Marriage is in crisis. That is certainly true outside the church, where the world is trying its hardest to redefine the God-given parameters of marriage and, in so doing, devalue the creation ordinance that God graciously gave the whole world. However, marriage is also in crisis inside the church, though perhaps not in exactly the same ways. Nonetheless, there is a crisis. While the oft-quoted statistic that U.S. Christians are as likely to divorce as non-Christians has been widely discredited, the rate of divorce among professing believers is still alarmingly high.

How, then, as churches do we cultivate healthy marriages? It would be relatively easy to come up with a clickbait list of ten things to do to nurture godly marriages, but I wonder whether our problems are more philosophical than practical. What we really need, in other words, is not primarily a long to-do list, but instead a different understanding—a set of principles from which action can flow.

Here are four founding principles for marriage and the church that we must embrace.

Marriage Is Not Everything

In nurturing good, healthy marriages in local church life, we have to start with the reminder that marriage is not everything. In a world that devalues marriage, Christians can often overvalue it as a correction. Marriage is not the New Testament building block; the local church is. We know this deep down, yet we still idolize marriages and invest in them at the expense of everything else.

I know that for some I am on rocky ground here, but the starting point for cultivating healthy marriages is surely to set them in the context God intended them to have. That context is not as isolated islands floating in the sea of the world, but rather as interconnected units serving in the church with all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds.

We need to repent of getting this wrong. We’ve embraced the proverb “blood is thicker than water” without fully critiquing it. In fact, inasmuch as church life goes, “water is thicker than blood” when the water is the water of baptism. To be frank, this misappropriation of our focus has led to all kinds of errors, such as the way we often ignore singles, widows, and widowers.

There is a deep irony here. Marriages are more likely to be godly and healthy when we ensure we don’t make them into everything.

Marriage Is a Precious Gift to the Church

We can overreact, of course. Marriage is a grace gift—a charisma (1 Cor. 7:7) that was ordained for “the mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity,” as Thomas Cranmer so eloquently describes it in the Book of Common Prayer. Moreover, it is wider than that. As a gift from God, marriage is a gift not just to the individual (none of God’s gifts work that way) but to the church in order to benefit her. We might then extend Cranmer’s words to the whole congregation.

Faithfulness to spouses and faithfulness to God are almost inseparable in the Scriptures.

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.

Editor’s Note: This post was first published on August 17, 2018.

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