Practicing the scales of love: Rethinking Christian marriage

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 12.49.32 PMby Kimberly Bracken Long

Anyone who has tried to choose Scripture readings for a wedding knows that the Bible does not say much about marriage — and that what is there does not always inspire confidence. There are few marriages in the Old Testament that serve as good models for 21st century Christians. Jesus says very little about it, and Paul would prefer everyone stay single and celibate. While the household code in Ephesians 5 may have been radical for its time, many Christians cannot reconcile its model for marriage with contemporary sensibilities. As Ellen Davis said when quoting one of her students, “The Bible doesn’t always say what you thought it did — or wish it did.” The truth is, no biblical writer could have ever imagined marriage the way we understand it now — an egalitarian commitment between two people who love each other and depend on one another for romance, sexual fulfillment, mutual support and happiness.

Scriptural approach
At the end of Genesis 2, we hear these words: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This verse makes it clear, some would say, that marriage is between one man and one woman. This verse makes it clear, some would say, that only one marriage in a lifetime is possible or moral. Others point to this verse not as a prescription for marriage, but rather as an etiology, an explanation of where marriage comes from, of its origins. David Cotter takes the interpretation a step farther. Even more than an etiology, he claims in his commentary on Genesis, this verse: “speaks to the moment, nearly universal in human experience, of finding another person with whom one shares such an intense kinship and intimacy that, in meeting the other, one feels as though a hitherto lost and unknown part of oneself is being discovered, that two people seem to share, in some mysterious fashion, a single personhood. And so, having found what has been missing, one desires both to know the difference of the undiscovered other and to enjoy the unity that makes life possible.”

What Cotter describes is what people dream about: the kind of companionship that makes us realize that there is something greater at work, some mystery, some gift. He does not make this verse into a set of rules but rather into the description of our deepest desires.

In thinking about marriage, then, our approach to Scripture is formed by historical-critical tools as well as literary ones. This allows us to read biblical texts in conjunction with one another. So then, Ephesians 5 is read next to 1 Corinthians 12 and Galatians 3. When we use Scripture to interpret Scripture, as Shirley Guthrie explained in “Always Being Reformed,” we “seek to understand [difficult or controversial passages] in light of the total message of Scripture, including parts that may not specifically deal with the question at hand.” Such an approach helps ensure that we not “let a few passages on a particular issue obscure what the biblical message as a whole tells us about God and God’s will for our lives.”

An eschatological framework
Presbyterians affirm the authority of Scripture, and so we do not ignore the biblical texts on marriage, but we do think carefully about how those texts speak into our own time. At the same time, we would do well to enlarge the range of texts on which we depend to describe marriage between Christians. Most importantly, we must consider marriage as a relationship lived out within the framework of eschatological hope.

To establish an eschatological framework for understanding marriage, we begin, not surprisingly, with Revelation. Here, John of Patmos describes hearing “the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out,

For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready;
to her it has been granted to be clothed
with fine linen, bright and pure—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds
of the saints.
And the Angel said to me, ‘Write this:
Blessed are those who are invited
to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’”
— Revelation 19:6-9a

This text is among the first to be considered as a foundation for understanding marriage between Christians, for here we see John’s vision of what God intends for the whole world. As Brian Blount explains in his commentary on Revelation, the “bride” of this passage is the church, and the garment she wears “is made from the fabric of witnessing to the lordship of God and the Lamb.” Both partners in a marriage, then, are included in the figure of the bride, and what is being described is the relationship between God and the church. At the “marriage supper of the Lamb” all peoples will celebrate their unity with God in a relationship that is eternal and eternally life-giving. The results of this relationship, Blount says, “will be staggering. First, God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. The cause of tears — mourning, crying, pain, and even death itself (20:14) will be removed.” Those who marry, then, celebrate only in part the love of God in which they share; one day they will be fully embraced by it.

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 12.54.04 PMThis is very good news. For no matter how faithful a couple is to the vows that they make, no one is able to keep them perfectly. Promises are broken, pain is inflicted and partners do not always “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). The gift, however, is that all of our failures — inside of marriage and out — will be washed away in life-giving water (Revelation 7:17). God will cover every hurt, every broken place and even every death with overwhelming grace. And so each marriage feast celebrated on earth anticipates that great wedding banquet we will one day enjoy, when all shall be well. Knowing this gives a large measure of grace to all of us who would make promises — for who among us, even those who enjoy long and happy marriages, can ever fully keep the vows we make?

My friend Patrick Evans has spent the last few years recruiting young talent for the school of music at Depauw University. His job takes him to various high schools around the country. As he was making his way through the fine arts wing of one school, he heard what sounded like a voice teacher with a voice student, working on a popular classical-crossover tune. One voice was stronger but the other, though weaker, was still lovely, singing enthusiastically, if half a beat behind. Patrick peeked through the window to see a choral room with all of the furniture covered in plastic and one lone man, painting the walls while singing along with whatever recording he had found on the teacher’s desk. Those of us who marry are an awful lot like that tenor. Our offbeat, unskilled attempts at creating harmony in a marriage only hint at the beauty that is possible — and sometimes not even that. But even our amateurish marriages can be glorious in their own way, because we do get some things right, sometimes. And we keep at it, practicing the scales of true love, singing to the best of our ability, thankful for unexpected moments of transcendent joy and undeserved grace.

It must be said, of course, that one does not need to be married to see a glimpse of the coming reign of God. Nor does every marriage bring to mind heavenly bliss. And there are problems inherent in comparing marriage between two people with the union between Christ and the church. Nevertheless, to live out a marriage with an eschatological view is to seek continually to grow in love while also accepting grace for ourselves and for our partners. This confidence in the promised realm to come means that each day we can renew our own promises and trust in the Spirit to increase in us kindness, patience and the ability to forgive. This framework also informs the church on how to respond when vows are broken or marriages end. Even in this time when divorce is more widely accepted, the church often remains a place of silence at best, or shame at worst. While divorce is a topic for another time, we can at least acknowledge here that all marriages — those that last, and those that do not — involve failure and the need for grace.

The practice of forgiveness
At its heart, marriage is a relationship like all human relationships. For Christians, marriage is a place (though not the only place) where two people work out their salvation together, struggling to grow more and more in the likeness of Christ while trying not to burn dinner and learning how to fight fair. Not surprisingly, the epistles give us texts that help us understand how to best do that. The letter to the Colossians, for example, includes a lyrical passage that all Christians — and indeed, all married couples — should commit to memory:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion,
kindness, humility, meekness,
and patience.
Bear with one another and, if anyone
has a complaint against another,
forgive each other;
just as the Lord has forgiven you,
so you also must forgive.
Above all, clothe yourselves with love,
which binds everything together
in perfect harmony.
— Colossians 3:12-14

This text, which is sometimes spoken as a charge at the end of a wedding service, imparts great wisdom to those who would stay married. Certainly compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience are all components of a loving relationship. They also enable us to develop a practice of forgiveness.

In fact, cultivating forgiveness as a daily habit may be the single most important thing married people can do. When we forgive one another on a daily basis — for leaving wet footprints on the bathroom floor or forgetting to pay a bill on time — we are better equipped to forgive one another for more serious infractions and more readily able to heal the wounds that partners invariably inflict upon one another.

A story I heard so many years ago is still emblazoned on my memory. Corrie Ten Boom tells of coming face-to-face, many years later, with one of her jailers at the concentration camp at Ravensbruck. He was one of the soldiers who stood guard in the shower room, witness to the female prisoners’ humiliation. Years after the war, she spoke at a church service about her experiences and preached about the overwhelming grace of God. Following the service, the guard approached her, smiling, to thank her for her sermon. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,” he said. “To think that, as you say, he has washed my sins away!” He put his hand forward to shake hers, but she could not return the gesture. Rage tore through her and she could only pray for help: “Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.” Somehow, through a power not her own, she raised her hand to shake that of the former soldier and a remarkable thing happened.

From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When he tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself. (From “The Hiding Place.”)

This sort of forgiveness is not of the everyday variety, but does point to the source of our ability to forgive, Jesus Christ. The love of God, from which nothing can separate us, is the spring from which our own forgiveness wells up. It does not overlook wrongdoing, but it chooses reconciliation over brokenness. Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way: “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the canceling of a debt.” So then, forgiveness does not mean that one holds on to the memory of the wrongdoing, nursing the hurt or stockpiling ammunition for some future disagreement. Nor does it mean that we forget all about it as though it did not matter; forgetting is not always possible. Rather, as King says, “we forget in the sense that the evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding a relationship.” And so marriage liturgies often include a prayer such as this from the Book of Common Prayer: “Give them grace, when they hurt each other, to recognize and acknowledge their fault, and to seek each other’s forgiveness and yours.”

Paul’s letter to the Romans includes an exhortation to living as a Christian that is, perhaps, the best instruction for marriage in all of Scripture:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil,
hold fast to what is good;
love one another with mutual affection;
outdo one another in showing honor.
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit,
love the Lord.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering,
persevere in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints;
extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless
and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep
with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another;
do not be haughty,
but associate with the lowly;
do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take
thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you,
live peaceably with all.
— Romans 12:9-18

The first part of this text from Romans contains great wisdom for married people that reflects a mutual self-giving while hinting at the sort of joy that might come from “outdoing” one another in honoring, loving, delighting. The text includes other advice for living together — “live in harmony” and “do not claim to be wiser than you are” are useful for instructions for any human relationship, and especially for marriage.

The text, then, takes an outward turn; those who are married are encouraged to treat all people this way. The couple who is married decides together to look out for the needs of others and to show hospitality, to share in the joys and sorrows of others and to seek peace — in short, to live out their baptismal vocations.

Baptismal vocations
From the beginning, marriage was considered “Christian” because it was the joining of two baptized believers in Jesus Christ. It was not the wedding that made the marriage Christian, it was their baptisms. When Christians marry, they decide to go on a pilgrimage of sorts, to live out their baptismal vocation together. When the Episcopal Church set out to study marriage and develop a resource for blessing same-sex marriages, they began with the church’s focus on mission, rooted in baptism, “which incorporates us into the Body of Christ and commissions us to participate in God’s mission of reconciliation in the world” (2 Corinthians 5:17-19). This mission seeks to restore all people to “unity with God and with each other in Christ.” When Christians marry, they take part in this mission by living as disciples and “witnessing to Christ in how we live in our closest relationships,” they note in their liturgical resources.

For this reason, we may count Paul’s instruction to the Galatians as part of the foundation for understanding marriage between Christians. To the baptized he writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28). Reflected in his words is the unity between people regardless of sex, background or class and, by implication, the sense of equality with which Christians ought to regard each other and, indeed, all people they meet. Furthermore, since unity is inextricable from the need to work for justice, Christians live out their call together. This is why, for instance, the Byzantine marriage liturgy includes a prayer for blessings on the couple that are “poured out, pressed down and running over,” not only for the benefit of the couple, but for that of others, too: “Fill their houses with wheat grain and oil and with every good thing, so that they may give in turn to those in need.” One might say that for Christians who marry, there is no divide between the secular and the sacred — that is, between their lives lived together as married people and their lives lived together as disciples of Christ.

When my family moved to Atlanta and visited for the first time the church we would eventually join, Margaret and Howard Montgomery greeted us. Their warmth was genuine; they made us feel as though our showing up that day was a source of delight and made us feel at home immediately. In the years that followed, I watched them do the same for countless other people, and indeed, saw them live out their witness to Jesus Christ in many other ways. It would be impossible to tell where their Christian vocation left off and their marriage began. Who is to say where the line would be drawn between how their marriage was a blessing to them and how it was the same to others? Who could say how their faith grew their marriage as well as their life in the world or how their shared discipleship enriched their marriage? Their bond did not only bring the two of them great happiness, it was generative and gave witness to the love of God in Christ that seeks peace and justice for all. It is this sort of marriage that comes to mind when one hears this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer spoken at a wedding:

Make their life together a sign
of Christ’s love
to this sinful and broken world,
that unity may overcome estrangement,
forgiveness heal guilt,
and joy conquer despair.”

So faith shapes the contours of a marriage, and marriage, in turn, can grow faith, as a couple turns inward, and outward, in a dance of grace.

In viewing marriage through the lens of eschatological hope and expanding the range of biblical texts upon which we draw regarding marriage, we will concern ourselves more with best practices than proscriptions. We will imagine all the varied ways that a marriage can be fruitful, whether it produces children or not. We will celebrate marriage liturgies that acknowledge the contours of contemporary lives. We will uphold fidelity, and hope with all our hearts for partnerships that are committed and lifelong. Yet when covenants cannot hold, we will seek redemption and practice forgiveness, all the while acknowledging that every one of us lives by grace alone.

We love because God first loved us. Thanks be to God for such a gift.

Kim Long photoKIMBERLY BRACKEN LONG is associate professor of worship at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.