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Marriage: If and Whom

Category Articles
Date August 16, 2002


50% of all marriages end in divorce, and there is no statistical difference between believers and non-believers when it comes to the likelihood of a failed marriage

by William Smith

Our Scripture Readings are Genesis 26:34,35; 27:46; 28:6-9; I Corinthians 7:7-9, 39 & 40 and our text is, "She is free to be married to whomever she wishes, only in the Lord."

No matter what people keep getting married. It is a testimony to the fact the God established marriage and created most of us for marriage that, even in a time when society is very tolerant of what used to be called "shacking up", so many people keep getting married. Despite the divorce statistics, and the unhappiness they have witnessed in their parents marriages, and even their own previous relational failures, people keep on choosing marriage. My brother has had four failed marriages, but he has married for a fifth time. And, almost all who marry do so as optimists, believing that they will themselves find happiness in marriage. People who marry somehow think their marriage will be the exception, even if they are not able to give any reasons why it should be so.

Yet the statistics should make us pause, for 50% of all marriages end in divorce, and there is no statistical difference between believers and non-believers when it comes to the likelihood of a failed marriage. The question the Church has to ask – as well as all of us who are parents, or who are single but expect to marry, or who just care about the implications of this marriage breakdown for Church and society – is, "Is there anything we can do about it?"

One answer that ought to occur to us is that we might ask people to do a little more thinking before marrying. Maybe it would help if people would ask: Should I marry at all?" And, "If I am going to marry, whom should I marry?" I want to approach these questions this evening by considering one short text that occurs toward the end of the 7th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: ".she may be married to whomever she wishes, only in the Lord." Paul is writing there about widows who are considering the possibility of remarriage, but what he writes is applicable to us all.

Take into account these three considerations:

I. Consider not marrying.

Notice the Paul says that the widow may marry, not that she must. In fact he goes on to express his view that she will likely be happier if she remains single than if she remarries. Presumably he has in mind in particular older widows for in 1 Timothy he says that younger widows should marry, have children, and manage their households.

To understand what Paul is saying about whether widows, and the rest of us, should consider marriage, we have to take a quick survey of his teaching on marriage in this whole chapter of 1 Corinthians. First, this whole chapter is written against the background of an ascetic point of view that had gained adherents in Corinth. These people said we now live in the age of the Spirit and therefore everything has changed.People who are single should not marry and those who are married should live as though they were not married. Paul rejects this point of view. We do live in the age of the Spirit but that does not call for a rejection of marriage and marital relations.

However, Paul can agree that there are advantages to being single. There are troubles associated with marriage. I usually try to point some of these out to engaged couples in pre-marital counseling. When I was at the University of Southern Mississippi I would sometimes describe to students planning to marry what life might be like over in the Pinehaven Apartments for married students with a studies to do, cooking and cleaning to be done, and a spouse with the flu. Their eyes would glaze over as though I did not understand their unique love. But take it from me, or at least from my wife, that while marriage has its many joys and advantages, it also has its troubles and its disadvantages. Single persons have their own troubles associated with their singleness, but they do not have the troubles associated with marriage. I have preached the two previous Sunday mornings on the calling of a Christian husband to be understanding of his wife and of a wife to be submissive to her husband. Such things do not come easily; they take a lot of trouble. These marriage troubles are especially troublesome in times when the church is under pressure from a hostile society. We live in the last times when the Lord Jesus is wrapping up His campaign against Satan and his kingdom, and from time to time persecution breaks out. If we should live in a time when and a place where this happens the troubles associated with marriage and family life become much more acute.

There are also anxieties or burdens associated with marriage. The first "anxiety" of every Christian is to please the Lord – to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. But just behind this in importance is our "anxiety" for a husband or wife – to care for and please a spouse. These two anxieties are constantly before, or should be, the Christian married person. He or she can ignore neither. Anyone who is an officer knows this. You have a calling to serve the Lord’s church and you must fulfill it. You also have calling to love and care for a wife and you must do that. But is not just officers; everyone who loves Christ and loves a spouse experiences this tension. A single person also has what Paul calls worldly responsibilities – paying bills, getting the car tag, going to work
– but the single person does not have to deal with the "this worldly" responsibility of pleasing a spouse.

Paul knew the advantages of the single state for he was single and he put his singleness to good use in the cause of Christ. But Paul did not say that everyone should follow him. For Paul it was a matter of gifts and calling. Some have a gift for singleness and a call to the single state. For them there is no reason to take on marriage. They should rather seek to put to the best use of the kingdom their status. Others, and they are the majority, have gifts for and a calling to marriage. One of the best ways to know your calling if you are of marriageable years, has to do with you have a gift which allows you to remain unmarried and yet not to struggle constantly with sexual temptations or to be distracted by the sexual pressures in your life. As Paul puts it, "it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion." That is not a negative statement but one of fact. If you do not have the gift of self-control – the gift to live a contented and holy life without a sexual relationship – then you should seek to be married.

But don’t just assume you should marry. Perhaps you have the gifts related to singleness. If you do, you might find it difficult to handle a marriage relationship, should you give into pressure from family and friends. Before you ask the question, "Whom shall I marry?" you should first ask, "Am I a person who should marry?"

II. Consider the one non-negotiable qualification of the person you will marry.

Paul says that the one non-negotiable qualification for a husband that must be taken into account by a believing widow is that he must be a Christian – she must marry only "in the Lord." What Paul says here in not unique to widows; he gives a principle which applies to us all.

If you are a Christian, you must marry in the Lord. Think about it. As a believer the most important thing about you is that you are in the Lord – united to the Lord Jesus. He is your Savior from sin; He is the Source of all spiritual life in you. Your most basic identity is that you are a man or woman in Christ. If that is true how could you find true unity and happiness with a person who is not in Christ? When you marry, you are united to your spouse and the two become one flesh. How can a person who is united to Christ be united to a person not in Christ? There is a fundamental incompatibility when a couple do not share their spiritual condition.

The fact that a Christian may think it possible to be united to an unbeliever indicates some kind of spiritual disease. The worst case is that it indicates the professing Christian is not a Christian at all, because he or she has a unity with the non-Christian beloved, and senses that person’s spiritual status is no impediment. The ability to be so intimately yoked with a non-believer requires the question, Are you yourself yoked to Christ? The better case is that the Christian who makes this choice is a true believer who is temporarily thinking and acting as a non-believer would. When this is a choice made against knowledge it becomes a serious act of rebellion. The result of this for a Christian is most often a further spiritual decline, brought about partly by the hardening effects of willful disobedience and partly by the influence of the non-believer.

This is one place where Christian parents and the church need to take a stand – and a united one. From the time children are small we need to be saying to them, "You cannot marry with God’s blessing or ours if you marry outside the Lord." This is where we need to be firm – not on micromanaging our kids’ choices of dating and marriage material, but on this central issue. The choice of wives outside the covenant by Esau made his parents lives miserable. And it has great likelihood to make our lives miserable, if our children follow Esau. Here is one thing regarding your child’s choice of a spouse where it is right for parents to consider their own happiness. And the church must say to young people, "If you want to be married in a Christian ceremony, then you both must be Christians." It seems to me that a logical implication of all this is that Christian young people should not date non-Christians. You never know when that spark is going to ignite, and, when it does, it is practically impossible to extinguish. Date only in the Lord, and you will marry in the Lord.

But it is not only parents who will experience misery. If you are a believer and you marry a non-believer, you will have misery of several kinds. There will be the misery of sensing that God’s smile is not upon your marriage. In the wedding service a very serious statement is made in the charge to the couple. The minister charges the couple to declare even at the last minute if they know any just reason why they may not be joined in marriage, "for be ye well assured that if any persons are joined together otherwise than as God’s Word allows, their union is not blessed by Him." The heavenly Father’s smile is an absolute necessity for the Christian’s happiness. There is also the misery of disunity – the inability to talk with the most important person in your life about the most important things in your life, the differences of values and priorities, the disagreements about how to bring up the children God gives you. And, then there is the misery of knowing the lost condition of a spouse you love and what awaits them if they die without the Savior.
One of our favorite students in our seven years at USM was DeeDee. She graduated and moved to Jackson for work. Eventually she met a young man, not a Christian.. Her mother called me to express concern. I went up to Jackson and had lunch with DeeDee. She agreed there was no way she could marry him. In a day or two she called and asked if she could bring him to talk with me so I could explain to him why they could not marry. Before long she was engaged, and, as we communicated, she grew increasingly resistant and hostile. She married. Some years later I received a touching letter in which she told me what a big mistake she had made and how regretful she was. Eventually they divorced. I take no pleasure in this outcome, for I love her very much. But I tell it so that young people might know the kind of misery that may await if, contrary to God’s will, they marry unbelievers.

III. Consider whom you want to marry.

Paul says of the widow that, except for the one non-negotiable condition, she may marry whomever she wishes. That is true not only for widows but for all. One of the things that hangs some people up about marriage is that they have the romantic idea that there is only one right person for them in the whole universe. Sometimes the Christian version of this is that God has a plan, and He has chosen in the plan the person He wants us to marry, and that we must find that one person. But that is to assume that we can know in advance the providential will of God. And the Bible does not teach us to expect that. We know the providential will of God only in retrospect. I can look back now and say, "I know that Susan is the woman God planned for me to marry." I can say that because it happened. But I could not claim a revelation of that prior to marriage. It is not on the basis of knowing the will of God but on other grounds we must make our decisions about whom to marry. Let me suggest just a few questions to ask:

Do you want to marry that person? This is a matter of the heart. People are different and we must not impose a particular form of experience on them, but we can ask ourselves, "Do I love this person?" Read the Song of Solomon. Make allowances for the differences of personality and culture, but remember that this is a godly description of romantic-erotic love. There is the delight of the couple in one another and the binding of two hearts. There is the language of "My beloved is mine and I am his." This is not all there is to a mature and lasting love, but it is a part of it. We begin with the question of desire. Do I desire this person in a way that make me want to spend the rest of my life with him/her?"

Do I want to be bound to this person for life? You may have noticed that these brief instructions concerning widows begin with the point that a wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives and only when he dies is she free to marry someone else. Marriage is for life. Do not marry thinking that if things do not work out you can easily enough rectify the situation. Now the Bible does make some limited allowances for a marriage ending short of death. There are actions which can render a mate as good as dead. These are adultery and desertion. But there are no other justifications for ending a marriage. The only attitude with which a Christian can enter marriage is that this is going to be a lifelong relationship that will be ended only by death. Consider the person and ask if you are prepared to be bound to that person for the rest of your life. But consider yourself also and ask if you are able and ready to make such a commitment. When young people come to me wanting to be married, this is one of my primary concerns. I consider this more important than factors of age or finances or career plans. Do you understand the nature of the commitment
– that it is a "come what may" commitment? Are you mature enough, realistic enough to make this commitment? Do you want to make this commitment to this particular person?

Are we ready to assume the marriage roles? The Apostle Paul teaches that Christian marriage is to reflect the relationship of Christ to the Church. A wife is to submit to her husband as the Church submits to Christ in all things. A husband is to love his wife as intuitively and reflexively as he loves himself and as sacrificially as Christ loves the Church. Now guys here are some questions to ask yourself: Do you have any real basis for thinking you can lead this woman and she will follow your leadership? She is not your wife yet, and she is not called upon to submit to you in all things yet, but is the pattern of leadership established? If it is not there now you have no reason to think that a marriage ceremony is going to work a magical change. But even more important, are you do you love this woman as you love yourself and as Christ loves the Church and are you prepared love her in this way and to grow in this love as long as you both live? If you are not already demonstrating this kind of love, you do not have any reason to think you will after marriage. Girls, here are some questions for you: Do he love you in this way? If he is now self-centered, selfish, and self-willed, do not think that he is going to change himself or that you are going to be able to change him once you get him past the ceremony. And are you prepared to submit to him? Has he demonstrated the kind of maturity, good judgment and love that have given you the kind of admiration for and confidence in him so that you are ready to promise to submit to this man? Remember I am not talking about perfection. I am not saying you must enter marriage thinking there will never be any conflicts or heartache, but, unless you are both able and willing to fulfill the basic Biblical roles in relation to each other, you are going to a have a very hard time of it, no matter how strong your feelings of attachment right now.

Marriage is God’s will for the vast majority of His people. It is a God-implanted instinct for most of us to want to be married. Marriage is the relationship in which you will know the deepest joys and the most painful sorrows of life. It is a relationship well worth all the challenges and hard work required. I commend it to you. But look before you leap. Has God called you to marriage or might He have called you to singleness? Will you accept the one non-negotiable qualification for a marriage partner that God imposes on His covenant people? And, what do you want? Do you have the desire, the commitment, and the ability to fulfill God-assigned roles in marriage toward this person? Then go for it.

William Smith, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Huntsville, Alabama.

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