Recently, I’ve been thinking about marriage. My wife of 17 years thinks it’s about time. And, on such matters, my wife is usually right. Of course, as Christians, we know we’re ‘for’ marriage but nevertheless I’ve been wondering whether our view of marriage, and many of the books about it, might have been missing out on a key aspect of God’s vision. Have we stripped marriage of its ultimate purpose? And does Inspector Clouseau have something to teach us? What is marriage really for? Well, these days it’s clearly for fewer people.
The number of Britons choosing to marry has fallen to the lowest level in 111 years. Given that the number of people living in the UK 111 years ago was rather lower than the number of people Ken Livingstone crams into a Jubilee Line tube at 8.35 in the morning, this is a remarkable statistic. And an alarming one, if you think that marriage is one of the building blocks of a healthy society. Sadly, for the secularists, it seems that it is – God’s ways tend to yield better results: one in two cohabiting parents split up before their child’s fifth birthday, compared to one in 12 married parents, and couples who cohabit before marriage are at least 40 per cent more likely to be divorced than those who don’t.
The difficulty of saying this in public debate revolves round the distinction between ‘general’ truths and ‘universal’ truths. It is generally true that the children of single-parent families perform less well at school, are more prone to depression and are more likely to be divorced themselves. Given that 15 per cent of children in the UK are now born and brought up without their father this is not good news for most of those kids but it is clearly not a ‘fate’ accompli. It is a general truth not a universal truth. There are kids of divorced couples who do outstandingly well at school seem secure in themselves and enjoy a superb relationship with the father they no longer live with.
Historically, the Church has cited the positive benefits of marriage to society as one of its three main purposes, along with the procreational purpose – be fruitful and increase in number (Genesis 1) – and the relational purpose which includes companionship, affirmation and emotional support – “it is not good forman to be alone”(Genesis 2). However, as Chris Ash points out, in his closely argued, brilliant bookMarriage: sex in the service of God (IVP), these three goods need to be set in the broader contexts of God’s purposes for humankind and human relationship.
Eve is not just created to relieve Adam of existential loneliness. After all, Adam has direct relationship with God at the time and if God had merely wanted Adam to have relationship he could have created another male. Indeed, as you look at the Bible overall, the emphasis is very clearly not on finding a marriage partner to combat loneliness but on friendship, community with God’s people and deep relationship with God.
?Now this is deeply counter-cultural in a society that worships ‘coupledom’ and incessantly promotes the identification of the ‘one’ as the key to everlasting happiness. The ‘one’ will satisfy me sexually, mentally, emotionally and spiritually – the ‘one’ will love me perfectly, soothe my worries away, heal my every hurt, intoxicate me in abandoned sexual union and put out the bins without being asked. This idolatry of the ‘one’ is a counterfeit that distracts single people, distorts their choices and sends couples into marriages burdened with corrosive expectations.
Sadly, this focus on the relationship for its own sake is also reflected in the majority of marriage handbooks where the overwhelming emphasis is on laying foundations and developing skills that will primarily serve to improve ‘our’ relationship. Here for example are the chapter headings of a fine marriage course we did in our homegroup: the art of communication, resolving conflict, the power of forgiveness, parents and in-laws, good sex, love in action. Looks good? Still, this begs the question: what is the purpose of the relationship in God’s wider plans??
God’s creation purposes
?When God says, “it is not good for man to be alone,” the context is vital. And the context is humankind’s crucial role in the stewardship of the entire world and the creation of a community where human beings can flourish. The Garden in Eden is certainly beautiful but it’s a context for work, not just the leisurely contemplation of the chrysanthemums. ??Human beings are responsible to God and have a responsibility for the whole created order. Relationship, then, is set in the context of a purposeful commission. And so it is that God brings Eve to Adam as an ‘ezer cenegdo’, a helper over against him. The Hebrew word ‘ezer’, meaning ‘helper’, however, is not primarily used to describe psychological support but intervention in the active solving of a problem. Furthermore, this is not ‘helper’ in the contemporary English sense of someone who is essentially a subordinate and whose skills or effort might be nice to have but aren’t necessary. This isn’t like a five-year-old helping mum bake a cake – where the help might be enjoyed and might even be effective but where mum doesn’t really need it. No, the word ‘ezer’ in the Bible only elsewhere refers to God and most of the occasions when it is used do not involve God conjuring up a couple of drops of vanilla essence to make the cake taste a bit better, they involve God saving human beings from impending disaster. The task cannot be achieved without him. The implication is that Adam’s commission cannot be fulfilled without Eve – it is a co-mission.
In sum, Adam and Eve, male and female, share in the great task of caring for and tilling the ground, stewarding resources and releasing their fruitfulness. The role of union therefore is not primarily to alleviate loneliness, though it should. Nor is the role of marriage primarily to procreate and bring up children in a way that preserves public order, though it should. Rather the couple is united in the outwardly-oriented task given by God to make the world a better place for human beings to flourish in.
This work is given to both male and female. Clearly, in the context of a preindustrial society it’s easier to see how a male and female’s work might neatly dovetail but in contemporary society the same essential perspective should apply. A couple are called together to make the world a better place.
Our true calling
So if God is genuinely calling my wife to work as an anaesthetic nurse in a hospital, then that is the place that she is called to transform. My role then is to actively support her in that place as God’s agent of transformation. My wife’s work is in a deep sense ‘our’ work and my role is to do whatever I can to support her in it. Similarly my work is ‘our’ work. We share in it. And bringing up our children is not only about helping them healthily negotiate GCSEs, sex, drugs and Eminem, it is not only about preparing them to make the world a better place in the future but to make the world around them a better place now – their school, their football club, their ballet class.
This view of marriage as a partnership in a shared commission radically alters the criteria for a healthy marriage. Suddenly, it is not just about ‘us’, but about how we help one another, individually and together, in the high adventure of cooperating with the king of the universe in making the world a better place, in demonstrating Christ’s kingdom ways wherever he has called us, becoming channels of his transforming grace in our situation. And this in turn subtly brings into focus what men and women are designed to offer one another in marriage – strengthening and encouraging one another in this high calling.
And it can make a difference even to the daftest and most incompetent of people. At least, it can to a fictional character like Steve Martin’s galactically incompetent Clouseau. Clouseau is on the trail of a killer and is forced to disguise himself in a skintight, red catsuit in order to gain entry to the sophisticated party where the killer may once again strike. He is, however, stopped by a security guard. At that very moment his female PA appears – whose beauty is not lost on him. She sums up the situation instantly and intervenes decisively by fabricating a story that he is in fact one of the back-up dancers in the cabaret. He is naturally grateful and manages to kiss her briefly but meaningfully without falling over, nibbling her nose, or pushing her over the banisters. It is a kiss that is returned. As he turns to continue his noble pursuit of the murderer, he announces:”Now I am ready to catch a killer.” ??The woman’s decisive ‘help’ and her affirmation of him as a man combines to liberate his strength for the task ahead. It seems like an old-fashioned view – the noble knight carrying his fair lady’s colours into battle. Or perhaps it can be seen as an example of the old adage that behind every great man is a great woman. Actually, the same should apply the other way round. How does a husband offer his strength and love to release his spouse for the commission God has called her to fulfil in the world – whether that commission is at home with three children under five or in Downing Street.
Clearly, this should not be used as a justification for workaholism as if we might say, “God has called me to this job and it involves all of us, so it really doesn’t matter whether we’ve had a decent conversation since April 1987, my job is all.” God doesn’t tend to separate ends and means. No, the quality of the relationship is vital but not for its own sake, or merely for our own pleasure.
Indeed, the love that exists in the relationships in the Trinity manifests itself in a desire both to create lavishly and to work fruitfully. So it is hardly surprising that couples with a loving relationship are more likely to extend love outwards to others. Think for a moment about which couples you most enjoy spending time with? Usually, those whose secure, affirming love for one another creates a free, unself-focused environment where others can flourish. Of course, single people can do the same, and do, as they participate in the same high calling to make the world a better place for others. But neither married nor single people should forget that the natural fruit of love is the manifestation of Christ’s kingdom on earth for the benefit of others to the glory of God, not the gazing into our beloved’s loving eyes – lost in wonder and gratitude. Though that is very nice indeed. Praise God.