There’s nothing like a bunch of marriage books to make your head spin. Mostly I avoid them—too many guilt-producing suggestions about the ‘must-dos’ of a relationship—but I’ve been writing a seminar on the topic, so it was time to hit the books.
What I found intrigued me. There’s little agreement amongst respected theologians about the why of marriage. They agree on the what—marriage is a life-long covenant between a man and a woman—and if you’re interested in the how, just head for the groaning shelf of your nearest Christian bookshop. But the how is just an empty handful of rules and tips without the why to give it shape and meaning.
So why did God make marriage? Traditionally, marriage was seen as having three purposes. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer says,
First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord…
Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication…
Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other…1
Children, sexual purity, and mutual help. These are biblical goals, and a helpful corrective to our romance-saturated view of marriage—but you can sense they all point to a greater goal. Christopher Ash says, “We need one unifying purpose of God to hold our thinking together.2 What, ultimately, is marriage for?
In my reading, there were three books on marriage that I thought came closest to answering this question: John Piper’s This Momentary Marriage, Timothy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage, and Christopher Ash’s Married for God.They look in different directions to find the purpose of marriage—one upward, one inward, and one outward. Let’s consider them in turn.
Marriage looks upward: John Piper’s This Momentary Marriage
The ultimate thing we can say about marriage is that it exists for God’s glory. That is, it exists to display God… The highest meaning and the most ultimate purpose of marriage is to put the covenant relationship of Christ and his church on display.3
“What is marriage for?” asks John Piper in This Momentary Marriage. He answers that marriage doesn’t primarily look inward to the wellbeing of the relationship, nor even outward to the good of society or the world.4 Its ultimate movement is upward, for it was made to display the love between Christ and his people (Gen 2:18-25 cf. Eph 5:21-33). As we keep covenant with our spouse, serve them in love, and give them grace, we tell “the truth about God’s covenant with us in Jesus Christ”.5 This is a vital perspective on marriage, and I’m glad Piper devoted a book to it; as his wife Noel says, “You cannot say too often that marriage is a model of Christ and the church”.6
I always enjoy Piper’s lyricism and logic, but his books can sometimes be a little daunting. Not this one! It’s a short and easy read, and while it emphasizes eternal realities, it’s very practical. I particularly enjoyed chapter four, on forgiveness and forbearance and how to bend God’s grace towards one’s spouse; and chapter eight, on submission, which gave me a vision for the strong faith at the heart of biblical womanhood; and chapter nine, about the great truths displayed uniquely by singleness.
The book is a little meandering, but there are gems in the tangents. For example, the chapter on hospitality includes wise pastoral advice encouraging married and single people to share their lives. I won’t be the only one who differs from Piper on divorce and remarriage, and I would have liked to ask further questions about issues like the duty of procreation, but these are small quibbles.
So would I recommend This Momentary Marriage? Yes. It’s a great starting-point for understanding how both marriage and singleness display eternal realities, and what one’s role in this should be. It’s also rich food for mature marriages; my husband and I read it together and were helped to love each other better. But I wouldn’t stop here. To explore the marriage relationship more deeply, I’d turn to a book by American pastor and theologian Timothy Keller.
Marriage looks inward: Timothy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage
Marriage is a friendship… Friendship is a deep oneness that develops as two people, speaking the truth in love to each other, journey together to the same horizon. Spiritual friendship is the greatest journey of all, because the horizon is so high and far, yet sure—it is nothing less than “the day of Jesus Christ” and what we will be like when we finally see him face-to-face… What, then, is marriage for? It is for helping each other to become our future glory-selves, the new creations that God will eventually make us.7
“What is marriage for?” asks Timothy Keller in The Meaning of Marriage. He devotes chapter four to the answer: marriage is “a way for two spiritual friends to help each other on their journey to become the persons God designed them to be”.8 Marriage was God’s solution to loneliness: he made the woman to be Adam’s ’ezer, his ‘helper-companion’ (Gen 2:18) or ‘best friend’ (Prov 2:17), a theme Keller traces through the Bible (Song 5:16; Mal 2:14). Yet this is not friendship as an end in itself. Just as Christ sacrificed himself for his bride, the church, to make her holy (Eph 5:26), so husband and wife help each other become the people God made them to be.
The focus on marriage as friendship is this book’s strength, but also, at times, its weakness. There’s excellent advice on choosing a spouse—close friendship trumps romantic attraction—but the emphasis on the ‘secret thread’ or ‘mythos’ shared by true friends risks creating a new kind of ‘compatibility’ and discontentment in marriage.9 Yet this is more than balanced out by Keller’s realistic, biblical portrait of marriage as a covenant between two sinners, characterized by self-giving, truth-speaking, grace-fuelled love, even when you feel like you are loving a stranger.
Reading Keller is like reading the best of novels: you get caught up in the words while receiving rich food for the soul. Chapter after chapter covers useful ground: the first engages with our culture’s self-defeating romantic idealism; the second reminds us that only the gospel empowers love; and the third focuses on marriage’s heart, the faithful love that acts when it doesn’t feel yet grows through holiness into happiness. Kathy Keller’s chapter on headship and submission is a joy to read, and I appreciated her careful analysis of the difficult topics of gender and work. I was intrigued by the idea that marriage reflects the “dance of the Trinity” with its mutual self-giving love, and inspired by the way both husbands and wives are encouraged to take on the ‘Jesus role’ in marriage (Eph 5:21-33 cf. 1 Cor 11:3; Phil 2:1-11; 1 Pet 2:21-3:7).
I can see myself recommending this book again and again. It’s a gift to pastors and counselors, and single people will value its practical advice on dating and choosing a spouse. It will help engaged couples to lay a firm foundation for marriage, and married couples to build a strong relationship of mutual love. But to keep marriage from becoming insular, I’d suggest another book to be read in tandem with Keller’s.
Marriage looks outward: Christopher Ash’s Married for God
The whole business of marriage… [is] the loving joyful service of God, as we look outward from our marriages and as couples seek to care for God’s world together… This is delight with a shared purpose, intimacy with a common goal, and companionship in a task that stretches beyond the boundaries of the couple themselves… proclaiming Jesus Christ is at the forefront of that service.10
“What is the point of marriage?” asks British theologian Christopher Ash. He sums up his answer with the motto “sex in the service of God” (where sex stands in for the whole marriage relationship). We often assume that marriage was God’s cure for Adam’s loneliness, but Ash argues that fellowship with others is the Bible’s solution for loneliness. The context of Genesis 2 shows that Adam’s real problem was that the job of ruling and caring for God’s world was “too big for him to do on his own”. That’s why God gave him “‘a helper’ rather than ‘a companion’”—that is, “one who works alongside so that both together can do a task”.11 The joyful one-flesh intimacy at the heart of marriage is the centre out of which this loving service flows. The focus of marriage, then, is not inward but outward, on the task that the man and woman and their children do together in God’s world. Marriage is for service.
This is a revolutionary idea. When I first read Married for God,it clarified my thinking and helped me see my marriage as a partnership for God’s service. The work of a scholar, this book has a clear structure. After establishing marriage’s central purpose, Ash devotes a chapter to each of the three traditional goals of marriage, showing how they serve this purpose. At points I found his arguments a little reductionistic—is marriage really not part of God’s provision to meet our needs?12—but his book is a helpful corrective to relationally-obsessed, self-centred views of marriage.
Ash not only has a keen mind, but also a pastor’s heart. He begins by addressing the guilt and sexual baggage we carry into marriage, and his view of marriage isn’t coldly task-oriented but warmly relational. The three chapters that stood out for me were on sex and intimacy, the marriage institution, and the faithfulness at the heart of marriage. An odd collection! But I love the way they show how covenant-keeping puts walls around a marriage, providing a safe place for love and delight to flourish, and then puts doors and windows in these walls, so that love overflows to others and welcomes them in.
Would I recommend this book? Absolutely. It deserves to be more widely read. It’s so unique and timely that I’d almost set it as required reading for those considering marriage. Its teaching on loneliness is helpful for singles, and I can think of no better book to give married couples a clear mission, turning them from unhealthy introspection to joyful, side-by-side, gospel-centred, grace-driven service.
Conclusion: The three colours of marriage
When I was six, I had a book that seemed like magic. Each page had two line drawings printed on top of each other. Seen together, the two images looked like a mess. But at the back of the book were sheets of translucent red and green plastic. When you folded them over the images, two pictures sprang to life in turn. An egg hatched into a chicken. Tadpoles turned into frogs. A puppy grew into a dog.
Reading three books on marriage has been a bit like that. Marriage is a complex and mysterious thing. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish its contours through the mess on the page. But viewed through a different colour—as a mirror of the divine marriage, a spiritual friendship, or a partnership of service—it shines with a different light.
So what is marriage for? I started by arguing that one, overall goal would be more helpful than the three traditional goals for marriage. Yet we are still left with three goals, looking in three directions:
- Marriage looks upward—its purpose is to display God’s glory by presenting a picture of the covenant between Christ and the church.
- Marriage looks inward—its purpose is spiritual friendship leading to holiness, as husband and wife partner each other on the journey to glory.
- Marriage looks outward—its purpose is to serve God in partnership as we rule and care for his world and make Jesus known.
It would be neat and satisfying to conclude this article by pointing at a goal and saying ‘that one’, but I can’t. I suspect the Bible’s teaching on marriage is so richly textured that it can sustain all three. And I think they’re in the right order: marriage should first be God-directed, then characterized by faithful love and joyful intimacy (Deut 24:5), and then, if it’s not to become insular and selfish, pour itself out in loving service.13
Marriage looks upward, inward, and outward. Like a three-legged stool, if it lacks a leg it will stumble and fall. Yet ultimately marriage looks forward, to the day when our small marriages will be swallowed up by a greater one. For marriage is a temporary permanence, a life-long bond that draws its final breath only when we do. As we step into eternity, all the purposes of marriage will find their end in Christ. And so I give the final words to John Piper:
Marriage… is a momentary gift. It may last a lifetime, or it may be snatched away on the honeymoon. Either way, it is short… Very soon the shadow will give way to Reality. The partial will pass into the Perfect. The foretaste will lead to the Banquet. The troubled path will end in Paradise. A hundred candle-lit evenings will come to their consummation in the marriage supper of the Lamb. And this momentary marriage will be swallowed up by Life. Christ will be all and in all. And the purpose of marriage will be complete.14.
- Phillip Jensen gives a helpful perspective on how these goals have changed over time in ‘The Devolution of Marriage’ at http://phillipjensen.com/articles/the-devolution-of-marriage/. ↩
- Christopher Ash, Married for God, InterVarsity Press, Nottingham, 2007, p. 31. ↩
- John Piper, This Momentary Marriage, Crossway, Wheaton, 2009, p. 25. ↩
- ibid., pp. 177-8. ↩
- ibid., pp. 25-26. ↩
- ibid., p. 42. ↩
- Timothy and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2011, pp. 110, 116-117, 120. ↩
- ibid., pp. 15-16. ↩
- ibid., pp.124-126 cf. 112-114. ↩
- Ash, Married for God, pp. 33, 37, 44. ↩
- ibid., p. 36. ↩
- ibid., p. 39. ↩
- A useful workbook to help couples put the three together is Tim Chester’s Gospel-Centered Marriage. ↩
- Piper, This Momentary Marriage, p. 178. ↩