This blessing to the church arises both because marriage is a protection against sin, particularly the sin of sexual immorality, and also—more positively—because it reflects something much deeper. It “signifies unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church,” as Cranmer says. Marriage is a gift not simply because it provides boundaries and protections, but because it teaches us something of the essence of the Christian gospel.
We can become too practical too quickly when it comes to finding reasons to nurture godly marriages. At one level, a healthy union is a beautiful and explicit picture of the spiritual reality we all need to be reminded of every day.
Perseverance in Marriage Cannot Be Taken for Granted
We must be realistic, however. We know that marriages fail for all kinds of reasons, and though we may differ on the precise remedies that Scripture allows in these painful situations, our first cry must surely be, “Don’t let it be so!” If we spent as much time investing in protecting marriages as we did arguing about the precise biblical grounds for divorce, we might well find the latter question becoming less pertinent.
We simply cannot assume that a couple will stay married. In churches in the United Kingdom, we often celebrate notable birthdays. Perhaps dear old Miss Agnes reaches the age of ninety and someone bakes her a cake, and we rally around and sing “Happy Birthday.” What a fine occasion. But at the risk of sounding trite, I don’t have to do very much or accomplish very much to make it to the next milestone—I simply have to keep breathing. How many churches, in contrast, celebrate significant wedding anniversaries? Now there’s something to rejoice in.
There may be good reasons for celebrating these anniversaries carefully. We don’t want to alienate singles in the church nor distress those whose marriages have ended painfully. To do so might be to fall into the trap of making marriage everything. But we must find ways—as entire church families—to encourage couples to stay together and celebrate when they do. We must recognize that without input from the entire church family, the statistical weight of evidence is against perseverance.
Godly Marriages Are Intimately Connected with Godly Lives
We must also recognize that godliness in marriage is very closely connected to godliness in general. Faithfulness to spouses and faithfulness to God are almost inseparable in the Scriptures. Indeed, when the postexilic prophet Malachi is speaking God’s words to God’s people, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish which kind of faithfulness (to spouses or to God) he has in view (see Mal. 2:10–16).
Churches need not, in other words, distinguish so sharply between investing resources, time, and energy in marriages and investing them in godliness itself. One feeds the other. That is not to say that tailored events are not sometimes necessary, but we can overplay this hand. A single saint once challenged me (rightly) on the amount of time and energy we gave to marriage enrichment while ignoring more basic building blocks, such as how we speak to one another—a key theme of Scripture.
We can run, that is to say, a Saturday morning seminar or Sunday school class on godly speech and expect it to affect all areas of church life, including marriage. But my senior saint was not entirely right. We can also be deliberate in some of our investment, targeting marriage, and expect it to affect all the same areas of the local believing community.
Now You Can Plan
If we can embrace these principles, then it will be easier for churches to understand what can be done because they understand why they are doing it. This approach may seem a bit intangible to the activist church, but in fact it is entirely biblical to see what to do in the context of why we are doing it. God, in His Word, provides both instruction and motivation.
More importantly, such an approach—getting the principles right first—is more likely, under God, to lead to wise decisions and head off foolhardy ones. Critically, we will value marriage in its right setting—within the local community of believers to whom and for whose benefit this divine ordinance is given.