Our little church will celebrate two weddings in the coming months, and they give us much to think about. Unfortunately, our generation has many foggy ideas of what a marriage involves, and we have found that the answers our society has are unworkable. Consider this traditional marriage ceremony: “Marriage was instituted by God Himself in the time of man's innocency and uprightness. The Lord God said, "It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him" (Gen. 2:18). Thereupon God created woman of man's own substance and brought her to the man. Our Lord Jesus Christ honored marriage by His presence at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. And He confirmed it as a divine ordinance and a union not to be severed when He declared, "Therefore, what God has joined together let not man separate."‘
These ideas seem strange to us: Marriage was instituted by God; I will make him a helper; let not man separate; till death do us part. Our society is willing to go to great lengths to distance itself (and us!) from anything that remotely sounds like a Christian concept of marriage. Gay mirage is the law of the land. Christian churches are going out of their way to make sure everyone knows that their church is welcoming and affirming of whatever anyone might want to experience in the way of matrimony. Anyone and anything. What has gone wrong? That’s easy: sin. How do we turn it around? That’s easy, too: the Word of God.
We call ourselves covenantal because we believe that God always deals with us in terms of a covenant. A covenant can best be understood as a defined relationship. God approaches us to establish fellowship with us, then sets the terms on which we relate to him, with promises of blessing for keeping his covenant and curses for breaking it.
In Genesis 2:15 – 25 we see the initial iteration of the Covenant with Adam.
“Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” And the LORD God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. So Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him. And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the LORD God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man. And Adam said: “This is now bone of my bones And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.”
It may be helpful to think of it as the Covenant of Creation. In this Covenant, God gave promises or curses for fulfilling or breaking the covenant. Also, in a fascinating move, God determined that it was not good for the man to be alone. In all of creation, this was the only thing not good, so God rectified the problem by making Eve. Then Moses describes for us the institution of marriage, one of the first sovereign acts of God in this world. We cannot get around the fact that in the very beginning, it was God’s intention to define this male/female relationship.
Of course, Jesus quotes Moses in Matthew 19:4-6:
“And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Here, he reminds us of God’s pronouncement in Genesis 1:26 – 28. Thus, Jesus ties together the institution of marriage and the creation of man in the image of God. In the same way God established his covenant with us as a race, he instituted a sovereign covenant for marriage. Jesus certainly treated it as a sovereign covenant in the passage from Matthew.
Further, at Malachi 2:13–16 the prophet proclaimed:
“And this is the second thing you do: You cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping and crying; So He does not regard the offering anymore, nor receive it with goodwill from your hands. Yet you say, “For what reason?” Because the LORD has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. “Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. “For the LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garment with violence,” Says the LORD of hosts. Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”
The word translated covenant is the Hebrew berith, which is the same word used by God hundreds of times in the Old Testament to describe the defined relationship, the covenant, he had with his people throughout time. This passage in Malachi describes God’s anger toward the Jews for not honoring their marriage covenants and thus he refuses to accept their offerings and prayers. Doesn’t this seem odd to us? Why would God place marriage so high as to refuse to accept the lawful offerings of those who mistreated or divorced their wives? How could something that is basically physical get in the way of their spiritual relationship with God? Well, at least we can say this is the Old Testament, and surely things are different in the New Testament, and God would not place any such legalistic requirements like this on New Testament Christians.
However, Paul records in 1 Corinthians 7: 10 – 16:
“Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?”
Let’s start with the divorce part. God hates divorce as we just read in Malachi. In Matthew 19:9 we see the one condition that Jesus allows for divorce:
“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”
There are no others, though our Confession of Faith allows for abandonment that cannot be remedied. Why does God hate divorce? According to Malachi, He wants godly offspring. Everywhere in the scriptures we see the Lord telling us that he will be a God to you and your children. It is because he is extremely serious about the covenantal way of life, expressing itself in generation after generation of faithful people.
Personally, I believe this covenantal aspect of God to be one of the major ways in which we are made in his image. Just as there is perfect fellowship in the Trinity, so we are to reflect that fellowship in our relationships, especially, in God’s Providence, the relationship of marriage. This is why Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that the unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the believing spouse; it is the reason that our children are holy. Do not think that marrying a non-believer will make them elect if God has not elected them. However, in the process God uses to draw us to himself, why would you be surprised that your spouse is being drawn by God through you?
According to 1 Peter 3:1 – 2, God feels so strongly about marriage that we should not be surprised that he uses it as part of the process of making some his own. Nor should we be surprised when our marriages, good or bad, are part of his plan to sanctify us as well. Throughout the ages, the basis of a godly understanding of marriage has been one man, one woman, one time, joined together as one flesh. This is why the Church opposes divorce, with the exception Jesus gave us, as well as homosexual marriage and polygamy. The words, “A man shall leave… and a woman shall leave” give us no room for maneuvering to accept either homosexual or polygamous marriages. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10,
“Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Also Paul tells us that whoever marries another woman if his first wife was not properly divorced commits adultery, and that a candidate for elder is immediately disqualified if he is polygamous.
When we speak of sanctification, we can be confident that God has given us the tools necessary for us to grow into maturity. Marriage has been designed by God to do just that. according to Ephesians 5:15–33,
“See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
The first part of this passage shows that the instructions for submission do not occur in a vacuum. We are always to be in submission to those around us.
Wives especially are called to submission to their own husbands. There’s good news here. You only have to submit in this way to your own husband, not all those other jerks around you. Incidentally, this sort of shoots holes in any theory that women in general are supposed to be submissive to men in general. We’re all to be submissive to one another, and women are not excepted from that requirement. But outside of her husband there is not a further requirement placed on a woman. It is interesting to note that the woman is not called to submit because her husband is smarter, or bigger or better looking, but rather that she is to submit because the Church submits to Christ. This does not have to be a death sentence, either. God has designed us to fit together in this way, and respectful submission is the best way for the wife to be fulfilled and complete. There is a whole world of thought and action to explore in this concept that we will explore later. On the other hand, the husband is sanctified in the sight of God as he loves his wife and gives himself for her, as did Christ for his Church. Thinking of the husband in relation to the wife as Christ is to the Church is what this passage requires. We should never forget that the blood of Christ is always the only means by which we are justified before God. This is clear from Paul’s statement in verse 32 of Ephesians 5. However, we still have to apply this passage to marriage. The wife is to be sanctified and cleansed by the husband, through the washing of the word. This means, in part, that the husband is responsible to lead his wife to maturity in Christ. One person is responsible for another. It is a difficult concept for us to grasp in our individualistic society, but this is a critical part of God’s covenantal design for us.
In 1 Corinthians 14:35 Paul writes, And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. If God has granted husbands the responsibility of instructing their wives in the Word, should we be surprised that Paul insisted that men do their duty? Just as Jesus Christ has been given responsibility for the condition of the Church, and will answer to God the Father for it at the last day, we husbands will stand before God and answer for the spiritual, physical and emotional condition of our wives. I believe this to be the clear doctrine that is behind the passages of Paul that give so many modern interpreters fits. Without a clear understanding of the covenant and how it functions in marriage, we haven’t got a prayer of a good interpretation of women should be silent in the churches.
Therefore, we wander off in the woods and come up with wacky theories about the supposed inferiority of women to men, or that this question is simply cultural and limited to the first century. Nonsense! Paul tells us in Galatians 3:28 that there is no qualitative difference between male and female in Christ, but as Peter says, we are heirs together of the grace of life. To be sure there is a functional difference; we cannot get along without each other, but we instead depend on one another for our growth and maturity in the Lord.
Men, this cuts both ways. You will never come to maturity without taking up the responsibility that God has given you to lead your wife. It would be wonderful if we could lie on the couch loudly demanding refreshment while watching football games and still fulfill this requirement of God. Alas, it cannot be! Her maturity is, in the providence and by the direct decree of God, dependant on you leading her to maturity. Men and churches have, for generations now, neglected the responsibilities they have been given by God.
This is the chief danger in listening to what the world says should be happening in a marriage. Those in the world are presented with a set of data: two people getting married. Without the scriptures to guide them, they have no direction, no overall plan for putting things together. This is understandable in the world. Why would they care what God thinks about their marriage anyway? The Church, however, should be different. At this point in time, it is not different, precisely because we have abandoned any effort at a real understanding of covenantal living.
But covenantal living is stitched into every phrase of the Bible. If we read without seeing that covenantal stitch work, we will inevitably sink to the level that the world is on now. By ignoring the covenantal underpinnings of the Bible the Scriptures are reduced to a collection of moralistic sayings or proof texts. Many Christians see their Bible this way, with no logical connection between one passage and another. In this way, we are no different from the world around us. We see the data presented to us: a man and a woman getting married.
There is no overall structure to our universe that allows us to say to the one, “You belong here and should be doing that, while the other one should stand there and do the other thing.” If we do make distinctions or offer directions, they are typically very subjective and often not rational. In the end, we have things to be believed and things to be done. We must believe that God exists and rewards those that diligently seek him. We must believe that God has a design for the universe and the parts that we all play in it. We must believe that he has revealed our roles to us in scripture and in nature. We can understand this plan as his covenant with us. We have clearly defined roles in marriage, family, child-rearing, civil government and church government. God has not left anything to chance or the whim of powerful men. We know what to do. Respect your husband. Lead your wife. This is the way that God has made the universe and us to fit into it.
One of the things that most convinces me of the covenantal foundation of our world is the picture that Paul draws for us in marriage of the relationship of Christ to the Church. Those of us that listened to the world before we got married were stunned to find the intimacy of marriage so fulfilling on an emotional, intellectual and physical level. That is very good, but I think we can look at the equation the other way around, and see our behavior toward the Church and the Savior in a different light.
We want to control the way things happen in worship; we may want our emotions excited, or our intellect stimulated or our bodies to be delighted, but we want to determine how all of that happens. This is wrong. Just as in marriage, where we should seek to delight our spouse, so in our relationship with God we should seek to delight him. He demands our whole person, and he has prescribed the way we present ourselves to him. You can come to him week after week with cold, intellectual precision, an unrepentant heart or sloppy sentimentality, demanding to worship in your own way. Or you can come in humility and delight, hoping to be the fulfillment of your beloved’s desire.
You cannot read the Bible for more than a few seconds without coming across a declaration of the great love of God for his people. It is easy to make that love of God something ethereal and frankly, less than real. But when God uses the marriage covenant, the marriage relationship, even the marriage bed to describe the love and passion that he feels for his Church, it is the height of pride and arrogance that we should respond with anything but deep love and humble appreciation. For two thousand years this language has been too much for some in the Church. We have a word for their reaction: heresy; chiefly Gnosticism.
We cannot be so proper and prissy in our reactions to the divine and biblical language that we miss the clear intentions of God. He uses the image of intimacy between a husband and wife as a picture of his intimacy with his Church because he wants to. He is not ignorant and he knows all the other images that exist to illustrate this, but he has chosen marriage to do so because it most clearly reflects his design. This is why the marriage covenant is so incredibly important to God. Just as a wife has to decide to open her arms to her husband, we have to do the same when we come into his presence. Will we be sullen and angry, making God play Kiss the Dead Fish, or will there be a flush of excitement, a quickening of the pulse and a giggle of true joy?