What Makes a Marriage Christian?
In the previous chapter I focused on four things every marriage needs to practice in order to improve:
- Agape love: A disciplined commitment to see to the well-being of our partner.
- Attraction: Maintaining the sexual spark that keeps the joy and excitement in the relationship alive.
- Appreciation: The constant effort to understand what the partner experiences as a wife or husband.
- Aid: Mutual assistance in rough times, or the humility and wisdom to seek outside help when our marriage is in trouble.
Agape love, attraction, appreciation and mutual aid are the four areas to examine and build up if we want to create a happy marriage.
In this section we will look at the process of transforming an ordinary marriage into a Christian marriage.
God's Plan for Marriage - Genesis 2:18-25
Sometimes couples who are not members of the church ask me to perform their wedding. In many cases they have never attended worship services, they do not read the Bible and have no convictions about Jesus Christ, but despite these things, would still like to have a "church" wedding. I believe that their true desire is to have a spiritual element or blessing from God for their union. I suspect that the reason for this is that some folks have been raised to believe that churches or holy men (like priests or ministers) are the ones that legitimize their marriages, and a "church" wedding serves as a kind of marital seal of approval from God.
The truth, however, is that marriages are acceptable in God's eyes if they are entered into consciously and legally. The ceremonies may differ from country to country, but these elements are always present. If this were not so, every Hindu, Muslim or non-believer would be living in adultery, since none of these were married in a Christian church. Therefore, if a marriage is entered into consensually and legally by a man and a woman, it is acceptable before God.
As Christians, however, we not only search that our marriages be consensual and legal, we also want to create the type of marriages that reflect the will and purpose of our Lord Jesus Christ. For this to be so, we need to build our marriages according to His Word in which we find the ideal for marriage. You see, being married inside a church building is not what makes your marriage a godly one; it is the building of your marriage according to God's plan that makes your marriage godly, and in accordance with His plan.
In the initial chapter of the first book of the Bible, God gives us the three basic elements in His plan for marriage in general (Genesis 2:18-25).
1. Knowledge of Self
18Then the Lord God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him." 19Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. 20The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him.
- Genesis 2:18-20
Notice Adam's experience and knowledge mentioned in these verses. He recognized that he was alone and incomplete in this state. Note also that God did not create woman immediately, He gave Adam time to know himself, his surroundings and his sense of aloneness before providing him with a partner. I mention this because the basic teaching in the Bible about self-knowledge and marriage is echoed by marriage counselors today. They tell us that the best time to marry is when we have reached a certain ideal level of both social and emotional preparedness (knowledge). Let me explain:
- Social Readiness - You are socially ready for marriage when you have some idea of what you want and where you want to go in life. You are socially ready when you have formulated some of your own convictions about things, and when you have learned to function within society independently. In other words, you may love and respect your parents but you are now taking care of yourself by yourself.
- Emotional Readiness - You are emotionally ready for marriage when you recognize your own need for marriage. Marriage is not what your parents want, not what your beloved wants, but what you want for yourself. In other words, you are emotionally ready for marriage when you are prepared to stop being alone. This is important because some people want to marry but they continue to live and think as single people. You are emotionally ready when you are prepared to make a full and lifetime commitment to another person. This means that you are the one who is ready and willing to do it. If you have to be talked into marriage by your partner, your family or friends, you are not ready emotionally.
What often happens is that you have two people and four variables that are not in sync. For example, he is ready socially but not emotionally (e.g. has a good job and apartment but still depends on his parents to motivate him to do what's right or set life priorities); she is ready emotionally but not socially (e.g. ready for a life commitment and children but hasn't finished school and lives with and financially dependent on parents). The match does not light because one or more of the variables are not in place. The ideal situation for committing to marriage is that each partner is both socially and emotionally ready.
Back in Genesis chapter two we saw that Adam was ready socially because he knew his position and role in life, and he was emotionally ready because he understood that he needed and wanted a partner to complete this life. In His majesty and wisdom God created woman who was exquisitely made physically, socially and emotionally, to perfectly compliment Adam.
In God's plan for marriage, the partners know themselves and know their position within God's creation. In addition to this, they are ready and willing to leave their single status in order to enter into the lifetime commitment of marriage.
2. Knowledge of our Partner
21So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. 22The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. 23The man said, "This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man."
- Genesis 2:21-23
I am not sure about the idea of having one partner especially created for another one. I think Adam and Eve were the only people like this. I do know, however, that marriage was designed to include only one man and one woman at a time. Not men with men or women with women. Not three women with one man, etc., just one woman with one man. This being said, I know that the goal for this one man and one woman combination is that they together become only one unit, and the best way to reach this goal is through the knowledge of the person we intend to marry.
In every society the road from being single to being married is different. There are pre-arranged marriages, long courtship and engagements, family introductions, pen pals and internet correspondence that leads to marriage. In the end, however, the thing we want to do is get to know the other person so we can draw closer to them. This is an important part of the marriage sequence because it is through this process that we establish not only a material contract (marriage license, vows, dowries in some countries) but it is during this process of gaining knowledge about the other that we establish an emotional contract with them as well.
Two people who know their environment and who know themselves need to spend time learning to know each other as well. It is during this effort to know each other that the couple lays down the groundwork for their unity or "oneness."
The problem that confronts many people in this regard is that they are bombarded with the notion that having sex is the only and best way to really know someone else. The truth, however, is that engaging in sex before the commitment to marry usually hampers us in the effort to really know the other person. Sex was designed by God to accomplish many things. For example:
- Confirm our commitment ("we belong together")
- Express loyalty ("I am yours")
- Surrender self ("I am all yours")
- Establish family
- Emotional comfort (comfort without words)
- Provide for physical pleasure, intimate enjoyment, play
We are not usually ready to do all of these things with someone we do not know very well, therefore, when we engage in sex before marriage it usually is not much more than physical gratification that eventually becomes emotionally and spiritually confusing and painful. There are much better and less risky ways to actually know someone.
Adam was ready socially and emotionally, and God fashioned for him a perfectly matched partner. In the pre-sin world of the Garden, Adam immediately recognized the suitability of God's final act of creation: Eve. In other words, Adam knew her completely and she knew him in the same way. These two were ready for the commitment because they knew each other in perfect wisdom and understanding as only ones who were without sin could intimately know another.
We, therefore, should take special care in getting to know our prospective mates because unlike Adam and Eve, we are marrying weak and sinful people. Knowing their strengths and weaknesses enables us to go into a marriage commitment with our eyes wide open.
We know ourselves, we know the other person and we now need to know what we are getting into when we marry. Marriage is the uniting of two people into a lifetime relationship that only death can legitimately end. Most of us are aware that marriage involves a ceremony, a legal contract and a personal promise or commitment. These are the things that accompany, legitimize or sanction a marriage in society and in God's eyes. This is why living together is not marriage. Co-habitation does not reach the level of commitment that is achieved when one actually marries, and is thus not considered marriage before God.
When you say, "I do" what you are saying is, "I promise to live with you as your spouse until I die." This is a high and noble promise to make but one that is very difficult for weak and sinful people to keep, so in verses 24-25 the Lord gives us three important rules to follow in order to help us fulfill our promise to remain united for a lifetime.
24For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
- Genesis 2:24-25
Rule #1 - Separate to Unite
You need to leave parents if you are to cleave to your spouse (cleave means glued to). The commitment in marriage is to be glued to your partner, not your parents or buddies or work-mates. When you decide to marry, the decision is to make your partner the priority over family, friends, hobbies, work or anything else for that matter. You cannot have unity in marriage without making your spouse the number one priority in your life.
Rule #2 - Permanence is Permanent
When you become "one flesh," there is no room for any other flesh. In the "one flesh" relationship the couple does not necessarily think or act alike. One flesh means that both partners are absolutely committed to the union they are both a part of. In marriage, you do not give up identity, but you do give up independence. There is always room for personal growth and development in marriage, but it is always pursued in the context (and not in opposition to) a unifying relationship. Personal fulfillment is counterproductive if it compromises the intimacy and priority of your marriage partner. Life has many stages, and marriage is designed to bring two people together through each of life's marker points, both happy and sad.
Rule #3 - Intimacy Must be Without Fear
The final verse says that they were naked and unashamed. The word naked here does not simply describe people without clothing. It means that they were laid bare before each other. Adam and Eve were totally honest, and expressed their feelings openly and without fear. They had no reservations about their sexuality because they were without sin and completely transparent with one another. God created sexual intimacy and placed it last (not first) on a foundation made from: a) knowledge of self, b) knowledge of the other and c) commitment to unity.
When these elements are placed in this order, the union formed will reflect the design that God intended for marriage, and it will have a great opportunity to be a happy one.
Following this plan does not make one's marriage uniquely Christian because many people of all religions or no religion have followed this plan and succeeded in having a happy, fulfilling marriage. In this we see God's goodness and mercy. He blesses, even those who do not confess Christ, with good marriages if they somehow follow His plan.
Now, we know that these elements also form the basis for Christian marriage because Jesus, in Matthew 19:3-6, confirms that His disciples should follow these same instructions. The element that transforms a marriage based on the original model in Genesis, to one that is Christian in nature, however, is the commitment of both partners to Jesus Christ as the Lord of their marriage. In other words, when two Christians base their marriage on the biblical model, then this is a Christian marriage. It is not just about getting married in the church building.
Let's finish the chapter by asking the same question as before but now posing it to two people who want to create a Christian marriage when they wed.
Knowledge of Self
As a Christian, when it comes to the knowledge of self the question I ask myself is, "Am I a sincere Christian?" You will never know who you are meant to be, or do, until this issue is resolved. Being a disciple or not being a disciple of Jesus will affect every other decision in your life.
Knowledge of Partner
Before beginning the process of uniting with another person, the key question to ask is, "Is this person I am uniting myself to a sincere Christian?" People foolishly relegate the religious issues to the back burner thinking that love will conquer all. They find out that it is difficult to love and serve the Lord when married to a person who does not believe, does not care or agree about religion, the Bible or Christ. Better to ask this first and avoid disappointment later.
Once we are married and tracing the course of our lives together, the third question that needs to be asked is, "Are we devoting our marriage and all it produces to Christ?" Christ is not only part of one's marriage (e.g. we devote one hour to Him on Sunday mornings). For the marriage to be Christian, Jesus has to be the Lord of that marriage and all that goes on in it.
Marriages without Christ can succeed in this world in that they satisfy the partners, but only Christian marriages succeed in satisfying God. And, marriages without Christ can last an entire lifetime in this world, but only Christian marriages succeed in transporting the partners out of this world and into the next.
After all of this information some are surely thinking, "What if my experience with marriage has not lived up to these ideals?" Many people have failed in marriage because of divorce, or they have just lived together, or they have had children without being married or before they were married. "What about us?" is a question these may be thinking.
My answer to you is, "Welcome to the club." You belong to the majority! You are among people who have sinned or failed at marriage, or done things completely out of order when compared to God's plan. The good news is that you can begin to create a Christian marriage out of what you have now, whatever that is. Here's how this can be done:
- Begin with your own conversion or recommitment to Christ through baptism or restoration (Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:37-38; I John 1:7-9).
- Encourage your spouse to do the same.
- Whether alone or with your spouse, do what is necessary to bring your union into line with God's plan for marriage.
- Rededicate your marriage, all of it, to Christ through prayer.
Making an effort to preserve a biblical marriage or creating a better marriage is not always easy, but God provides the plan, Christ provides the grace, and the church can provide the help and encouragement you will need to succeed.