1. Marriage - not always easy
Over the past 10 years since we’ve been here at St Mark’s the greatest pastoral stresses for me have not been births or marriages; they haven’t been illnesses or even deaths, as terrible as those things have been; but they have been marital problems. Over the years a number of couples here at St Mark’s have split – and each one has caused great heartache and sadness. And the likelihood is that there will be more. Being a Christian is no guarantee of a trouble-free marriage.
Over the past few months I’ve thought it would help us to think through God’s word about marriage and marriage breakdowns – so we can be clear and act as God wants. I was planning to do this next term, but think it may be helpful to spend some time on it now – hence this one-off sermon.
And I know it is a very sensitive subject. Some of you have come from broken homes as I have. My parents separated when I was about 14. My memory is of waking up one morning to find my father had left. Walked out. Gone to Perth - as far away as he could go I figured, yet still be in Australia. It was confusing; it was painful and still is. I missed my father a lot as I was growing up. I often resented what he did.
Sadly society seems to treat divorce as an easy, harmless matter – but it is neither easy nor harmless. Our courts uphold no-fault divorce, but there is no such thing.
I know some of you have been through divorce, or separation, yourselves – and some have shared with me the pain of that. Perhaps even today your marriage, or that of someone you know, is in trouble. God’s word may be great to hear, or hard to hear.
We need to pray that I will be faithful to God in what I say, and sensitive in how I say it - and that you will be gentle and considerate in how you hear and respond.
So let’s pray that God will indeed help us today.
2. Marriage – some biblical principles
God has much to say about marriage. Far too much for one sermon. And maybe next year we can spend some more weeks on it if that will be helpful. Perhaps you can let me know some time Let’s for now point out some key principles:
a) Marriage is a good gift of God, but not end point of humanity or human relationships.
We need to start with God. God is a God of relationships. He is relational in himself. He is the model for all our relationships. As we come to know God we see that relationships matter for him. And for us. In Genesis 1 God tells us He made humanity in his image – part of that image is that we are relational beings.
And so in Genesis 2 we meet Adam and then Eve. Relational beings. Eve created to be a suitable helper for Adam – equal, similar, yet different. And at the end of that chapter Adam and Eve are joined together by God. His action. His initiative. The first marriage, instituted by God before the Fall. Marriage then is right and good.
Jesus backs that up in Matt 19:4-6 when he says - “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 79 w Mt 19:5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ 80 ? x Mt 19:6 So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
Marriage is a good gift of God. We need to affirm the value of marriage.
But marriage is not the end-point of our human relationships; it is not the be all and end all of our existence. Singleness is an equally valid option. What matters most is our relationship with God. And indeed human marriage is modeled on that relationship.
b).Human marriage is modeled on (and reflects) Jesus’ own relationship with his bride, the church.
Just as human relationships reflect God’s nature, so human marriages reflect God’s ultimate plans and purposes – to create a people who are his very own. The relationship between a man and a woman in marriage is based on the relationship between God and his people.
Paul writes then in Eph 5:23-26 - For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, u his body, of which he is the Savior. Eph 5:24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands v in everything. Husbands, love your wives, w just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her x Eph 5:26 to make her holy, y
The relationship between Jesus and his bride is to set the pattern for the relationship between a man and his bride. A pattern of loving, active, self-sacrificing headship, and loving submissive response.
At the end of the Bible we see the true marriage is not between a man and a woman, but between Christ and the church – Rev 21:2 - I saw the Holy City, p the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, q prepared as a bride r beautifully dressed for her husband.
Here is the wedding of Jesus to his bride - the church, His people.
c) Human marriage is only for this world, not the world to come
Which shows us that human marriage is only for this world, not for the world to come.
So Jesus says in Matt 22:30 - At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; e they will be like the angels in heaven.
Sometimes people worry – if my spouse dies I can’t get married again, because what will happen then when I get to heaven? You can get married again on earth, if you want to, because human marriage is only relevant here on earth. It is designed for relationships in this world. So why was it instituted by God?
d) Marriage is designed by God for the procreation of children, and as the right place for human sexuality to be expressed.
Marriage is the ideal place for children to be brought up – ideally with a father and mother who love and care for them, both bringing their own differences into the life of their child. In Genesis 1 God blesses humanity and tells them to fill the earth. Which involves having children.
And normally having children involves sex – and so marriage is also the place for us to express our sexual nature. It’s part of who God made us, part of who we are - sex is a great gift of God. We ought not to be afraid nor ashamed of sex – but because it is such a powerful force God lays down guidelines and laws on how to express it. And the only God-given place for sex is within a marriage relationship – marriage is more than sex, but it is to include sex where possible.
I read this quote in a devotion recently - ‘The fire of sex is meant for the fireplace of marriage. Once it leaves there, somebody's going to get burned.’
The first few verses in 1 Cor 7 echo this thought. Some of the Corinthain Christians seem to have been suggesting that sex, even within a marriage, was not spiritual, and so should be avoided.
But Paul says – no. If you’re married then have sex, and keep having sex. How great is that! Sex is an obligation and responsibility within marriage in vv3-5 – the husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, m and likewise the wife to her husband. 1Co 7:4 The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. 1Co 7:5 Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, n so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan o will not tempt you p because of your lack of self-control.
This passage does not justify a spouse saying - you must give me what I want. That is to completely misunderstand the nature of marriage. Paul is not saying I have the right to sex when and where and how I want, regardless of what my spouse thinks or feels. That’s not marriage. Marriage is not about what I get but what I can give to the other. Marriage is to be other-person centred, even when it comes to sex. It is about what the other person likes, not what I like – marriage is about pleasing my spouse. Which is a challenge sexually, as in so many parts of married life, because men and women are so different. Differences which make marriage a wonder and at times a frustration. Differences which require careful consideration, communication and often compromise.
Sex is for marriage; indeed Paul says sex helps our spirituality – so can I say, plainly and strongly, if you are married then keep your sexual relationship healthy. If it is not then please do something about it now! Too many marriages break down over this issue. Help is available if you need it.
Sex is not all there is to marriage, but sex within a marriage does matter – and marriage without sex is at least spiritually unhelpful, and some would say wrong. Don’t overlook it or ignore it.
e) Marriage is a covenant – a commitment for life
Our final principle is that marriage is a covenant – a commitment, a relationship of personal obligation, which God expects us to honour until one of us dies. Death breaks the covenant. And in that event v39 says the remaining spouse is free to remarry – as long as the person they are going to marry is a Christian.
Marriage is a covenant, modeled again on God’s covenant relationship with his people. In Mal 2:13-15 we read - You flood the LORD'S altar with tears. h You weep and wail i because he no longer pays attention j to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. k Mal 2:14 You ask, l “Why?” It is because the LORD is acting as the witness m between you and the wife of your youth, n because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. o Mal 2:15 Has not the LORD made them one? p In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. 6 q So guard yourself r in your spirit, and do not break faith s with the wife of your youth.
If you are going to take on marriage, or have done so, God calls you to take it on for life. Regardless of what happens – for better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness or health. If you can’t promise that, then don’t marry.
Some principles for marriage. Much more could be said. We affirm and uphold marriage. But…
3. Marriage - in a fallen world
I. Thinking theologically
We live in a fallen world. Even as Christians we battle with sin. And so our relationships can suffer, and our marriages can suffer. Currently almost 1 in 2 marriages end in divorce. God’s ideal is for marriage to be enjoyed for a lifetime – but society’s track record is not too good. What does God have to say about marriage breakdown?
a) Divorce – in the case of adultery only; but an option not a command
Let’s start with 1 Cor 7:10-11 - To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. v 1Co 7:11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. w And a husband must not divorce his wife.
The ideal remember is that marriage is a covenant for life. Divorce is saying I break that covenant. Yet the Bible allows divorce in some cases – but only because of our sinfulness. So Jesus says in Matt 19:8-9 - “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.
The Fall, our sin, necessitates the provision of divorce. But when?
In Matt 5:32 Jesus says - I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. o
Putting all that together I take it that divorce is not the ideal, but is allowed in the case of adultery only. Adultery breaks the marriage covenant, and so divorce reflects that reality.
Having said that, divorce is not a command, just an option. The better option – if possible is for confession, and repentance, and forgiveness and restoration of the marriage, as God works to bring people back together. I have seen that happen – it is a hard and long road, but with God all things are possible.
What if there is no adultery, but it is still an unhappy marriage? If divorce is not an option, are there options for people who still want to act Christianly?
b) Separation is permissible – so as to work things out and reunite, or stay separate but without marrying anyone else
If things are so bad that a couple cannot live together under the same roof, then separation seems to be permissible, as the lesser of two evils, as a way to limit the damage done by sin.
Remember 1 Cor 7:10-11 - A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.
I take it that separation is not a sin. It may be caused by sin, it may show a need for Christian growth, but separating is not a sin. In cases of abuse of either spouse or children I would almost always I think counsel the victim to leave. It is not wrong to protect ourselves or others from harm; it is not wrong to remove ourselves so as to prevent someone else’s sinful behaviour. Likewise in cases of addictions – drugs, alcohol, gambling - again I would probably almost always counsel leaving. Marriages can be unsafe places to be. Separation may be the most loving and appropriate response.
But even though they may live apart the couple need to realize they are still married – separation does not break the covenant – and so they are not free to marry someone else. Remember v11 – if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. w
The goal of separation is not so I can remarry, but so I can work towards being reconciled – however long that may take. That is always God’s desire, for He is in the business of restoring broken relationships.
Those who are separated may need to be reminded God sees them as still married, and they should treat one another appropriately; and we may need to be reminded that they are still married and we ought not engage in inappropriate relationships with them.
Separation is possible but far from ideal, and it seems to me to always be painful and sad, so don’t take it lightly. Please don’t let your marriage get to that point. If you are having issues, do something about them before it’s too late. Spend time with one another. Talk to one another – men, especially you. Listen to one another – women, especially you. Seek counseling, do a course, change your schedule, find a close friend of the same sex to be accountable to and to pray with. Don’t just blame the other person – examine yourself – many times I’ve seen problems in marriages caused by sinful self-centredness. What do you need to change in yourself?
Those are some theological reflections on divorce and separation. How do we help people pastorally? The guiding rule is always love – and on this matter in 3 areas.
II. Pastoral practice
a) Love for God - relationship with Him
The first area is in love for God. As Christians we seek to call all people to repentance and faith in Christ. It seems likely that in a marriage breakdown both parties may have actions or words which need to be repented of. We should be encouraging and calling each party to do so before God. Sin damages our relationship with God.
Sin flourishes in secret, and part of our care for one another is to get it out in the open carefully and encourage godly dealing of it. Marriages should not be exempt from that sort of care. Sin in marriage, sin outside of marriage, should be challenged, and repentance urged. But if I am going to do this I need to make sure I do it in a godly and loving way. My aim is for people to be back in right relationship with God.
b) Love for one another – amicable relationships
And secondly to get back in right relationship with one another. To love each other as Jesus calls us to do.
Marriage problems often provoke unlove - hostility, anger, ungodly words and actions and emotions. We need to urge all people to seek to love the other person in a way which reflects God’s love for us – even if they are having marriage problems. To put aside ungodly anger, to treat one another with respect, to be patient, to not foster or encourage gossip or rumours, to not put the other person down, to say sorry, to be willing to forgive, to ensure the other person is adequately provided for. Even though a couple may not come back together again, they are called on to treat each other amicably and lovingly.
Can we ask people the question – how are you treating your spouse? And who will ask that of us?
c) Our love for others – care!
Finally we outside of the marriage need to show active love to those affected by marriage troubles or breakdown.
Often one spouse is more disadvantaged by separation than the other – how can we make sure they survive? Single parents have to do a remarkable work – can we help? Do they need housing, food, money, lawns mowed, cleaning, and so on – the physical needs? What about their emotional, and social needs?
If children are involved – how will we care for them, with their spiritual upbringing, their emotional, physical, social care?
For both parties how do we support them through a tough time? They will both need support and love and care. How we do that individually will depend on the relationship we have with them – we may know one party much better than the other. We may be better placed to help one than the other. If there is something you should be doing, are you doing it? How can we show God’s love to them in the context of our relationship with them?
And part of loving them is not listening to, nor spreading, rumours. Seems to me there is always a lot of gossip around every marriage breakdown – Christians are not to be party to that. If you hear a rumour – ignore it. And tell the person who told you to ignore it as well, and not keep spreading it. If you are really concerned about it, and if you need to know, then check out the facts. We need to be careful that in supporting one party we don’t denigrate or put down the other.
Friends there is much more that could be said, but it’s time to wrap up.
Marriage breakdowns are always difficult and sad. As Christians we uphold and value marriage, and singleness. Yet we know we sin and live in a fallen world, and so the ideal of marriage is not always met. Separation may be necessary – but it affects all concerned, and especially on those who are most vulnerable.
We need to keep a biblical perspective, and yet keep loving those who are going through tough times. We need to keep praying for God to be at work in the lives of all those who are married that they may continue to live lives which honour God.
And we must remember and proclaim that any sin in marriage or separation or divorce or remarriage is not unforgivable. Jesus died to pay for all our sins, whatever they are or may be. God’s forgiveness and cleansing, cleansing from guilt and shame and a sense of failure, are available to those who are having marriage problems or have gone down the road of separation and divorce for whatever reason. God offers us a fresh start, through his Son the Lord Jesus. LET’S PRAY