by ProfDave, ©2020
(Nov. 20, 2020) — Marriage is counter-cultural – Christian marriage, in particular. Always has been, even among Christians, more often than not. Lots of folks out there think they are married, but in a Christian sense, are not! Our marriages are sub-Christian. Court decisions in the last decade have not changed much. They just exposed how far we have fallen from Eden and invited Christian Marriage into open warfare with the contemporary culture.
Human marriage arises out of three imperatives: biological reality, moral ideals, and social necessity. Animals don’t get married – they just mate (is there a difference?) – no choices, just instinct. Another way of saying it: marriage is simultaneously a natural institution, a sacred institution, and a social institution. That’s why at a wedding you have not just the couple, but a representative of God (clergy or JP) and at least two representatives of the community (witnesses). You don’t just drag her/him off to your cave.
Biological realities set boundaries. Like all vertebrates and most living things on this planet, we come in two genders, male and female, distinguished by chromosomes, brain chemistry, reproductive systems and everything in between. These structural features, whether designed or evolved, pre-determine heterosexual reproduction. This powerful biological imperative calls forth natural marriage. That is not all. The same nature that gave us strong brains and weak claws, dictates a long juvenile condition. This virtually requires mating for life. Anything else limits the survival skills, let alone higher culture and civilization that can be passed on from generation to generation.
Mating for life is the biological definition of marriage – exclusive, permanent, male and female, one on one (pretty much). Monogamy best provides care for the young in a stable social unit, limits mating competition and conflict to a relatively short period of life, and regulates relations between the sexes for the purpose of continuing the species (also, the family, the community, the culture, the nation, and the civilization). No children: no future. This is not rocket science. Order, security, stability, continuity provide healthy children for a healthy society. That is natural marriage. Anything outside that box is dysfunctional in the end.
Moral ideals infuse the boundaries of marriage with higher purpose. Animals don’t need morals – their behavior is hard-wired. We have to think about it. With sentience comes the choice between right and wrong. There is responsibility beyond my personal enjoyment – or passing on of my genes (or jeans J). With creation comes a Creator; with moral law a Lawgiver. Marriage becomes sacred. We have to submit or go rogue.
Marriage has an important place in the ethical teachings of every religion and culture. The western ideal is set by the Creator’s instructions in Genesis. The nature and purpose of mankind in both kinds is set by the mandate: “God created man in his own image . . . male and female he created them. . . God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over . . . every living creature. . . ’” (Genesis 1:27-28). What marriage does is expressed by the statement, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24. Any questions?
Nature’s God makes explicit what nature has determined: a mandate and framework for human reproduction. But there is more. He confers a transcendent dignity and authority on both sexes, calling the male to leave his family of origin to set up a new, exclusive and permanent conjugal relationship. There is a hint of a special moral responsibility conferred on the man for the woman and for any children of that union, balancing the more obvious biological bond between mother and child. Male and female are different but expected to merge into a new entity. Equality is strongly implied.
Becoming “one flesh” goes well beyond the sperm and the egg and the compromise of immune systems, but it starts there. It cannot be just body mechanics. Marriage, then, must be permanent and physically exclusive. No fooling around before or during. Thus the ideal of Eden reinforces biological reality, but adds human dignity to both sexes and calls for holistic unity in the marriage bond. Jesus reinforces and deepens this ideal, as we shall see. Note that marital permanence (“till death do us part”) provides security in old age as well as in childhood and childbearing. Sacred marriage, “holy matrimony,” promises supernatural assistance to those who submit; but moral, as well as biological and social, consequences to those who reject or subvert its standards.
Social necessity reflects both biological realities and moral ideals of marriage. Marriages are the atoms of human society and families are the molecules. Healthy marriages make families stable, secure, and healthy. Healthy families produce stable, productive and safe communities – with a minimum of feral and irresponsible elements. Healthy communities – you get the idea. The unmarried and the childless may be productive in other ways, but if marriages and families fail, the leaders, sustainers, and productive elements of society are not renewed and replaced from generation to generation. Values, loyalties and survival skills are not passed on. The society crumbles.
Note: Nothing in this discussion should be construed as implying that there is anything wrong with being single or childless. This is about marriage, not the human race as a whole – though everyone’s behavior counts. The single and the childless remain part of families, benefit from the culture of marriage, and have the moral choice to support or subvert the ideal of marriage. Absent fathers and feral young men (without proper guidance and responsibility) have been loose cannons throughout history, but singles have also been warriors, saints, scholars, discoverers – and dedicated first grade teachers.
We have choices. Human societies have a tendency to compromise and corrupt their ideals. We succumb to individualism, selfishness, pathology and brokenness. Societies, as the individuals that make them up, tend to wander from their ideals. High ideals are not easy to sustain against low living. We find the low living more entertaining, more alluring, than self-sacrifice. “All we, like sheep, have gone astray.”
There are significant gaps between moral ideals and social practice in every age. For example, the ideal of oneness and equality between husband and wife was pretty much left behind in Eden. Only in the Christian West, so far as I know, has it survived even as a dream. Alienation from God immediately led to alienation between the sexes and a practical loss of the ideal. It became us vs them. Both Jewish Scriptures and the social history of the West have been the stories of the failure of humanity to live up to the model of Adam and Eve. The rest of the world seems even worse.
Male muscle mass has been used, not to provide and protect, but to subjugate and dominate. Law and tradition of all past societies unequally reinforced taboos on sexual contact outside marriage. While jealously guarding the “virtue” of their wives and daughters, men allowed their own eyes to roam. Women became possessions rather than equal partners – as in polygamy – or objects of indulgence rather than intimate companions.
Human dignity was lost by both sexes. Relationships became predatory, seeking personal fulfillment in the exploitation of self and others as objects: pornography, seduction, abuse, rape, prostitution, and more. Adultery and exploitation begins in the attitude. A billion dollar industry has grown up around these themes and they buzz around our entertainment and advertising like flies around road kill. Our hearts, our minds, our culture are saturated with adultery.
Jesus Christ called his followers back to the ideal of Eden. It was countercultural in his society – and just about every other society then and now. He called “window shopping” adultery and treated women with astonishing respect. Ancient custom was unabashedly male chauvinist. Marriages were family alliances in which women had very few choices until early modern times. Females were routinely discarded at birth (now that gender can be determined before birth, they are aborted). Women were non-citizens, sub-human. They existed for pleasure and the production of sons to take care of one in one’s old age. No, I’m sure I am being too harsh. No doubt many, if not most, ancient husbands sincerely cherished their wives and daughters, but all the power and rights were theirs, not hers – and the rich and famous made Hollywood look good.
The Christian ideal of marriage, as laid down by Jesus and the Apostles, was countercultural in the first century and still is in the 21st century.
- It places matrimony and sexuality in a radically different context
- It upholds the intrinsic and irreducible worth of man, woman, and child
- It is a covenant, not a contract
- It is not about “happiness” but purpose: not fulfillment, but mission
- And finally, it demands a new and different kind of love: devotion, not desire
Christian marriage, in particular, places matrimony and sexuality in a radically different context. Genuine Christian marriage is set in the twin contexts of creation and redemption. We are not our own. We have a Maker. We did not make ourselves. We routinely ruin ourselves. We have a Redeemer: we are bought with a price. I belong to Someone. I am not my own. It is not my body. My body belongs to my Maker and Redeemer, and secondarily to my spouse. God is the center of my marriage, not me! It is a covenant uniting two of His possessions. He was a party to the nuptials and went with us on the honeymoon. More than that, He is the head of the house – not me! Any transgression is against Him – not just my spouse or civil law.
Though we might have participated in their creation, our children are not our own either. They are gifts from the Lord. We are responsible to Him for their care and upbringing. Jesus warned that it would be better to be thrown in the deepest sea with a millstone around our necks than to harm or corrupt one of them. Whoa! Scary! Politically incorrect!
Christian marriage holds both male and female sacred, commanding mutual submission, love and respect. We are equal, but not identical. Women and children are never objects or toys. They are never bought or sold for any consideration. They are intrinsically valuable, regardless of imperfections. Fathers and mothers are not interchangeable parts, and neither is allowed to abuse, neglect, abandon or destroy their young.
Husbands and wives are called to mirror the self-giving relationship between Christ and the Church. As Jesus laid down his life on the cross for us, men are to lay down their lives for their wives. Not just by confronting the saber-tooth at the mouth of the cave, but laying down football for conversation, the newspaper for playing with the baby, career-time for wife-time. Mother bear will lay down her life for her cubs, but for a Christian mother, it is a team effort – and she is called to be a team player. That’s what the dread word “submission” really means. Both partners are called to lay down their individual “lives” for each other – they are now one. If you “have a life,” you aren’t really married. Both are called to faithfulness and sacrifice, “for better or for worse.” So counter-cultural!
Christian marriage is not a contract – a negotiation for mutual advantage – but a covenant – an irrevocable and individually unilateral commitment. “I David . . .” – whether she performs or not. “I Marie. . .” – whether he performs or not. It is not based on love, commonly so called, but upon commitment. Not chemistry, sexual attraction, or even admiration, but a self-giving decision.
Christian marriage begins with an irrevocable commitment. Moral choices are to direct our desires. Desire is not to determine moral choices. “Love” is not its own justification. There is right love and wrong love – and calling it love does not make wrong right. Personally, I think the “leap of faith” is fundamental to the strength of the bond. Christian marriage commitment is decision without a net! Unconditional, without knowing the future (who does?). I thought I knew my wife before the wedding. Hoooh boy! Still don’t!
Christian marriage requires faith in the One who owns both parties. It is the choice to become the best possible partner rather than – by trial and error – to find the best possible partner. For her for a lifetime, not for me at this time. 180º out from the contemporary culture of cohabitation and trial marriage.
The Christian ideal of marriage is countercultural in the 21st century. Right off the rip, it’s goal is not “happiness,” but a higher purpose, the expression and transmission of values. Studies show that active Christians’ marriages are happier by every measure than the general population, but this is a “happy” byproduct of a life devoted to God and to each other. Their focus is not satisfaction, but service. We don’t have to be happy. But doing the right thing has rewards – out of this world!
“Love,” as popularly understood, is not its own justification. To use it to justify wrong behavior makes the word itself stink. Christian sex is never casual. It always has consequences. It is meaningful and intentional. Sex outside marriage does not unite the partners or the genders. It rather tends to divide – to become predatory, competitive and aggressive. Something we do to another, reducing them and us. It separates us from each other and ultimately from God.
Cohabitation or “trial marriage” blurs the lines between married and not married, undermining commitment. It just happens. The male dissipates his passion and never gets to commitment. Both partners remain permanently on trial, “singing in the sunshine,” but reserving the right to dissolve in the rain – while the offspring dangle over the pit. By contrast, Christian chastity separates the men from the boys, the husband from the wolf in every man. “Nests before eggs.” Soooo counter-cultural!
In fact, Christianity itself is counter-cultural. Christianity brought to the world a new kind of love, not limited to marriage, but certainly applicable: agape (in the Greek). “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” This is the pure, altruistic, self-giving love of God. He loves us because of who He is, not who we are. It is His nature. Unfortunately, it is not our fallen nature. It is only humanly possible as it passes from Him through us to others. Many a starry-eyed couple has I Corinthians 13 read at their wedding with no conception of its meaning. Instead, they want each other, what each other can give them, or what the married status promises to give. If they listened, they might run! Agape is not something you fall into, but something you choose – and grow into. It comes, not from the gonads but from faith. It is existential, not emotional.
The starry-eyed couple? They might just muddle through if 1) they haven’t compromised their capacity for biological bonding too much by premarital experimentation, 2) if they mature beyond their self-interest, 3) if their society or sub-culture insists on permanence and exclusivity, and 4) if their moral ideals are high enough. What are the odds these days?
Christian marriage!?? Hogwash, you say – or something less polite! All this ideal stuff is not real! Myth and moonshine! There’s no such thing as altruism. It’s an evolutionary impossibility! The opiate of the people! Victorian repression of fun and self-fulfillment! Christian marriage, as you have described it, does not exist – or is exceeding rare. Christian marriage is a mask for the exploitation of women! The “headship” of men and the “submission” of women is dystopian bigotry! Not until we shed our dark past can we be truly be free!
Welcome to a dark future of anarchy! You are dreaming, too! Do you want to be free or just unbuttoned? Freedom and fulfillment comes when the structures and ideals of our society serve reality – real natural and social needs. Not sci-fi fantasies where reality adapts to you.
OK, so where would we be without Christian ideals? Take a good look around the world. Are women better off under Islam? More equal under Hinduism? More well off under Atheism? Women’s liberation was the pride of the Stalinist state, where everyone was a slave and the women still did the housework and waited in the bread lines. In China women get to do most of the pick and shovel work, would you like that? Where do you think feminism came from? [Answer: The Christian West]
Without ideals, if we can only emulate “reality” (things as they are or slightly worse), reality can only deteriorate. In the sixties we took a hard look at the gap between the ideal and the real. We changed some things. But to throw out the ideal because we had not attained it was a mistake. It is better to shoot at the moon and miss than to shoot at a skunk and hit it. Our 21st century society has been hitting a lot of skunks! Pheeewww!
Victorian “repression” arose to protect women and children from the brutal exploitation and family devastation of early industrialization and urbanization. It did not succeed in making the working classes “respectable,” but it did set new standards for nurturing bourgeois families. Then, as now, the line between “making it” and squalid poverty was self-control. The sexual revolution of the sixties, on the other hand, threw the family under the bus. Playboy hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself, leads only to pain, broken homes and broken hearts. Women and children are left holding the bag.
Liberation from male domination, co-dependency, and glass ceilings are good things arising out of the value Christianity gives to both genders. But “liberation” from the dignity and distinctions of being female (potential motherhood, for example), let alone from marriage itself, denies those values. Combined hedonism and radical feminism have arguably brought more disrespect for and victimization of women as women than Victorian “repression” ever did. And “liberating” men from family responsibilities was hardly a good thing.
The 20th century, at least in the West, chose to discard the Christian foundations of marriage ideals – except for a twisted fragment of “equality” for women. Our 21st century society has chosen to not only depart from “holy matrimony” but to experiment with the reality boundaries of natural marriage as well. Divorce, cohabitation, wed-lease, same-sex marriage, throuples, polygamy, polyamory, and other alternatives do not support a sustainable society. They do not produce a healthy population, a productive economy, or a stable democracy. They appeal, perhaps, to our pornography-jaded appetites and enable broken souls to act out their fantasies. But how much dysfunction can a society absorb? To what extent can we dispense with the frame of the carriage before the wheels run off? I fear my grandchildren may live to find out.
But! If Christians repent and return to their God, they could still pull it together. One couple at a time, one church at a time, building a healthy culture of marriage the way they did in the first four centuries of the “Common Era.” Christ just might be the only one who can make marriage work – make family work – make community work – make America work – make civilization work. I believe He designed it that way. The world, left to itself, goes not well. But the Kingdom comes as we recognize the King!
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.