In the earliest periods of Roman history, Marriage meant that a married woman would be subjugated by her husband, but that custom had died out by the 1st century, in favor of Free Marriage which did not grant a husband any rights over his wife or have any changing effect on a woman's status. With this, the reasons for any divorce became irrelevant. Either spouse could leave a marriage at any point.
This was the state of things into the second century -- as the Christian church entered the ancient world. At that time, the Christians had no political power, no economic power, and were seen as weird and irrational atheists because they only worshipped one god. They had nothing -- no publishing houses, no televisions networks, no newspapers, no blogs. They had absolutely no advantages in the society in general.
In our view, that means the game is over. I think our view of it is deeply influenced by our own prosperity and our own good standing in the culture, but if we had no legislative recourse and no way to make movies about what we say we believe, we would see the problem of helping our culture rethink, refine and restore the institution of marriage as completely without hope.
Yet, the Christians in the –pre-christian west didn’t see it that way at all. We have a great way to document this. There’s a manuscript of a letter from a fellow who calls himself “Mathetes” to his friend “Diognetus”. This letter was written some time between 130 AD and 200 AD – plainly, safely, in the middle of the second century. Mathetes says he is writing his letter for a specific reason to his friend:
Excellent Diognetus: I see you are very eager to learn the way of worshipping God prevalent among the Christians. You have very carefully and earnestly asked questions concerning them: … what sort of relationships they have among themselves, and why this way of worshipping has come now rather than much sooner into the world. I am happy to encourage your questions, and I pray to God, because he enables us both to speak and to hear: allow me to speak so that, above all, you are encouraged and enlightened; and allow you to hear, so that I shall have no cause of regret for having done so.
Mathetes is trying to tell his friend about these disenfranchised Christians. As the primary exhibit of making this report to his friend, Mathetes says this (paraphrased):
These Christians are not distinguished from other men by country, language, or common customs. They don’t have their own cities, they don’t have their own language, and they don’t lead a lifestyle which is peculiar or spectacular. They haven’t developed a new philosophy invented by very smart men; they don’t proclaim themselves to be the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, living in Greek and barbarian cities without preference, according to their lot in life, they follow the customs of the people who live where they live in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct. But they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.
So they live in each country, but they live there as sojourners, travellers passing through. As citizens, they do what all citizens do, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They live their time on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.
They obey the written laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are insignificant and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life.This view of life, but specifically of familial relationships, and especially of marriage, was a massive innovation from the Greco-Roman concepts and laws. And that the Christians held fast to them in spite of slander and persecution was even of greater importance – because it spoke to, as Methetes said, a striking method of life. They did not live in compliance to the law – their vision of what was right was not because the law set the standard. Their vision was not lived out because they were seeking to change the law – because they saw themselves as people who were strangers, foreigners in a land that they did not belong to. Their vision of life was completely apart from and above the Law.
Ultimately, Mathetes tells Diognetus why they live above the law:
As I said, what they believe is no mere earthly invention, nor is it a merely-human system of opinion, which they have decided to preserve. God Almighty Himself, the Creator of all things though invisible, has sent from heaven, and placed among men, a man who is the truth. He is the holy and incomprehensible Word, and He has firmly established Him in their hearts. One might have imagined, God might send a servant, or angel, or ruler, or any one of those who is influential in Earthly affairs, or one of with supernatural majesty and authority, but He did not. …
As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so He sent this man. He sent this man as a man among men, and as God among men, and as a savior to men. He came seeking to persuade, not to compel us; for oppression has no place in the character of God. He sent Him to call us, not as an avenger of justice to incarcerate us. He sent Him to love us, not as judging us – even though He will yet send Him to judge us, and who shall endure His appearing?
But when our wickedness was fully grown, it had been clearly shown that its reward ought to be punishment and death, and was impending over us. God had before appointed for that time to come. But God did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us because he manifested His own kindness and power, the one love of God, for men. Instead He showed great long-suffering, and then He took upon Him the burden of our iniquities.
He gave His own Son as a ransom for us. He gave the holy One for transgressors. He gave the blameless One for the wicked. He gave the righteous One for the unrighteous many, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for those that are mortal. For what else was capable of covering our sins other than His righteousness? By what other way was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable work! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!Does that sound familiar to anyone? Does it strike a chord? See: for Methetes, the Christians were people who weren’t concerned about making the Law acceptable to themselves – or worse, to make other people acceptable by the force of Law. Methetes believed that the Christians had something greater in mind than the law – They had the very Gospel in mind.
And this is the view which, in spite of the very uncertain economic and political environment of the next 15 centuries of Western Civilization, became the common view of marriage. That is, it is not merely a social construct or advantage, but an utterly spiritual endeavor which is rightly and primarily ruled by the church because of its deep meaning. While we may disagree with it, we can grant that the Catholic Church’s high view of marriage as a “sacrament” which has a greater demand on the two people involved than only a contract arbitrated by law can have is an easy mistake to make when we listen to how Jesus describes marriage as built into the very fabric of creation.
Now, more or less, this is the home stretch of my talk, and I have an answer here for the problem we’re considering which the readers of my blog will recognize immediately, but it will need to be unpacked. And it goes back to this argument of “have you not read,” or “God has said.”
The question for us today is the same as the question the Pharisees asked Jesus 2000 years ago: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?" That is: “Should we define marriage for our culture through the law?” We know that society needs marriage. And the definition of marriage we own in the West is the Christian definition – regardless of the arguments of those who want to change that.
But let me say it simply and seriously now: improving the Law is not going to improve the shoddy and shameful slanders against the conservative Christian definition of marriage, or against the institution of marriage in our culture.
There is a myth that the rate of divorce inside the church is the same as it is outside the church – the Barna Group perpetuates this myth all the time. The truth is not quite that incriminating: a 2002 study by Larson and Swyers published in “Marriage, Health and the Professions” and cited in the National Review in 2006 spells it out that couples who attended church as often as once a month had divorce rates less than half of that of couples who attended church once a year or less.
Jesus has a definition of Marriage, and Society needs that kind of marriage – if for nothing else than stability and continuity. But does the Church need Marriage? Can the church abandon marriage to the culture and still be the sort of thing Jesus intended?
I think the answer, quite frankly, is no: the church must again bring marriage to society in a way that is greater than the Law. You see: marriage is a necessary way in which the church brings the Gospel to Culture – and in this case, the Gospel is actually the solution to culture.
This is why our argument for marriage, our apologetic for this union, is not merely an evolutionary argument which says that because there are two sexes, marriage is for two sexes only. Our argument rests not on the brute fact that men and women exist and seem to have the equivalent of matching Lego parts, but on the matter that God has actually said something about this.
This is why Jesus’ appeal, “have you not read,” is so shocking, so offensive: it is not merely that God has made things a certain way, but that he has given us a very extensive exposition of the union. While the first description of this is in Genesis, which is where Jesus points the Pharisees, the Old Testament apex of the image is in Hosea – where a man takes a wife not only for himself, but for the purpose of redeeming God’s people. And in that marriage, the question of adultery is utterly unquestionable: Hosea has married an adulteress. She is utterly beneath him. In fact, she leaves him for her former life. But God says something else here: love in marriage is a picture of God’s love for those who abandon him, and cheat on him for other means of satisfaction.
This is the point: God says it. That is: he makes it clear with words that this is what he means by it. Jesus sums it up briefly in his response to the Pharisees, but that question of “one flesh” comes up again as Paul instructs the church in Ephesus:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, … that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”And to the wives he said:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.Now let me ask you: how can this be translated into a Law when it is in fact utterly the woof and weave of the Gospel? It cannot be translated into Law. Trying to do so makes it something which human people cannot do. You cannot legislate the humility this takes. You cannot legislate the priorities this requires. You cannot legislate the profound intimacy this creates. You cannot legislate the love at the very heart of this relationship which God wrote into the very creation of our kind.
Listen to me now as I close up:
The church needs marriage because it is a necessary part of God’s order in creation.
You know: society knows it needs this because this is how human kind not only carries on but flourishes. Marriage externally shows itself to be a good thing even when considered in the most superficial and materialistic ways.
But there is something the church knows which is not disclosed in mere creation. It is only disclosed by God’s Special revelation, and specifically and particularly in marriage. If we overlook that, or find that to be somehow second-rate in favor of other means, we will have made a Gospel fail – we will have given up something God made for the purpose of demonstrating His plan for all things.
If we think we can preach the Gospel and not use this example to preach it for reals, we’re kidding ourselves about how we understand what God is doing in and through the Gospel.
The church needs marriage because broken people need to be sanctified and to learn the meaning of sacrifice and love.
This is certainly not the least reason – this is the “for reals” of the Gospel. Look: nobody ever married a perfect person. My wife certainly didn’t – I confess it. But think about this, as told by Tim Keller in a recent RELEVANT Magazine essay:
The reason that marriage is so painful and yet wonderful is because it is a reflection of the Gospel, which is painful and wonderful at once. The Gospel is—we are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared to believe, and at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope. This is the only kind of relationship that will really transform us. Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it. God’s saving love in Christ, however, is marked by both radical truthfulness about who we are and yet also radical, unconditional commitment to us. The merciful commitment strengthens us to see the truth about ourselves and repent. The conviction and repentance moves us to cling to and rest in God’s mercy and grace.
The hard times of marriage drive us to experience more of this transforming love of God. But a good marriage will also be a place where we experience more of this kind of transforming love at a human level.
The church needs marriage to fully and rightly demonstrate the Gospel to society
I mentioned this right at the beginning of the talk: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” This is what the church needs to demonstrate to Society, and society needs the example because it frankly cannot come from anywhere else, The message of the Gospel can only come from the church because we are the only ones entrusted with it, and we must deliver it through Gospel perfect example of marriage.
Is marriage the only way we send this message? Absolutely not. But consider the question we are asking today: what do we do about sexual confusion? What do we do about our society where the norm is quickly becoming illegitimacy and an knee-jerk retreat to divorce when things get hard? What do we do to show people what virtue is rather than beat them down over their failings when ours are frankly no less visible or obvious?
If our concern is whether or not our culture understands the right roles of men and women under God’s design and authority, the solution to the culture is the Gospel – as wrapped up in the design of marriage. Missing this, and setting our hope on the transforming power of the Law rather than on the work of Christ in the message of the Gospel, is never going to achieve what we intend to achieve.
If the church was serious about this kind of love – which is Christ’s kind of love, first and foremost demonstrated on the Cross for a specific bride in order to make her holy and spotless before God – it wouldn’t abide a social Gospel of nondescript good will or idiotic exhortations about “your best life now”. Listen: often in marriage, you are not on the receiving end of good things but are in fact in the middle of hard doings. And if you expect that your marriage should be about satisfying you instead of sanctifying someone else through sacrifice, you will want to end your marriage in short order – kids and social appearances out the window. And let’s be honest: since divorce in the church looks like divorce in the world – that is, we do it for all the same reasons – I suspect we think of “marriage” in the same way the world does. So when the world simply wants to make the law look like what we are actually practicing, we have to look in the mirror and admit to ourselves that we are to blame for what the world thinks of marriage.
There’s one last thing I want to tell you, which is critical to taking action if we understand that we will teach the world what marriage out to be. Paul said it to Timothy: “All who seek to lead a Godly life will be persecuted.” We should expect that if we are committed to marriage, it will be hard work. It will be hard to be a man who is literally giving up his life for the sake of his wife, for the sake of her nurturing and care. It will be hard to be a woman who looks to her husband as the one who will do anything, no matter what the consequences, to care for her as if she was his own body. But the benefit for you, for your marriage and family, for your church, and for society, is wrapped up by God in the very order of things. Have you not read: he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.'
If you can hear Him say that today, don’t harden your hearts against it. Trust him that he did what is good for you, and believe it.
My thanks for your time today, and may God richly bless you.