As I have read articles outlining the current debates about marriage, and seen my friends’ comments on Facebook and Twitter I have felt a growing concern that we are all missing the point. I’m certainly not saying that I get the point and no one else does, but I am saying that I feel burdened that there is a deeper, more meaningful discussion about marriage that hasn’t happened yet. My goal here is to share a few of the thoughts that are on my heart in such a way that a respectful, and more meaningful dialogue might be encouraged.
As a minister, I have been privileged to officiate in a few weddings. In each, I have been reminded that there are two sides to the coin of marriage. A great deal of time and energy is invested in the ceremony itself. The minister shares a word about the importance of marriage. Vows are made before God and witnesses. Rings are exchanged. All are physical expressions and symbols of spiritual significance. And at some point after the service the couple will sign the marriage license. This however is not of spiritual significance. It’s of legal significance, and even though the wedding may be over, the couple will not be married in the eyes of the law without it.
One of the problems in our public dialogue about marriage is that we are not all talking about the same issue. We’re talking about the same coin, but some are concerned about the legal side and others are motivated by the spiritual. In many cases neither side understands the other. Some are trying to argue for the legal side by using spiritual language. Some argue for the spiritual side using legal language. Neither approach is very effective and both sides end up feeling misunderstood and threatened.
Too often, Christians appear more calloused, narrow-minded, and judgmental than anything else. The motivation is to defend the spiritual significance of a sacred institution, but the problem is that most don’t understand that spiritual significance enough to be persuasive; and so they default to attempts at legal logic. Pride gets involved, people feel threatened, and pretty soon more people are hurt than heard. It’s hard work to dig into God’s Word and discipline ourselves to thoughtfully and compassionately engage people with love. Instead, we abandon the value of any spiritual perspective, and allow the issue to be reduced to one of legal and logical reasoning. It’s like a doctor trying to talk his patient into getting heart surgery by discussing his insurance coverage, rather than his physical concerns.
I am not going to attempt to make a legal/logical case for traditional or biblical marriage. There is plenty to be read on that perspective in other places. I am concerned with the spiritual significance of marriage. Marriage is a complex and compelling display of God’s nature and love for mankind.
Christians ought to advocate a biblical understanding of the gospel more than anything else. The truth is that if we understood marriage correctly, our public debate about marriage would be more about the beauty of the gospel than anything else.
I truly believe that Christians ought to advocate a biblical understanding of the gospel more than anything else. Too often we fancy ourselves making forays into the world of law and politics, driven by morals and values alone. Of course Christians have a place in politics, law, and in every field of work. However we must remember that there is no such thing as moral or ethical issue apart from the gospel. For the Christian, everything is about the gospel. If I am passionate about an issue because of moral and ethical concerns, it should be because I am persuaded that by expressing my position I can show a broken and hurting world the grace of God. I might also aspire to offer solutions that display God’s priority of justice or that solve problems which individuals cannot solve for themselves. In this way the love of Jesus is the solution which we apply to the problems of the world. Such is the case with the issue of marriage. If we fail to make the case for a biblical understanding of marriage by telling the world about how much Jesus loves people, then we have lost sight of our most precious priority.
The Apostle Pauls explains in Ephesians 5,
22-24 Wives, understand and support your husbands in ways that show your support for Christ. The husband provides leadership to his wife the way Christ does to his church, not by domineering but by cherishing. So just as the church submits to Christ as he exercises such leadership, wives should likewise submit to their husbands.
25-28 Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church—a love marked by giving, not getting. Christ’s love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out of her, dressing her in dazzling white silk, radiant with holiness. And that is how husbands ought to love their wives. They’re really doing themselves a favor—since they’re already “one” in marriage.
29-33 No one abuses his own body, does he? No, he feeds and pampers it. That’s how Christ treats us, the church, since we are part of his body. And this is why a man leaves father and mother and cherishes his wife. No longer two, they become “one flesh.” This is a huge mystery, and I don’t pretend to understand it all. What is clearest to me is the way Christ treats the church. And this provides a good picture of how each husband is to treat his wife, loving himself in loving her, and how each wife is to honor her husband.” The Message
The message of marriage is that in ordaining this mysterious bond between a man and a woman, God is teaching us something about how much Jesus loves people. In living out the sacrificial service of the husband, and experiencing the paradox of strength and submission in a wife; we become intimately aware of the nature of God and the radical love of our Savior. What is more, when men and women live out this mandate faithfully, we demonstrate the love of Jesus to the world. This is not political activism or legal maneuvering. It is not even promoting Christian culture. It is nothing short of evangelism.
Marriage does not matter because it is an ancient tradition to be honored. The significance of marriage between a man and woman is not a that it is a notion the Bible puts forth to oppose gay people. Such simplified suggestions are indeed narrow minded and calloused. The Biblical model of marriage matters because it is a beautiful display of the love of Jesus Christ.
Tim Keller, in his book The Meaning of Marriage, writes “It is the message that what husbands should do for their wives is what Jesus did to bring us into union with himself. And what was that? Jesus gave himself up for us. Jesus the Son, though equal with the Father, gave up his glory and took on our human nature (Philippians 2:5). But further, he willingly went to the cross and paid the penalty for our sins, removing our guilt and condemnation, so that we could be united with him (Romans 6:5) and take on his nature (2 Peter 1:4). He gave up his glory and power and became a servant. He died to his own interests and looked to our needs and interests instead (Romans 15:1-3). Jesus’ sacrificial service to us has brought us into a deep union with him, and he with us. And that, Paul says, is the key not only to understanding marriage, but to living it.” (p.46)
If one is only concerned with the legal side of the marriage coin then this spiritual reasoning will make little sense. But I believe that the message of the gospel is compelling and that through it God speaks to the hearts of mankind. Like Jesus, it can be denied or embraced but it cannot be ignored. As Christians, we can afford to let the beauty of the gospel, on display in marriage, speak for itself. What we cannot afford, is to make a case for marriage that leaves the gospel out entirely.