In Christian marriage two people do the unthinkable: they declare, in a society where nothing is forever, that they commit themselves to each other for life.
Marriage in our society has become a commodity. It has become a device to fill the void that individualism has created. We are lonely people, and so we wait for our Prince Charming or our Cinderella to fill the void. That is, until we decide the one we found wasn’t who we believed them to be and cast them off for a newer and sleeker model.
Or, fearing the marriage won’t work, we have contingency plans. Failed marriage is almost an expectation. The number of couples simply living together has jumped dramatically in the last years, and the trend does not seem to be reversing.
Many Christians, however, still marry with an honest belief that it will be for life. What gives them this boldness? Is it just naivete?
Marriage in the context of community
When the apostle Paul spoke of marriage it was in the context of a Christian community. That is very different than two people simply joining with the hope of spending their lives together. Community has always been key for the Mennonite church and needs to continue to be stressed.
We are not individuals left to ourselves. Rather, we are co-dependent. Marriage involves the whole Christian community, especially those in the couple’s local community—the church in which they fellowship, their close friends and their family. These individuals are called to nurture, encourage and build up the couple. They are called to be there for them when times are difficult. It is their duty to support the couple in prayer, financially and emotionally. When the couple in such a community says, “I do” the community also says, “We do!”
This may not be typical in our churches, but this is what our marrying couples ought to be able to expect. Their marriages should be our responsibility. If they fail, then we have failed in our duty as their covenant community.
But what does marriage mean for the couple themselves? Why would they marry? Or, why would they remain single? The Christian doesn’t view singleness as a haven free of commitment but considers it a gift from God because one can be of greater service to God and the church. It is to be tied down to a life of service to the church.
Marriage is a life-long commitment
So then why marry? As Christians, we hold that sex is acceptable only within marriage, but marriage should not be viewed as simply an outlet for sexual frustration. Rather, it should be viewed as a gift from God. God places someone in our lives to whom we desire to commit our entire being.
Marriage is an act of service. In the words of Stanley Hauerwas, it is “the ultimate act of subversion.” In Christian marriage two people commit themselves to each other for life. This is why marriage ought not to be entered into lightly. People who consider marriage ought to ask God for guidance, but they ought to also ask the opinion of their community.
Marriage is the ultimate act of self-renunciation. In Christian marriage two people place their own needs second to those of their spouse. They each commit to meeting the needs of the other.
In receiving each other as a gift from God, the couple in turn uses that gift to serve the community. Like the single person who understands singleness as a gift to be used for God and the church, so too the married couple understands their marriage and household as a gift to God and the church.
Christian marriage is a subversive act because it undermines our society’s notion of the person as a “free agent”; it is done within the context of a community. It is also subversive because it declares a couple to be bound to one another for life.
This essay is excerpted from a message Tom Friesen, previously pastor of Scott Street MB Church, St. Catharines, Ontario, preached at a close friend’s wedding. It was previously published in MB Herald, the Canadian Conference of MB Churches magazine, and is reprinted with permission.