Such love is nurtured by guarding each other’s honor and reputation instead of complaining and grumbling against each other. Secker put it this way: “Who would trample upon a jewel because it is fallen in the dirt? Or throw away a heap of wheat for a little chaff? Or despise a golden wedge because it retains some dross? These roses [i.e., wives] have some prickles. Now husbands should spread a mantle of charity over their wives’ infirmities.”
A husband must do his best to see that no one know his wife’s faults but himself and God. He should be unwilling to voice them to anyone but God, to pray that she may be pardoned for them and reformed from them. Likewise, a wife must do her best to keep her husband’s struggles and sins to herself, as matters of prayer and not gossip. Neither spouse should be surprised by the sins of the other, for each of them is well aware of their own sins. Can it be helpful to uncover faults in public and fling mud in each other’s faces? Will this help a husband reform or a wife to repent? And which is more displayed in such a case, the spouse’s faults and weaknesses or the gossip’s unkindness, indiscretion, backbiting, and folly? Does not the family dog behave better than this when it barks at strangers but not at members of the family?
Moreover, if ill speech behind the back of an enemy is a sin, how much more grievous is ill speech behind the back of a spouse, who should be to us as our own flesh? Whately said:
To hear a husband largely declaiming against his wife, and . . . aggravating her sins, as if he took delight in nothing so much as in branding her forehead with the black mark of infamy is a testimony of so much hatred, where there should be most love, and of so bitter unkindness, where nature itself requires most tender kindness, that no speeches almost can sound more harsh in the ears of wise men. So again for the woman to be clattering amongst her gossips what a foolish husband she has . . . and to be . . . making proclamation of his faults, as if she feared nothing but that they should not be known to people . . . is a most irksome and hateful folly and untrustworthiness.
Love for each other must strive to cover sins much as bandages cover sores, so they may heal. Swinnock advised that “to procure a quiet life, the husband must be deaf, and the wife blind. Sure it is, the man must not bear to declare it abroad, nor the wife see to say it among her gossips whatever is amiss at home, if they would live in peace.” A breach between a husband and wife is half reconciled when it is kept indoors where love and prayers can be repeatedly administered to it; but if it is announced outdoors in the ears of others, it will be like a festering sore that can hardly be healed.
The common practice of publishing each other’s faults must therefore be put far away from every spouse, for it is a treacherous evil and looks more like the hatred one might show to an enemy than the love demanded in a marriage. “What mutual love can there be in such?” asked Gouge. “Howsoever their hands have been joined together, surely their hearts were never united, so that it had been better [if] they had never known one another, unless the Lord do afterwards knit their hearts and unite their affections more nearly and firmly together.” In extreme cases, it may be necessary to acquaint a close and trusted friend with the faults of one’s spouse for the purpose of prayer and sound counsel. But that is far different from publishing little flaws and idiosyncrasies to any company and for no other purpose than murmuring, complaining, and gossiping. “Know therefore, and practice this duty, O husbands and wives,” Whately concluded, “spit not in each other’s faces, disclose not each other’s faults, but conceal, hide, bury and cover them so much as truth and equity will allow.”
Superlative love requires a steady effort to be pleasing to each other. According to Whately, this “pleasingness” is “a disposition of the will and earnest desire of the heart to give all content [satisfaction] to each other, so far as they may possibly do it, without sinning against God.” If husband and wife perform this duty, which 1 Corinthians 7:33–34 commends, with all diligence and faithfulness, then they will experience a great harvest of blessings to the whole family. No good or happiness can be enjoyed by that couple who live as enemies on the field when they are companions in one house and bed. Whately advises, “Next to the pleasing of God, make your main business to please each other.”
Marital Love Must Be Sexual
Marital love must be sexual. Both marital partners should give themselves fully to each other with joy and exuberance in a healthy sexual relationship marked by fidelity. Reformers such as Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin reestablished this aspect of marriage by abandoning medieval Roman Catholic notions that marriage was inferior to celibacy, that all sexual contact between marital partners was only a necessary evil to propagate the human race, and that any procreative act that involved passion was inherently sinful. This negative view was rooted in the writings of ancient church fathers such as Tertullian, Ambrose, and Jerome, all of whom believed that sexual intercourse necessarily involved sin even within marriage. This attitude toward sex in marriage held sway among the church’s leaders for more than ten centuries, and it inevitably led to the exaltation of virginity and celibacy. By the fifth century, deacons, priests, and bishops were prohibited from marrying. Two classes of Christians emerged: the “religious” (i.e., the spiritual clergy), which included monks and nuns who vowed to abstain from all sexual activity, and the “profane” (i.e., the secular laity), who, being unable to practice the exalted virtues of virginity or celibacy, were conceded the right to marry.
Puritan preachers taught that the Roman Catholic view was unbiblical, even satanic. They cited Paul, who said that prohibition of marriage is a “doctrine of devils” (1 Tim. 4:1–3). Puritan definitions of marriage implied the conjugal act. For example, William Perkins (1558–1602) defines marriage as “the lawful conjunction of the two married persons; that is, of one man and one woman into one flesh.” The Puritans viewed sex within marriage as a gift of God and as an essential, enjoyable part of marriage. Gouge said that husbands and wives should cohabit “with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully.” “They do err,” Perkins added, “who hold that the secret coming together of man and wife cannot be without sin unless it be done for the procreation of children.”
Perkins goes on to say that marital sex is a “due debt” or “due benevolence” (1 Cor. 7:3) that married persons owe to their spouses. That debt must be paid, he says, “with a singular and entire affection one towards another” in three ways: “First, by the right and lawful use of their bodies or of the marriage bed.” Such physical intimacy by “holy usage” should be “a holy and undefiled action (Heb. 13:4) . . . sanctified by the word and prayer (1 Tim. 4:3–4).” The fruits of God-honoring, enjoyable sex in marriage are the blessing of children, “the preservation of the body in cleanness,” and the reflection of marriage as a type of the bond between Christ and His church. Second, married couples must “cherish one another” intimately (Eph. 5:29) rather than having sex in the impersonal way of an adulterer with a prostitute. Third, a couple should be intimate “by an holy kind of rejoicing and solacing themselves each with [the] other in a mutual declaration of the signs and tokens of love and kindness (Prov. 5:18–19; Song 1:1; Gen. 26:8; Isa. 62:7).” In this context, Perkins particularly mentions kissing.