Marriage: A Coequal Covenant
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul of Tarsus gave two very basic instructions for a successful marriage: "In any case, as for you individually, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and wives should respect their husbands" (Eph. 5:33). However, if you most likely will never hear this in marriage counseling. Most marriage counselors, whether Christian or secular, use a form of psychotherapy ("talk therapy") known as gestalt, a German word meaning "in whole form." The editors of WebMed define gestalt therapy as "a form of psychotherapy that is centered on increasing a person's awareness, freedom, and self-direction. It's a form of therapy that focuses on the present moment rather than past experiences." The staff of Psychology Today adds, "Instead of simply talking about past situations, clients are encouraged to experience them, perhaps through re-enactment. Through the gestalt process, clients learn to become more aware of how their own negative thought patterns and behaviors are blocking true self-awareness and making them unhappy." In reality, most of these gestalt re-enactments of marriage problems lead to divorce (e.g., see here). If the husband and wife have a present habit of toxic communication, they will simply continue that pattern in gestalt therapy. Communication in marriage must have a coequal foundation of love and respect for the wife and the husband, lovingly and respectively. Let us take an in-depth look at what this means . . .
Love & Respect in Marriage
In marriage today, the issue always centers on whether a husband loves his wife and whether a wife respects her husband. Notice that Eph. 5:33 says "a wife should respect her husband," rather than love him. This is one of the most critical mistakes that counselors make today. Yes, wives should love their husbands too, but men understand love as being respected. In other words, the actions and behavior matter more to a man than kind words or being provided for. It is possible for a wife to dote on her husband, but not respect him. Likewise, it is possible for a man to say the loving words his wife needs to hear, but not mean them. Unfortunately, love and respect have everything to do with the respective reasons why men and women commit adultery. If a man feels that another woman other than his wife genuinely respects him, he will feel the missing feeling with the wrong woman. Additionally, if a woman feels more cared for by another man than her husband, she will go with the the wrong man. However, this lack of love or respect is by no means an excuse to commit adultery, and neither spouse has the right to hold the marriage ransom with their feelings.
Merriam-Webster defines love as:
1 A: 1) strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties
2) attraction based on sexual desire—affection and tenderness felt by lovers
3) affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests
B: assurance of affection
2: warm attachment, enthusiasm, or devotion
3 A: the object of attachment, devotion, or admiration
B: a beloved person
4 A: unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another, such as:
1) the fatherly concern of God for humankind
2) brotherly concern for others
B: one's adoration of God
Merriam-Webster defines respect as:
1: relation or reference to a particular thing or situation
2: act of giving particular attention—consideration
3 A: high or special regard—esteem
B: quality or state of being esteemed
So, yes, husbands want their wives to hold them in high regard and consideration. Wives desire a husband who is selfless, enthusiastic, devotes them attention, finds them sexually irresistible, and is both tender and always benevolent. Paul listed the same qualities for "steadfast love" (Greek: agapē; G26) when he wrote, "Love is patient, love is kind, it isn't jealous, it doesn't brag, it isn't arrogant, it isn't rude, it doesn't seek its own advantage, it isn't irritable, it doesn't keep a record of complaints, it isn't happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never fails. As for prophecies, they will be brought to an end. As for tongues, they will stop. As for knowledge, it will be brought to an end" (1 Cor. 13:4-8). Keep in mind, Paul wrote this neither as poetry nor a love-song. He meant for his words to describe all Christian behavior, to include marriage relationships.
Marriage & Sex: Becoming One Flesh
Then the man said, "This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh from my flesh. This one is called woman, for from man was taken this one." This is why a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife; and they become one flesh. Now both of them were naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed (2:23-25 TLV).
Jesus appealed to Genesis 2 when he gave his thesis statement about marriage: "Haven't you read that at the beginning the creator made them male and female? And God said, 'Because of this a man should leave his father and mother and be joined together with his wife, and the two will be one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, humans must not pull apart what God has put together" (Matt. 19b:4-6; cf. Mark 10:6-9). Paul also referred to Genesis 2 when he scolded the Corinthian church about their sexual immorality (Greek: porneia; G4202). He detailed how sex, no matter how casual or exploitive (e.g., prostitution), results in the people involved becoming "one flesh" as if they were married (cf. 1 Cor. 6:15-17). Therefore, we must take sex very seriously, and only give ourselves to someone we actually want to be "one flesh" with for life. Because God integrated childbirth into sexual intercourse as our only means of natural reproduction, we must only be intimate with someone of the opposite sex of whom we want to have children with.
Today, our Western culture has tried to redefine sex as mainly a selfish, hedonistic endeavor in which sex partners are casually discarded, and the miracle of conception is viewed as tragically inconvenient (see "Pastoral Response: Abortion"). In the same way, the utilitarian view of human sexuality results in an entitlement mentality in regard to unnatural intercourse and degrading lusts (cf. Rom. 1:26-27; see "Pastoral Response: LGBT"). God intended sexuality to be a good thing, free of the abuses, victimization, and spiritual impoverishment of casual sex. The only way this is possible is by the commitment to marry and to be married. The scriptures deem any relationship outside of the public and legal commitment between a man and a woman of natural gender to be "fornication;" that is, a form of prostitution without payment. In other words, someone who commits porneia is themselves a pornē (G4204; from pernēmi, "to export for sale"), a prostitute who works for free. Likewise, the word "fornication" derives from the Latin word fornix, a vaulted archway where prostitutes would stand out of the rain for customers that became synonymous with brothels. This was the reason Paul warned us not to degrade the image of God within us by freely giving ourselves to sexual immoral behavior in the habit of prostitutes.
Intimacy: Making Love Last for Life
Now, let us move onto a more positive discussion of sexual intimacy. Throughout scripture, the normative and de facto definition of marriage involves one man and one woman united as "one flesh" in a public covenant that bonds them for life in Christ's name (cf. 2 Cor. 11:2; 1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Heb. 13:4). Paul compared Jesus' love and sacrifice for the Christian church to the love a husband should have for his wife:
. . . and submit to each other out of respect for Christ. For example, wives should submit to their husbands as if to the Lord. A husband is the head of his wife like Christ is head of the church, that is, the savior of the body. So wives submit to their husbands in everything like the church submits to Christ. As for husbands, love your wives just like Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. He did this to make her holy by washing her in a bath of water with the word. He did this to present himself with a splendid church, one without any sort of stain or wrinkle on her clothes, but rather one that is holy and blameless. That’s how husbands ought to love their wives—in the same way as they do their own bodies. Anyone who loves his wife loves himself. No one ever hates his own body, but feeds it and takes care of it just like Christ does for the church because we are parts of his body. This is why a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two of them will be one body. Marriage is a significant allegory, and I'm applying it to Christ and the church. In any case, as for you individually, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and wives should respect their husbands (Eph. 5:21-33).
The Bible does not shy away from sexual intimacy; it is a gift from God to bond a husband and wife. The groom in the Song of Solomon tells his blushing bride, "Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle doe, that graze among the lilies. Before the day breeze blows and the shadows flee, I will be off to the mountain of myrrh, to the hill of frankincense [i.e., her clitoris and her pubis]. You are utterly beautiful, my dearest; there's not a single flaw in you" (4:5-7). This groom looks forward to making love to his new bride for the first time! King David wrote poetically about the elation a man feels after his first night of marital intimacy: "The sun is like a groom coming out of his honeymoon suite" (Ps. 19:5a). Yes, the Bible includes a verse about how a man feels after getting some! Sex is most beautiful and intimate when it happens between a husband and wife committed for life. The only knowledge of sexual intimacy a man and a woman need is that of each other. However, sex is not an entitlement in marriage, and the lack thereof does not excuse adultery. Consider this verse about gentlemanly consent and self-control: "When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he didn't have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus" (Matt. 1:24-25). Joseph loved God and his family to deny himself pleasure until an appropriate time when his fiancée Mary could consent with a clear and holy conscience. Likewise, Paul gave these instructions about mutual consent and self-control:
The husband should meet his wife's sexual needs, and the wife should do the same for her husband. The wife doesn't have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise, the husband doesn't have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Don't refuse to meet each other's needs unless you both agree for a short period of time to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come back together again so that Satan might not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I'm saying this to give you permission; it's not a command (1 Cor. 7:3-6).
The Bible on Premarital Sex
Let us be clear on a final point: The Bible does not equate premarital sex and casual sex. Although many churchgoers may find this statement controversial, the people in the Bible were real people, not religious archetypes. When the Corinthians asked Paul about whether men should avoid having sex with women (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1), he responded, "Each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband because of sexual immorality" (v. 2). In other words, premarital sex was assumed in the verse. Believe it or not, Paul was consistent with the Law of Moses on the topic. Even the most casual reader of the Pentateuch (i.e., first five books of the Bible) realizes that the Law prescribed harsh sentences for sexual immorality, to include the death penalty. For example, the punishments for both adultery and homosexuality were capital (cf. Lev. 20:10, 13). However, God assigned a logical consequence to premarital sex rather than a punishment:
When a man seduces a young woman who isn't engaged to be married yet and he sleeps with her, he must marry her and pay the bride-price for her. But if her father absolutely refuses to let them marry, he must still pay the same amount as the bride-price for young women (Exod. 22:16-17).
Simply put, the Law required a young man to marry a young woman if he deflowered her. It also required him to compensate the bride's father for the economic loss of her work, given the context was an agricultural society. Basically, God intended for the young man to take responsibility for his actions, to be a man, and to commit to the woman he had sex with. This was God's way of making sure the woman would not be abandoned by both her lover as well as her father. The best pastoral response in our modern world to premarital sex is to listen and understand the circumstances before making a snap judgment. This is exactly how God himself responded even in the Bronze Age. If a man and a woman take responsibility for their premarital sexual bond by getting married, they have not sinned. The Jewish Virtual Library gives this perspective (in Bard, 2022):
In biblical times, a man was not prohibited from having sexual relations with a woman, as long as it led to marriage. The Bible never explicitly states a woman and man may not have sexual intercourse prior to marriage; therefore, no sanction was imposed for premarital sex, but it was considered a violation of custom.
Divorce: When the Bond Breaks
Jesus only gave us two statements about divorce:
But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for sexual unfaithfulness forces her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matt. 5:32).
Moses allowed you to divorce your wives because your hearts are unyielding. But it wasn't that way from the beginning. I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery (Matt. 19:8-9; cf. Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18).
However, there is more going on in the background than first meets the eye. The Pharisees approached Jesus to test him (cf. Matt. 19:3-7). On what? Why would they test Jesus on a settled issue? Because, in the first century, divorce was not a settled issue at all. The rabbinic schools of Hillel (c. 110 BC–c. AD 8) and Shammai (c. 50 BC–c. AD 30) disagreed over which one of their interpretations of Moses' command about divorce was right. Here are the verses in question:
If she doesn't please her master who chose her for himself . . . If he takes another woman for himself, he may not reduce her food, clothing, or marital rights. If he doesn't do these three things for her, she will go free without any payment, for no money (Exod. 21:8a, 10-11).
The house of Hillel understood the "if she does not please her master" clause to permit Jewish men to seek no-fault divorces against their wives even for minor offenses like burning their dinner or not being as beautiful as another woman. Mind you, this was not the kind of no-fault divorces that we have today. If a man divorced his wife in the first century, she was abandoned and left with nothing. The house of Shammai found this interpretation to be abhorrent, noting the Law of Moses required a divorcing man to still provide for the basic needs of his first wife. In contrast, the school of Hillel read the Exodus text as a get-out-of-marriage-free card. Jesus sided with the more conservative and literal hermeneutic of Shammai. Furthermore, this means Jesus agreed that Exod. 21:10-11 was a valid grounds for divorce if a man 1) refused to provide basic needs such as food and clothing; 2) deny his wife love and intimacy, thereby abusing and neglecting her. In this case, the wife was no longer bound in marriage to this horrible man. Jesus expressed only the part of the Law where there was disagreement between the Hillelites, the Shammaites, and himself. They all agreed that neglect and abuse were valid reasons for divorce. Despite the church leaders who say that adultery is the only scriptural reason for divorce, Jesus recognized abuse and neglect in keeping with Jewish tradition. If your leadership tells you otherwise, it is out of a narcissistic desire to control you, not because they really believe God overlooks abuse and neglect due to a hyper-literal interpretation. Such a thing would be out of character for God. Paul acknowledged this when he wrote:
The husband who doesn't believe belongs to God because of his wife, and the wife who doesn't believe belongs to God because of her husband. Otherwise, your children would be contaminated by the world, but now they are spiritually set apart. But if a spouse who doesn't believe chooses to leave, then let them leave. The brother or sister isn't tied down in these circumstances. God has called you to peace (1 Cor. 7:14-15; emp. added).
To summarize, here are the four conditions the Bible lists as violations of the marriage bond:
1) adultery, to include lust (e.g., pornography, i.e. "prostitution art," see Matt. 5:27-28).
2) abuse (e.g., no provision of food)
3) neglect (e.g., no provision of clothes or money)
4) abandonment (e.g., emotional, sexual, religious, spiritual)
Although many churchgoers talk about the "sanctity of marriage," a marriage is only sanctified if the husband loves his wife and the wife respects her husband. That is an absolute must. A marriage is not sanctified by virtue of being a marriage anymore than a false teacher is sanctified by teaching 10,000 spectators in your local megachurch. God allows for both virtue ethics (e.g., Ten Commandments) as well as situational ethics (cf. Mark 2:24-26). Of course, marriage is one of the highest virtues that God bless us with, but only if obeyed strictly by his scriptures. If you abuse and/or neglect your spouse, then they are as good as widowed by your sin. You have broken your vows and destroyed the marriage. However, as Paul wrote, reconciliation is a possibility if you repent and strive for peace in the relationship. Marriage is such a holy institution that Jesus calls the church his bride, no matter how many times we fail to obey him. When John wrote about the wedding feast at Cana (2:1-12), it was a foreshadowing of the wedding banquet we share with Jesus on the last day (cf. Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17). Jesus is the perfect groom, waiting patiently, exuding self-control, seeking consent, as well as perfectly modeling both love and respect. See here:
Look! I'm standing at the door and knocking. If any hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to be with them, and will have dinner with them, and they will have dinner with me (Rev. 3:20).
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, you have so consecrated the covenant of marriage that in it is represented the spiritual unity between Christ and his church: Send your blessing upon these your servants, that they may so love, honor, and cherish each other in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their home may be a haven of blessing and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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