But lately, I've been troubled by a trend I see rising in the mainstream American church. The trend has begun to claim that marriage and family are instituted of God. Of course the basis of this claim are on a few verses that are well known. The most frequently cited is:
God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."
– Genesis 1:28
This verse is typically taken to mean, that we should get married and have a family. But if we strip away any prejudice, tradition or any outside context, we find that this verse is not saying much more than "have sex". The whole notion of an organized family unit, let alone a monogamous marriage is void from this command.
It is hard for me to derive such a command for "family" and "marriage" from this, especially since only six verse previous, we find the same command for animals:
God blessed them and said, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth."
– Genesis 1:22
If God's command was to have sex and make babies, well we are doing a bang up job doing this independent of marriage or family (pun intended). While not statistically proven, it is joked that sexually active single persons have more sex than married persons. Does this mean that single people are fulfilling the command of God better than married people? I am not saying this to condone sex outside of marriage, as much as to draw a point: that the command of God in this particular verse, outside of any other moral influence (which all came later chronologically) is to have sex and get pregnant.
Of course this command is not the first time that God tells us to "get it on". But we must realize that the command that we love to keep is not always such a good thing. We find in Genesis 6 that our ability to obey this command was the trigger that caused the flood.
When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the LORD said, "My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years."
The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.
– Genesis 6:1-3, 5-6
We won't delve into the whole "Sons of God" part right now, as that is interesting in and of itself. But we find that people were doing exactly what God had commanded, and even getting married to fulfill this command. If we look at the first verse without prejudice, we find exactly what the Christian church ought to be doing. But in the second part of that verse, we find that God was not at all pleased that they were fulfilling His command that way. I'm not sure why, but we do know that in fulfilling the command to "fill the earth", they some how grieved God.
Of course, God had an idea to get things back to normal by hitting the proverbial reset button with a big flood. Of course after the flood, we see the same command crop up again:
Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth."
– Genesis 9:1
So if there were ever a command that God seemed to want us to keep, it would have been to be a bit frisky. In fact, this command is woven into our very fabric and culture isn't it? Sex seems to be one of those things that we just cannot shake, no matter how hard we try. Why not? It's because sex is one of the few things that fulfills all levels of Maslow's need hierarchy. Sex feels good, and God designed it that way. Let's give Him a shout of praise!
What bothers me the most about those in the church claiming the preeminent blessing of God on the family, isn't that I disagree with family or marriage in any way. As I stated before, I think that it a beautiful thing that God has a lot to say about. But I do have an issue with making it the basis of our faith. One of my fellow church members had posted this comment on Facebook recently:
"Who is man that he should have the audacity to even try to recreate what God has created according to His perfect will: Marriage and family."
Only a brief survey of scripture begins to show that God has a lot to say about marriage and family, and not all of it is always positive! So who is man to have the audacity to call something God's perfect will that does not have a basis in Scripture? The danger in stating things in these terms is that we completely marginalize entire groups of people such as single mothers, or those who have chosen to stay single as a means of doing the will of God. Through this warped image of God's will, we begin to say "If you are not happily married, then you are not in God's will". In fact, saying such a thing is nothing less than placing God into a box so that we can claim to understand him and worship him. It is nothing less than making for ourselves an idol to worship.
But I have talked a lot about this and have not shown you any verses. I'd like to start by showing you one of the few that I found that truly values marriage.
Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.
– Hebrews 13:4
This verse packs a lot of punch. In it's context, it is telling people a series of values. One of these values is respect for marriage. In other words, if someone is married, don't go fooling around with their spouse. The intended audience is less those in marriage, but rather, those that would strive to interrupt it. But by interrupting it, the focus is very clear, that it involves the sexual focus of the marriage "bed". I doubt the bible is saying that frees you up from intercourse in places other than the bed however. It is making a statement to respect the covenant of marriage. That is something that almost anyone can get behind, for even non-believers, or people from other belief systems value marriage in this way.
The trouble is that this is probably one of the better verses to be found, and even then, is not "ordaining" marriage as God's "perfect will".
The first place I would like to start is in 1 Corinthians 7. Many people point to 1 Corinthians 13 as a basis for love, and by extension marriage. But an interesting thing is that marriage in the bible is often times found in terms of "given in marriage". In other words, it seems, that marriage was a contractual property arrangement between a father and another man. Marriage did not often preclude love or mutual attraction as what we attribute to it today. In fact, it was perfectly kosher for a man to rape another woman, as long as he paid up the "bride price" and married the girl.
If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl's father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.
– Deuteronomy 22:28-29
Does this make marriage out to be a holy act, or something required by law? In this context, marriage is a legal arrangement bound with financial consideration that can never be terminated. In this context, marriage is a required sacrifice, and an unfair one to the woman, I would argue. But we must consider the role of women in marriage in those days which many times were that of property or objects of wealth used to forge alliances.
But back to 1 Corinthians 7. There are a number of verses packed into this one chapter that describe marriage as something more as a concession, or a patch for those who can't control their desires. Paul starts off this chapter with a pretty surprising statement:
Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry. But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.
– 1 Corinthians 7:1-2
We continue to learn that marriage is a contractual arrangement or property rights. We see that the husband's body now belongs to the wife, and the wife to her husband. They are bound by these ownership rights to one another:
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
– 1 Corinthians 7:3-5
But Paul goes on to underscore what he started to explain. That is that marriage, according to him, is a concession made for those who lack self control and would end up sinning. It is argued that Paul is the mouthpiece of God and we can't discount what he says if we are to also support the inerrancy of the rest of the basis for modern fundamentalist beliefs.
I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all men were as I am…
– 1 Corinthians 7:6-7
Again, we find that Paul views marriage not as something commanded by God, but by something that just needs to happen as a concession. This is not the encouraging type of thing we would like to hear from the word of God if we hold marriage and family in the utmost.
Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
– 1 Corinthians 7:8-9
Here again, we see that Paul places a value on not being married, as long as one can control themselves. In this light, Paul continues the theme that marriage is an outlet for passion. To burn with passion in this context would not necessarily be considered sin. As stated previously, to have sex and get pregnant is a command of God, whether or not marriage is involved. So Paul is reiterating that the context for that is marriage.
Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.
– 1 Corinthians 7:25-28
Recently I attended a music festival where the one artist had just recently gotten married. She is a well-known Christian artist, and got married to another well-known Christian artist. She read this verse prior to singing a song she wrote about it. The funny thing is that she admitted to reading this verse as a virgin (unmarried woman), and just kind of skipping over it. But now that she is married, she understands what Paul was trying to say. It would require some additional study to determine what the "present crisis" was, but the rest of the verse reads pretty clearly. Marriage creates troubles that ought to be spared if possible. What kind of troubles exactly?
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord's affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
– 1 Corinthians 7:32-35
The fact of the matter is that marriage, at it's very core, is something that binds us to the "affairs of this world". In other words, Paul is explicitly stating here that marriage is a worldly concession made to those without a self-control. Indeed, self-control is a fruit of the spirit. Those that marry are concerned about the things of this world and not the Lord's affairs. Marriage, therefore, divides allegiances and places our focus squarely on the cares of this world. Paul's desire, and by extension God's will, is that we could be free from these worldly desires so that we can focus on God's affairs.
While not explicitly about marriage, the book of Galatians extends the teaching in Corinthians.
So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.
– Galatians 5:16-18, 24
So if marriage is purely a human construct designed contain worldly desires, we find that it is not something of the Spirit because that will always be in conflict. In fact, if we are crucified with Christ, we crucify these "passions and desires".
I do not want to harp on 1 Corinthians 7 for too long, but I do want to finish up the chapter. with this verse:
If anyone thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting along in years and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better.
– 1 Corinthians 7:36-38
What Paul is saying here is that marriage is not a sin. So if marriage is ordained as sacred by God, why would Paul use words to highlight that he is not sinning? Here we find an almost indifference between those that choose marriage over those that do not choose marriage. The last point throws the indifference to the one who remains unmarried however. This is not to be confused as a "command" of God, and Paul makes that very clear through out. But he does want us all to participate in the will of God and that marriage hinders that participation by focusing us on the things of this world.
Of course, to only look at Paul would be a disservice to the rest of the bible. The words of Paul can be weighted based on historical context and the fact that Paul, while one of the most prolific writers in the New Testament, was a flawed human being just like us. Many times I have read Paul and have had a bone or two I'd like to pick with him on some subjects. Most of the time we can dismiss some of these things with historical context. What woman in the ministry has not had an issue with Paul at some point?
But the words of Jesus are timeless and are typically the highlight of modern Christianity. In my bible they are highlighted in red to indicate their importance and life giving power. But there is one verse that Jesus speaks that directly challenges marriage and family as being the perfect will of God:
"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters — yes, even his own life — he cannot be my disciple."
– Luke 14:26
The words of Jesus here cannot be denied. You cannot have a perfect family and marriage and be a disciple of Jesus at the same time. It just cannot happen. It is like oil and water. In fact, this is the one time that Jesus commands us to hate. So what is God's will then? Is it that we have families and marriages, or become a disciple? Because from Jesus' viewpoint, you cannot have it both ways. Right before Jesus leaves the earth, he commands, or commissions us with a sacred task. If anything is the will of God, surely this would be it:
Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…"
– Matthew 28:18-19
So if we are to truly do what Jesus is asking, and make disciples – and if by becoming a disciple of Jesus we must lay down our life and hate our family and our marriage – then what God is asking us to do is nothing less than to teach others how to love God and disown family and spouses. While I like to interpret this verse by replacing "does not" with "is not willing to", that would be adding to the word of God. Jesus is asking us to lay down earthly love to obtain a divine and heavenly love. This is a hard teaching. Jesus' disciples knew that the best option then, was not to marry in the first place, especially when Jesus spoke about the law of Divorce in Matthew 19. If a man can never divorce his wife, then it is better not to marry, the disciples deduced:
The disciples said to him, "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry." Jesus replied, "Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it."
– Matthew 19:10-12
Jesus admits here that it would be hard to not got married, but that if you can accept that word, then you should accept it and not get married. He also speaks about becoming a Eunuch, or sexually inactive, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Would you say that Jesus is advocating marriage in this case? but Jesus reiterates his view on marriage another way:
Jesus replied, "The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage"
– Luke 20:34-35
Do you want to participate in the resurrection of the dead? Then don't marry. That is precisely what Jesus is saying here. Why? If we correlate this verse with some we found written by Paul, Jesus and also reference Romans chapters 7 and 8, we see an interesting pattern emerging: if you are about the kingdom's work, then you must have your eyes set on the things of heaven and to have your eyes set on the things of heaven means that you cannot be distracted by the things of this world which marriage will constantly remind you of.
I want to remind anyone that has read this far that I am not against marriage and family, but rather that equating them to the will of God is not scriptural. If we look at other places through the bible, we see that God uses imagery of marriage and family to show how he loves us. We may never fully understand the love of God for us, but if we can connect it to ideal earthly permutations of love, then maybe we can get a glimpse. That is why in Song of Solomon we see such wonderful illustrations of love and the romantic longing of one for another. This book was kept in the canonical bible because it can be read as God's love of the church.
Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot wash it away.
If one were to give
all the wealth of his house for love,
it would be utterly scorned.
– Song of Solomon 8:6-7
This is the pinnacle of passion in a relationship and one that God has for us. But it must be noted that this passion described in Song of Solomon operates outside the legal context of marriage. Very typically in the New Testament we see daughters being given in marriage or moved around like livestock. Occasional we see someone who really likes someone else. But in this book we something completely different: unbridled passion. But we realize this is no ordinary relationship. It is a new love and a new covenant, but not one based on contracts
We can see that while this young couple is passionate for one another, they are newly wed. Often in this book the beloved is referred to as "my sister, my bride". This level of passion is often times reserved for the teenager and those not tainted by responsibility or jaded by hurt. An informal poll of modern marriage would show that passion is hard to maintain in a long-term relationship. Perhaps God's love for us is a little more new and risque than we would like to think. Perhaps he really wants to sneak up on us at night and steal us away. Perhaps his love is bigger than something that can be contained between two people in a legal contract, but one of true and mutual love. The use of the phrase "my sister, my bride" underscores in the Hebrew the intimate connection between the two. In fact the word "bride" in this context is derived from the word to "make perfect and complete".
Now while we find that this love between two people is good and perfect, sometimes the marriage involved is something of the world. In 1 Samuel we find an instance where David falls in love with one of Saul's daughters.
Now Saul's daughter Michal was in love with David, and when they told Saul about it, he was pleased. "I will give her to him," he thought, "so that she may be a snare to him and so that the hand of the Philistines may be against him." So Saul said to David, "Now you have a second opportunity to become my son-in-law."
– 1 Samuel 18:20-21
So here we can see that marriage can be something that can be used as a weakness to be exploited. Saul knew that marriage has a tendency to take one's eyes off of other things. If David represented the kingdom of God in that time, then marriage could be used as a way of attacking and weakening the kingdom of God that David was to bring about. But in contrast to this, we find that Jesus was brought about by an act of infidelity when David stole Bathsheba from Uriah. In fact, Jesus' lineage can be traced back to both David and Bathsheba on his earthly mother and father's sides.
Now while God periodically encourages us in certain situations to get married, we must understand the context that he places on it. In this verse, the Israelites who were in exiled are encouraged to marry:
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease."
– Jeremiah 29:4-6
This is almost the perfect representation of marriage and family with it's house and white picket fence, 2.5 kids and a dog. But we must remember that God was commanding this to people in exile in a different totally different kingdom. If we are about the kingdom of God and are no longer exiled, does it pertain to us? In the book of Nehemiah, we see a people who are not to find wives for sons in the land of exile, but rather keeping themselves pure as a nation of God.
"We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons."
– Nehemiah 10:30
We see this kind of tension throughout the Old Testament. We find that people marry, and then other's don't marry. We find many arrangements of marriage, but few instances of falling in love. We find families torn apart by strife and others with severe dysfunction. We find couples who love each other when they are old, and others that can't stand each other. What we find in the Old Testament is nothing short of life depicted by the living word of God. But does any of it declare marriage and family as something in God's good and perfect will? I would have to answer, No.
So in closing, I believe we need to be careful not to put words in the mouth of God. I think it's incorrect to suggest that marriage is the pinnacle of a Christian's life when we are obviously called to abandon the things of earth and seek after the things of God. I think that while marriage and family are beautiful and good representations of God's love, that it is not something intended for everyone and according to divorce rates, not a perfect representation of God's love. I believe that in most cases, marriage is used as a crutch or a patch for dealing with fleshly desires that God calls us beyond. Lastly, I believe that marriage can severely hinder our ability to become disciples and to act as agents of the kingdom of God by taking our eyes off of the affairs of God and placing them on the affairs of this world.
In short, I do not find enough substantive evidence in the Word of God to support the marriage and family as the perfect will of God, but rather the imperfect will of man. The bible shows us that we will always be tempted in our pursuit to fulfill the command of God to "fill the earth" and that we are called to uphold rules and regulations to make sure our zeal for that command does not hurt each other in the process. But if we look beyond the rules and regulations, and into the realms of an open heaven, we can see Jesus who is more than what the relationships of this world can offer us.