Marriage as Witness
Understanding marriage as being about mission, not happiness
By Jeffrey A Schooley
This column is for the engaged, the to-be-engaged, and even for those who are already married and are still working out what that means.
Last month we explored the significance of couples getting married in the church during a normal Sunday worship service. This radical proposal caught more than a few readers’ attention and was given, at the very least, to note the importance of “marriage” over the consumptive practices of “weddings.”
The primary reason that weddings ought to take place in the church is to signal a couple’s intention to view their marriage as an extension of their call to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, since the church does not pander in the sale of “ceremonies,” but provides space and means for worship, having a wedding worship service signals that the couple sees their marriage as a means to glorify God.
But the ways in which marriages are to witness to Jesus Christ only begin in the wedding worship service; they do not end there.
The entirety of married life is best understood as trying to point away from itself and toward the God who has taken covenantal vows in Jesus Christ. Indeed, too much cannot be made of the metaphor of Jesus and the church as bridegroom and bride. In fact, a good theological case could be made that this heavenly marriage is the blueprint for our earthly marriages and not the other way around. That is to say, without this theological reality, our earthly marital bonds would be nothing more than stylized mating rituals (as the anthropologist might claim they already are). If this is the case, then our marriages are metaphors of the heavenly marriage. And a metaphor is only as good as it clarifies that to which it points.
Our marriages are meant to reveal this greater marriage. This requires us to ask about the content of the heavenly marriage so we best understand the content of our earthly marriages. This heavenly marriage has three marks. It is faithful, forgiving, and fruitful.
The heavenly marriage is one founded in faith. This is the faith of Jesus Christ, who accepts the cross and is raised victorious as a means of reconciling all that was apart from God back unto God. This faithfulness, however, is not one past, great, historic event, but is seen in Jesus’ continuing faithfulness to his Bride through the sending of the Holy Spirit and his presence in the sacraments.
In response, our marriages are to reflect this faithfulness in their monogamy and fidelity. Those words, of course, are often assumed to be merely about sex. However, true monogamy and fidelity extends beyond bodies and into every aspect of life. For example, a chronic gambler can rightly be said to be (financially) unfaithful to his wife. So let us employ the broadest sense of these words as possible.
When our marriages perform monogamy and fidelity they point beyond themselves to the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, they are to do this consistently, just as the Spirit and the sacraments consistently keep the faithfulness of Jesus before us.
The sacrificial faithfulness of Jesus Christ is precipitated by the sinfulness of humanity. While Jesus’ life is about far more than just his death, his death is the means by which we are forgiven.
In response, our marriages are to reflect this forgiveness. Given the centrality of faithfulness above – especially in its broadest understanding – we are inevitably going to sin against one another. Infidelity will be more common than we suspect or desire. The only cure for infidelity is forgiveness.
No matter how in love a couple is on their wedding day, they will hurt one another in their marriage. For this reason, the church isn’t all that impressed by a couple’s love. The church isn’t impressed by a couple’s love because the church knows that love isn’t what gave birth to their marriage and isn’t what will sustain it. To be sure, God loves us, but this love does not result in a need for marriage (unless we want to heap shame on single Christians’ heads).
Thus, when the inevitable harm is done one to another in marriage, forgiveness is required. This forgiveness, however, is not merely meant to bring a couple back into a happy communion, but rather to point toward the forgiveness already granted to us all in Jesus Christ.
Couples should not “sin big” against one another, but heaven breaks out in song when they do “forgive big.”
The heavenly marriage is represented in scripture primarily as a banquet, a feast. There is abundance that is shared by all. As a feast, its fruitfulness is found in the joy and worship that springs forth from it.
Accordingly, Christian marriages are to be fruitful. For too long, of course, this fruitfulness was too narrowly defined as the procreation of children. And children are, indeed, a blessing. But a couple’s fruitfulness must extend beyond mere procreation. This is especially Good News for those who are unable to have children.
Instead, fruitfulness is seen in how a couple’s marriage serves and loves others. A couple whose faithfulness and forgiveness begins and ends within their conjugal life has failed to truly be fruitful. Furthermore, the faithfulness and forgiveness experienced in the marriage only means something to the degree that it benefits the couple outside of their marriage. A forgiven husband or wife ought to be a more forgiving sibling or coworker.
We have all known that couple whose relationship was like two snakes swallowing each other by the tail. We could not tell where one ended and the other began. And our experiences with those couples are probably proof enough why fruitfulness must be a mark of Christian marriages. The alternative is grotesque and annoying.
The description of this faithful, forgiving, and fruitful heavenly marriage only begins to scratch the surface, but this sort of marriage is far more exhilarating and compelling than the “joy” one has in pinning 1,001 posts to their wedding Pinterest board.
Ultimately, our marriages are to be part of a much bigger story of God’s faithfulness, forgiveness, and fidelity in Jesus Christ. If you’re looking for a cheesy way to remember this, try: “The Story of Us” works best when it is “The Story of JesUs.”
Jeffrey A. Schooley is a teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. He is also a PhD candidate in Theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Biking, Netflix, reading, teaching, and spending time with his wife and dog round out the rest of his life. He can be reached at ThinkLikeChristians@gmail.com.