This past Sunday we kicked off a brand new teaching series called, Marriage Myths. The idea is that when we survey the picture of marriage offered up by our culture, what we end up with is a pile of myths that leave couple disillusioned and, sometimes, divorced. Over the next few weeks we’re going to talk about what some of these myths are and why the truth is so much better. In this first part we begin by laying a foundation of what marriage is and what its purpose is. Keep reading for more…
In the Beginning…
We live in a day in which marriage is on the wane. That’s actually kind of funny if you think about it. Not all that long ago it seemed like marriage was the only thing we could talk about as a nation. The storm of who gets to define what marriage is in the first place along with who is able to be married to whom was intense. In fact, we are still feeling its after effects. The Obergefell decision from the Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage may be behind us, but we are still only at the beginning of figuring out exactly what it will mean for our society. The Masterpiece Cake Shop case coming up this term will have a major impact on that question. The irony in this is that some of the most vocal supporters for marriage equality have now come out and revealed that they never really cared about getting married themselves, they just wanted to wreck the thing because they don’t believe it should exist as it does. But, before you jump to hoot and holler at such a person, a few minutes of reflection can fairly quickly bring someone to the conclusion that while you may not agree with them, you can’t blame them all that much for harboring such hatred for marriage.
The truth is that ever since the first no-fault divorce law was signed by Ronald Reagan in California and that particular legal and cultural fad swept the nation, marriage has been a declining institution in this country. This is the real problem for marriage: That people who have always been able to get married stopped taking it as seriously as they should have. A generation that lived with their parents separating at an unprecedented rate raised kids themselves who are more and more giving up on the whole thing. Today a young person who reaches marriage age is more likely to skip out on marriage entirely and settle for simply living together. Now, not all that many years ago, folks taking this particular route would claim that they saw cohabitation as a kind of trial run before jumping into the real thing. Today, more folks are settling for the trial run serving as a permanent state of affairs. And is it any wonder? When we’re told over and over that half of all marriages end in divorce (which is a misleading and not-entirely-accurate statistic), most folks conclude that it isn’t worth their time to try in the first place.
Now, it might seem that this shouldn’t make such a huge difference in the overall look and feel of our society. After all, what difference does a ring and a piece of paper make? Perhaps not much in and of themselves, but the covenant they represent does seem to matter. In fact, a growing block of research suggests rather insistently that they matter rather dramatically. This research points emphatically to the fact that cohabitation is far less stable a state of affairs than marriage is. What’s more, the people who pay the highest price for this state of affairs are not the people who are entering into it themselves, but the much smaller people who eventually come into being because of their being in it.
Indeed, sociologists who have spent time studying marriage and divorce and the factors that lead to success or failure in this venture have found that couples who live together as if they were married for any amount of time before officially tying the knot have a 50-80% higher likelihood of divorce than couples who don’t. In other words, if you’re not yet married, you plan to be someday, and you want your marriage to succeed, moving in together before you tie the knot is about the worst thing you can do for yourselves. Similarly, being intimately active before marriage is associated with a “considerably higher” risk of divorce and “dramatically more unstable first marriages” than folks who wait. And, with about 48% of millennials acknowledging that they will look to be intimate on the first date, the number of people who enter marriage inexperienced is a rapidly shrinking pool.
On the flip side, couples who get some amount of premarital counseling have a 30% greater chance of enjoying long term marriage success than their peers who try and go it alone. More than marriage counseling, marrying someone with whom you share similar beliefs plays a pretty significant role in helping to increase the likelihood of success as well. Even something as simple as the husband and wife both sharing a belief that marriage is intended to be a lifelong commitment helps a ton.
But do you want to know what is perhaps the greatest single factor in terms of decreasing a risk for divorce? Sharing a similar faith and being involved in some kind of religious services together. In other words, couples who both not only claim to be followers of Jesus, but who are also actively involved in their church together have a much higher chance of succeeding in marriage than the average couple. Their risk of divorce drops by almost half. I should note again, though, that both of these factors have to be in play in order to gain this benefit. Couples who both claim to be Christian, but don’t do anything meaningful to live out their faith not only don’t gain this benefit, but their risk for divorce is actually just a bit higher than the average couple. In other words, if you want to greatly increase the likelihood of success in your marriage, don’t merely claim to be a follower of Jesus, prove it with your actions.
Let’s back up just a bit, though. Marriage may be on the wane, but it’s still the fundamental building block of society. Cultural elites and social revolutionaries may try and deny that, but the science they are happy to embrace when it suits their cause simply doesn’t support them here. Young people may be choosing other than marriage in record-setting numbers, but the fact remains that marriage is still something most folks are going to experience at some point in their lives. What this all means is that it’s something we need to talk about in the church. We need to talk about it because the Scriptures do fairly often. But also, it is central in some way to pretty much everybody’s life—indeed, even if you’re not going to experience it for yourself (which is totally okay, by the way), your parents’ marriage or lack thereof has had a profound impact on you whether you realize it or not.
This morning we are beginning a brand new series, called Marriage Myths, that will take us through the rest of the month of October. When it comes to talking about marriage, there are lots and lots of ways we can approach it. For this particular journey, given the number of false ideas about marriage that we can find out there in our culture, I want to take a look with you at some popular myths about what marriage is or should be. When you pay attention to the picture of marriage we are given through various forms of popular media, it is easy to come away with the idea that in marriage we join ourselves to our one soulmate in a relationship that is perfectly equal at every point and will result in our unending happiness. That all sounds really good, doesn’t it? Too bad it’s all a lie. And in the next few weeks we’ll talk about why it’s a lie and what the truth is.
For this morning, though, I want to start with some important foundation building. If we’re going to talk about what marriage is not, we need to first establish what marriage is and what it’s for. In order to do that, we are going to go back to the beginning where the Scriptures describe the making of the very first marriage to see if we can get some clues there that will help us better understand how we are to be thinking about this vital institution. If you have a Bible, open it up right to the beginning and take a look with me at Genesis 2. We’ll start at v. 15.
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” So, here was the man in the beginning. He has been formed by God from the dust of the earth (in Hebrew,’adam, which is why we call him “Adam”), and has had the breath of lived breathed into his nostrils by the creator of life. Once created, he is given some work to do. Far from being a drudgery, though, this was good work. His job was to work the garden and maintain it. It was to explore and catalog the creation God had given him to manage. This was the kind of life-giving, meaningful work that everyone wants to be doing. He was blazing a new path and every single thing he did was the first time it had ever been done. What’s more, there were no people to criticize him or get in his way or otherwise slow down his progress. And I know, some of you are thinking this is about as ideal a situation as you could imagine. But things were not all well. In fact, for the first time in all creation, something was not good.
Look at this: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone…’” Think about that. Of all the things that could have been pegged as the first not good thing in the whole of creation, this was it. Indeed, because we were created in the image of a relational God, we were created for relationships. And in a move that seems odd at first, God tries a series of solutions that He had to have known weren’t going to work.
Stay with me in the text: “…I will make him a helper fit for him. Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field.” Now, stop there again for just a second. Up to this point the man has not been given a name. He’s just been, “the man.” Suddenly things are personal, though. It’s not just this nameless face in the crowd of creation who’s in need of a companion and can’t find quite the right one. It’s Adam who’s longing for a partner; someone who is uniquely like him; someone with whom he can share his life and experience the kind of intimacy he has so far only shared with God. Indeed, out of all the creatures the Lord had made, “for Adam, there was not found a helper fit for him.”
So, why the rigmarole? Why didn’t God just make him his ideal helpmate from the start? (And just by the way, the Hebrew word translated “helper” here does not imply some kind of a servant or otherwise relationally subordinate person, but rather someone who is on an equal moral footing and who complementarily completes us in a way nothing else does.) I mean, come on: God knew this was how this process was going to go. He’s God. Well, the text doesn’t say, which means we can only speculate. But, I tend to think that God was taking this path to demonstrate rather conclusively to Adam (and through him to us) that nothing else in creation, no other creature God had made, was on an equal footing with him. Nothing else was like him in the way he desired. People today who would argue that animals are somehow on an equal moral plain with humans are mistaken at a very fundamental level and in a way that will eventually have pretty tragic implications. As long as Adam was looking to some creature to meet his need for companionship, he was going to be disappointed. In other words, no animal, let alone a dog, can ever truly be “man’s best friend.”
As a result, God made one. Verse 21 now: “So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,” Wow! I thought you had made some cool stuff, God, but you shot the moon on this one! I’m not sure what to call it yet, but this is the thing I’ve been looking for! Wow!
Okay, so that’s not a very technically sound translation of the Hebrew, but I think it’s a pretty good paraphrase. The text actually says this: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” In other words, “God, at last, you have made something uniquely like me.” And this perfectly matched pair were brought together in a special relationship that, while not nearly the only way to become complete in the image of God, was designed to bring all those who enter into it to that place. It was intended to be a relationship that becomes primary to all others. They aren’t broken entirely, but rather are now filtered through the lens of this new one. It becomes the chief worldview lens for understanding all the rest of life. Even our relationship with God is to be viewed through this lens. In the marriage relationship, something new is created that did not exist before. The text puts it like this: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
Folks, this is covenantal language and it points us toward what marriage was designed by God to be in the beginning. It points toward a sound, biblical definition of marriage that can serve as a good foundation for the rest of our conversations about it. Before we go there, though, let’s define our terms so we’re all on the same page. Culturally speaking, we are generally taught today to view marriage like a contract. A contract is an agreement between two or more parties in which each consents to provide a certain set of goods or services to the benefit of the others for a specified period of time, often in exchange for financial remuneration. If one of the parties fails to live up to the agreement, the whole thing can become null and void. Additionally, when the term of service has ended, while the parties can agree upon a new contract with a new set of terms reflecting then-present realities, they are not beholden in any way to do so. They can walk away and make new contracts with other people. Consider the world of professional sports. As you might remember, my Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 2015. Four players in particular were at the heart of that team: Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, and Mike Moustakas. This year all four are free agents. The team had been in a contract with each of them. The contract stipulated that in exchange for their playing the best ball they could, the team would pay them a certain amount of money. The term of service ended two weeks ago and all four will likely be playing for another team next season under new contracts. Culturally speaking, though, this is how marriage is thought to work.
Throughout the Scriptures, beginning here, we see a different picture being painted. In the Scriptures, marriage is understood to be a covenant. A covenant has some similarities to a contract, but the differences are significant. A covenant is an agreement in which two or more parties consent to a certain set of terms. But, instead of there being a time limit on the matter, the situation is intended to last into perpetuity or such a time as a new covenant is pursued. What’s more, the covenant remains in place whether or not the various parties are living up to the agreed upon terms. In other words, while you might be able to intentionally move yourself outside the boundaries of the covenant, that departure will not somehow render it void. It lasts until it is fulfilled and replaced. Perhaps the best illustration of this I’ve seen is a covenant-controlled community, often called a Home Owner’s Association. When you move into one of these neighborhoods, you agree to a certain set of terms. The neighborhood, for its part, agrees to provide certain services, usually in exchange for homeowner’s fees of some kind. Well, just because a particular homeowner or even the whole neighborhood does not live up to the terms of the covenant, does not mean it is undone. You can sue or the HOA can assess fines in order to try and force the terms to be honored, but the covenant remains in place. In fact, the only way to get out of the covenant is for either all the parties to agree upon a new set of terms, or for you to move out of the neighborhood. Beyond that, the covenant endures.
This is what marriage was designed to be in the beginning. It was designed to be a relationship in which each party says to the other, “I’m going to do these things for you whether or not I think you deserve them. The fact is, neither of us deserves them, but because of what God has done for me, I’m going to do them for you. I’m going to do them until the point that death prevents me from continuing. And, in the end, you won’t owe me anything.” That’s a covenant. And again: that’s what God designed marriage to be from the beginning. In response to the foundational question of what marriage is, we can say this: Marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman designed by God in creation. Based on the Scriptures, that’s what it is. Any conversation, then, that we are going to have about marriage has to start from this place. Marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman designed by God in creation.
Understanding a bit more about a covenant helps us understand why it is so critical to get this definition right. In the ancient world, the making of covenants was a much more common thing than it is today. It was also a more graphic thing. Entering into a covenant was understood to be a life-altering decision. You couldn’t go back anymore once you made it. To try would be like killing a part of yourself. We see in the Old Testament in some of the covenants God made with Abraham what the process looked like and it reaffirms this gravity. The standard practice then was to take one or more animals in a sacred space, split them in half down the middle, lay the two halves (with all the guts hanging out all over the place and blood going everywhere) on opposite sides of a path, and then the covenant-making parties would walk down the path in between the carcasses. Gross, right?
The idea was that what happened to the animal would happen to the covenant-markers if they should ever do something to violate the covenant. This was serious business. Incidentally, even in our marriage-as-a-contract culture, some of this ancient covenantal symbolism persists. The ideal for almost every bride is to walk down a center aisle in a sacred space (a church) with one side of the family on one side of the aisle and the other side of the family on the other side of the aisle. Then, when the couple exchange their vows, the bride and groom promise to do this or that for each other until “death do us part.” That’s covenantal language. And rightly so, because that’s what it is.
But, knowing what marriage is only gets us part of the way to the kind of full view of this foundational institution we need to do it right. We need to also understand what it is for. What is the purpose of marriage? Why did God create it in the first place?
Well, this particular text doesn’t tell us out right. But it does give us a clue. At the end of chapter 2, Moses makes an observation about this couple that points us firmly in the direction we are ultimately going to go. He says this in v. 25: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” Now, we should certainly understand this literally as clothing had not yet been invented, but there’s more to it than that. Because sin had not come into the world and added all the complications of Hell into it, there was no reason for the man and his wife to feel emotional shame or relational shame or spiritual shame or any of the other sources of shame they might encounter because of sin. They were able to be totally transparent with each other without fear of finding out something that revealed the whole thing was a sham from the start.
Imagine for a minute what that was like. Imagine what it would be like to have nothing to hide. At all. From anybody. That had to have been an incredible feeling. If you’ve felt that before, you know how amazing that feels. Regardless of the particular relationship in which you had it, it was incredible. That’s what marriage was designed to be like all the time and for every single person in one. In fact, being able to experience that transformational level of transparency with another person is why marriage was designed in the first place. Now, it isn’t the only relationship in which that can be experienced. But it is the one where most people will come closer than anywhere else to finding it. On this side of sin entering the world, though, do you know what the only way someone can experience that level of intimacy is? Jesus. Sin makes this transformational transparency impossible. The only way we can have it is to get sin out of the way. The only way we can do that is when we have given our hearts and minds; our very lives, fully over to Jesus to be made clean in His image by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.
When we get marriage right, this is what it does. Not only in our lives, but in the lives of the people around us. Indeed, this is what it’s for. The purpose of marriage is to make us more like Jesus. Marriage was designed to point people to Jesus. When we get marriage right, it serves as a beacon of light, drawing people to the truth; drawing people to Christ. Think about some of the greatest marriages you’ve ever seen. I’d wager that most of them featured a husband and wife who were both fully devoted to Jesus and out of that relationship to each other. People around them connected with Jesus because of the example of their lifestyle. This is because that’s what marriage is for. Marriage was designed to point people to Jesus. It is a covenantal relationship between a man and woman designed by God in creation to point people to Jesus. And with this understanding now in place, we can start to talk about some of the ways our culture gets marriage wrong, and why the truth is so much better.
Before we get there, though, let’s do one more thing to set our hearts and minds in the right place. We’ve been talking about covenants this morning. Marriage was created to be a covenant because the God who created it is a covenant-making God. He gives His word, does not take it back, and abides by what He has said without fail. Throughout the Scriptures we see God making a number of different covenants. He makes a covenant with Noah to never destroy the world again by a flood. He makes a covenant with Abraham that his descendant will be a blessing to the whole world. He makes a covenant with Moses and the people of Israel whose boundaries were outlined by the Law and whose promise was unmitigated blessing if they would stay within its borders. They didn’t of course. And so, He made another covenant with David that one of his descendants would sit forever on the throne of Israel. He promised Ezekiel and Jeremiah that He was going to make another covenant one day that would replace the covenant of Law He had made with Moses and the people. Then Jesus came and the time for covenant-making arrived.
In the ancient world, covenants always required blood. The participants were committing their very lives to the conditions of the covenant and that they would be fulfilled no matter what. In most cases, though, the blood involved was not the blood of the participants, but that of a substitute of some kind. The thing about swearing on somebody else’s blood is that it’s somebody else’s blood at stake if you blow it. It’s like gambling with somebody else’s money. If you blow, you don’t really have anything to lose. Those covenants just aren’t as strong as they could be. When Jesus inaugurated God’s new covenant of life with us, He made it as strong as it possibly could be. He made the sacrifice Himself. By His broken body and blood spilled to the last drop He signed and sealed a new covenant with us; one in which life-everlasting is available to all who would receive it. The only thing required of us is to make Jesus our Lord and follow Him wherever He goes. If we are willing to follow the Good Shepherd, the life we have always desired can be ours.
This morning, then, as we come to the table together, let us come to celebrate the God who is a maker of covenants. If you are married, celebrate the covenant you have made with your partner as a reflection of this great covenant of life. If you are single, celebrate the covenant God has made available to you in Christ and the unfiltered experience you can have of it. More than that, if you are a follower of Jesus, celebrate the covenant of life the bread and juice before us remind us that we have with the Father. If you are not yet a partaker in this covenant, or if you have some stuff actively going on that you need to get settled with God in order that you can come back within its boundaries, just let the plate pass when it comes. Nobody’s going to judge you for that. Rather, we will respect your honesty even as we’ll silently pray for whatever happens to be going on in your life. We’re just glad you’re here this morning. Most importantly, as the deacons come forward to serve you, take a moment and prepare your heart before God in the quiet. You can even move yourself within the covenant lines while you sit there. When you are served, we will eat together and then drink together. If you belong to Jesus, this is for you. Let’s celebrate together what He has done for us.