The Marriage Idol

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There is a trend growing within the jungles of social media Reformed theology; it began really with the Reformation and the marriage of church and state (see the Westminster Confession of Faith 23.3 and 24.2) continued from Rome among Protestants.  This trend is placing marriage, and more specifically the “family unit” on a dangerously high pedestal.  This pedestal, for some, even rises to the height of idolatry.  Of course, this article is sure to stir up angry outbursts even with this simple introductory paragraph.  Yet, dear reader, for a moment put aside the culturally acceptable mode of interpretation, that of gut reaction and instant fury, and search the Scriptures to see whether these things be so (Acts 17:11).

This idol is seen primarily in the sentiment that the highest calling of a man and of a woman is to be married and bear offspring.  This sentiment is expressed in words such as this: “Men were created to be husbands and fathers,” and “Women were created to be wives and mothers.”  The danger with ideas such as these is that they are lies which wear the garb of truth.  They are cloaked in shades of truth, but underneath lies error.

It is indeed true that the order which God created is that of the nuclear family: a husband, a wife, and their children.  God created them male and female, and gave the command to multiply.  That fact is neither open to interpretation, nor is it being disputed here.  But that is not the issue.  The problem lies in mistaking that order for our created purpose.  We were created to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.  We were not created simply to be a husband or a wife, but that we might manifest through our lives the glory of our Creator.  That is our created purpose.  Everything else in our lives exists for us to fulfill that created purpose.  In other words, the purpose of marriage is to manifest the glory of God.

This has very real practical implications.  Do you consider your spouse and your children as means to the end of glorifying God?  That seems a strange way of stating things, but it is true nonetheless.  Men, do you treat your wife as though she exists for you?  Women, do you treat your husband as though he exists for you?  How subtle our pride can be!  Indeed Eve was made to be the help meet for Adam, but what was she supposed to help him do?  Not make much of himself, but to make much of God!  We are so prone to think of our families as extensions of ourselves, to consider them as reflecting on us; and yet, our spouse and children do not exist to reflect us, but to reflect the Creator.

Indeed, marriage is not the end all, be all for the Christian.  The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians saying, “For I would that all men were even as myself.  But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that” (1 Cor. 7:7).  He would go on to say later in that chapter, “Art thou bound unto a wife?  seek not to be loosed.  Art thou loosed from a wife?  seek not a wife” (7:27).  Finally, he wrote this: “But I would have you without carefulness.  He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: but he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife” (7:32-33).  This is not to say that marriage is sinful; Paul makes the point in that same chapter that there is nothing sinful in marriage.  Nor does this idea diminish the value and honor of marriage which Paul upheld (cf. Eph. 5:32 and Heb. 13:4).  Yet marriage is not the end goal of the believer; it is not the highest state to which one can attain.  Marriage exists for specific reasons (see Gen. 2:18, 1:28; 1 Cor. 7:2, 9; cf. 2LBCF 25.2).  In Paul’s estimation, it would be better for both men and women to remain unmarried (provided they had mastery over the body), and so be able to dedicate themselves to the ministry of the Gospel in their own capacity (see above, and 1 Cor. 7:8, 34).

Marriage is a reality of this world; it is not a heavenly thing.  There are good things and bad things in the world.  Marriage is one of the good things, yet it is still a thing of the world.  In Mark 12 we read of certain Sadducees who were attempting to discredit the doctrine of the resurrection by using a hypothetical situation regarding marriage.  In Jewish law, if a man died without bearing children, his brother was to take his wife and bear offspring for his dead brother.  These Sadducees came up with an insane example of a woman being the wife of seven brothers in that way in order to disprove the idea of a bodily resurrection.  They said, “In the resurrection therefore, when they shall rise, whose wife shall she be of them? for the seven had her to wife” (Mark 12:23).  Jesus refuted their argument very simply: “Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the Scriptures, neither the power of God?  For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven” (Mark 12:24-25).  Marriage is for this life; it is inherently tied to this present world.

In this life, marriage has an amazing goal beyond those pragmatic purposes referenced above: it is a representation of the love of Christ for his people.  In discussing marriage, the apostle Paul wrote these words, “This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32).  The beautiful Song of Songs is a poem concerning the love of Christ and his church, and it uses marriage as a metaphor.  Marriage is a lifelong metaphor, but it is not an eternal metaphor.  This metaphor is rich and deep and full of meaning.  One man and one woman: one Christ and one church.  There is one Head of the church, and there is only one church, the Bride of Christ.  Earthly marriage is ended only by death, but the marriage of the Lamb and his church is unending because both go on without end.  Indeed, the marriage of a Christian man and a Christian woman is an unsurpassed earthly portrait of the glory of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  But for all its fullness and richness and deepness, it is a shadow, a sign of the thing signified.  It is temporal, but that to which it points, Christ and his church, is eternal.

One day marriage will come to an end, just as everything of this world will come to an end; one day even the sun and moon shall pass away (Rev. 22:5).  I love the way in which John Piper describes this reality: “Very soon the shadow will give way to Reality.  The partial will pass into the Perfect.  The foretaste will lead to the Banquet.  The troubled path will end in Paradise.  A hundred candle-lit evenings will come to their consummation in the marriage supper of the Lamb.  And this momentary marriage will be swallowed up by Life.  Christ will be all and in all.  And the purpose of marriage will be complete” (Piper, This Momentary Marriage, 177).  This is why Paul, in 1 Cor. 7:31 gives us a warning: “and they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away.”  We must be careful not to abuse the good things of this world, because they are passing away.  There is a day coming when “the elements shall melt with fervent heat,” when that which is sown in corruption is raised incorruptible (2 Pet. 3:10; 1 Cor. 15:42).

Does this mean that I do not love my wife?  Does it mean that I do not love my children?  If those are the conclusions to which the reader has come, I fear he has not been reading very carefully.  First, as Christians, we are commanded to love all, even our enemies.  Second, husbands are commanded explicitly to love their wives in Ephesians 5.  Third, not loving our spouse and children is contrary to the light of nature, the imago dei in which we were made.  This does mean, however, that there is a proper way to love my wife and to love my children.  I cannot take them with me to heaven.  My created purpose is not merely to be a husband or a father, but to make such use of the wife and children that God has given me to make much of his name.  How is that done?

The answer to that question is lengthy, but not complex or mysterious; indeed, the principle of that answer is simple.  I am to love as Christ loved me.  This is the principle of all Christian living, the pinnacle of all righteousness.  One aspect of loving my wife as Christ has loved me is acting as the head of the home as that role is described in Scripture.  But that is only one aspect.  My wife is a believer; the foundational relationship between us is our relation to one another in union with Christ.  Thus, I am to love my wife as I love other believers as well.  Marriage does not annul the Christian ethic between husband and wife; it rather adds to it.  The role of husband and wife is added to the role of brother and sister in Christ, but those roles do not supersede the original ones.  That is the principle; putting flesh on that bony structure would take more pages than this short article has space for, but it can all be found in the Scriptures.  If you would learn how to love your wife and your children, how to make use of that which God has given for his own glory, learn from the example of Christ and his apostles.  There are more passages of Scripture which discuss this truth than Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3.  Every discussion of the Christian ethic applies to the relationship of husband and wife, even if only one is a believer.  Beware the loud noises of the public square, and listen for the still small voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through the Holy Scriptures (1 Ki. 19:11-13).

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