Marriage Post #2: What does a good marriage look like in daily life

 

In my last post, I considered how the Bible describes a good marriage. What I described was that marriage should be understood as embodied theology (read here). In Christian marriage, the world gets a window into Christ and his relationship with his church. This is the meta-meaning of marriage. In this blog I want to get practical. What I want to show is how such a Christ-exalting marriage looks like in daily life. In other words, what are the components of a healthy Christian marriage. I have been extremely helped by the research and work of Dr. John Gottman in this regard. Though not a Christian, his research reveals that a basic Christian ethic used in the marital relationship, sets the marriage up to thrive relationally and to be a space where satisfaction and care flourish. Much of what I will share in what follows comes from his research. Gottman’s relational insights along with a theological foundation, give us a real sense of what is a good marriage.

**The relational aspects that make a great marriage**

The first relational reality that is foundational to a great marriage is that there is *fondness and admiration* between partners. Fondness and admiration can be described simply as the emotional reality of liking your partner. Liking your partner is the basis of any relationship and most likely the reason a couple begins their relational journey together. It involves sexual attractiveness but more deeply it is the psychological reality of just clicking as a couple. One way to test whether fondness and admiration are alive in your marriage is to consider the story of how you met your spouse and how you courted one another. When you remember those first months/years of the relationship are you filled with joy and happy remembrance. Are the memories romantic and fun? Or has those moments become emotionally neutral or even negative? Has your beginnings lost the magic of love? Does any of the attraction you initially have remain (or at least you desire for it to be rekindled)? The number one indicator of health for a marriage is the depth and health of the underlying affection each has for the other. If this is missing, or one of the partners no longer desires it, the marriage is under deep and profound threat. If you don’t like your spouse, the enemy is at the door. But if there is affection, friendship and admiration for one another, your marriage has the most important relational reality to be a good marriage.

The second reality of a healthy marriage is whether the couple cultivates the relationship through continuous, ongoing, small acts of connection. Gottman calls these ‘bids’. Bids are any act of connection by one partner to the other in an attempt for connection. This could be as small as asking your partner to look at a picture to as big as listening to a problem your spouse is having at work. These bids happen continually throughout the day and how each partner responds is indicative on whether affection will grow or diminish over time. To each bid given the receiving partner has four choices:

1) he can ignore his partner (she asks him to look at a picture, and he acts as if he didn’t hear her).
2) he can turn away from his partner (she asks him to look at the picture and he tells her that he is too busy right now).
3) he can turn against his partner (she asks him to look at the picture and he uses this moment to berate her on some topic of his choosing.

The fourth choice and what healthy couples do is turn towards one another. She asks him to look at the picture and he acknowledges her request and acts with interest in what she is displaying. When partners turn towards one another consistently over decades in small and big ways, the marriage relationship has depth, affection and is secure in relational love. Bids that are regularly used as moments to turn towards one another are the means of securing and growing love over a lifetime.

The third reality of a healthy marriage is the ability for each partner to listen empathetically to the other partner. The hardest thing that I see couples struggle with is to hear his or her spouse and see an issue, challenge or conflict from the spouse’s point of view. Men and women alike (though men are more prone to do it) are seemingly compelled to lead conversations, insert opinions, try to change a spouse’s opinion or solve a problem. Such behavior conveys loud and clearly that you care more about the sound of your own voice than the heart of your spouse. Healthy couples listen to one another well. Such healthy listening has several components:

– Empathetic listening with thoughtful questions (he tells his wife that he can’t stand a coworker. She says, “that sounds horrible. Tell me about it.”
– The listener takes the side of the spouse. If he can’t stand his coworker, she conveys that she is on his side in the conflict.
– There is no inserting of opinion or problem solving unless asked for. Instead, the goal is to cultivate a space where your partner feels completely heard, accepted and protected.
– Each partner always has time to listen. When a spouse is in distress, everything else disappears and the spouse becomes the focus.

If this is the frame of relational dialogue, most likely we are looking at a healthy couple.

The fourth element of a healthy couple is the ability to navigate conflict in a healthy way. This means the ability to hear a complaint from your partner rationally, empathize with his or her position, take responsibility for your part and together find a solution for the future. Many conflicts in marriage are perpetual. Meaning there are no easy solutions or the ‘solution’ would damage the soul of one of the partners in profoundly existential ways. Healthy couples can live in the tension of difference, find compromises and celebrate the gap that inevitably happens between two people.

Fifth, healthy couples create a culture of love for their relationship and their family. They ritualize important behavior that embodies their values. Here is an example that almost all Christian marriages celebrate that embodies a family’s values: celebrating Easter Sunday. Easter is the yearly moment of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Most Christian families have created rituals to embody their beliefs and values about this day. Church, games and families gathering become yearly rituals that embody a profound family value—Christ is alive and this is profoundly important to us. In some significant way, the day has meaning because each family has given that meaning to it. Healthy couples do these embodied rituals for other areas of life. They ritualize love making–a special way of initiating it, declining it, figuring out what to do, and enjoying one another. They ritualize date night–it is regularly calendars with specific activities that they enjoy together. They ritualize common activities that they do and enjoy together. And as a family, they participate in shared activities that cultivate relationship and love. All of these rituals embody values, beliefs and realities the couple want in their marriage. A healthy couple practice what they see as important by their shared, repeated activities. Because love must be cultivated, healthy couples come together to make sure such cultivation happens.

Finally, healthy couples have shared purpose and meaning. This has two aspects. First, each partner is committed to the other spouse’s calling and dreams. He acts with significant energy and support to help his spouse achieve what she wants out of life (& vice versa). In this way, each partner knows they have a life long ally in life. Each spouse knows that he or she has one person who stands and believes in him or her no matter what. Second, the couple over time cultivates and comes together over a shared purpose for the marriage itself. This might involve parenting but among healthy Christian couples this will also mean embracing the particular reason that God has brought this unique marriage together. This spiritual purpose will be the guiding light of the marriage. The narrative that gives meaning and hope even in the dark places. No matter what this marriage goes through, this marriage stands as a bright light because the marriage is an inseparable team reaching for audacious goals.

When all these components are operating in a marriage, the marriage is healthy and thriving. It is a good marriage.

Marriage: Embodied Theology (Part one of five)

Marriage is hard. Marriage is beautiful. Marriage is mysterious. I have been married for almost 16 years and I know many of the contours of married life but everyday brings new challenges and adventures. To stay committed and hope-filled over decades is no small achievement. Truly, it is a gift.

I am always filled with awe when I hear of a couple who has been married for fifty or sixty years and still they love each other deeply. It is otherworldly.

As a pastor, I interact with married couples all the time. Some marriages are beautiful. Many are trudging a hard road of faithfulness but standing and believing in goodness.  And sadly, more marriages than you can believe are relationships that are slowly dying or already dead.

For a variety of reasons, some personal and some theological, I have a deep passion to see Christian marriages thrive. For me, my passion means to do all I can to help marriages flourish.

With this in mind, the next several blog posts are going to focus on marriage. The topics will be:

  1. Marriage: embodied theology (This post)
  2.  Marriage: what masters of relationship can teach us
  3.  Marriage: The four horseman of the apocalypse
  4.  Marriage: repair
  5. Marriage: @Calvary

It is my hope that these posts might help all of us grow in our marriages and help in protecting and honoring the second most important institution in our world today.

What Makes a Good Marriage?

I want to answer this question in two ways. First and in this post, I want to consider the question biblically. The Bible, in my opinion, gives us a narrative framework that helps us understand marriage and when we aim to live into and live up to this narrative, our marriages thrive. And then in my next post, I want to answer the question relationally. Or to say another way, what relational behaviors do healthy couples do on a regular basis that cause a marriage to thrive as a place of love? When we have both answers, I think we will begin to get a picture of a good marriage.

A biblical framework for marriages

A Christian narrative framework for marriage is found in one of the most controversial verses in scripture:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
‭‭Ephesians‬ ‭5:22-33‬ ‭

To understand Paul’s commands on marriage, one needs to understand that Paul describes marriage as embodied theology. Ephesians 5 isn’t simply ethical dictums based on gender and marriage but more profoundly it places marriage in its rightful story–the story of Christ and the church.

In the Old Testament, one of the metaphors used to describe God and his people is that his people is the bride and he is the bridegroom. Paul is drawing on this narrative structure here. What he wants to do in Ephesians five is to explain the meaning of marriage, it’s purposes and ends. Marriage is not a human invention. Instead, it is a cultural reality that has meaning in that it points beyond itself to who God is, how he pursues his people, and who his people are to him.

God in Christ is the bridegroom. He is the passionate lover who has laid his eyes on the object of his love, the bride. Interlaced through Paul’s marriage theology are specific ways that Christ acts as the bridegroom.

The bridegroom is the head

Paul uses this language of ‘head’ elsewhere to describe Christ:

“And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” Colossians‬ ‭1:18‬ ‭ESV‬‬

When you think of this language of head in its most basic biological function, it is the head that brings together all the separate constituent parts and makes a whole person–body, drives, emotions, and consciousness. It is that organ that runs the body–both its automated parts and conscious parts. The head makes interprets the past and seeks a preferred future.  It is also that part of the human person that makes sense of a situation, puts it into context and in a sense, explains it. The head is the storyteller–not in the sense of myth or fiction but in the sense of telling “our personal story”. It is the head that gives meaning and purpose to human life.

Without the head, there is no life at least one worth living. There is no purpose, no meaning. Without the head we cannot know where we are, what we are and where we are going. We would not exist in any meaningful way.

Christ is the bridegroom who is the head of the marriage with the church. He gives the marriage meaning and purpose. he tells the church her story–the meaning of life. He shows her who she is, where she is at and where she is going with him. He makes it possible for her to function. Without him, she has no life. This is what Christ the bridegroom does for his people the bride.

The bridegroom is Savior

Paul tells us that the bridegroom Christ is savior of his bride. He has laid down his life for her. Now we quickly understand this as substitutionary atonement and that is right. But I don’t think Paul wants you to think atonement theories here. He wants you to think in terms of a love story. This is a marital story filled with adventure, passion and romance.

Christ loves his church, he is passionate for her. His eyes are on her. He is consumed by her (the Bible calls this jealously). But she has fallen for other lovers. These are lovers that have turned into tyrants (read the Old Testament and you will see this is the continual story of Israel). She thought she knew her lover but he ended up being a jerk, abusive and cold. And instead of being a bride she became a slave to this lover. And perhaps she even longs for a real lover but she sees herself now and wonders who would want her now–used, demeaned, and made small.

But the great bridegroom still wants her even though she has been greatly diminished by false love. She is imprisoned and under lock and key. He loves her so much and wants to be with her that he goes to war to defeat this tyrant of love. And in the battle to save her, he lays down his life. He wins his beloved but it comes at great cost.

Christ is the bridegroom who has gone to war to have his bride. And to free her and love her, he paid with his life.

The bridegroom makes her beautiful

Paul says that Christ nourishes, cherishes, and washes his bride so she might be presented in splendor. In other words, he gives his energies for one purpose: so she can be beautiful.

The relationship is one in which Christ’s energies are used to make his bride shine like the sun. He waits for the day when he can show her off, when all the residue of that horrible past lover is washed off and forgotten. In the place of a demeaned and abused maiden will be the most beautiful bride.

Christ the bridegroom is a leader who passionately loves his bride. Nothing stands in his way. He faces all her captors and slays them even when it costs him everything. His actions display his love. When he has her, his energies are spent for her beauty and good. His life is spent on her. We might say that the glory of the bridegroom is seen in so far as he is willing to act in love for his bride. His actions are his glory on display. Her destiny fulfilled reveal his magnificence.

Then Paul gives a narrative framework for the bride.

The bride

The bride respectfully submits

The bride, the church, remembers her old lover, the tyrant. He promised so much, but he caused her to turn her eyes away from her beloved. The tyrant turned out to be a beast. All he did was use, abuse and demean her. For reasons that our mysterious, her Savior has come. Forgetting and forgiving her the false love, he has rescued her. The bridegroom has laid down his life for her. And he hasn’t just left her all beat up, insecure and small. He has done great work to fulfill the deepest desires of her heart. It’s his aim to bless and honor her in the marriage. Now, she is beautiful. Her glory shines because of the work of the bridegroom.

And her response is the response of love-filled, faithful following.

She declares, “You are so good, strong, mysterious in love that I will follow my beloved wherever he desires to go because I know that his aim is my good.”

So she will go wherever he goes because in following she will flourish. She fully trusts him because he is trustworthy. She submits fully to him.

She respects him. He is unlike anyone she has ever met, a hero of heroes. He is her knight who has rescued her from tyranny, pain, obscurity and raised her up to glory.

Christian marriage

Christian marriage is to tell this story of Christ and his church. This is the great drama of the universe and our marriages are to be a reenactment of the greatest love story that ever was.

Christian husbands

Before you are married, you are to look for that one woman that captures your attention, the one that captivates you. Find the woman that fills you with passion. You are to look for the one who attracts you and the one who you know with your help could be great and glorious. As her husband you believe she could be everything she was ever created to be. She can be more beautiful than she ever imagined because of your love. When you find that woman, pursue her with all the nobility and passion her unique brilliance demands. Then marry her.

You will find that your wife has tyrants in her life. These days it might be that life and relationships have made her think she is not worthy of love. Maybe she thinks she is not beautiful. Maybe a tyrant of life has said she is not brilliant or capable. Maybe a tyrant has wounded her soul. Maybe a demonic tyrant has imprisoned her with an offer of some good but now she is enslaved by this beast.

Well husband, use all your energies and all your passion to free her from all those who would seek to harm your beloved. Fight to the death to have her and to bring her to her destiny–free, mature & able to do what God has called her to do.

Whatever you do, from morning to night, small things and big, use each moment to bring out the best in her—to provoke and cultivate her beauty. Your work is to make sure this brilliant woman shines with all the radiance that God has given her. Spare no expense, leave nothing on the field. Do all you can to help her live into her destiny. If it costs you everything, it will be worth it because her radiant life is worth the price.

And finally be the head. You are the keeper of the story. You are the leader. You remind, embody and declare that all of life has a purpose. You remind that your love and this marriage points beyond itself to the great purposes of the cosmos. You keep pointing her to the great story. You help her see. You help her find her part. You use all your skills, and learn new ones if you need to, to make sure it all makes sense. Your behavior, the direction and aims of your marriage, her identity and purpose is a beautiful reenactment of the great love story. You are to lead with this story in mind. You are not a tyrant; you are a hero. Don’t settle for a lesser story. Fight for the best with all your might. This is what headship is all about in Paul’s theology.

Christian wives

In response to such a lover, wives go wherever your beloved leads because you know that he is your knight in shining armor, your “savior”. He is the one who is embodying the Bridegroom, the hero in the story of love. You know from experience that he wants you to flourish; his every decision is one with your best interests in mind. He is selfless, brave and noble. You trust him with your whole life and future because he is trustworthy. He is your best friend and it doesn’t cross your mind to stand in opposition because your hearts are so aligned that his will and yours are the same. You gladly submit. It’s easy for your heart to follow him because he is like no other lover you have ever seen.

And you respect him. You make it your marital work to make sure he knows how strong, brave and courageous he is. You let him know how his selfless, life-costing love has won your heart. Every word you utter is one soaked in a kind of awe that you got such a man. And it’s not just with him that you honor him but with all you interact with— kids, friends, coworkers and parents. Everyone. You just can’t help yourself. You have yourself a keeper. Every word you speak about him is intentionally worded to make sure that the whole world knows how his love is the treasure of your heart.

Wife, this is your part. Coupled with his selfless love and leadership, it tells the great story. The world will stand in awe to this other-world reality. This kind of marriage tells in detail the reason for existence–the great love story of the cosmos.

This is marriage as it should be using a biblical, narrative framework. Biblically, marriages that live this great story, with lots of room for sin and grace, are good marriages.  In my next blog I will look at how such a marriage actually looks like up close. I will show how healthy marriages work relationally.

Part 2: Divorce and Remarriage

This is the second post in a two-part essay. In the first essay I considered when is divorce a biblically viable choice: click here to read. What I want to cover here is the challenging subject of whether remarriage is ever permissible after divorce.

It is a challenging for a number of reasons. First, the five New Testament texts that seem to deal with remarriage seem to be saying different things. It is also challenging because divorce runs rampant in our culture; whatever the statistics, many Christian people do it. And finally it is challenging because most pastoral leaders are simply quiet on the issue because of whom they might offend or hurt.

But these challenges should not stop us from entering into these tumultuous waters. Instead, they remind us to tread carefully and humbly. What I will seek to do below is to consider the texts on divorce in light of one another and then see if we can draw conclusions and a biblically-based ethic framework for remarriage after divorce.


The 5 pertinent New Testament texts are:

“But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭5:32‬ ‭ESV‬‬

“And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her,”
‭‭Mark‬ ‭10:11‬ ‭ESV‬‬

“”Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
‭‭Luke‬ ‭16:18‬ ‭ESV‬‬

“But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”
‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭7:15‬ ‭NIV‬‬

“A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.”
‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭7:39‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Some of reflections on these texts:

First, it is clear from these verses that marriage is a nearly insoluble relationship apart from death except in the most dire of circumstances:

  1. adultery
  2. abandonment.

Just because marriage is hard, feelings have turned neutral/negative, your partner has changed from whom you committed to or any other of the plethora of reasons people give as reasons for divorce today, we can say biblically that none of them give license to get divorced. Such illigetimate reasons for divorce are sin and simply unthinkable in a Christian framework.

Secondly, one will notice from these texts that it is assumed that it will only be a man who would get a divorce. This is because these texts in their cultural context knew that for the most part only men initiate divorce. That being said, today divorce can be initiated by either spouse and we can rightly interchange husband with wife or vice versa without touching the integrity of the text.

Thirdly, the Matthew, Mark and Luke texts are quite similar in language and construction yet the Matthew text seems to give the possibility for remarriage after divorce. In the Matthew text the husband who divorces for legitimate biblical reasons has no outright restrictions on remarriage. It is by far the most expansive view on divorce from the teachings of Jesus. The other two verses are quite restrictive and seem to say that any remarriage after divorce is an act of committing adultery.

What ought we do with this seeming contradiction between these teachings of Jesus? It seems reasonable to go with the most expansive verse. If as a parent I give several instructions to my child and one of the instructions give more freedom than some other instruction, the child is not at fault in any way for following the more freedom-filled instruction. Something similar seems to be happening here. Also, the Matthew text has within it a pastoral accommodation that need not be ignored even though the other two texts don’t have it. The text does not fully restrict remarriage after divorce and this accommodation has a quality of mercy that seems to me to be authentically from the heart of Jesus. My reading of the gospel texts get greater validity based upon the 1 Corinthians text which I cover below.

My final observation of these texts is based upon a close reading of 1 Corinthians 7. This Pauline text along with the expansive position of the Matthew text seem to give permission for remarriage in specific circumstances and is by far the strongest biblical argument for remarriage after divorce. 1 Cor 7:15, in the case of abandonment, the abandoned spouse is no longer bound to the marriage. This word “bound” is used again in
7:39. In vs. 39, “bound” is used by Paul as the clarifying ethical marker of whether remarriage is permissible. If the husband dies, the spouse is no longer bound and is free to remarry. Following Paul’s own logic, if a person is divorced for abandonment or adultery, they are no longer bound to the marriage, just like in death, and are freed to be remarried. This can be seen as a pastoral accommodation given by Paul similar to Jesus in the Matthew text. Taken together, a clear path is given.

Permission for remarriage for adultery or abandonment is not explicitly declared in any of the NT texts but the ethical framework seems fairly clear. One reason, perhaps, why it is not explicitly spelled out is that for Paul  such circumstances, among Christians, will be extremely rare and not a current reality in the Corinth church. For Paul and for us, most couples need to work out their marriage as unto the Lord. The reasons for the textual differences in Jesus’ teaching are less clear. But with the whole New Testament in view, in the cases of adultery or abandonment, a path for remarriage seems to be given.


An ethical framework for remarriage

Assuming my conclusions are correct, below is a biblically based ethical framework for remarriage after divorce.

  • Divorce and remarriage are possibilities allowed only in specific circumstances–adultery & abandonment (for a treatment on abandonment read part one).
  • Almost all married, Christian couples are biblically required to stay in their first marriage and do the work required to stay together.
  • If a couple is in their second marriage for illegitimate reasons they have sinned but since divorce to “fix” the original sin is a sin as well, one must ask which sin causes the least destruction. It seems clear that the couple in their second marriage should repent, accept mercy and seek to have a thriving marriage and not end it. Because God is gracious, we ought to expect God’s goodness to move in this marriage. He regularly does good to sinners. Thank God for that.
  • In the case of divorce where the marriage ended for illegitimate reasons (no longer in-love, fight too much, we no longer know each other, etc.), the divorced couple are commanded to embrace singleness. The marriage season is done and now they are singularly with the Lord and his church. In this relationship with God and his church, they will learn his fidelity and love. No doubt it might be a hard road of suffering. It is a long discipline towards holiness.
  • A christian couple who have divorced for illegitimate reasons but have not remarried to others should seriously consider getting remarried. This is clear in Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth.

I pray these two posts have been helpful. Please comment below on any questions you have or concerns.

Divorce and Remarriage: Part One

As a pastor, one of the hardest things I deal with on a regular basis is walking with couples who get divorced. And secondarily the challenge of helping a person who is divorced walk through the biblical reality of whether remarriage is morally permissible in his or her situation. This is painful, hard work filled with suffering, guilt and doubt. Most Christians want to follow Christ in their marriage but not many know how to follow Christ in divorce and remarriage.

What I want to do in the next couple of posts is describe what I believe are biblically legitimate reasons for divorce, what aren’t, and explore biblical realities of remarriage. The hope is that this can help you personally or be a resource if you are walking with a couple or person navigating some of the most difficult relational/emotional waters of life.

This first post will consider biblical reasons for divorce. The second post will look at whether the Bible ever endorses remarriage after divorce.


Biblical Reasons for Divorce

There seems to be two biblical reasons for divorce.

  1. Adultery is the clearest and strongest reason for divorce by the aggrieved spouse. In Matthew 19:9, Jesus gives adultery as a reason for divorce. It is the clearest and strongest reason for a divorce but it is a relational concession not a command. Marriages can survive adultery and even become more beautiful on the other side. But some marriages are so broken after the affair and the years of pain that made adultery even possible that divorce is a suitable moral decision. For the sake of putting to death a union that has brought death to the couple and those around them, divorce might offer some kind of relief.

The word used here for adultery is porneia. This word is used in the New Testament for all sexual activity outside of the marital covenant. This of course includes physical, sexual relationships and I believe unrepentant, ongoing pornography use as well.

All this is said with a clear gospel caveat. The ethical framework of love which marriage is to embody (1 Cor 13) should be employed if the sinning spouse is convicted and doing the serious work of repentance. Love forgives all things and keeps no records of wrongs. If the adulterous spouse is seeking to follow Jesus, the aggrieved spouse is mandated by gospel love to follow Jesus by seeking marital reconciliation. No matter the sin, if the sinning spouse is repentant, the faithful spouse should seek to see if the marriage can be salvaged. Remember, marriage is for life.

  1. The second reason for divorce is given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:15. There, divorce is possible if an unbelieving spouse leaves one’s married partner. In such a case, the believing spouse need not hold on to a marriage which the other has abandoned. Paul says to live in peace. Divorce might make that possible.

I think this reason by Paul is actually an ethical framework for ending a broken marriage. It would be unthinkable for Paul that a believing spouse would ever leave his believing spouse. This is based upon Paul’s belief, expounded in Ephesians 5, that Christian marriage is a reflection of Christ and the church. Christ is the faithful spouse even when his bride is serially unfaithful. When she returns, he will always accept her without shame or condemnation. This gracious, kind love should always be on display in marriage. Thus, only an unbelieving spouse would leave his partner for no cause. A believing spouse would endure with Christian hope.

Thus, if a spouse leaves his spouse, he is revealing that he is an unbelieving spouse. Paul seems to say as much in 1 Timothy 5:8. There, Paul makes clear that if a “believer “ does not take care of his family, he is worse than an unbeliever. What can be worse than an unbeliever? A hypocrite–one who says one thing but acts contrary to his profession thus revealing no real faith. In marriage, when a spouse professes faith but serially does not keep his commitments to spouse and family, he is a hypocrite and the very act of not living up to one’s vows reveals that he is an unbelieving spouse. Consequently, it is my opinion that if a believer is left by one’s spouse, Paul gives an ethical concession for divorce.

The word for “leave” in the Corinthian’s text has as its connotation the idea of actively distancing yourself from your spouse. This for sure happens in physical abandonment but it can also happen emotionally too. One can be physically present but has left his or her partner in every sense of the word.

Here I think of the husband who gambles his salary against his wife’s wishes and leaves the bills unpaid. When she confronts him, he berates her as judgmental and nothing ever really changes. This lasts for years. He is acting as an unbeliever and has left his spouse.

I think of the verbally abusive wife who for years belittles her husband for every mistake crushing his masculinity and destroying his soul. She always undermines him and he is reduced to a sheepish boy. He seeks to be faithful and loving but she won’t stop. But after years of trying, it is hell to be with her. Her meanness is one thing, her unwillingness to partner with her spouse to change the dynamics of the marriage is another. She is acting as an unbeliever and has left her spouse.

I think of the addicted spouse who won’t get help. Whether drugs or alcohol, her addiction causes great harm to her partner. He tries to love her but she loves the high more than her commitments. She has become her addiction and has nothing relationally for her spouse. For years she lives in the cycle of her addiction and he pays with his very soul. She is acting as an unbeliever and has left her spouse.

Finally, I think of the cold, harsh, abusive husband who is more tyrant than lover. Everywhere in the familial sphere he goes, he brings contempt and criticism. He belittles his spouse and won’t stop, no matter how many times she begs for them to get counseling or pastoral help. After years of this, she has lost her identity and any semblance of joy. He is acting as an unbeliever and has left his spouse.

It seems to me that it is not incidents or even seasons of “separation” that give legitimacy to possible divorce for Paul. But instead, a settled condition over time in the sinning spouse that declares through actions that his or her heart has left the marriage. Where this has happened, divorce might be warranted.

A couple of caveats. First, divorce is never commanded and need not be chosen. There might be good reasons to stay in a marriage where a spouse has “left”. Perhaps God has given the faithful spouse deep hope, or patience in pain or joy in suffering. In such cases, one ought to endure. For as Paul says, your faithful, committed love might bring about salvation for your spouse (see 1 Cor 7:16). But sometimes, this is not possible or healthy.

So where a sinning spouse has “left” the marriage, how does the faithful spouse decide it is time to end the marriage? First, I think there is an obligation to do all one can to awaken the leaving spouse to his or her commitments. I’m thinking of significant time living out patient love. I also think that when crisis hits, it is imperative to bring in wise council long before one begins divorce proceedings. And if one wise person doesn’t make headway, then bring in another. A competent pastor or counselor can bring help to a marriage the two partners can’t imagine. We should fight for our marriage until there is nothing there to fight for.

What I want to make sure I don’t convey is that the next time your spouse is mean or distant or forgets pay the bills, you can get a divorce. No. Divorce is the last option. It is a horrible option. But sometimes, sadly things need to die. Divorce is to name dead what is horribly ill and has no chance at being resuscitated.

One point of necessary clarification: one should always physically leave a serial, abusive relationship until wholesale change in the abusing spouse has happened and has been verified by trustworthy pastors/counselors and proper boundaries have been put in place. A serial abuser is immersed in patterns of behavior and thought that are not easily broken. In such circumstances, clear boundaries must be set with the help of counselors and pastoral help. It is too easy for love to become a sick cycle of dependency and abuse without outside wisdom. Abusive relationships are serious and need serious intervention. But even with all that said, Christ can redeem anyone willing to nail his/her flesh on the cross. I know. I’ve seen it. Don’t give up easily. Christ can do unbelievable things.

When all this work has been done and the leaving spouse has not returned, the decision to divorce is based upon what will bring “peace” according to Paul. Here peace means the cessation of ongoing conflict. There comes a point where seeking faithfulness just brings chaos, bitterness, soul death and pain. No one can live there forever. When a marriage has degraded to the point of a living hell and the leaving spouse won’t live up to his commitments or even try, divorce might bring peace. However painful such peace might be.


I do not think most Christian marriages that end in divorce have legitimate reasons for divorce. Instead, embracing a cultural belief of romantic love or personal happiness as ultimate ends, couples break life long vows. I think most Christians who divorce give up far too easily. I cannot tell you how many times I have been with couples when the aggrieved spouse declares he or she is done (often for good reasons) but then the sinning spouse finally begins the kind of gospel, personal change that would make the marriage beautiful but the aggrieved spouse won’t seek reconciliation. This is sin, it has life-long consequences and tarnishes the name of Christ.

Life-long commitment to one person is hard work. It is not for the faint hearted. There will be suffering and pain. But also joy, laughter and love. It might be the hardest thing one can do but it is well worth it. In marriage, we become mature in the fire of love. It is worth the work. In it you can experience Christ and become like him.

But for some, the work becomes soul crushing. Unrepentant unfaithfulness or abandonment from an unrepentant spouse over a span of years is something no one should endure. In such cases, divorce is an option. There is little good in it but it is better than the alternative. Sometimes, in this world, this is the best we can hope for.

In the next post we will consider divorce and remarriage.

A Gentle Critique of Gospel Alliance and Room for All’s Joint Statement on Sexuality and the RCA


A few months ago leaders of the Gospel Alliance (GA) and Room for All (RFA) met to discuss the future of the RCA in light of the huge denominational chasm present as it relates to the ethics and theology surrounding gay relationships, ordination of (practicing) gay pastors and gay marriage. At the end of the conversation, they created a joint statement which can be read here: GA/RFA JOINT STATEMENT 

Though the joint statement has a beautiful tone and many commendable elements, there are two areas where I believe it was seriously wrong for GA to put its name in agreement.

Before I get into my gentle critique, my church and myself are proudly committed members of the Gospel Alliance. I serve on the advisory board. Bob Bouwer is a mentor and one of my closest friends. Charlie Contreras is a second father and my first father in the faith. All who signed the agreement are godly and more mature than me. I am sure they have good reasons for the agreement but it has its fault that I think friends can graciously discuss.

The first troubling sentence is this:

We believe that the healthiest way to express human sexuality is through a committed, mutually loving relationship between two people.

This sentence has several semantic errors in my view. The statement bases its conclusion of what is the “healthiest sexual expression” on the word “committed”. What does the word committed mean in this context? A committed dating relationship? A commitment as found in gay marriage? Perhaps the commitment of traditional marriage?  Maybe it is left ambiguous to enfold all three? Or maybe it is an assertion that at least we agree that commitment is better than no commitment at all? In my opinion, “Committed” is too obscure a word without a qualifier to explain and leaves much to interpretation. We are in need of clarity not more confusion.

This particular sentence of the joint statement is further troubling by the chose of using the word, “healthiest”. Again, what does “healthiest” mean? Psychological health? Emotionally satisfying? Or the highest Christian good? When you put the sentence all together it brings no clarity or help. It just leaves me scratching my head. Really? The healthiest? It is as easy to read the sentence as a nod to traditional marriage as it is to say it affirms gay marriage. Are we saying that all of these are the healthiest? I know that all the GA folks who signed understand and believe that the healthiest expression of human sexuality is a life long, bounded-covenantal marriage between a man and a woman.  This is the healthiest expression of human sexuality and millennia of history has shown this to be true. Of course RFA doesn’t agree with such a statement. And there is no way to bridge the chasm. No need for GA to seemingly move on so central of an issue when confusion is the only gift given.

The more troubling sentence in my view that found a place in the joint statement was this:

While all things are possible through God, we do not believe that prayer or conversion therapy can change one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

First of all, it is good to stand for the right of the individual to decide his or her destiny and any “therapy” or “prayer” that forces “conversion” is abhorrent to a Christian worldview. I am sure we can all agree on that. But instead of jointly agreeing on something where there is true common ground, the above sentence has profound weaknesses that strike at Gospel hope.

Its first weakness in my view is that it frames the argument in very unhelpful ways. Gender identity as used in modern parlance is code for one’s ability to name his or her gender expression based on a personal choice. The whole idea separates gender identity from biology and is the fruit of postmodern subjectivity and accepts the notion that such a thing as gender identity is up to personal preference. I see this as the madness of our cultural moment. No matter its many flaws, for sure its usuage is not the proper language of orthodox Christians. Or at the very least least it’s usage has profound challenges that need careful consideration and clarifications.

The sentence’s second weakness is the assertion that one’s sexual orientation is fixed and unmovable. As far as I can tell, the best science doesn’t even agree with the statement. Sexual attraction is fluid throughout life, differing substantially among males and females, and certainly isn’t static. The idea of sexual identity being akin to eye color is to give up significant theological ground and to create significant pastoral problems that need not exist.  Sexual identity is a movable point on a spectrum and I am not sure how a Bible-believing Christian could believe that Christ could not move that point and regularly does.

Beyond that, speaking of identity and orientation in these ways is to use non-biblical categories. The Bible only speaks of being a man or a woman with a sexual calling to the other gender. This is the language of sexuality in the Bible. It does this not because it is ignorant on current sociological and psychological research but because this is the reality that God has ordained since the beginning. It is brilliant in its simplicity and straightforwardness. I think it’s the best language to use and build from especially in conversations among professing believers. I encourage my GA friends to stand their ground on the biblical language. It is worth the fight and profoundly refreshing in an age of verbosity without substance.

And one final point, the Bible is filled with numerous  examples of broken men and women being called and transformed. The idea that a gay man called by Christ cannot live out biblical masculinity in marriage is to say that Christ does not have the resources to empower such a gospel life. I am sure no GA member would ever say such a thing.

Sinful sexuality (with all of its expressions) can be wholly transformed. I know and so do countless others. It might not be popular or hip but it is the gospel truth.

I know that my GA friends were seeking to find a way forward  for the RCA. And I trust their hearts and leadership. But these sentences within the joint statement bring confusion and seeming agreement on large, essential issues when there is none.

I hope that there will be clarification in the days ahead.

My Presentation at Mid America Reformed Seminary

In this presentation, we will see how current ways of talking about sexual identity have discarded the rich biblical vision that God has given us concerning what it means to be sexual beings.read more Consider joining us as we explore the Scriptures concerning the meaning of sex and sexual identity, learn why ‘gay identity’ is an unhelpful category, and most of all be theologically equipped to give an answer of hope to those who struggle with same-sex attraction.