by Trevor Sykes
Building on both Kristen and Don’s work in unpacking so well Ephesians 5, I would like to suggest some practical, egalitarian aspects that can be considered as we work to have our marriages more Christ centred. I can’t help but think of how radical the Pauline instruction in Ephesians 5 will have sounded to those who received this letter. It will have imposed on them an incredible cultural challenge. As Paul outlines these glorious ideals (Ephesians 5:22-33) we can readily see that Christian marriage was meant to be entirely other, a counter-cultural experience only possible by being totally immersed in Jesus.
There are very few passages in Scripture where Jesus deals with marriage specifically but I’m drawn to the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees in Matthew 19 verses 1-12. Here the issue is about divorce and Moses having made a way for men to put away their wives very easily. Jesus, after reaffirming God’s intention in marriage (verses 4-6), responds that this came about because Moses made a concession due to their ancestors’ hardhearted wickedness. As the disciples observed how Jesus handled the trick questions of the Pharisees and considered the import of his statements for themselves they remark, “Then it is better not to marry!” (verse 10) To which Jesus replies, “Not everyone can accept this statement, only those whom God helps.” (verse 11, NLT) Both the Pharisees and the disciples were trapped within the cultural limitations of their experience. Jesus was suggesting the possibility of a supernatural intervention that would make the original intention and ideal of God, outlined in Genesis 1:27; 5:2 and 2:24, possible.
Jesus declares that what is impossible humanly is possible with God. Just as the instruction of the Apostle Paul to the Church in Ephesus was radical in its time I would like to suggest it is equally radical, when understood correctly, in our own day. Then, as now, only with supernatural help can we expect to be able to do marriage as it is outlined in Ephesians 5. What is impossible humanly speaking is possible with God.
What is it that makes marriage so difficult? From a purely worldly perspective, even though marriage is recognised as the most stable unit of family life, it is failing miserably. So much so that most couples would sooner co-habit or partner, either permanently, or for a time, than actually marry. They want to see how the relationship may work out because so many have grown up either having experienced their own family of origin breakdown or know far too many unhappily married friends. We might expect the Church to do better but statistically, in the western world at least, Christians are leaving marriages at the same rate as those outside the Church. We may think we could excuse this statistic by saying that perhaps these marriages were entered into before the couple became Christians, but that is definitely not entirely the case, and, even if it were, that wouldn’t make it any more right to sunder a marriage.
One thing is for sure, the Church definitely needs to do better. It would be a great witness to the world and a real plus for the Gospel if Christians were known as the most happily married people around. Somehow the current marriage culture, within the Church for a start, needs to be turned around. The Ephesians 5 model is still the best model but not while ever a hierarchy of relationships is envisioned, or while men are perceived to be ordained of God to be ‘in charge’ of their wives. No, what’s required here is a mutuality based on the fact that we are heirs together of the grace of God available in Christ Jesus.
If, in the Church, a man and a woman approached courtship and marriage with a desire to partner with God and one another in the developing of a ‘for life’ relationship, rather than how the world, or the host culture, goes about it, that would be a great start. If, once the relationship blossomed and the two were married, God continued to be the shared centre of their affections then the marriage would be more likely to flourish. If the married couple were able to maintain a Christ-centred relationship as circumstances changed for them, like having a family and needing to provide adequately for a family, employment challenges etc. things would still remain on an even keel. If unforeseen circumstances threatened the harmony and devotedness of the couple and they were still able to go to God and include him, together as one, in all of their difficulties, the marriage would not only survive but be deepened and enriched. If the couple were blessed of God to live together to old age and have grandchildren and great grandchildren, a rich and lasting heritage with no regrets, they would be truly blessed. With God it is possible.
The only thing that could ever prevent a happy scenario, like I have outlined above, is that somehow selfishness, worldly influences and the pride of life robbed one or other of the marriage partners of the ability to hand everything over to God. Marriage is a work in progress. The love of the couple for each other alone will not sustain it. But the good news is that God has a plan for marriage, established at the beginning of time (Jesus’ own words, Matthew 19:4-6), therefore he is committed to helping us work it out.