What Is Christian Marriage?
We hear a lot about Christian marriages being different, but what is it that makes a marriage "Christian"?
A good marriage would be between a blind wife and a deaf husband.Michel de Montaigne1
Marriage has gotten quite a bad reputation over the years. The butt of a seemingly infinite number of jokes, matrimony is a source of endless social commentary, gender politics, and governmental debate.
Love: A temporary insanity curable by marriage.Ambrose Bierce2
In the United States, marriage has fallen upon particularly hard times. Fewer and fewer people are choosing to marry.4 In fact, less than half of current US households are made up of married couples.5 The percentage of Americans who have never married is growing6 while the number of couples living together without marrying is increasing exponentially.7 Meanwhile, more and more children are born to single mothers.8
One should always be in love. That’s the reason one should never marry.Oscar Wilde3
To top it all off, America still has the highest divorce rate among Western nations and the highest incidence of single-parent families of any industrialized nation.9 There’s no denying that the landscape of the American family has changed radically over the past fifty years.
Marriage and Culture
These statistics raise questions about the value and meaning of marriage in contemporary American culture. Given changes in reproductive technology, shifts in cultural attitudes about sexual morality, and the apparent failure of marriage as an ideal relationship, has marriage become irrelevant?
Though it might seem so, sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Ueker recently reported that the American youth are as interested in marriage as at any time—more than 95 percent intend to marry someday.10
But from romance novels to reality TV to movies, unrealistic expectations and false understandings about love, marriage, and romance are easily perpetuated. As a result, both those seeking out a marriage partner and those trying to stay in a marriage relationship struggle with misunderstandings of the definition of that relationship itself.
Can the Christian faith make a difference in this understanding and the quest for a meaningful marriage?
Marriage and Faith
Though marriage is not the distinctive domain of the Christian church, the Bible and influential Christian thinkers do have quite a bit to say on the matter.11 So what makes a marriage a Christian marriage?
Clearly, simply being religious or professing Christian beliefs isn’t a cure-all; it doesn’t guarantee a long-lasting, blissful marriage.12 To answer our questions, we must look at the essential elements of Christian marriage and see how they differ from other approaches to the marriage relationship.
As early as the first century, Christian writers have commented on the relationship between their faith and marriage. One writer, Paul, penned these words:
Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.13
In these verses, Paul compares the relationship between husband and wife to the relationship between Jesus and the church. This has incredibly important implications for the nature of Christian marriage.
The Covenant of Marriage
Christians approach marriage as a covenant, a relationship based on promises and commitment, not just feelings—though love is most certainly involved.14
The concept of marriage as a covenant is rooted in the Hebrew faith, and early Christians preserved the belief as well.15 God’s covenant with Israel was founded on his promise to be faithful to Israel. The Hebrew people promised faithfulness to God as well, though the Bible doesn’t hide that they struggled—and often failed—to keep that pledge. Like God with the Israelites, Jesus established what he called a “new covenant” with his followers.16
To speak of marriage as a covenant is to say that the partners make mutual promises about the way they will choose to live in the future, not just declarations of how they feel in the present. The endeavor to live into those promises—remaining faithful to their covenant—will shape their characters over the years.
Christian marriage is also distinctively based on agapē, the Greek word used in Jesus’ teachings and early Christian writings to describe the kind of love God expresses to human beings. Agapē has nothing to do with the fanciful concepts of romantic love upon which so many American cultural marriage myths are founded.
Despite how pleasurable such feelings may be at the outset of a relationship, they seldom have the staying power to withstand a lifetime of ups and downs—the “for better or for worse” of matrimony.17
Agapē is an entirely different concept, so important that Paul devoted a whole section of his first letter to the Corinthians to defining it.You may have heard a well-known phrase from this section: “Love is patient, love is kind.” Paul then goes on to describe agapē as a sacrificial way of loving others.18
This kind of unconditional love—or an active striving to live out this kind of love daily—marks a genuinely Christian marriage, just as it characterizes an authentically Christian life.19 Agapē is found in an active choice one makes about how to behave toward another, not a conditional feeling one has toward someone.20 Agapē is based on the deliberate choices of the lover, not the responses of the beloved.
Perhaps the most distinct characteristic of Christian marriage—which makes the other two possible—is that it is intentionally centered on Jesus Christ. Each spouse continuously works to know, love, and obey Jesus, and to follow his example.
In this way, husband and wife learn how to express agapē and remain faithful to their covenant. As they practice the Christian faith together, they move toward each other, growing together in love and unity.
But what about a marriage in which only one spouse is a follower of Jesus? Could that marriage ever be a “Christian marriage”?
Paul actually writes about such a case in 1 Corinthians 7:12–16.21 He urges the believing partner to stay married to their unbelieving spouse because of the believer’s influence on their partner and children. One person who is seeking to follow Jesus Christ, learning to live out of agapē, and keeping the promises of the covenant brings Christ’s presence into the marriage.
Christian or not, marriage is difficult for any couple to sustain over a lifetime. Life’s trials—the pressure of making a living, of parenting, of resisting temptations to unfaithfulness or selfishness—can strain any marriage.
But Christian marriage offers hope. The hope that a husband and wife, by intentionally choosing to learn how to love faithfully and sacrificially as Jesus did, may keep their covenant promises for a lifetime.
- Michel de Montaigne, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/micheldemo106657.html, accessed January 31, 2013.
- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1993), p. 75.
- Oscar Wilde, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/57649-one-should-always-be-in-love-that-s-the-reason-one, accessed January 31, 2013.
- The marriage rate (the number of marriages per 1,000 people) remained stable from 1960 until 1997. But by 2010 it had decreased more than 23 percent. "National Marriage and Divorce Rate Trends," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, January 10, 2010, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/marriage_divorce_tables.htm, accessed January 3, 2013.
- In 1960 married couples made up almost three-fourths of all households. By 1998 married couples were just more than one-half of all households. In 2010 only 48 percent of American households were married. “Households and Families: 2010,” 2010 Census Briefs (C2010-BR 14: April 2012), table 2, p. 5; figure 2, p. 6. Available at http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-14.pdf.
- The percentage of adults who have never married increased by 16 percent between 1980 and 1997. William Bennett, The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators: American Society at the End of the 20th Century, updated and expanded, (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 1999), 64–65.
- The number of couples living together without marrying increased from 439,000 in 1960 to 4.24 million in 1998. Ibid.
Currently 7.7 million couples are in unmarried households, up more than 41 percent since 2000. “Households and Families: 2010,” 2010 Census Briefs (C2010-BR 14: April 2012), table 2, p. 3. Actual quotation: “Overall, the unmarried partner population numbered 7.7 million in 2010 and grew 41 percent between 2000 and 2010, four times as fast as the overall household population (10 percent).” Available at http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-14.pdf.
- Between 1960 and 1997, the number of births out of wedlock increased by 511 percent. Births to unmarried women accounted for about one-third of all births in the 1990s. Bennett, The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, 47.
By 2010 the number of births to unmarried women had increased from 224,300 in 1960 to 1,633,471, an increase of 728 percent. “FastStats—Unmarried Childbearing, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/unmarry.htm, accessed January 12, 2013.
- “Divorce Rate (Most Recent) by Country,” NationMaster.com, http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/peo_div_rat-people-divorce-rate, accessed January 12, 2013.
Since 1960 the US has experienced a 200 percent increase in the percentage of children living in single-parent homes. Bennett, The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, 4.
The percentage of children living in a two-parent home has held constant from 1998 until 2009 at about 6 percent. “Living Arrangements of Children: 2009,” Household and Economic Studies (P70-126: June 2011), table 1, p. 4. Available at http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/p70-126.pdf.
- Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011), 169–170.
- Moreover, Christian people are not the only ones who can learn to do marriage well. Christian thinkers have described marriage as a part of “common grace,” the gifts God has given to all people.
- “New Marriage and Divorce Statistics Released,” Barna Group, March 31, 2008, http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/15-familykids/42-new-marriage-and-divorce-statistics-released, accessed January 12, 2013.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Ephesians 5:28–33.
- A covenant is a “formal, solemn, and binding agreement.” Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/covenant.
- The Holy Bible, Malachi 2:13–14. “Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, ‘Why?’ It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.”
- The Holy Bible, Luke 22:20. “In the same way, after the supper [Jesus] took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’”
- C. S. Lewis presents a particularly excellent description of this concept: “Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing . . . You cannot make it the basis of a whole life. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling. Now no feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all. Knowledge can last, principles can last, habits can last; but feelings come and go. And in fact, whatever people say, the state called “being in love” usually does not last. But, of course, ceasing to be “in love” need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense-love as distinct from “being in love” is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both parents ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself. They can retain this love even when each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be “in love” with someone else. “Being in love” first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.” C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1952), 108-109.
- The Holy Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:4–7. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
- The Holy Bible, John 13:34 –35. “‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’”
- You’ll often hear married couples discuss the fact that they don’t always feel “in love” with their spouse. Agapē is what enables the two to remain committed to their covenant through rough times.
- “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”
- Photo Credit: Jasmine Fitzwilliam.