The world around us often highlights the individual as the sole person of concern. The world exalts the self and idolizes the novel and the new. In the face of these trends, the covenant of marriage is countercultural.
Marriage turns our world upside down; it unmasks cultural idols and discloses an alternative way of living. Stepping into the covenant of marriage, therefore, is perhaps the most radical thing a couple can do.
For the Christian, marriage isn’t simply a legal contract. The bonding of two people in the covenant of marriage does not take place in a courtroom, a back yard, a concert hall, or even in the church sanctuary.
Marriage is held in God’s own heart. It is a spiritual reality enjoyed by the two people as they become united by the hand of the Almighty. Together they stand before God, and with God. It is a way of life that all should cherish, and none should lightly undertake.
When we strip away the flowing dresses, the dapper tuxedoes, the ornate pew-bows, and the multi-tiered cake, we are left with a covenant that transforms us. Marriage discloses our truest selves and our most important of missions. Here are three ways that the covenant of marriage radically reorients us.
1. A Marriage Covenant Calls Us to Service
Ephesians 5 is one of the most poignant discussions on the Christian view of marriage. Unfortunately, it often becomes co-opted by misunderstandings surrounding the word “submit.”
Yes, Ephesians 5:22 says, “Wives submit to your husbands.” Yet did you notice verse 21? “Submit to one another, out of reverence for Christ,” Paul begins.
We often hear the word “submission” through the lens of dominance and oppression. Submission means to take away someone’s rights; to demean them. With this understanding, submitting to another involves lessening our own personhood, our own voice, our own status.
If this is what Paul meant, then yes, we would have a problem. Any vision of marriage where one party stands in a dominant position over the other is antithetical to the biblical call of marriage.
Biblically, however, the language of mutual submission is a call to uphold, encourage, and support the other. In the covenant of marriage, one person can never take the pride of place. To be married is to give of oneself selflessly and lovingly to the other.
Paul appeals to Christ’s love for the church as the prime example of this. Christ, the holy and eternal bridegroom gave himself in sacrificial love for the life, the health, and the salvation of his bride, the church. This is the model that both husbands and wives are called to emulate.
This means that the primary mission of any two people in marriage is not to receive love, but to give love, freely, radically, and selflessly.
Traditionally, the exchange of rings occurred as these words were spoken: “With this ring, I thee wed, with my body I thee honor, and all my worldly good with thee I share; in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
The covenant of marriage involves a laying down of the individual self, in order to enter into a new life of loving, Christlike, service.
2. A Marriage Covenant Points to the Love of Jesus
Several denominations list marriage as a sacrament. A sacrament is a fancy church word that simply means an outward and visible sign of an inward grace. Simply put, a sacrament is a place where we find Jesus.
Whether you are of a tradition that accepts the language of sacraments or not, the Christian view of marriage is simply this: Jesus is present.
Again, this is very countercultural. We tend to view marriage as centered upon the glorious couple at the front of the ceremony. Brides and grooms alike gleefully refer to the ceremony as “my day.”
Speeches and toasts wax poetic about so-and-so being one’s “soul mate.” In the eyes of the world, marriage is all about the blushing bride and the dapper groom.
The Church boldly declares that your wedding day is not “your day.” Marriage is a service of worship, plain and simple. A wedding day is a day like all days, where we cast our vision on the glorious grace of Jesus.
It is a day where the blushing bride and dashing groom are overshadowed by the incarnate Lord. It is a day of love, yes, but “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and so it is God’s day. What is more, this call to be focused on Jesus continues throughout the entirety of marriage. Marriage is a perpetual, and lifelong, call to worship.
Marriage is about embracing the love of Jesus through the gift of each other. And so, in marriage, there is forgiveness, healing, and redemption.
In marriage, we hold onto one another in the roughest of times and celebrate the gift of the other in places of joy. In marriage, one is always desiring to bathe the other in divine love. That is the mission; that is a covenant of marriage.
3. A Marriage Covenant Is a Call to Commitment
The contemporary world has a hostile relationship with commitment. Long-term commitments are gauged by the length of one’s cell phone contract. Hollywood continuously reflects a flippant attitude toward the matters of love and romance.
Partners are changed with every new starring role, and too often family becomes the props used to bolster an image or fill out a photo-op. Slowly and surely this degrading of steadfast commitment seeps into our cultural ethos.
The covenant of marriage is a radical blow to a world that values the “flavor of the month” or the “whims of the moment.” Marriage calls us to bold commitment. There are no “outs,” no loopholes. When two people give themselves to each other, solely and exclusively, this commitment is eternal in nature. Marriage is a commitment of the largest fashion.
Of course, we must recognize that, tragically, marriages fall apart. The covenant of marriage does not mean that divorce never occurs, even within the Christian community, marital breakdown occurs.
Husbands and wives can grow distant and uncommunicative. Choices can be made, which hurt and harm and the relationship. Divorce happens. This is nothing new. Divorces occurred in Jesus’ day, and divorces occur in ours as well.
The call to commitment, however, declares that divorce is never the intent of marriage. One never enters the covenant of marriage looking for a way out. There is no timeframe given to one’s commitment in marriage.
These things are contrary to the very nature of a covenant. When two people commit to one another in the covenant of marriage, the intent and desire of that union are for it to last throughout this life, and into the next.
Why Does This Matter?
The fundamental truth is that marriage changes us. Just as the vow of baptism changes the life of the baptized person, or the vow of ordination changes the newly minted pastor, the vow of marriage creates a new person — a new people. One cannot enter a marriage and be unchanged.
This, in part, is what lies behind the biblical language of “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). One flesh does not simply describe the sexual nature of marriage. It describes a unified and intertwined life. In marriage, one cannot describe oneself in any true, robust, or authentic way, without appealing to the life, and love, of the other.
This is what makes the covenant of marriage so important and so countercultural. The covenant of marriage dethrones the lies of individualism, self-importance, and pride. For the Christian, marriage separates us from the ways and systems of the world.
The covenant of marriage belongs to the Kingdom. When we take on the covenant of marriage, we embed ourselves in the flow of God’s will and rule.
After everything is said and done, what could be more radical than that?
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Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.