all their neighbors together. However, now it was all coming to an end. Perhaps anticipating this possible outcome years earlier, my neighbors had never married in the first place. What a relief!

Or was it?

These scenarios are becoming more and more common today. The script for marriage—and marriage-like relationships—has never been so unpredictable. In some ways, it seems that my neighbor’s words have come to summarize a larger perspective on relationships in general: they are simply “not a big deal” anymore. 

Recent research focused on marriage has resulted in headlines announcing that the entire institution may now be obsolete or outdated. Once thought to be the bedrock of family life and civil society, marriage is now increasingly seen as something uncertain and disposable—a relic of a bygone era. Before paying our last respects to this vanishing institution, however, it might be wise to review what God has to say. What are His thoughts on marriage? Scripture contains at least three dominant and enduring themes on the subject:

First, marriage was designed and, therefore, defined by God.

Genesis makes clear that marriage was God’s idea before sin ever entered the world. Prior to the Fall in Genesis 3, God created the institution of marriage as a male-female, monogamous, permanent, procreative foundation. Sadly, humans have sought to redefine God’s design ever since then. Sociology and anthropology have documented numerous variations in marriage patterns across history and cultures, suggesting that such diversity ought to be viewed as normative. The Judeo-Christian position, on the other hand, explains that these historical and cultural variations are not normative, but are actually deviations from God’s design—the result of fallen, sinful humanity.

It is noteworthy that both Jesus (Matt. 19:4-6) and Paul (Eph. 5:31), thousands of years later, still affirmed God’s original design established at the time of creation.

Second, marriage is valued for the role it plays in civilization. The institution of marriage is found at strategic historical junctures throughout Scripture. Each major community-producing movement of God begins with a marriage. For example, at creation, human civilization started with the marriage of Adam and Eve (Gen. 1-2). Later, when God promised His blessing to the Hebrew people, that blessing was passed along through the line of Abraham’s marriage to Sarah rather than through his liaison with Hagar (Gen. 17:19-22). In the New Testament, Jesus’ earthly ministry was inaugurated and confirmed at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, after which many “put their faith in him” (John 2:11).

In other words, the formation of Christian community was an unexpected outcome of that eventful wedding.

The eternal heavenly kingdom will likewise commence with the “marriage” of Christ to His bride, the Church (Rev. 19:7-9; 22:17). God clearly values marriage, repeatedly launching His biggest initiatives with weddings. Marriage and the formation of communities, or civilizations, are consistently linked. In a sense, every marriage marks the beginning of another small civilization. Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that as marriage has been unraveled in our day, we have also witnessed the parallel erosion of civility. Healthy marriages have always produced healthy communities.

Third, marriage is used as an earthly picture of how God relates to His people. This truth, like the previous ones, is evident in both the Old and New Testaments (Hos. 1-3; Eph. 5:31-33). Marriage serves as one of the leading metaphors for God’s unconditional, unrelenting, unfailing love for His people. The marriage covenant reflects God’s pursuit of and covenant with those He loves. To violate either covenant—the marriage covenant with one’s spouse or the spiritual covenant with God—is an affront to the Creator. Thus, imprudent acts like adultery and idolatry are both destructive and displeasing to the Lord. Dismantling or redesigning marriage is an act that usurps God’s role and compromises His intention.

From God’s perspective, then, marriage is a big deal and is not going away.

Therefore, as the holy people of God, we would do well to pause and consider how marriage might be honored today. What should a godly and healthy marriage look like in a world like ours? Based on the three Scriptural themes noted above, it seems reasonable to expect the following:

  • Since God designed marriage, a healthy marriage ought to look like His design and definition. The Word, not the world, is our authority on the matter. Do we reflect and lovingly point others to that design?
  • Since God values marriage, a healthy marriage ought to be our priority, too. In other words, its daily care, nurture, promotion, and protection should be our goal. Do our priorities exhibit how much we value marriage?  
  • Since God uses marriage to illustrate His own interactions and longings, a healthy marriage ought to be marked by persistent pursuit, faithfulness, grace, forgiveness, sacrifice, and respectful communication. After all, this is how God interacts with us. Do we treat marriage as the model and metaphor that God wants us to uphold so that the world will know how much He loves and relates to us?

In a broken world, we should not be surprised that relationships in general, and marriages in particular, are troubled and unstable.

The temptation is to copy our neighbors and conclude that marriage and relationships really do not matter much these days. However, that would be a tragedy for several reasons. First, God’s Word trumpets the significance of marriage. He has not changed His mind, regardless of what our neighbors may say. Second, young people today are seeking guidance from trustworthy sources on the subject. For their sake, we dare not keep silent. Third, numerous examples of healthy marriages still exist in our churches and communities. These serve as wonderful role models and need our support. We must not abandon them. To the contrary, let us look for ways to celebrate and elevate such sacred unions.  

Marriage is indeed a big deal, and there is much more at stake than most people would realize. To advocate for it is to point people back to God, the Designer and Creator.

Kent R. Olney, Ph.D., is in his 25th year as professor of sociology at Olivet Nazarene University. He is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene, has been married to his wife Beth for 43 years, and together they have two married sons and four grandchildren.

Holiness Today, Nov/Dec 2019