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There may not be such a thing as one single ‘Biblical’ marriage
(Because Farm World is skipping publication of a Dec. 26 issue, as our offices will be closed that week, and this column is used for Sunday lessons, we are printing both this and the Dec. 23 “Bible Speaks” in this issue. Happy holidays! –Ed.)

Dec. 30, 2012
Background Scripture: Ephesians 5:21-6:4
Devotional Reading: John 3:16-21

Lately, in our local newspaper, there have been an increasing number of articles on the subject of “Christian marriage.” A recurring theme from some Christians is that we need to return to the Biblical teachings regarding marriage and not simply adopt those of our prevailing culture.

I usually read these with interest because a decade ago, my wife, Valere, and I were asked to design, write and teach a weekend workshop at our downtown United Methodist church to prepare couples for marriage. It was suggested that in preparation for designing the workshop, we should make a careful survey of marriage as presented in the Bible.

We were not totally surprised to find that there is no single marriage model in the Bible. Five of the marriage models we found would be quite unacceptable today and probably illegal.

Matriarchal marriage was the pattern for Jacob, Moses and Samson; they lived in the homes of their wives and Samson only made periodic visits to his wife at Timna. There was also patriarchal marriage, in which descent is reckoned from the father and the rights and freedom of the wife are only within the context of the husband’s full authority.

In early Old Testament times polygamy was widespread: Some Hebrew patriarchs were married to more than one wife. There were also concubines who served as wives, but without their rights. Levirate marriage permitted the brother of a deceased husband to marry the widow to preserve the family name and assets.
Other forms included marriage by capture, purchase or covenant. Most of the marital forms were derived from prevailing cultures, not by divine decree. Essentially, marriage was an economic deal and the woman was regarded as an economic property.

A higher calling?

Lastly, there was monogamy, which eventually outlasted most other forms. But in the early centuries of Christianity there were some Christians who held celibacy as a higher estate, with monogamy for those who could not achieve celibacy.

So ideally, a “Christian marriage” is not so much a form of marriage as it is a marriage in which Christian teachings and values prevail. As cultures changed, the institution of marriage usually was affected, too.

And usually, the gospel was often the cause of positive changes in the way people regarded marriage, although these changes were usually gradual. As a child, I noticed our society seemed to accept that men might spank their wives and treat them like willful, naughty children, an attitude reflected in some of the movies of the 1930s and ’40s.

I have reviewed all of the above with you as a prelude to saying although the view of marriage in Ephesians 5:21-6:4 may seem jaded, it was definitely an advance over the views of marriage in the Roman, Greek, other pagan cultures and Judaism itself.
You will note in Ephesians 6:5-9 that slavery is unquestioned. It was so much a part of life in those times that abolishing slavery was unthinkable. At one time, in 17th to 19th century America, slavery was sanctioned and even unquestioned by large segments of Christianity.

Today Christians realize that while slavery was accepted in some Christian writings, it was eventually incompatible with the gospel of Christ. So, the gospel was a major force in slavery’s demise.
“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (some versions say “submitting yourselves”). But notice: This admonition is given to both husband and wife. True, he does go on to say: “Wives, be subject to your husband, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the church …” (5:21).

The Western world has changed and husband and wife are no longer regarded as “unequal.” There are still many parts of the world today where the teaching of Ephesians would be regarded as an abominable heresy.

A wrong expectation

 There is one other consideration: In the early years of the Church, many Christians anticipated the imminent return of Christ in glory. This is why in his letters Paul counsels Christians not be get involved in radical changes, lest Christ return and their efforts are for naught.

Paul eventually realized this expectation was incorrect, and that realization had a distinct effect upon the development of Christian concepts of behavior (I Cor.7:25-40).

Marital expectations have changed remarkably in my lifetime. People expect a lot more out of the relationship than my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did.

In our premarital workshop Valere and I tried to help our participants realize that one of the richest benefits of marriage is friendship. Many of the best marriages I know are those in which the participants regard each other as best friends.

This, I believe, is closer to what the writer of Ephesians is asking when he says: “Give way to one another in obedience to Christ” (Jerusalem Bible, 5:21) or “Honor Christ by submitting to each other” (Living Bible). Christ, not culture, is the authority to whom we submit ourselves and our marriages.

A newspaper once reported a wedding in the following ominous paragraph: “Bob and Madeline were married on October 20, thus terminating a friendship that first began way back in junior high school.” Marriage is best and most Christian when, in marriage, we enhance our friendship, not terminate it.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Those with questions or comments for Rev. Althouse may write to him in care of this publication.