We hear a lot about Christian marriages being different, but what is it that makes a marriage "Christian"?
A good marriage would be between a blind wife and a deaf husband.Michel de Montaigne1
Marriage has gotten quite a bad reputation over the years. The butt of a seemingly infinite number of jokes, matrimony is a source of endless social commentary, gender politics, and governmental debate.
Love: A temporary insanity curable by marriage.Ambrose Bierce2
In the United States, marriage has fallen upon particularly hard times. Fewer and fewer people are choosing to marry.4 In fact, less than half of current US households are made up of married couples.5 The percentage of Americans who have never married is growing6 while the number of couples living together without marrying is increasing exponentially.7 Meanwhile, more and more children are born to single mothers.8
One should always be in love. That’s the reason one should never marry.Oscar Wilde3
To top it all off, America still has the highest divorce rate among Western nations and the highest incidence of single-parent families of any industrialized nation.9 There’s no denying that the landscape of the American family has changed radically over the past fifty years.
Marriage and Culture
These statistics raise questions about the value and meaning of marriage in contemporary American culture. Given changes in reproductive technology, shifts in cultural attitudes about sexual morality, and the apparent failure of marriage as an ideal relationship, has marriage become irrelevant?
Though it might seem so, sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Ueker recently reported that the American youth are as interested in marriage as at any time—more than 95 percent intend to marry someday.10
But from romance novels to reality TV to movies, unrealistic expectations and false understandings about love, marriage, and romance are easily perpetuated. As a result, both those seeking out a marriage partner and those trying to stay in a marriage relationship struggle with misunderstandings of the definition of that relationship itself.
Can the Christian faith make a difference in this understanding and the quest for a meaningful marriage?
Marriage and Faith
Though marriage is not the distinctive domain of the Christian church, the Bible and influential Christian thinkers do have quite a bit to say on the matter.11 So what makes a marriage a Christian marriage?
Clearly, simply being religious or professing Christian beliefs isn’t a cure-all; it doesn’t guarantee a long-lasting, blissful marriage. To answer our questions, we must look at the essential elements of Christian marriage and see how they differ from other approaches to the marriage relationship.
As early as the first century, Christian writers have commented on the relationship between their faith and marriage. One writer, Paul, penned these words:
Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.13
In these verses, Paul compares the relationship between husband and wife to the relationship between Jesus and the church. This has incredibly important implications for the nature of Christian marriage.
The Covenant of Marriage
Christians approach marriage as a covenant, a relationship based on promises and commitment, not just feelings—though love is most certainly involved.14
The concept of marriage as a covenant is rooted in the Hebrew faith, and early Christians preserved the belief as well.15 God’s covenant with Israel was founded on his promise to be faithful to Israel. The Hebrew people promised faithfulness to God as well, though the Bible doesn’t hide that they struggled—and often failed—to keep that pledge. Like God with the Israelites, Jesus established what he called a “new covenant” with his followers.16
To speak of marriage as a covenant is to say that the partners make mutual promises about the way they will choose to live in the future, not just declarations of how they feel in the present. The endeavor to live into those promises—remaining faithful to their covenant—will shape their characters over the years.
Christian marriage is also distinctively based on agapē, the Greek word used in Jesus’ teachings and early Christian writings to describe the kind of love God expresses to human beings. Agapē has nothing to do with the fanciful concepts of romantic love upon which so many American cultural marriage myths are founded.
Despite how pleasurable such feelings may be at the outset of a relationship, they seldom have the staying power to withstand a lifetime of ups and downs—the “for better or for worse” of matrimony.17
Agapē is an entirely different concept, so important that Paul devoted a whole section of his first letter to the Corinthians to defining it.You may have heard a well-known phrase from this section: “Love is patient, love is kind.” Paul then goes on to describe as a sacrificial way of loving others.18
This kind of unconditional love—or an active striving to live out this kind of love daily—marks a genuinely Christian marriage, just as it characterizes an authentically Christian life.19 is found in an active choice one makes about how to behave toward another, not a conditional feeling one has toward someone.20Agapē is based on the deliberate choices of the lover, not the responses of the beloved.
Perhaps the most distinct characteristic of Christian marriage—which makes the other two possible—is that it is intentionally centered on Jesus Christ. Each spouse continuously works to know, love, and obey Jesus, and to follow his example.
In this way, husband and wife learn how to express Agapē and remain faithful to their covenant. As they practice the Christian faith together, they move toward each other, growing together in love and unity.
But what about a marriage in which only one spouse is a follower of Jesus? Could that marriage ever be a “Christian marriage”?
Paul actually writes about such a case in 1 Corinthians 7:12–16.21 He urges the believing partner to stay married to their unbelieving spouse because of the believer’s influence on their partner and children. One person who is seeking to follow Jesus Christ, learning to live out of Agapē, and keeping the promises of the covenant brings Christ’s presence into the marriage.
Christian or not, marriage is difficult for any couple to sustain over a lifetime. Life’s trials—the pressure of making a living, of parenting, of resisting temptations to unfaithfulness or selfishness—can strain any marriage.
But Christian marriage offers hope. The hope that a husband and wife, by intentionally choosing to learn how to love faithfully and sacrificially as Jesus did, may keep their covenant promises for a lifetime.