Monday, June 10, 2013

Why Get Married, Anyway? (I Don't Know)

We all know that the Bible, while recognizing the institution of marriage, says nothing substantial about how one becomes married. Jesus went to a seven-day wedding celebration, but we don’t know what the ceremony itself looked like. The bible doesn’t prescribe specific kinds of civil or religious ceremonies. We don’t know what promises brides made to bridegrooms, or visa versa. We can be sure that the presuppositions of those entering into marriage were more sexist than we'd be comfortable with. The law of levirate marriage, for example, which required the brother of a deceased man to marry his sister-in-law should she be childless, sounds like legalized rape to us moderns—even if it was meant to protect the widow back then. I mean, what if they hated each other? And it is interesting how some people take the Old Testament’s condemnation of homosexuality seriously, but not the levirate law about marriage--which, after all, touches on one of the cornerstone institutions in their view of the world. And then there is the Apostle Paul, who suggested that single people never get married, since Jesus was coming back any time now! Well, who is listening to Paul now?

The Bible doesn’t have much to say about the institution of marriage. Does what we think of a common law marriage now count as marriage in the Biblical sense, for example? What if people can’t afford to get married? What do we make of David's or Abraham's multiple marriages or couplings or whatever you call them? 

We can know something of the qualities that a marriage should have by the sort of things God’s prophets say about Israel acting like an unfaithful spouse. We can know something about the qualities a marriage should have by extrapolating from the Genesis story about Adam and Eve. Though not a story about marriage, per se, it does suggest that attachment (to use a contemporary marriage-therapy buzz-word) is a positive quality—most of us want other people in our lives who will be “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh."

So why this musing about marriage? Well, basically, this coming Sunday I am preaching on the theme, “Ever Thought of Getting Married?” I’m preaching on this theme in a context where marriage (as culturally defined, today) is definitely not thought of as something the Bible demands. People live together and no one thinks anything of it. Nor do I--morally, that is. But in this context, why might something like marriage as we understand it today be advisable or user-friendly or wise or beneficial or fun for today’s young people?

Help! Let me know, please!


  1. Well at least you're starting on Monday. :)

    I'm curious where you start given what you wrote. I like a lot of your points and you rightly challenge a lot of sloppy, unfootnoted talks about "Biblical marriage". Are you approach marriage as a human institution that God has an agenda for? Are you talking about it as a gift from God and if so for what? Are you talking about it as a convention that might perhaps have contemporary utility and so therefore you want to give guidance in it? Who is your audience (I don't know your church)? Singles? Married? Divorced? Multiple divorced? Living together?

    Many as you know thing marriage as we the church has asserted (a life long commitment) is unrealistic. Maybe it should have terms. Now I'm deeply curious where you're going with it. pvk

  2. BTW I'm preaching on Judah and Tamar for Father's Day. Funny how I can never keep the hallmark calendar in front of me when I'm working on a series. About 12 years ago I preached on Lot and his daughters on Mother's Day. My poor church. :)

    1. I've preached on this passage too--it was illustrative (that is, I didn't "exegete" it) of abuse and codependency. Definitely not one of the the more inspiring moments in the OT narrative.

  3. Genesis of course has a number of famous marriages: Abram and Sarai, man and his half-sister who puts Hagar into his lap and then wants Hagar and Ishmael out of their lives. Ouch.

    Isaac and Rebekah: years of barrenness and then a near miss repeat of Cain and Abel.

    Of course the big event is Jacob, Leah and Rachel (not to mention the two slave-wives).

    Oh my so much material, so little time. And we haven't mentioned Hosea and Gomer, David and ..., etc.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts. I'm preaching in a church that does not think of marriage as a divine institution that has to be saved from all those people who are not Christians. People in my church (married, living together, gay, divorced--we have them all) are curious about whether or not marriage (as opposed to living together) actually makes some kind of sense that the latter doesn't. The won't turn to the Bible for any kind of "Law" or "creation norm" sort of answer (same with me). But they are interested if there is Biblical wisdom here that they have missed (as am I). I'm sort of inclined, right now, to say that promises are at the core of a wedding, and you don't need a church for those. But the ritual, the public airing of promises, the party, the aesthetic delight all commend themselves as possible reasons for getting married rather than deciding to live together.

    Yes, I always start by Monday. I try to start two weeks ahead of time, but too much going on right now. But summer is coming.

  5. There was an article in the NYT, I think, that looked at why those who live together and then get married, do not have marriages that last very long. The conclusion, as I recall was that such individuals never made an assertive "I do!" but rather moved in for convenience or feeling, and then stumbled into a "well we might as well get married..." but never stopped to make the definitive, self defining statement. All of a sudden they discovered a loss of identity, depression, feeling of being trapped etc... because they never really said Yes! and never really said No! Granted, this is not always the case, but we are talking about wisdom. There is wisdom in meaning what you say, acting with purpose, following through, making a well thought out commitment and then discovering such a commitment is not a prison, but a means to freedom. Just watched an off beat movie called The Future with Miranda July, about two 30 somethings who unplug from the internet, and discover they really don't know who they are or what their relationship means. That might be of some value while you research this. -Nate

  6. Thanks Nate. I'm aware of the NYT article you reference--my wife sent it to me, as she is a couples therapist. I'll put the movie on my "to see," list. Thanks! John

  7. I'll offer a user-friendly suggestion.

    As succinctly as possible, marriage expresses the non-verbal communication implicit in sexual intercourse.
    Marriage is relationship honesty--being willing to say with your mouth what your are saying with your unclothed body, i.e., "I give myself to you." The seventh commandment can be seen as a subset of the ninth commandment.

    Secular evidence for this abounds. Campus ministers hear it. The news of the rich and infamous confirm it. Even couples who affirm that they want a purely physical sexual relationship with no emotional or religious complications, find themselves feeling enraged and betrayed when the relationship ends or becomes non-exclusive. "I trusted you! You lied to me!" Murderous rage, sometimes.

    It could even be that God gave us these manufacturer's instructions because that is how he made us.

    Daniel Bos

  8. This discussion reminded me of a thought I had in Nov 2011 (that's why I like blogging, so I can find random thoughts years later) of how Religion can be sort of a Ulysses Contract.

    Marriage too is sort of a Ulysses contract especially in a culture where we are confident in our ability to navigate the future, confident in our powers of decision making, and confident we can make a way for ourselves.

    Watching people care for disabled loved ones for extended periods of time (stroke, Alzheimer's, etc.) is a powerful testimony to the institution and to the people who live up to it. It's prophetic in a consumeristic culture that looks across the bed and asks "am I getting enough out of this bargain? Could I get more in another bed? From another partner?"

    I remember how Lew Smedes little book on commitment changed my life.

  9. Good. However, I would be careful about generalizing to too many individuals by describing a culture as this or that. Cultures may be consumeristic, but the majority of people (a lot, in any case), whether married or just living together, don't view their partners are a better or worse bargain. Religion may be an inspiration to marriage as a Ulysses contract. But last I looked, the divorce rate among Evangelicals was equal, or higher than, the population at large.

    I helped Lew edit his last book. He was a good friend. Wise in every way. Miss him!


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