7-10-3 Some Christian Myths About Marriage
This section will consider the down side and myths about marriage. But be warned, the next chapter discusses the down side of the single life. There's something in our nature that yearns for the grass on the other side of the fence. Believers are either married or single. The married think of the benefits of singleness, and the single long for the perceived advantages of marriage. If our marital status frustrates us, we need to be especially aware of this. Many marrieds will reason: " I wouldn't be what I am now spiritually if I hadn't married" , or " I could be so much more spiritual if it wasn't for my wife and family" ; and many singles lament: " I'd be so much stronger spiritually if I were married" - forgetting, of course, that God wants us to be spiritual, and He arranges our situation to that end. But we simply can't argue from the counter-factual situation (i.e. speculating what might have happened if X or Y had or hadn't happened). The single brother, for example, doesn't know he'll be stronger if he marries. It seems true that many married believers (especially when faced with 1 Cor. 7!) magnify the benefits of marriage to rationalize their own position. They can't conceive of the possibility of consciously choosing the single life; to them, marriage was so obviously the right and only choice. They can't imagine what life might have been like if they had consciously decided to be single and live for the Lord.
Love Isn't Marriage
Many singles will tend to equate love with marriage, forgetting that many get married from an obsession with the idea of marriage and the marriage process rather than true love. This is one of the biggest single-Christian myths about marriage. Because of this, some will marry a unbeliever because they so want to get married at all costs. But marriage in the world is an endless search for the end of the rainbow; nobody has really arrived, despite their pretensions. As psychologists probe deeper and deeper into the human needs and experience, they continually arrive at the conclusion that there is something insoluble and insatiable within our human psyche that marriage and usual human relationships, unaffected by anything super-human, cannot affect. C.G. Jung concludes: " Human thought and relationships cannot conceive any system or final truth that can give the patient what he needs in order to live: this is, faith, hope, love and insight" (1). But we shouldn't need a psychoanalyst to tell us this. The Almighty explicitly and implicitly prohibits marriage out of the Faith.
Being aware of this, some single believers become convinced that if only they can marry a believer, almost any believer, their marriage will be wonderful. Again, they tend to equate love with marriage. They forget that love, joy and peace are fruits of the Spirit, developed in us by the word, irrespective of our marital status. And they need to remember that Paul had to encourage married brothers and sisters to love each other (Col. 3:18-21), he had to tell brethren not to get bitter with their wives because of the restrictions they gave them. He had to tell wives to submit themselves to their husbands rather that getting on with their own agenda.
This is the reality of married life in Christ; it's a struggle, just as the single life is. For example, sexual self-restraint is still required even within marriage (1 Cor. 7:3-5). The world's view of marriage is that such an intimate relationship, coupled with parenthood, will help a person's self-discovery and self-fulfilment. Yet surely Biblical marriage is about self-sacrifice, submission of one's personal and sexual desires to the will of the partner, putting another before oneself. Brethren so desperate for marriage should consider the implications of Eph. 5:25: " Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it" . It's that last phrase, in the Greek, which is the hard thing; because it's the same as used concerning Christ giving up His final breath on the cross. He died as an act of the will, He gave His life up, He controlled the very moment of His death as a huge act of the will; no one took His life from Him, He gave it up of His own will (Jn. 10: 18). This should make any brother think more than once about marriage. And it should make all of us think twice about encouraging any brother to enter into this relationship. Marriage isn't just a legitimate way of expressing our sexuality- although many will admit that this is really why they got married. And it isn't just a God-designed cure for loneliness. Marriage in Christ is a " mystery" , something extremely deep (Eph. 5:32).
Christian Myths About Marriage
When it comes to marriage, there is amongst us what I'd call the happy ending syndrome. We can somehow feel that the young couple walk off into the sunset, to live happily ever afterwards in their cosy Christian world. But now, as a community, we're starting to see that this really isn't the case. Couples split up, or their relationships become dead, some concealing this more than others. Sadly, I'm a realist. It often makes me unpopular, but I can't live in a cotton-wool, Mickey Mouse world. I attend many baptisms, and of course I rejoice; but I can't ever stop my awareness that one in three baptized leave the faith (2) (and many others grow passive and indifferent). I can't forget all the fine friends I've had in Christ, who now no longer walk with us. I can't escape what I call the " Where are you tonight?" syndrome. And it's getting the same with Christian marriage. I rejoice, but I see the statistical realities very clearly. Those under 30s who marry in the world only have (at best) a 50% chance of keeping together; one in two break up. Within the Evangelical Churches, one in eight break up (3). And within the 1000-strong church of my youth, I once calculated something similar. And (realist again!) it has to be said that all these figures are worsening.
Of course, this wasn't true until the 1970s. What is fast becoming the Christian myth about marriage was absolutely true until then: Get married, have your children, you'll find great spiritual help for yourself, you'll help your partner to the Kingdom, you'll be a solid, reliable member of an ecclesia, your children will come into the church if you bring them up properly, take them to Sunday School and church gatherings, do the Bible readings together. Then they'll get married, look after you when you're old, and you'll be discreetly wiping the tears away from your eyes as you watch your grand-daughter baptized. This was the theory, this was all true, more or less. But not now. There's scarcely a Christian family without the emotional scars of marriage break up, of many children who've rejected the Gospel, or whose commitment is self-admittedly minimal. What was such a grand theory and what worked down through the generations simply isn't working now. Children don't come into the Truth so easily, do what you will for them. Marriages often don't hold together. Some of us sat down one evening and made a list of all the married brethren and sisters we knew. We came to the conclusion, from a total of around 450 married Christian couples, that on average between one in two and one in three raised Christian children are baptized (4). Yet our aim in having children is to produce saints, not church members. Of those who are baptized, one in three give up their interest in the Kingdom- with all that may entail at the judgment. So having children with the hope they will come to the Kingdom is a risky business; a one in four chance in the UK, or worse as the last days progress. I'm sorry to say all this. I can almost feel the passive resentment of those who have sacrificed great things for the sake of having a family. But how many times can a man turn around, and pretend that he just hasn't seen? For how long can we hear what we want to hear, and disregard the rest? Perhaps what I'm saying is ahead of its time; if the Lord doesn't return imminently as we hope, it may be that the full shattering of the Christian myth concerning marriage and children will only be seen in the next generation. This isn’t to say that the Biblical theory of homebuilding and child-rearing is faulty, or that we are wrong to attempt to follow it. Every generation has been increasingly morally bankrupt, and yet the power of Divine principles is such that successful family life is possible; of course it is. But I am simply pointing out that increasingly, our community is painfully failing in it; and when ruefully considering the road of family life, the single believer should bear this in mind. It’s not a reason not to get married; but it may help dispel some of the myth that marriage is the less painful road than that of the single life.
One other observation is that many parents go through great turmoil in their own faith as a result of their children rejecting the Gospel. Thus some will end up saying things like " Perhaps they weren't called..." ; with the terrible implication that the Gospel, the knowledge of the cross of Christ and the Kingdom this made possible, is not powerful enough of itself to call a man to salvation. Those who have been called out of non-Christian backgrounds repeatedly find it difficult to believe that someone can hear the true Gospel from childhood, do nothing about it- and walk away scot-free. Having children and teaching them the Faith therefore creates a large emotional problem for the parent if they refuse it. All this said, it must be emphasized that there is nothing wrong with marriage in itself. There is a God-given beauty and comeliness to it which the failure of man mustn’t obscure. The faithful have always lived in times when the surrounding world is collapsing morally, and taking many of the ecclesia with it. But for those who held to God’s way, family life was and is always possible. I’m simply saying that the Christian experience of marriage isn’t as positive as it once was, and those who long for marriage as the panacea for all problems would be naive to ignore this.
" But this I say, brethren..."
But put all these statistics, all these observations of Christians, on one side for the moment. It's clear from 1 Cor. 7 that in the very last days, the believers will be " happier" if they remain single, because " the time is short" (1 Cor. 7:29). The problem is, deciding whether we are actually in that very last period. There is good reason to think that in some ways we are; and yet there are also some prophecies which as I write these words just don’t seem to have had the scale of fulfilment which their contexts suggest. " The time is short" . This can't really be argued with. " It is good for the present distress" (1 Cor. 7:26) uses the same word as in Lk. 21:23 concerning the distress of the last days. Some of us have no hesitation in proclaiming that the time of " distress" of Lk. 21 is upon us. But if it is, then we need to adjust our marriage attitudes accordingly. The above statistical analysis seems proof enough that the last days are truly coming upon us; no longer is marriage and family life working as it once did. Some who chose marriage are ending up, exactly as Paul predicted, with " trouble in the flesh" (1 Cor. 7:28). The obvious reaction to what I'm suggesting is that there are many examples of happy marriages. This is true; but it doesn't disprove my point, that if we are truly in the last days then marriage won't work well now as well or as easily as it did in the past. And the problems our young couples are facing is proof of this.
The True Satisfaction
Although married, David’s family life was a source of grief to him. He comments that the men of the world “are satisfied with children”, but for him, the only satisfaction would be when he resurrected to behold God’s face and to be turned into that same image: “As for me, I shall behold thy face… I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness” (Ps. 17:14,15 RV). This was his satisfaction; the satisfaction of men of the world was simply in their children, and to “leave the rest of their substance to their babes”, i.e. their grandkids. And David’s perspective must be that of us all.
(1) C.G. Jung, Modern Man In Search Of A Soul (London: Ark, 1984), p.261.
(2) An analysis of numbers of baptisms against numbers of departures over the past 40 years of the Dawn magazine actually gives a worse figure.
(3) Figures from Helena Wilkinson, Beyond Singleness (London: Marshall Pickering, 1995), p. 103. However, the effect of legalistic Christianity may well make these figures even worse. “Pollster George Barna discovered that born-again Christians in modern America have a higher rater of divorce (27 %) than non-believers (23%); those who describe themselves as fundamentalists have the highest percentage of all (30%). Indeed, four of the six states with the highest divorce rates fall in the region known as the Bible Belt” (quoted in Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, Harper & Collins, p. 263). These figures I find hard to believe (especially the low rate of divorce for non-believers) but they are worth meditation.
(4) Our analysis revealed a distinct feature: there tends to be a much higher 'conversion ratio' of children in some churches compared to others. This might suggest that there is strong peer group pressure affecting the decision to be baptized, rather than young people making the decision of their own volition.