As to its nature—what it essentially is—marriage is a lifelong, unbreakable bond established by God the Creator between one man and one woman (see “Marriage: a Lifelong Bond,” in the Standard Bearer, April 15, 1998).
As to how the people of God are to regard marriage, and their life in it, marriage is a calling. It is not an institution and way of life that is intended primarily for their pleasure, comfort, happiness, and fulfillment. Marriage is intended for the glory of God. Believing men and women are privileged and commanded to serve God in married life. Their happiness and fulfillment are secondary. The only happiness and fulfillment that are of real importance are the happiness and fulfillment that believers have from serving God acceptably in marriage. This happiness and fulfillment they can—and must—have, regardless of their happiness, or lack of it, with their marriage companion.
That marriage is an earthly ordinance in which the Christian works out his salvation by serving God as God requires in His Word is the teaching of the apostle in I Corinthians 7. This is one of the outstanding passages in Scripture on marriage. The instruction is practical. But underlying the passage and its practical instruction is the truth that marriage is a calling. At a crucial juncture in his teaching on marriage, the apostle declares, concerning marriage, “But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches” (v. 17). A little later, with reference to one’s race and nationality, one’s occupation, and one’s social status, as well as one’s marital state, he says, ” Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God” (v. 24).
Marriage for Christians is a “vocation.” The effectual, saving call of the gospel not only gives elect believers salvation, but also commands and empowers most of them to be servants of God in His holy institution of marriage.
This is what professing Christians ignore today. This is what their supposedly Reformed and evangelical churches allow them to ignore. They view marriage as merely an arrangement of human life for their pleasure and convenience. When it suits them, they get married, and only because it suits them. When they find that their marriage does not please and satisfy, they divorce and remarry. They are sure to leave, if they should have to suffer in their marriage.
When a believer regards his or her marriage as a divine calling, the earthly circumstances of the marriage are of no ultimate importance, whether her husband is a good man or a fool like Nabal; whether his wife is a lovely woman or a shrew; whether the marriage is a delightsome life that is ended all too quickly, or a burden heavy to be borne until God finally grants relief in death. The circumstances of marriage are unimportant, just as it is not important whether one is a Jew or a Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, weeping or rejoicing (I Cor. 7:18ff.).
The one important thing about marriage is “the keeping of the commandments of God” (v. 19).
For believing young people, regarding marriage as a calling will mean that they marry. God commands them to marry, and sooner rather than later. Unless they have the gift of continence and have resolved to remain single in order more devotedly to serve the Lord, they are to marry, in order to avoid fornication (I Cor. 7:1ff.). Since the young men must take the initiative, they must consider themselves duty-bound to seek wives among the young women in the church, thus providing their spiritual sisters with the husbands whom they are commanded to marry. There should be more of this seriousness in dating and deciding to marry, and less of the quest for an emotional “falling in love.”
When the young people marry, they must enter marriage as a distinct, divine calling. Parents and church must have taught them this from childhood. The minister who marries them must give them this counsel. In the solemn setting of the Reformed marriage ceremony, the traditional, biblical vow must hold the calling before the couple. It is inexcusable that ministers allow the couple to create their own vows, especially when those vows fail to reflect the fundamental biblical duties of love on the part of the husband, submission on the part of the wife, and mutual faithfulness until death parts them.
A December, 1997 editorial in the Chicago Tribune (“Promise tweakers: Why today’s wedding vows are meaningless”) complained about this very thing.
To understand why the United States has the highest divorce rate in the world, go to some weddings and listen to the vows. … A growing number of couples—perhaps most—compose their own vows. It would be hard to exaggerate the symbolic importance of this shift. The old vows were created by society and presented to the couple, signifying the goal of conforming the couple to marriage. The new vows are created by the couple and presented to society, signifying the goal of conforming marriage to the couple.
The editorialist correctly observes that by thus trivializing the marriage vow society is disparaging marriage and exalting the couple. He asks, “Who is to blame for this transformation of the vow?” His answer is:
I suggest that we blame the clergy. Many pastors have become little more than entertainers, bit players, in the weddings they officiate and in the marriages they launch…. What matters most about the wedding is increasingly overshadowed. The party gets bigger; the embrace of the marital promise gets smaller. What is to be done? First, pastors should reclaim the historic responsibility to promulgate and maintain the integrity of the marriage vows exchanged in their churches. Central to this reclamation would be the revival of the vow of marital permanence.
Our ministers must insist on the traditional vow. If the couple resist, the minister should tell them to find someone else to marry them.
Then the message at the wedding ceremony must not center on the couple’s happiness, their love for each other as no two have ever loved each other before, and a (mythical) life of uninterrupted bliss before them. The message must be the Word of God setting before them and before all in the audience the all-important reality, that marriage is a calling. This includes the recognition that there will be troubles in married life. Wisely, the Reformed marriage form begins by assuring the couple of God’s assistance of them in their afflictions. This is based squarely on the apostle’s teaching that all married saints “shall have trouble in the flesh” (I Cor. 7:28). To leave this out at a marriage ceremony, probably because this “gloomy note” does not harmonize with the pretty flowers, lovely dresses, and sentimental mood, is foolish.
Because marriage is a calling, believers stick it out in a bad marriage. They do more than stick it out. They exert themselves, on their part, to live as Christ commands them to live in marriage, regardless of their miserable wife or husband. There are bad marriages in the church. One cannot be a pastor in the church for many years and remain ignorant of this. There are husbands who are unloving toward their wife. It breaks your heart to see their coldness, unkindness, and harshness toward their own body. There are wives who are little or no help to their husband. Brawling, sharp-tongued women, they make you cringe when they contradict, criticize, and demean their head. The believer in such a marriage does not, may not, cut and run. It lives in his or her soul, “Abide in the calling in which you are called.”
So much is it the case that believers are cheerfully to remain in a bad marriage that the believer is commanded to maintain a marriage with an unbeliever (I Cor. 7:13, 14).
The sense of calling will in many cases move the husband or wife whose marriage companion has committed fornication to receive the unfaithful party back, if she or he repents. Even though the sin has so deeply and painfully hurt them that they are inclined to divorce (as they have a right to do), knowledge that their marriage is above all a calling directs them along the way of reconciliation.
The truth that marriage is a calling, however, does not only function practically in circumstances of marital distress. Its main effect is not that believers decline to divorce. Rather, it produces the fruit that married believers live together daily in the right way. Living in marriage as a calling, the husband exerts himself to love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her (Eph. 5:25-29). Love for the wife is a command from Christ Jesus his Lord. The lovableness of the woman may make it easier to obey the command in some cases than in others, but the command has nothing to do with her lovableness. Neither does it have anything to do with the husband’s feelings of love, or lack thereof.
Love for the wife is a command. It has everything to do with marriage’s being a calling. There is simply no place in the Christian life or in the church, therefore, for the mournful words, “I no longer love my wife.” Usually the man who utters them supposes that they express a ground for divorce that cannot be challenged. But his words are irrelevant. The proper response to them is, “So what?” If they mean anything at all, they are a confession of sin, as though one would say, “I robbed a bank yesterday.” The man must be urged to repent of his damnable sin and to start loving his wife again. The grace of God will enable him to do it, if only he will seek it.
The godly wife is similarly commanded to reverence and submit to her husband, as a help to him (Eph. 5:22-24, 33). This has nothing to do with the power and pride of the male, as it has nothing to do with her own natural inclination or disinclination. Her marriage is a calling, and in this calling the God whom she serves wills her submission.
Carrying out these basic commands for God’s sake, Christian husbands and wives will experience a great deal of bliss in marriage—bliss in their own relationship—as God blesses those who fear and serve Him.
For some in the church, God prevents and prohibits marriage. By governing the circumstances of their lives, God makes marriage impossible for some who would like to marry. Others He forbids to marry, e.g., the woman who is divorced because her husband is guilty of fornication (I Cor. 7:10, 11). Such are to receive their single life from God as a calling. Willingly, joyfully, they are to serve God as single persons. They must guard against resentment and bitterness. Discontent in single life is rebellion against God whose calling this is for the single person.
It is also foolish. For marriage itself or single life is of no ultimate importance. That is why married people are to have their wife or husband as though they did not have them (I Cor. 7:29). Only one thing matters: living obediently in our calling.
This is the only thing that will matter one day when each of us gives account of his or her life in marriage to Christ the judge. How much or how little happiness we had will not even come up. The question from the tribunal will be, “Did you fulfill your calling?”
With eternal consequences.