"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

15 June 2005

The Ministry of Marriage

A few years ago, I brought an article on gay marriage into my upper-level Advanced Prose class. I wasn’t that interested in getting into a discussion of the topic itself, but the article made an excellent case for maintaining the traditional definition of marriage, and I wanted to discuss with my students the importance of defining terms if you wish to write well. Innocently, I posed the question to them: “What is the Christian view of the purpose of marriage?”


After a long and uncomfortable pause, during which they all looked mightily perplexed – there is a particularly Christian purpose for marriage? they seemed to be asking – I finally said, “What, do you think it’s just so you can have God-approved sex?”

Their pinking cheeks and giggles answered.

I was stunned. Young men and women in their early 20s, some on the verge of engagement and most likely to marry within the next 2-5 years, most from Christian families and having grown up in fairly conservative homes, and they had no clue that marriage had a purpose beyond sanctioned sex. Since then, it has become obvious that they are typical of this generation of my students.

No wonder they don’t remain pure. Oh, many of them at this Christian college likely aren’t actually “having sex,” if we define that very narrowly as only one particular action. But they get as close as they can, even asking outright at times at what point physical intimacy becomes sin when you aren’t married. I tell them that if they are asking that question they have crossed the line long ago.

In Passion and Purity, Elisabeth Elliot poses the question “Can a kiss be sin?” Her answer: If it causes you to desire what you cannot licitly have, then yes, indeed, it can be. She and Jim did not kiss until they were engaged. I admire those few of my students who hold such a standard, especially since they are often seen as prudish and repressed killjoys and mocked by their peers. They understand that marriage is not about mere physical fulfillment, and they are trying to forge with only one person a special bond that is based on mutual esteem and commitment, and physical intimacy will become a special privilege of that relationship only.

But I wonder how many of even those understand what marriage is ultimately about?

Waite and Gallagher’s book addresses this question in secular terms. I mentioned in my last post that the basic premise of The Case for Marriage is that marriage “gives people meaning and purpose in life by providing responsibilities that take us out of ourselves and make us care for others.” This relies, however, on defining marriage in a traditional way, not the way many people are trying to define it now. In today’s culture marriage is being re-defined, as Waite and Gallagher describe it, as being “primarily for and about adult happiness” and “not an objective fact but subjective emotion”; in fact, “emotional gratification is the main purpose and benefit of marriage.” This way lies madness . . . but it is the way of even most believers today, it appears.

Waite and Gallagher’s description of the benefits of a marriage in which the two become a real partnership, with life-long commitment to each other, is helpful and true, as far as it goes. For those without a religious commitment, it should be most encouraging. However, the believer in Christ can understand that this secular description is founded on principles of the Word, and that the importance of marriage goes far beyond what Waite and Gallagher discuss.

Marriage was established by God in His initial creation of Adam and Eve. “The two shall become one flesh,” He declared, and they establish a family – the cornerstone of community. Together, they are to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion” over all things in it. They are a partnership as God’s stewards in the earth He created for them.

The New Testament, of course, elaborates on this commitment: marriage is a picture, somehow, of Christ and the Church. As believing spouses live out in marriage the sacrifice of Christ and the response of the Church, they glorify God and serve their neighbors. “This is a mystery,” Paul writes; we are invited, by faith, to be a part of the mystery of His ministry. As we destroy marriage, whether through divorce or by defining it down to personal gratification (which leads to increased divorce), we destroy our witness to His authority and His love.

I have suggested, in Called to Womanhood, a possible mission statement for the family: “To glorify God and edify our neighbors by good stewardship of God’s creation and by demonstrating the relationship God wishes to have with His children through Jesus Christ.” Personal emotional gratification has little to do with this ministry of marriage. But when we focus on service to God and neighbor, even when we don’t feel like it and the “zing” seems to have disappeared, amazingly, He fills us with joy.

Just another way the paradox of the Christian life works: “[W]hoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Mt 16:25).


Megan said...

i liked your "mission statement for the family." it's been heartbreaking for me to see people my own age, barely into marriage, getting divorces and then beginning to live with the inevitable guilt and questions. In one particular instance, a friend's insecurity over choices leading to divorce is leaking over into every area of life: she doesn't trust her judgment, talent, or abilities because she has sacrificed marriage for personal comfort (and what often scares me is imagining how easily i might do the same!). Coming at marriage from this perspective of ministry is encouraging to me as a single woman tired of being pressured to "seek out" a marriage partner. How can i minister in my present situation better than in some preconstructed model of mainstream "married bliss"...?

alaiyo said...

Megan, so good to have you visit! We miss you at the college! One thing I'm learning is that it doesn't help to look ahead to what you may do some day (to make it one's focus, I mean), but rather to learn to serve where you are. God teaches us what we need to know by our acting in the situation He has alrady given us. Only then are we ready for the next situation. I've just finished Lilith, and MacDonald makes this point so wonderfully . . . I strongly recommend it if you haven't read it yet.

love you!