What we believe in marriage determines what we receive in marriage. Paul and Juanita had decided to divorce. Linda and I (Marty) had met with this couple for several months. From the first counseling session, I was amazed their marriage had lasted. Although they claimed to be Christians, there was no evidence of Christianity in the way they treated each other. They had suffered so much pain and had drifted so far apart that they had become hostile roommates. Their marriage had ended long before sitting in our living room. They were the couple the song writer, Bob Bennett, wrote about when he sang, “and he lies back to back with his wife in the sack, together all alone.”
We live in a country where the majority of Americans profess to be Christian. This confession often creates confusion when the promises of love aren’t supported by lifestyle, when the concept of Christianity is more important than its commitments, when we share the same bed, but lie there, “together all alone.” It’s what happens when we define Christian marriage casually; because how we define marriage determines how we experience marriage.
Christian by Default?
Sitting in the airport waiting for a flight, I (Rich) was interested that the man and woman next to me were flying back to India after having been gone for over 20 years. When he found out that I was a pastor, he said, “I, too, am a Christian!” Before I could respond, he continued explaining that his parents were not Hindu and in their village the only other option was Christian. His mother and father found a “Christian holy man” and had him baptized.
Where do you go to church?”
“Oh, we don’t attend church.”
“Have you ever been exposed to the teaching of Jesus?”
The long pause answered the question. At that point our flight to London was announced and we hurried to the gate to find the seat we would be wedged in for the next 17 hours. I couldn’t get out of my mind this man’s belief that not being Hindu made him Christian. Yet our nation is filled with people who are Christian by default.
Recently one of our congregations shared with me the results from a “man on the street interview.” People walking the streets in a west coast city were asked to define the term Christian. Their answers included “a right-wing political party,” “a group of fanatics,” “an out-of-touch group of people,” “individuals who need religion for a crutch,” and “religious people.” Only one woman identified Christians as people who have accepted Jesus as their savior.
Our Definition Determines our Direction
Where we end up in life often depends on how we define key words and concepts. Definitions usually define our direction. Pastor Jim Gleason maintains that “Direction, not desire, determines our destination.” That point is so important to Christian marriage. It would even be appropriate to say that definitions and direction determine our destiny—that’s where most Christian marriages like Juanita’s and Paul’s swerve off the road.
We believe that the Bible teaches that all of mankind, no matter how good we think we are, is under God’s judgment. We often use the analogy of being under a guilty verdict with God as the judge of the universe. The verdict requires the death penalty. Instead of our being put to death, Jesus stands before the court and suffers the penalty for us. But death could not hold him. He lives to guide us and intercede on our behalf. The couple that believes the biblical account of this historical event is “Christian.” Christianity is not a religion that someone can be baptized into; it is a relationship with a living savior.
This kind of Christianity weaves its way through the fabric of all of our relationships, especially our marriages. Norman Wright’s definition of a Christian marriage can help us here.
Our Definition Determines our Desire
A Christian marriage is a total commitment of two people to the person of Jesus Christ and to one another. It is a commitment in which there is no holding back of anything. A Christian marriage is similar to a solvent, a freeing up of the man and woman to be themselves and become all that God intends for them to become. Marriage is the refining process that God will use to have us develop into the man or woman he wants us to be.
This definition highlights four key factors:
- Our first commitment is to Jesus Christ and then to each other.
- Marriage is filled with freedom to express life and love without reservation.
- Married couples don’t get lost in the relationship, they get found—they become all they were meant to be.
- Marriage is the “vineyard” that God uses to grow an intoxicating relationship.
I (Rich) struggled approximately 10 years into my marriage. I share my experience in our first book, Redeeming Relationships. My struggle, in part, was because I was not totally committed to Jesus Christ and to LouAnna. My definition of marriage minimized her importance. My desire was to be everything I could be, not everything LouAnna needed me to be. LouAnna was totally committed to Jesus Christ and me. Her definition of a Christian marriage made a huge difference in how we experienced marriage. LouAnna’s commitment helped change me. Our marriage grew to reflect the “intoxicating” quality Solomon writes about in his Song of Songs (1:2). Our definition of a Christian marriage determines which desires we pursue—and which desires yield fruit in our relationship. Couples who desire to follow what Jesus teaches have more hope of succeeding than those who do not.
Our Definition Determines our Delight
Dr. Wright is correct when he says that a Christian marriage is “a commitment in which there is no holding back of anything.” We have encountered couples whose marriages were characterized by secrecy, pent-up emotions, unresolved conflict, hurt feelings, misunderstandings, guarded love, and lifeless sex. The healthy marriage is vibrant and free. It is free to be honest and open. Hurt feelings are admitted and addressed. There is a feeling that no topic is “off limits” for discussion.
We have counseled hundreds of engaged couples. Most consent to this intrinsic examination of marriage only because it is required by someone—parents, pastors, church—as an attempt to truncate any possible problems they may have. Many Christian couples believe that marriage will end their individuality. Christian women are especially vulnerable. They often believe that marriage will swallow up their identity and they will become only the wife of the man they are marrying. The fact is that couples do not lose their individual identities; they add another.
Dr. David Olson, developer of Prepare/Enrich, asks the question, “in your relationship is there a good balance of time together and time apart?” The inference drawn from the question is that unhealthy couples define marriage in a way that exhibits an imbalance in this area. The couple that lives polarized experiences less joy and delight. A healthy couple will spend quality time apart as well as quality time together. This balance promotes a vibrant relationship. How we define our marriage determines the delight we experience in marriage.
Who Defines “Christian Marriage”?
Paul and Juanita saw their differences and struggles with each other as God somehow judging them. They couldn’t see that God was using these differences as catalysts for their growth. They missed the truth of scripture that God was working everything for their good (Romans 8:28) so that they could look like Jesus. Not being able to trust God removed the Christian element from their definition of marriage. Once the incorrect definition was established, and all attempts to change it were disregarded, the relationship disintegrated. Ultimately, it is the character of our savior that defines the Christian marriage. When the qualities of a self-sacrificing and loving savior are removed from the definition, the relationship not only stops being “Christian”—it stops being a marriage.
(1) Bob Bennett, “Together All Alone,” Star Song Records, 1982.
(2) Gleason, Jim. Corban University chapel, September 30, 2011.
(3) Wright, H. Norman. Quiet Times for Couples. 2008. Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Oregon.
(4) Olson, David H. et. al. The Couple Checkup. 2008. Thomas Nelson: Nashville, Tennessee.