Marriage is in continued decline, falling to an all time low in many nations according to the latest statistics. And it’s not yet clear what impact the current crisis will have on the institution of matrimony. Despite studies that show marriage is good for society, its relevance is widely undermined. Marriage is vital for the future of the church as well as society as well as for the glory of God. It gives us a picture of Christ and the church. Research shows that while rates of marriage are higher amongst evangelicals, they are following the same downward trend. The Future of Christian Marriage is a book that examines the trends among young people identifying as Christians across different nations. It reveals that marriage is seen as more of a nice to have aspiration than a need to have essential. It seems that our view of marriage needs to be changed if we are going to preserve it. Not only that but we need to change. And that change is something we all need (married or unmarried) as we will see.
In The Future of Christian Marriage, Mark Regenerus writes, “As a researcher, studying the demise of marriage has been like watching an invasive fungus slowly destroy a stately old oak tree.” What is the disease that is attacking marriage? The same pervasive disease that is attacking the church and society. It’s the prevailing principle (indeed idolatry) in our culture: expressive individualism. It proclaims that the highest good is individual freedom and self-expression. Its chief purpose is therefore to glorify and enjoy ourselves as we choose, resisting anything that would constrain.
It influences us in subtle ways and more than we care to admit. Its impact on marriage is clear. Marriage is either delayed or abused by pursuing individualist goals. We need more than some light touch teaching about the benefits of marriage and what it will bring us in fulfilment. We need to have the spirit of loving self-sacrifice that Scripture puts at the heart of marriage and all relationships. This is why it is so counter-cultural. “The oak will not perish” says Regenerus. “In fact, marriage will increasingly become ‘a Christian thing,’ which means the church will bear increasing responsibility for an institution with an uncertain future.” But this will only be carried out faithfully as we implement the challenging teaching of Scripture in this area.
The classic passage to go to in relation to marriage is Ephesians 5:21-33. The last verse sums up in two succinct statements the key responsibilities that Paul has expanded on. The key principle is self-denial in the fear of God, because we have already given ourselves first to the Lord. This is to be expressed in their love (Titus 2:4; Colossians 3:19), sharing in what they have and living together (1 Peter 3:7), mutually bearing one another’s burdens and weaknesses (Galatians 6:2). In other words they are to live out Christian character and grace in the context of marriage. The husband must not seek his own and love himself more than his wife, he must love her as himself (Ephesians 5:28-29). The wife must equally deny herself in respect and submission to her spouse (v22).
The verse that opens this section outlines this key principle of mutual submission and self-denial (v21). He gives a general exhortation that applies to all members of families. As James Fergusson observes, the submission Paul speaks of here is that service of love which everyone owes to each other for their mutual good and benefit in their respective roles and relationships (Galatians 5:13). It is submission to others that flows from a principle of love to them, and actually intends their good and advantage. It must be done with a humble spirit, being willing to debase ourselves not proudly thinking our duty to others is beneath us. It is to be done in the fear of God because humbling ourselves in this way is an evidence of fearing God and because it is the reason why we do it (Colossians 3:22-23). The fear of God defines the extent of our submission to others, since we are not to submit to more than or in opposition to God. In this updated extract there are lessons for all of us.
1. Denying Ourselves Glorifies God
We are not to neglect the duties of our calling and those which we owe to others by pretending that we have to engage in the worship God instead. God allows us time for both, we are to take time for both. It is consistent to have a conscientious regard for both. The apostle instructs both duties of worship (v19-20) and towards others (v21ff) as it were in one breath. This is clear from the grammatical construction of the words in the original “giving thanks always….submitting yourselves one to another”.
2. Denying Ourselves Manifests God’s Grace
Conscientiously discharging the duties we owe to our neighbour in our various responsibilities (in a way acceptable to God) requires an abundant quantity of the saving work of God’s Spirit in the heart. It is no less necessary in these duties that in those of God’s worship and service. Verse 21 depends on and is constructed with verse 18, so that we read it “Be filled with the Spirit…submitting yourselves”. [i.e. These verses belong together in one connected thought showing the effects of the Spirit’s influence, “be filled with the Spirit …Speaking to yourselves…Giving thanks always…Submitting yourselves”].
3. Denying Ourselves is For Everyone
There is no-one living whom God allows to live only to themselves. Everyone is obliged to inconvenience themselves in their respective employments for the good and benefit of others. Even those in authority must do this for the good of those under their responsibility. This command is given to everyone without exception: “submitting yourselves one to another.”
4. Denying Ourselves is Mutually Beneficial
As God has obliged us not to live to ourselves alone, but also to others (whose good we are to aim at in our place and position) so He has provided for a mutual benefit or reward. In this way there is a kind of equality. He has obliged others to live to us and in one way or another do things for our good and advantage also. Both this command and the obligation on which it is based are reciprocal; “submitting yourselves one to another”.
5. Denying Ourselves Pleases God
Where the fear of God is rooted in the heart, it will make a person conscientiously careful and sensitive in relation to their duty towards others. They will not only do their duty, but also do it from a right principle and motive. This will keep them from overdoing things and displeasing God, while they endeavour to please others. The fear of God is the fountain, motive and rule of that submission which is here prescribed “submitting one to another in the fear of God.”
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