As of the publication of this post, I will be marrying my best friend and the love of my life, Brittany Barfield, in just one week. The engagement process has been wonderful and chaotic at the same time! In one week, all of the long conversations, late nights packing, and planning will culminate in a single ceremonial day that will begin a covenant relationship that will last a lifetime. All of those features of a great wedding - the vows, the celebration, the friends and family, the love - are undoubtedly beautiful. Numerous people have told us as such, often with smiles on their faces as they express how happy they are for us.
But all of this raises a question: Why is it that we see these things as beautiful? Why, all things being equal, are weddings seen as a time of celebration and joy? This question could be addressed in a number of ways, from attempts to explain the phenomenon of marriage rites scientifically or evolutionarily to historical accounts of the development of those rites over time. I'm neither qualified nor particularly interested in addressing the question in that way. Rather, my purpose in this shorter post is to give some thoughts on marriage as I am approaching it. The question for me is this: as a Christian, what should be at the center of my mind and heart as I get ready to pledge my life, affections, love, soul, and body to this one person for the rest of my life?
There are at least two views on the origin of marriage that deserve some attention before we really get started in addressing these questions. The first is what I will call the objective view of marriage. This view holds that marriage is an objective feature of reality that reflects something deeper than itself. As such, the idea of marriage does not originate with human beings. Obviously, this understanding of the origin of marriage is quite consistent with various religions, including Christianity. It is also consistent with, say, a scientific account if that account provides some basis for the origin of marriage that is outside or exists prior to the origin of marriage itself (I won't be focusing on these accounts in this post).
The second view is what I'll call the relative view of marriage, and I mean "relative" here in two senses. The first sense of "relative" is that this view claims that marriage is a mere social construct, meaning that its existence is entirely attributable to human choice and structures and nothing else. Had humans not existed, there would have been nothing more to the concept of marriage. The second sense of "relative" is that since this view does not allow for marriage to be grounded in an objective feature of reality, different human societies and cultures will develop different customs and views around marriage. Since there is no grounding of the concept of marriage in objective reality, then there is nothing objectively true or false about anyone's conception of marriage. In my estimation, it is this view of origin that has, in part, led to recent chaos concerning the definition of marriage and greater acceptance of practices such as polyamory.
As a Christian, I'm committed to the objective view, but then we must consider what it is that grounds the concept of marriage. For this, consider the words of St. Augustine in his book, On the Good of Marriage, which was written in the year of 401:
"Since every man is a part of the human race, and human nature is something social and possesses the capacity for friendship as a great and natural good, for this reason God wished to create all men from one, so that they might be held together in their society, not only by the similarity of race, but also by the bond of blood relationship. And so it is that the first natural tie of human society is man and wife. Even these God did not create separately and join them as if strangers, but He made the one from the other, indicating also the power of union in the side from where she was drawn and formed."
St. Augustine makes two claims, the second of which builds off of the first. First, human beings generally were created for union through social ties and friendship. This is the "great and natural good" - friendship - that arises from the social aspect of human nature. Because of this, God created us with a blood tie to one another. When I see another person - no matter their background, physical characteristics, birthplace, beliefs, etc. - I'm looking at someone with whom I share an ancestry leading back to the original pairing of Adam and Eve. Because of this, all human beings, by nature, have much more in common than what divides them. In a very important sense, God has created human beings for unity with each other.
Second, based on this common humanity, God established marriage as the first social bond among human beings in Adam and Eve. It is often said that family is the foundation for society. This truth comes to us from Genesis 2, where we find God intimately involving Himself in making Adam and Eve, Adam first from the ground, and Eve from Adam. Far from creating a relationship of distinction and division, as critics will charge this story with giving Eve a "second-class" position under Adam, St. Augustine affirms that the purpose for making "one from the other" was for "indicating also the power of union in the side from where she was drawn and formed." Being made from Adam's rib indicates the place she has with him, rather than under him.
Thus, we find that unity is one of the most important purposes and goods of marriage, and this bears repeating as we turn to two of the major passages concerning marriage in Scripture. As you read what I have to say about these passages, I encourage you to have a Bible open, so that you can read these passages and reference them as I discuss them. In this post, I will briefly discuss two passages regarding marriage:
In this beautiful passage, we find the problem that leads to marriage expressed by the words of God in v. 18: "It is not good for the man to be alone." It is well-known that isolation is not good for human flourishing. As St. Augustine wrote (and in this he agrees with Aristotle), we are by nature social beings. But this sense in which isolation is not good for mankind goes much deeper than the practical drawbacks of isolating oneself from others. Rather, in stating that the man should not be alone, God is pointing to something that is lacking in His created order that must be fulfilled in the creation of the woman. As opposed to being an unimportant, second-class part of creation, the woman completes creation.
Why is this? Note from Genesis 1:26-27 that mankind, including male and female, were created in the image of God. As I've often said, mankind was created to reflect God back into the world. Genesis 2 clarifies this general account with a particular account of the creation of the man and woman. Without the woman, the image of God is not reflected in its fullness in creation. Though God could conceivably have created things differently, we find that the image of God is reflected into the world fully only through the pairing of male and female, a binary that forms a completed mankind when paired. We learn from both Scripture and experience that when this pairing is made and consummated, the result is the multiplication of mankind and therefore the further reflection of God's image into His world.
The beauty of this account is multifaceted. We find that we are embodied creatures whose bodies are transcendent markers of God's sovereign design. When Adam first sees Eve, while both are naked and unashamed because sin had not entered into the world (v. 25), he exclaims in v. 23 (NASB):
"'At last this is bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called "woman," Because she was taken out of man.'"
Notice how Adam focuses not on the differences between himself and Eve, but rather on what they have in common. Undoubtedly, he had seen difference. Her body was like his, but different and complimentary. They had been made for each other, and this similarity-with-difference forms a completed, flourishing humanity. Embodiment, down to the smallest characteristics and including even those parts of our bodies we may find distasteful or shameful (remember, because of sin) is necessary for understanding who we are and how God made us.
In Adam's proclamation of the commonality between himself and Eve, we also find that "knowing" is the height of human relationship. C.S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, classified phileo or love between friends as a "bond of souls." That is, only friendship (or, perhaps more accurately, companionship) reaches into the deepest depths of a person, so that he or she is known and loved. Between men and women, this deep of a connection is only really achievable via romantic love, or eros. Thus, in marriage, we find that eros and phileo are combined, with the latter being the basis for the former. Eros becomes that drive to become one with the other, which is the definition of marriage found in Genesis 2:24. Oneness, however, is impossible between human beings without difference, a difference written not only on our bodies but on our souls.
That this pairing produces offspring shows that production is the byproduct of companionship of husband and wife. Christians have discussed for centuries whether the central purpose of marriage was childbearing or companionship. On this note, I disagree with St. Augustine, who held in his On the Good of Marriage that though companionship was a good of marriage, childbearing is its sole purpose. Though I would hold that both companionship and childbearing are important goods and purposes for marriage, companionship in both cases is primary. To deny this leads, I contend, to a tendency to doubt whether certain essential aspects of marriage, such as the sexual bond between husband and wife, are actually part of God's original creation, rather than being a consequence of the fall, which seems to me to undermine the good of God's created order (see On the Good of Marriage, ch. 2).
The key for us is that marriage is a central part of God's creation of mankind and is a profoundly important institution for human flourishing. It emphasizes the similarity-with-difference of male and female and their union to produce, from the deepest bond, more image-bearers whose love reflects God more fully back into the world.
In Ephesians 5:22-33, we're confronted with a text that, at first glance, is challenging in our current cultural milieu, a text that may even be called oppressive or evil. After having encouraged the Ephesian church to be imitators of God (5:1) and, as part of this, to "subject yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ" (5:21), Paul goes on to give what has come to be called the "household codes" for marriage. These household codes were alternatives to the greater Greco-Roman culture and represent Paul's teaching on marital relations from a Christian perspective.
We notice immediately in reading this text that Paul's word to wives is different from what he says to husbands. That there are responsibilities, let alone different responsibilities, bound by the marriage covenant is controversial in Western culture today, but it ought to signal to us that to live in the way of Christ within marriage is not the same as to live in the way of the world. For this post, I'll split the passage into two sections: the wife's responsibilities (vv. 22-24) and the husband's responsibilities (vv. 25-33).
The wife's responsibilities (vv. 22-24). This passage presents us with an initial claim in v. 22: that wives ought to be subject to their husbands. Verses 23-24 present an example of an argument from analogy, although here "analogy" cannot be used without some qualifications, which I'll get to in the section on the husband's responsibilities. For our purposes now, "analogy" will suffice as the term we use. In v. 23, Paul makes an equally bold and controversial claim - that the husband is head of the wife - by comparing the husband's headship over the wife to Christ's headship over the church. With this passage coming at the end of the Epistle to the Ephesians, one of the greatest themes of which was the intimate union of Christ and those who are saved by and through Him, we can see that Paul has a very strong view of the unity between husband and wife. They are one, as we become one with Christ by being "in Him." But this oneness implies a difference in relationship, just as we, though one in Christ, nonetheless surrender to Him. Verse 24 further clarifies that argument from analogy, ending with the claim that wives ought to be subject to their husbands "in everything."
The husband's responsibilities (vv. 25-33). Notice at the outset that the passage for husbands is much longer than the passage for wives. In the Greek, Paul's instruction to wives is 40 words long, whereas his instruction for husbands is 160 words long. So, Paul has much more to say to the husband - to the head - than he does the wife. This is important because it is often argued (or, if not argued, Christians often fear) that Paul's hierarchical understanding of authority within marriage justifies an abusive or degrading attitude of husbands toward their wives. But this couldn't be further from the truth. Not only is it impossible to reconcile this interpretation with Paul's words in vv. 25-33, but what Paul says actually warrants a much higher and more beautiful understanding of marriage, on that elevates it rather than demeans it.
I'll begin with a question I have asked Christian women who've expressed concern over this passage: are you afraid to surrender to Jesus? Do you fear that He will be abusive or demeaning, or that He will fail to love you? The obvious answer to these questions is no because Jesus loves us fully, consistently and self-sacrificially. In fact, this is why we read that "there is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18 NASB). So we do not have to fear in surrendering to Jesus.
In drawing a comparison between the husband-wife relation in marriage and the Christ-church relationship, Paul places on husbands the responsibility of Christlikeness to their wives. Far from justifying arbitrary power, Paul is clear that the husband will be held accountable to the standard of Christ in his marriage, especially where he is in authority over her. In v. 25, we find Paul's claim to the husband: that he ought to love his wife, as Christ loves the church. Therefore, husbands are held to the high example of Christ, who "gave Himself up for her" (v. 25). Just as the church (i.e., all followers of Christ) are intimately bonded to Christ as His body, so husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies (v. 28). Indeed, this is part of becoming one in the marital union, and Paul makes this point clear in 1 Corinthians 7:4 that neither wife nor husband has authority over his or her own body in marriage. So, there is a mutual care that ought to be granted by each spouse for the other's body, meaning that wives have a share of authority as well, though it is still lower than that of the husband's. That sort of deeply-bonded intimacy, when guided by the example of Christ, ought to result in self-giving love and never to abusiveness.
Finally, we find in v. 32 something to which I hinted in the section of the wife's responsibilities. Remember that in our discussion on Genesis 2:18-25, I noted how man and woman together must complete creation and reflect the image of God into the world fully. The suggestion there was that marriage points to something greater than itself, to transcendent reality itself. That's how God made it. In v. 32, Paul writes (NASB):
"This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church."
The mystery (in Greek, μυστεριον, which often refers in the New Testament to a thing formerly hidden and now revealed, especially through Christ) in question has to do with this connection between marriage and Christ and the church, as we saw through what I initially called an argument from analogy in vv. 22-24. The key here is the last part of the verse, wherein Paul admits that he's really speaking of Christ and the church. In light of the revelation of Christ, marriage now points to something far beyond itself: the relationship of Christ and the church, which will reach its consummation in the return of Christ and the wedding feast of the Lamb (see Revelation 19:6-9). So, though we find that marriage will pass away (see Jesus' teaching to the Sadducees in Matthew 22:23-33), it passes away because that to which it points, which is far greater than it, will be brought to its ultimate fulfillment. Because of this, rather than calling Paul's argument an argument from analogy, it is better to call Paul's argument an "argument from typology." Thus, every marriage of Christians is an instantiation of the transcendent reality that there is a people, scattered throughout the world, who have been saved by grace and are therefore bonded both to each other and Christ intimately. Therefore, marriage is and should be a living example of the gospel.
Where does this discussion leave us with regard to marriage? As Brittany and I prepare for the making of our covenant together, we must remember that our union is not a mere contract or human arrangement. It is a relationship whose creator, sustainer, and end is the God revealed through Christ. It is not to incidentally or analogically reflect that reality, but rather God intended it to do just this.
All too often, our experiences in life center on the mundane. We do everything necessary to live and even, perhaps, prosper in an earthly kind of way. We do good things: taking care of children, loving spouses, attending church, providing for those in need, etc. But we don't often see what we do as in any way ultimately meaningful. We lack a Christian imagination that connects the seemingly mundane with the transcendent. In this way, as in every way, my prayer is that God would give me His eyes and His heart to know and see the world as He sees it. Insofar as we strive humbly, within the church, to do this, I believe that Brittany and I will be okay, even in the midst of the trials and turmoil of living in a fallen world.
That's it for this post! Though it may be a truism, I write what I write because the process of writing transforms me, as I hope and pray that it transforms and benefits those few who read it. With our wedding so close, I found it so easy to get bogged down in details without a biblically-oriented "bigger picture," and writing this post has been crucial for me in reminding myself of what's ultimately true, so that Brittany and I may be able to enter into our marriage joyful in the right way and for the right reasons. Whether you're married or not, I pray that this post has been encouraging for you. If you are married, I hope that I've reminded you of what makes your marriage meaningful and beautiful in the eyes of God.
If you have questions or would like to reach out to me to discuss these things, feel free to comment here or to send me an email or message on Facebook. If this blog has been helpful and interesting for you, feel free to subscribe to be notified of any new posts. Finally, if this post would benefit anyone else, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks for reading!