Last week we saw that Christian marriage is in trouble. The rate of divorces inside the church is about the same as outside, and some indicators would say that divorce rates are even higher for church folks than among those who do not profess faith in Christ. What is wrong? This is a simple question that does not have a simple answer, but here are a few beginning thoughts.
1. Traditional teaching about marriage is not as biblical as many of us believe.
Many of the ideas we encountered in last week's quiz are based on views of women held from early times. We will take a look at Genesis next week, but for now I'll just note that the biblical account of the beginning of things seems to tell us that Darkness will have a special hatred of women.
Jesus'' treatment of, and relationships with, women as respected friends, students and witnesses (think of Easter) were radical. It took a while, but in the first century church we have evidence that women were given freedom that was unheard of prior to that time. There were women deacons, prophets, preachers and even bishops. Sadly, as things became more institutionalized it didn't take long for Jesus' revolutionary treatment of women to be forgotten. Views of women became so negative we would be shocked by them today. Here is a sampling (I paraphrased the language in a few, but I did not change the sense of the statement). And guys, be careful how you respond or you may regret it later!
Tertullian – Woman, you are each an Eve. The sentence of God lies on you, and guilt must forever lie on you as well. The serpent would never have approached your more noble mate, but he used you as his evil gateway. Because of you, the Son of God had to die.
Origen – A man should never listen to a woman, even if she says saintly or admirable things. That is of no consequence or importance, since she is a woman.
St. John Chrysostom—“A woman taught once, and she ruined everything. Let her never teach….a woman is weak and fickle. God assigned the important, more beneficial matters of work to the male and the less important, inferior matters to the woman.”
Gratian said, “A woman’s authority is nonexistent. Let her be subject to men in everything…she may not teach, be a witness, give a contract or a guarantee…”
Clement of Alexandra-- “Men are endowed with reason...as for women...it is shameful even to think of what nature she is…”
St. Augustine -- “Man reflects the image of God...as for woman, I fail to see what use women can be to man if one excluded the bearing of children.”
John Knox -- “Woman was made to serve and obey the man.”
Thomas Aquinas -- “Woman is defective and misbegotten. The active male seed tends to produce a perfect male. The production of a woman comes from some defect in the active force.”
D. M. Burrows -- “It is an ascertained physical fact that the brain capacity of the average male is considerably greater than that of the female. Why then, should she be admitted to collegial study?”
Martin Luther - “Women are ashamed to admit this, but scripture and life clearly ascertain that only one in a thousand is able to live a life of…purity. She cannot help it...A woman must never seek to begin anything, or to end anything, without the leadership and counsel of a man. Where he is, she must be, and must bend before him as one whom she must reverently fear and to whom she must ever be subject and obedient.”
Women, do those statements make you rejoice in the freedom of God's grace?
Am I saying that nothing these men ever said was of value? By no means. We owe them a great debt in many respects. But it isn't hard to see where some ideas sprang from, is it?
Gnosticism was an early heresy that troubled the church for several centuries. Eventually it faded from the forefront (though it still exists in altered forms today). One facet remained. Asceticism—deny your physical body—the body is evil. Thus sexual desire is evil. Women as the objects of a man's sexual desire must also be evil. Celibacy is holy.
By the Middle Ages, the Church was a giant socio-political institution as well as a religious one, and it believed that God had designed a specific order that would keep the world running properly. Everyone had their place, and the Church did not hesitate to use force to keep people in their “proper place in the divine order.” Some races were designed by God to be slaves and servants. Some were ordained to rule. Man was superior, and woman was inferior. To deny these truths and others invited ridicule at best and torture or death at worst.
We could go on at length to describe attitudes and beliefs that arose in different historical periods and became established teaching. They were repeated so often that even now we tend to accept them without question. Since this is not a history lesson, I will move on.
2. We have expectations that are completely unrealistic.
In many other cultures marriages are arranged. Often marriage is viewed as primarily for the purpose of children, financial security, protection and other practical reasons. I recall a visitor from a foreign country laughing out loud at a Viagra commercial. She could not believe that middle aged people in our culture still expected sexual intimacy to be part of marriage! In our culture we marry “for love.” Love will find a way. Love conquers all. When problems inevitably come, we think the love must have been faulty.
A favorite movie at our house is "Fiddler on the Roof." One of the most memorable scenes is when the middle-aged husband, Tevye, and the middle-aged wife, Golda, ponder the nature of married affection and, for the first time, share a few timid words of love. " After twenty five years", they sing, "it's nice to know." We cannot imagine ourselves marrying first and loving later. And yet we are willing to toss out the marriage when we feel love has misled us. It seems that our romantic view of marriage may have led us to believe that marriage is either perfect or useless.
When you think of it, it is really amazing that we treat the most important alliance in our lives as though it must maintain itself without our wholehearted effort. No wonder that is called a romantic view. (One dictionary definition of romantic is "unrealistic.")
3. Christians have believed the lie that if they follow a formula, they are ensured success.
We all want our marriages to be wonderful and successful and lasting. And we want to be faithful to God. When someone tells us that scripture assures success if we are sure to do it "right" it is easy to be deceived by our desire to know God, and our longing for human love and intimacy. And the stereotypes are stated, and stated again, and we begin to believe them, and we begin to believe that everyone else is making it work. Christians are good at hiding our "stuff." So if we aren't living in a happy marriage we must be faulty in our understanding or our execution of "the divine plan." We must try harder to follow the rules. We must lead, we must be more spiritual, we must obey, we must submit more.
Of course there is truth in every stereotype—but the problem with stereotypes is that almost no one fits them. Women talk more. Men don’t like to talk. Women like to relate. Men like to do. Women love to shop and hunt for bargains and try on 30 dresses. Men just want to “git ‘er done.” Men are more aggressive and so are natural leaders. Women are passive and so are natural followers.
I have a radical idea. Stop worrying about “men” and “women” and get to know your own loved one!
In her book on marriage, Heirs Together, Patricia Gundry suggests that marriage is like a kaleidoscope. She says:
"A good marriage is like a kaleidoscope. With a few simple ingredients it is ever changing, showing new facets of each other and the pleasure of working and living and loving as a team. A marriage can be whatever you want it to be. It can become better and better. It can change as a husband and wife learn and grow and change...Your marriage is your very own; it belongs to no one else. If you try to live out someone else’s idea of marriage, you may be fortunate and stumble onto a pattern that you happen to fit into pretty well. On the other hand, you may get a pattern that does not fit at all. So it is important to realize that it is your marriage and that you can write your own rules. (I hope they will really be principles rather than rules). Marriage can be what you make it together."
During this series we will be avoiding formulas and looking for Biblical principles. Principles are abiding truths that transcend time, place and culture.
I do not say that if you will listen carefully and do as I say, or even as scripture suggests, that you cannot fail. Life is uncertain. Marriage is, by its nature, two people in a relationship. TWO people. One cannot carry the burden for both, no matter how much they want the marriage to succeed. We cannot love enough, lead enough, or submit enough to make it happen. But the Bible does give us some wonderful insight that can help two people who are committed to live together in love.
Read the Bible for yourself. Talk about it. Pray about it. Go as God leads you. Listen to your own wife or husband.
Love does not solve everything. Love does not necessarily conquer all. But love is of God, and those who love are born of God. We can nurture love, and welcome it. We can avoid things that hurt or kill love, and we can seek to do things that make it grow. We can ask God to help us love again. We can seek to love with more maturity. We can ask Him to show us how to encourage love in another. We can move beyond formulas and rules and find our way, by God's grace, to a marriage of two equal partners, heirs together of the gracious gift of life.