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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Scripture on Marriage (Part 4)

Like Jesus, Scripture informs us that the Apostle Paul was a bachelor (I Corinthians 7:7-8). However, Paul's views on gender, human sexuality, marriage, and divorce were complicated, and sometimes reflected the perspective of First Century Jewish society. Fortunately, Paul was heavily influenced by Christ's teachings and life, and his exposure to other followers of Jesus Christ. Among the latter, it would be hard to overestimate the impact of a Christian couple who had recently had to leave Italy when the Emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2).

He met them at Corinth and their names were Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:1-2). Like Paul, they were "tent makers" by trade (verse 3). Indeed, Paul grew to be so fond of the couple that they accompanied him to Ephesus when he left there (verses 18-19). Later, after Paul left Ephesus, we read that Priscilla and Aquila had an opportunity to hear Apollos speak at the local synagogue, and that they took him aside afterwards "and explained to him the way of God more accurately." (Verses 24-26) In his epistle to the Romans, Paul called the couple his "co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus" (16:3). Likewise, in his first epistle to the saints at Corinth, Paul revealed that a church met in the couple's home (16:19). Thus, we see that this married couple had a profound impact on both Paul and the early Church.

Even so, from Paul's writings, it is also clear that he personally believed that marriage was an unnecessary distraction. To the saints at Corinth, he wrote: "Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: 'It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.' But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?" (I Corinthians 7:1-16, ESV)

In this epistle, Paul gives the impression that the chief purpose of marriage is to avoid sexual immorality, and he implies that he would prefer that everyone was able to exert the same self-control which he had exercised in his life and remain single. He then went on to make clear that sexual intercourse was an obligation of both husbands and wives. According to Paul, a wife should remain with her husband, but she should also remain single if she did decide to leave him. For Christians who were married to unbelievers, Paul wrote that they should remain with their unbelieving spouse if he/she was willing to stay. However, he went on to say that the Christian would not be bound to an unbelieving spouse who abandoned them (some folks see this as contradicting Christ's statement that the only valid reason for divorce is infidelity - but wouldn't most of the spouses who leave move on to another relationship?). Moreover, the apostle made it clear that he believed that Christians in such marriages were in a unique position to witness to their unbelieving spouse and children.

Later, in the same epistle, Paul continued: "Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God." (I Corinthians 7:25-40, ESV)

First, please note that, both at the beginning and close of this passage, Paul is careful to point out that he is giving his opinion on these matters - that none of his advice should be regarded as a "command from the Lord." First, when he wrote this letter, Paul clearly believed that the end of the age was near, and that Christ's return was imminent. Thus, from his perspective, it made sense to advise people to remain in their present circumstances - to NOT take on any new responsibilities. As a consequence, he advised those who were betrothed to not consummate their marriages. Nevertheless, he did go on to admit a betrothed person would certainly NOT be sinning if they followed through with their marriage and actually consummated it. Once again, he also made clear that he viewed marriage as the best option for those who lacked self-control - better to marry than to burn with desire!

As we can see from these passages from his letter to the Corinthians, Paul's attitudes regarding gender, human sexuality, marriage, and divorce were complex and influenced by a number of factors (including the customs of the society around him). Even so, his attitude towards gender has probably caused more consternation and confusion than any of his statements on those other subjects.

For instance, Paul told the saints of Galatia that "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28, ESV) However, he also wrote the saints of Corinth: "As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church." (I Corinthians 14:33-35, ESV) Likewise, in his first epistle to Timothy, he wrote: "Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet." (2:11-12, ESV) This, in spite of his experiences with Priscilla and Timothy's mother and grandmother (in his second epistle to Timothy, he acknowledged that his young apprentice had gotten his faith through those women).

In this connection, however, we must not forget that Jewish society of the First Century was very Paternalistic in outlook and practice. In other words, Paul had been immersed in these attitudes and was a product of the people, time, and place where he grew to adulthood! Hence, it is rather naive and illogical to suppose that these forces didn't exert any influence over some of Paul's statements and advice to his "children in the Lord."

To the saints at Ephesus, Paul wrote: "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband." (Ephesians 5:22-33, ESV)

Now, while it was certainly traditional for wives to submit themselves to their husbands in that society, Paul compared that to Christ's relationship to his Church! This was new! Likewise, Paul admonished husbands to love their wives in the same way that Christ had loved the Church! Hence, we see a continuity between Christ's parables, what Paul said in this letter, and what John wrote toward the end of the book of Revelation which we referenced earlier. Moreover, Paul went on to quote that passage from Genesis which we cited in the first post in this series (Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh). According to Paul, this didn't just apply to a man and a woman in marriage - He said that it also applied to Christ and the Church!

Paul gave similar familial advice to the saints at Colosse. He wrote: "Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged." (Colossians 3:18-21, ESV)

Before we leave Paul's contributions on the subject of marriage, we would be remiss if we didn't mention what he had to say about the conduct of the Church's human leadership in this regard. In his letter to Timothy, Paul addressed what he considered to be the appropriate qualifications for an overseer (episkopos) and a deacon. He wrote: "The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. , He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus." (I Timothy 3:1-13, ESV)

Notice, in enumerating the qualifications needed by the men who would occupy those roles, Paul stressed reputation inside and outside of the community. He was also very clear that church leaders should be "the husband of ONE wife." Unfortunately, this stipulation has been disregarded by many Christian churches and their pastors. Indeed, my own father was pulled into the ministry when he was on his third marriage (his wives from the first two marriages still living at the time). How do people make something that so clearly contradicts a scriptural principle right? I think that there are many different ways that individuals can and do justify such things. Some tell themselves that those previous marriages don't count, because they happened prior to their conversion or before they came into the Chruch. Others tell themselves that their divorced spouse(s) weren't their true soulmate - the one special person whom God had chosen for them. Others tell themselves that the prior marriage wasn't binding because of infidelity or their mate's abandonment of their faith or church group. In fact, there are probably as many justifications as there are pastors who have been married to more than one wife!

Paul also made clear that he wanted men in these positions who were managing their own families/households well. In other words, the pastor's wife and children should be respectable too and capable of setting a good example for their husband's/father's flock.

While some scholars have focused on the differences between Peter and Paul, the two apostles were on the same page regarding the respective roles of husbands and wives. After admonishing Christians to submit to those in authority over them (I Peter 2:13-25), Peter wrote: "Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered." (I Peter 3:1-7, ESV).

Finally, in the anonymous epistle to the Hebrews, we read: "Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous." (13:4) In other words, Christians should hold the institution of marriage in high esteem and be very careful NOT to do anything that might interfere with or violate the bond between a husband and wife. Notice too, that this respect for marriage was to be universal - that everyone in the Church was expected to have this attitude towards marriage!

Now, while some of the passages referenced in this post have been employed in Christian wedding ceremonies down through the centuries, notice that (as in the Old Testament) there is NO ceremonial or ritualistic formula associated with weddings mentioned anywhere in the New Testament! Sure, Paul's definition of love (found in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the saints at Corinth) has been widely quoted in the context of various ceremonies. Even so, there is no scriptural command to do so!

As promised, in the next and final post in this series, we will look at the Song of Solomon and its relevance to marriage and provide a wider discussion of human sexuality. We will also attempt to summarize what Scripture reveals about the institution of marriage and talk about how those revelations square with some of the statements which Christian Churches have issued on the subject over the last twenty years or so. Stay tuned!

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