From Jan Horjus’ Message on Sunday May 5
Marriage is a Relevant Topic
For the next four weeks we are going to be giving a series of messages talking about the love of God and the purpose of God in human relationships. More specifically we will be talking about God’s love and purpose in romance, marriage and forming and sustaining families.
In addressing marriage, one of my first concerns was that I didn’t want to give a message that was only relevant to one group of people. However I believe that if we address it properly, marriage actually is a very broadly relevant topic.
First, it is relevant to most single people because it represents a desire and a hope that statistically, the majority of single people have for their own futures.
Despite the fact the percentage of American adults who are currently married has been steadily declining for over 50 years (from nearly three quarters in 1960 to just about half today), the percentage of people who say they hope to be married one day has not seen a similar decline. I know that when I was single, I loved to hear preachers talk about marriage – precisely because it was something I hoped to participate in one day, and so I wanted to know all about it, so that I could be really well prepared and do an awesome job, when (I hoped), I finally got my chance. (I don’t think all single people share that attitude, by any means, but I believe it’s not uncommon either.)
The topic of marriage is also relevant to married people, of course, because it describes a critical piece of their present calling and purpose. Those of us who are married entered into that arrangement with certain attitudes and ideals, and it behooves us to periodically examine ourselves to see if our attitudes, our ideals, and our words and deeds are in alignment with the way Gods calls us to act and think as we pursue His calling side by side with our spouse.
The topic of marriage is definitely relevant to Christians, because as Christians we need to know what the bible says about what marriage is, what it can be and ought to be and why, both so that we can have accurate biblical convictions and practice biblical principles in relation to marriage, singleness, romance, etc., and so that we can explain these principles and convictions to others articulately.
This topic of marriage is also relevant to non-Christians, because marriage and pretty much all its accompanying and adjacent topics - romance, dating, sex, family, parenthood - are of extremely broad, universal human concern. Everyone has to navigate these topics in our society.
If you’re not a Christian then I’m willing to go out on a limb and say…that I think you’re curious to hear just exactly how Christianity will give an account of itself in this area. Hopefully what I say here today will be helpful and encouraging to you, and you will at least give me the benefit of seeing how it stacks up against the truths you’ve come to hold onto as a result of your own background, culture, and life experiences.
So, marriage is a highly relevant topic.
Marriage is a Dangerous Topic
But marriage is also a dangerous topic. I think there are dangers inherent in focusing attention on the topic of marriage. Why? Well because of what I’ve already said – that more and more adults in our society have never been married, but at the same time the proportion of those who want to be married remains well above 50%. So there is frustration and disappointment and uncertainty going around.
And there is a real danger, in focusing a lot of attention on marriage as a topic that we set it up as an idol at a time when many, perhaps especially within the church, are already desiring it too much.
I think that as Christians, we – and I think not intentionally, or maliciously, but nonetheless we do stigmatize singleness. In the church, subtly, implicitly, and without necessarily even meaning to, we stigmatize singleness. An unmarried person is thought of as less mature; the opinion of a single person, I think, often is given less weight than that of a married person. You are less likely to be singled out for leadership if you are single. This should not be the case.
And in secular culture similar stigmas against singleness exist. In 2017 the census bureau found that 45% of people thought that marriage was a key part of becoming an adult – much lower than in decades past, but still a very sizable minority. And although marriage itself doesn’t have the same clout it once had, the stigma of being dateless or (God forbid) celibate is still strong. Today dating relationships carry an incredible amount of cultural weight, and in many cases also carry a lot of expectations that in the past were primarily associated with marriage.
So the church stigmatizes singleness and the world stigmatizes celibacy. But you may be surprised to know that the bible validates and even praises both.
Let’s look at what Paul has to say in 1 Corinthians chapter 7:
1 Corinthians 7:26-35
Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 27 Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.
(What a ringing endorsement of marriage! Paul continues to explain…)
29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided.
Marriage is a Calling
These verses are not usually what we think about when we think “oh, a sermon about marriage.” We probably think of Ephesians 5, which I’ll read later. But I want to start here, because I think one of the most important truths we need to hear about marriage is that it is a calling and not everyone has the same calling.
Paul is going out of his way to tell the church that getting married is not a sin, but that there is a very good chance that getting married may reduce the effectiveness of your ministry because you will have many more responsibilities, many more distractions, and your spouse and family will take up a lot of energy that otherwise could have been invested in the kingdom of God.
Gods plans for his children are for their good, to make them like Him, to help them follow Jesus’ example. But there’s no such thing as an easy calling if your calling includes becoming like Jesus. Jesus didn’t have an easy life and Jesus was never married.
He suffered and died a virgin – to the hedonistic side of secular culture, that’s like the worst thing that can happen to a person. To die without having fully experienced every pleasure life has to offer; that’s seen as a tragedy.
But we know that the cross was not a tragedy, it was a triumph. Because this life is not all there is. In his death, Jesus accomplished something eternal - eternal forgiveness, eternal salvation, eternal life, people reconciled to God forever. That's no tragedy. And your life, if you happen to be called to singleness for your whole life, will not be a tragedy, it will be a triumph.
Marriage is also not “your next step toward maturity as a Christian.” Marriage is a specific calling, not an achievement, and not everyone is called to it. And it’s not a superior calling to the alternative. I was discussing this with my wife Emily as I was planning this message. She has several single friends who would liked to have been married by this point in their lives and struggle to one degree or another with being content in their current situation. And as we were discussing marriage as a calling, she suddenly said “You know what, that’s right! Because Shadrack Meshack and Abednego were thrown into the fiery furnace... But Daniel wasn’t thrown into the furnace.” …
And I think I said “Wait.” And then sort of paused…to make sure I had it right. It’s very true, Daniel was not thrown into the fiery furnace. He was thrown somewhere else. And I said “Are you saying…that marriage is a fiery furnace…and singleness is a lion’s den?” Is that what we're going with here??
I want to say, Yes, that's what we're going with here. Out of everything I say today this might be the one thing you remember. Marriage is a fiery furnace, singleness is a lion’s den. Neither of them is a walk in the park. Both of them are difficult, dangerous, God-honoring callings that when lived out faithfully produce an eternal reward. And God will be with you wherever he calls you to go.
This is point number one: Marriage is a Calling.
And the purpose of this message is to make people clearly aware of what marriage is so that they can have discernment about God’s calling in their life. It is important to be aware of what the Bible says marriage is and isn’t so that you don’t MISS God’s calling in your life right now by chasing an idol of what you think your life is supposed to be.
Marriage is a calling, but what exactly does this calling look like?
Marriage is a Covenant
The second point I want to make, then, is that marriage is a covenant. Covenant is a word that we don’t use or hear very often, outside of church. If you look up the word in English it now just means a contract or agreement, but the biblical idea of a covenant is significantly more than that.
A covenant, briefly, is a relationship in which the relationship itself is incredibly important – more important, even, than the benefits either party receives from the relationship.
So in some ways the opposite of a covenant relationship is a consumer relationship. If you are in a consumer relationship, say with Comcast, that relationship exists only because of the benefits both parties get from one another. You want internet, they want money, so you have a relationship where both of you can get what you want (...hopefully). And if that relationship stops being worth it for you, or if you find a better deal elsewhere then you have no obligation to stay with Comcast. You’re free to end the relationship and move on.
And there have always been consumer relationships, but there have also always been covenant relationships. In our society, I think it’s fair to say that the consumer model is extremely dominant. But, for instance, the relationship between a parent and a child is still seen as covenantal. The idea actually of severing that relationship is shocking to us. A parent disowning their child – saying “you’re no child of mine; you’re dead to me; this relationship is over,” is shocking to us, because we still understand that parent child bond as a covenant: something that can’t or at least shouldn’t be broken. Even if that relationship were costing you financially and emotionally, and you were getting nothing in return, people would still be disturbed by the idea of just saying “I’m out, it’s over,” without it being a really extreme circumstance.
That’s one aspect of what it means to be a covenant. The relationship itself has immense value, value that can even outweigh all the ordinarily expected benefits of the relationship for either party.
It’s a relationship that we expect to survive through thick and thin, and within which self-sacrifice is expected – if the chef at your favorite restaurant gets sick and can’t cook for you anymore, the odds are on Friday night you will just go to a different restaurant instead of visiting him in the hospital – and no one will think you’re a terrible person for doing that. Consumer relationship.
But if your wife or mother gets a terminal illness and can’t do anything for you anymore, there’s an expectation that your relationship should survive that – because it’s a covenant relationship. In other words, it’s a relationship based on love.
Because, love is the key to understanding covenant.
But not just any kind of love – because you can love the food a restaurant serves to you, you can love the sex a girlfriend has with you, if someone has an attractive face you may feel some natural affection and not mind giving up some small things for them.
But covenantal love has a very particular character – which is a willingness to lay down its own interests, and to make costly sacrifices for the one it loves. In fact, it has the character of the love of Jesus.
Luke 22:20: “In the same way after supper, Jesus took a cup of wine saying “This cup is the new Covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”
Covenant love is love that will pour itself out for the one it loves, even to death. And in the bible this kind of love is exactly the kind of love that we are commanded to practice in the context of marriage.
Ephesians 5:22 – “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” This is a command to practice covenant love.
The Bible teaches that the essence of marriage is not romantic passion, but rather sacrificial commitment to the good of the other.
Of course this kind of love is not limited to marriage – in the Bible we see covenants being made between friends, between nations, and most significantly between God and his people.
This brings me to the last thing I want to say about covenant: A covenant is grounded in love, motivated by love, but to make a covenant is actually to make a binding promise. The colloquial definition of covenant as contract isn’t actually wrong in this sense.
A covenant then is a combination of love and law, that isn’t often seen in a world dominated by the idea of the market place. Love and law together, enhancing one another, protecting one another - passion expressed in a promise.
Again and again, in the bible, when God makes a covenant with his people, he makes a promise:
Genesis 9:15 God said to Noah, “I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.
Genesis 15:18 “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates”
There is no covenant without promise. In fact, when we fall in love romantically with someone, there is a natural inclination to make promises, to say something like “I will always love you.” That’s the language of covenant.
But instead of the language of covenant, unfortunately, it’s the language of the marketplace that tends to dominate our thinking about romantic relationships.
We even talk about someone looking for a partner as being “in the market.” We size people up according to what they bring to the table. We’re in some ways obsessed with romantic love – unlike ages past, the idea of marrying out of expedience – for the sake of money, or social position, or family connection-- is abhorrent to us. But in other ways, we commodify relationships just as much as any generation before us – the currency of the relationship marketplace is now physical attractiveness, sexual and emotional chemistry, excitement and enticement, support toward self-actualization and achieving our individual goals, and above all what we call “compatibility”. Surveys have found that the most significant meaning of “compatibility” in our generation is “someone who won’t ask you to change.” who “fits into your life” as it is.
Comparing Cultural Views
In his book “The Meaning of Marriage” Timothy Keller describes what he sees as a striking idealism and simultaneous pessimism in the way our culture approaches marriage. The statistic that somewhere in the neighborhood of half of all marriages end in divorce is now a decades old statistic – as old as many of the adults now contemplating their marital futures. Of younger adults, Keller writes, “They believe their chances of having a good marriage are not great, and, even if a marriage is stable, there is in their view the horrifying prospect that it will become sexually boring. As comedian Chris Rock has said, ‘Do you want to be single and lonely or married and bored’ Many young adults believe that these are indeed the two main options.” Keller notes, however, that this pessimism may actually come from “a new kind of unrealistic idealism about marriage, born of a significant shift in our culture’s understanding of the purpose of marriage.”
He quotes the legal scholar John Witte Jr’s book about marriage titled “From Sacrament to Contract.” Witte writes, “Historically there have been several competing views of what the form and function of marriage should be. The first two, the Catholic and the Protestant perspectives, though different in particulars, both taught that marriage was a solemn bond designed to subordinate individual impulses and interests in favor of the relationship, that its purpose was to be a sacrament of God’s love (the Catholic emphasis) and to serve the common good (the protestant focus). In particular, marriage was seen as providing the only kind of social stability in which children could truly thrive.“
But in the Enlightenment, Witte says, as the ethic of collective duty gave way to the ethic of individual freedom, this brought about a contrasting view of marriage, in which it was redefined as “finding emotional and sexual fulfillment and self-actualization.”
In short, the enlightenment privatized marriage, taking it out of the public sphere and redefining its purpose, from “greater goods” like producing character or raising children to individual gratification and growth. And slowly, over generations, this new view has come to almost completely supplant the old.
So who’s right? The old culture or the new? Is marriage all about serving the common good, raising children, being part of the public sphere? Or is it all about private individual growth, about finding happiness and helping one another achieve personally valued goals?
I don’t think either one is completely right.
Marriage is about Sanctification & the Church
Let’s look again at how Paul describes marriage.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 so that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 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. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church,
Sacramental symbolism, the idea of marriage as an analogy for God’s covenantal love for the church, is the main thrust of this passage. But personal growth is also there – not self-actualization, but sanctification.
Once again we see that the bible teaches the essence of marriage is not romantic passion, but rather sacrificial commitment to the good of the other.
It’s two flawed people coming together in mutual sacrifice and submission, with the explicit goal of sanctifying each other – bringing each other closer to God, and helping each other grow closer to the example of Jesus. It’s walking through the fiery furnace together, with a shared, common purpose.
Actually, marriage isn’t supposed to be “happily ever after.” Marriage is supposed to be “together on a mission.” Just like the church is together on a mission.
God places people in families - birth families, church families, and new families created by marriage. And he wants those families to be together on a mission with him.
The Bible refers to the church both as the body of Christ and as the bride of Christ and as the family of God. Our mission as a body is help each other live like Jesus, to become more like him, and to act out the love of God towards one another and the world. That’s the process of sanctification.
So even though we’re going to be focusing on the expression of God’s love in a particular context over the next few weeks, I want you to keep in mind that marriage is a picture of the church. A family unit that grows out of marriage is kind of like a miniature of the church - God puts people together with different gifts in order to build one another up and to work together and demonstrate God’s love as a team. Although marriage is a distinct calling, in a way the principles we’ll talk about also apply to the church as a whole.
So as I close I want to just summarize what we’ve said to introduce the topic of marriage:
• Marriage is not the only calling, but it is a calling.
• Marriage is not the only context for covenant, but it is a covenant.
• Marriage is not the only context in which God sanctifies us but it is a place of sanctification. Not a relationship with a compatible soul mate who won't ask us to change, but a fiery furnace of sanctification.
May God give each of us wisdom to discern and pursue our calling. Whether as single people or as married, may we love one another - working and sacrificing together as a community and being transformed to the image of Jesus.
3 Dafoe, Barbara & Popenoe, David “Why Men Won’t Commit”
4 Keller, Tim “The Meaning of Marriage” https://www.amazon.com/dp/0525952470/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_U_x_EZX0Cb3VSG347