Are Evangelicals Redefining Marriage?
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
20 Oct, 2015

Most evangelicals are not caving in on the issue of same-sex “marriage”. That is encouraging. Yet biblical marriage is not fully intact amongst evangelicals just because they oppose this. A more subtle and less publicised redefinition of marriage is prevailing in society. Things are not so hopeful in relation to this.

This goes deeper into our whole attitude towards marriage. Is the Bible really supreme in our understanding of marriage? Evangelicals have surrendered to worldly views on marriage to a greater or lesser extent in many respects. A recent blog post is helpful in highlighting a few of these problems but we also need remedies.

 

1. Resisting a Redefined Basis for Marriage

Marriage is widely seen as solely an emotional, romantic bond between two adults. This was the basis of the argument to redefine it. A brief survey of popular evangelical books, articles and sermons reveals a similar view of marriage. The interpretation of the Song of Solomon has suffered in this regard. Yet this is not the only aspect of biblical teaching on marital love and responsibilities. It results in an unbalanced view of marriage. This unconsciously opens to the worldly view that marriage is worthless when romance becomes more challenging or even less fervid.

As Scripture asserts, marriage is a covenant (Malachi 2:14). It is a solemn vow before God. It reflects Christ’s covenant with His people. The Westminster Assembly emphasised this. The marriage vows in their Directory of Public Worship strongly affirm it. We must also insist that couples  regard their marriage as “the covenant of their God”.

 

2. Resisting a Redefined Purpose for Marriage

An exclusively romantic definition of marriage changes the whole purpose of marriage. It becomes largely self-absorbed. The worldly tendency to idolise the other half as the one who guarantees fulfilment for us.

Marriage is not simply about two people – this places too great expectation on one another. We need an outward focus to supplement the mutual bond. “Marriage was ordained” not only “for the mutual help of husband and wife” and “for preventing of uncleanness”. The Westminster Confession also asserts marriage was ordained “for the increase of mankind with a legitimate issue, and of the Church with an holy seed”. The Church and society need strong, God-honouring families (Malachi 2:15). Strong families cannot be built on romantic attachment alone. Self-sacrificial love must radiate in every direction from the marriage bond. Even where children have not been given to a family, this should still be the case.

 

3. Resisting Redefined Limits for Marriage

The world makes an emotional bond and consent the main limit in relation to marriage. Restrictions around incest, age and numbers may exist but these are being eroded by the overwhelming emphasis on personal choice. For the same reasons biblical limits have been eroded among evangelicals. Scripture places distinct limits on marriage. These are summarised in the Westminster Confession.

There are religious limits. Christians should “marry only in the Lord”. “Therefore, such as profess the true reformed religion should not marry with infidels, papists, or other idolaters”. “Neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked, by marrying with such as are notoriously wicked in their life, or maintain damnable heresies”. This relates to who we should decide to marriage but not the grounds for divorce (see below).

There are family limits. The Confession rejects the idea that consent or men’s laws can remove God’s limits in any way.

“Marriage ought not to be within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity forbidden in the Word; nor can such incestuous marriages ever be made lawful by any law of man or consent of parties, so as those persons may live together as man and wife”. Sadly, however, the wider limits of family relation imposed by Scripture have been eroded in law and ignored by evangelicals. The Confession asserts the biblical truth that we cannot marry our in-laws any more than we could marry our immediate family.

“The man may not marry any of his wife’s kindred nearer in blood than he may of his own; nor the woman of her husband’s kindred nearer in blood than of her own”.

 

4. Resisting a Redefined Focus for Marriage

Who is the most important person in a marriage? In the view of the world it will probably be yourself and then your spouse. According to Scripture – it is God. The growing custom of having marriages on the Lord’s Day shows that this is not acknowledged as it ought to be among evangelicals. Even in Eden, marriage had an outward as well as internal focus. It was about God bringing two people together. It was for His glory. Couples can only engage in marriage in dependence upon God. The Westminster Directory says that God has “brought them together by his providence”. He must “sanctify them by his Spirit, giving them a new frame of heart fit for their new estate; enriching them with all graces whereby they may perform the duties, enjoy the comforts, undergo the cares, and resist the temptations which accompany that condition, as becometh Christians.”

In coming to be married they should “entreat the Lord (whose presence and favour is the happiness of every condition, and sweetens every relation) to be their portion, and to own and accept them in Christ”.

 

5. Resisting Redefined Duties for Marriage

The world has even eroded the idea that marriage involves mutual help, sharing finances and support. There are many marital duties beyond romantic love and faithfulness. These mutual duties are frequently highlighted in Scripture. There is a helpful outline in the Westminster Directory. The first is that they must “study the holy word of God”. Scripture teaches them their duties and how to engage in them. They need to:

  • learn to live by faith,
  • be content in the midst of all marriage cares and troubles
  • sanctify God’s name, in a thankful, sober, and holy use of all conjugal comforts
  • pray much with and for one another
  • watch over and provoke each other to love and good works
  • live together as the heirs of the grace of life.

 

6. Resisting a Redefined Duration for Marriage

Marriage is often seen as optional in western society compared to living together. It is also often viewed as temporary rather than permanent. Yet the vow ought to be made “until God shall separate us by death”. For all the counselling available, evangelicals have also adopted a laissez-faire approach to marriage. It is seen as a purely private issue when marriages break down, although of course regrettable. Situations are addressed according to subjective response rather than scriptural principle. Church discipline is unthinkable. No-fault divorces have often been tolerated and are now widely accepted. Remarriage is not assessed by biblical standards but rather subjective issues.

We have forgotten the wise words of the Westminster Confession which remain true.  It says that “the corruption of man” is always ready to pursue all kinds of “arguments” in order “unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage”. A married couple are what God has “joined together”. We must therefore consult His Word on the grounds of divorce and remarriage. In a generation of no-fault divorce, we must remember that:

“nothing but adultery, or such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage”. It is important that “a public and orderly course” is followed. The couple should not be “left to their own wills and discretion, in their own case”

 

Conclusion

Evangelicals are poorly equipped to deal with the current crisis in the understanding in relation to marriage. We must instruct our young people in a fully biblical understanding of marriage. If we fail to do that their resistance to the world’s redefinition of marriage will be further eroded over time. We need to move beyond a lowest common denominator view of marriage and embrace a maximal fully Scriptural understanding. To do this, we need to rediscover and apply the faithful summaries of biblical truth given to us by the Westminster Assembly.

FURTHER READING

You might like to read a previous blog post on “How to Define not Redefine Marriage.” 

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