Why are people choosing marriage today? What are people’s primary goals in marriage? Until recently, some of the reasons why people chose marriage have included social pressure, status, sex, convenience, a women’s need to have economic support and social security, to be able to have children. After all, it hasn’t been that long since marriages were arranged by parents, even in our own country.
Today, according to numerous surveys, people are getting married primarily in order to have a relationship of loving, close companionship – a level of intimacy that is possible only in marriage. Best friends!
Yet it’s no secret that marriage can be in trouble today. More than one out of every two marriages ends in divorce. Whenever a marriage fails and ends in divorce, the couple failed to achieve their primary goal for the marriage. In most cases, which goal is that? The desire to have loving, intimate companionship. What that is not there, the disappointment and disillusionment are so great that the marriage literally falls apart.
In this article we’re going to look to the Bible for what really is God’s plan for marriage. Then, we’ll consider some biblical keys to partnership and discuss decision-making in our partnership.
God’s Purposes for Marriage
Christian marriage is a calling – not a convenience. It’s a divine calling. It’s the most significant relationship possible between a woman and a man, and it was ordained by God Himself in the Garden of Eden.
First, Christian marriage is made between two persons made in the living image of God. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and all forms of matter and life. The climax was God’s creation of a woman and a man. In Genesis1:26-28, God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…In the image of God He created him; male and female he created them.” God created both woman and man in His own image and likeness – not a physical likeness since God is spirit – but with abilities and capacities like His: the ability to feel, to enjoy, to decide, to choose, to communicate at a very high level. But perhaps the greatest way God equipped us to be like Him is in His giving us His own capacity for love: the ability to care deeply for, to love another human being.
Second, God made us equal partners in leadership over the earth. The first marriage was solemnized by God Himself in the Garden of Eden. Marriage – intended by God to be the closest, most intimate relationship between any two people on the face of the earth! It’s a divine calling, not a convenience.
The Bible says that God blessed the male and female and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number. Fill the earth! Subdue the earth! Rule over the fish and birds and over every living creature. Let them rule (together) over all the earth.” Talk about partnership! We were created by a Divine “us” to be an earthly “us.” And we – jointly – were given dominion over the earth and told to rule over it. And God jointly commissioned the man and the woman to ”be fruitful and multiply … to fill the earth … subdue the earth … and rule over it.” What a commission!
“God saw all that He had made, and it was very good.” The marriage was very good. The partnership was very good! A marriage truly made in Heaven. When Adam first saw Eve, he exclaimed, ”Wow! This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Adam saw his partner as his equal, as one who “corresponded” to him, as the one who finally made him complete.
Third, God created us for fellowship, for companionship, for deep friendship, as a cure for each other’s lonliness. God first created the male. But the male was lonely, very lonely. Even with all the animals of the spectacular Garden of Eden as his very own private zoo of personal pets, even with the ability to walk and talk with God in the still of the evening, man was lonely – a terrible haunting loneliness.
Recall that God observed that all He had made was “very good.” But then He proclaimed, “It is not good for the man to be alone. He didn’t say it’s not good to work alone. The only need in man that God observed and commented explicitly about was the man’s need for companionship.
God didn’t say it was wrong for the man to be alone; just that it wasn’t good. And neither is it good for the woman to be alone. We need each other. We are to be interdependent upon each other. We need each other – in everything.
By God’s design woman brings to man a relationship that no other living creature can provide: companionship with someone who is like him, and yet different from him.
The fact that George often projects an image of being self-assured and self-confident has prompted me sometimes to withdraw, to just let him shoulder a particular responsibility by himself.
A few years ago, George was asked to run for public office. Although he knew he really didn’t have the time, George became convinced that he owed it to the community at least to make himself available for public service.
Down deep in my spirit, I knew that running for public office was not a wise thing for George to do at that point in his life. He didn’t need any new stresses. But what if I were wrong in discouraging him? I decided to pull back and remain silent, and let him make the decision without my counsel. Essentially, I said, “Whatever you decide, I’ll support you.” He very much wanted my opinion, but I let him carry the entire burden of deciding whether to throw his hat into the ring.
I can now see that I let George down by avoiding sharing responsibility with him. God has given me the spiritual gift of discernment. I suppressed my spiritual gift and didn’t use it – out of timidity. But God taught me never to do that again. Each of us is to step up alongside our life’s partner and share responsibility.
And finally, it’s God’s purpose that we be ministers to one another in the marriage. The Bible says that God made woman to be a “helper” suitable for or corresponding to the man. Now that word translated “helper” has led many people to arrive at a lot of wrong conclusions. Some have seen it as a term intended to subordinate women to men, both in and out of marriage. Let’s look at the Hebrew word that is translated “helper.” It’s the word ezer. This is the only place in the OT that the Hebrew word, ezer, “helper,” refers to a human being. Every other time, it is used to refer to God Himself, and the way God ministers to us as His people.
‘Thou art my help and my deliverer.”
“My help comes from the Lord.”
“God is my help and shield.”
“God is my refuge and strength; a very present help in time of trouble.”
When the King James Version of the Bible says that there was not found to be “an help meet for the man” or “fitting for man,” what it is really saying is that there was no one to be God’s minister to the man, because the man was all alone. Woman was not created to be a domestic servant to the man nor simply to look after his physical needs. She was created to be a minister to man, providing very high-level help: the same kind of help that God brings to all of us.
Those are at least four purposes for marriage that we find in Scripture. Now let’s consider what really is God’s Plan for marriage.
God’s Plan for Marriage
God’s plan for marriage is stated clearly in Genesis 2:24 which says, “the two shall become one flesh.” God’s plan is that we become ONE with each other. Five times the bible says of the couple joined in marriage, ”The two shall become one flesh.”
How do we become “one”? That’s a miraculous process! The “how” of becoming one is leave, and then cleave.
“For this cause we are to leave father and mother, and cleave to each other, and the two shall become one flesh.”
Leave means to abandon or forsake, but in a very particular area: emotional ties and dependencies. Marriage requires a strong shift of loyalties, from our parents to our spouse. We are to leave the dependency relationship that has tied us to our parents all the years of our lives up to that point. Think of the way some people talk about “going home to Mamma” as if it were funny for a wife to leave her husband and re-stablish the dependency relationship all over again with her parents. Think, too, of the way others speak lightly of a man being “tied to his mother’s apron strings,” even after marriage.
The Hebrew word translated “cleave” actually means to “weld or glue.” Talk about commitment! The world’s plan says to the couple at the altar, ”If this thing doesn’t fly like you want it to, you can always bail out.” God’s plan says to that couple, ”You’d better be sure, because this is it! You make it work, and depend on Me.”
Do you see how these different sets of attitudes can and will affect the couple’s willingness to work on, or not work on, their relationship? Some friends of ours describe cleaving as the “epoxy glue of relationship.” The resin and the hardener come together to form a substance that is different from, and yet more than, the sum of the two separate tubes. The two literally become one!
As a married Christian couple, the two of us are to cleave, to stick together, be welded together, forsaking all others. Little wonder that Jesus said, ”What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” You’ve heard of “tearing something asunder?” It means that the things torn apart will each be severely damaged!
I see cleaving as more than commitment to stay together, though that is where it starts. Emily, I’ve never doubted for a moment that you would stay with me and stick by me. Maybe I’ve taken that somewhat for granted, but I’ve never once failed to trust you. Among all earthly relationships, you are number one in my life, after my love for God and my desire to serve Him. But I see that these two loves – my love for God and my love for you – go hand-in-hand. By living out God’s plan for our marriage, I am serving God. By becoming one with you as my wife and life’s partner, I am glorifying God. Our marriage is glorifying God. The intimacy that God has in mind for us means everything to me.
I appreciate that. I see cleaving in the sense of your wanting to love me unconditionally, as well as romantically, and that makes me feel very, very special – to think that you have forsaken all others and have chosen me to live the rest of your life with.
All that we’ve said so far has been a part of cleaving – developing stick-to-it-ive-ness, building intimate companionship – an abiding best friendship through deep sharing of our innermost self, through working consciously on our relationship, and by loving each other at a deeper level that perhaps ever before
If we are willing to leave our parents and cleave only to each other, then it’s God’s promise that the two of us shall become one flesh. And how much closer can any two people become that to become one flesh!
Some people think only of sexual union on hearing the words “one flesh.” It certainly includes sex, but it’s far more than sex. The best synonym of the word “flesh” would be “person.” John 1:14 tells us that “the Word (Jesus) became flesh and dwelt among us so that we could actually SEE his glory.” “Flesh” – humanity in all its fullness. God became flesh. God became a person.
The two of us become one person. Our one-flesh union is the full personality:
– two sets of wills that are becoming one
– two sets of emotions that are flowing into each other
– two spirits that are coming to the same commitment in terms of their relationship
– two personalities that are becoming glued/welded together in a unique and distinctive best friendship.
”’The two shall become one flesh” – one person – one personality. When we become one in the way the Lord intended, a new union takes place, and a new personality is formed – our couple personality, in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That’s true oneness, true intimacy, true and full partnership!
The process of the two of us becoming one began with our wedding. We consummated our marriage sexually on our honeymoon, but that did not complete our oneness. Growing into oneness is a process.
“One-flesh” union is a oneness, a closeness more intimate than the world can understand, because it is the union of two people who have been joined together into “one flesh” by God Himself. Christian marriage is a union so real, so intimate, that only of it did Jesus say, “So, they are no longer two, but one flesh.”
At the altar on June 2, 1959, we each made a binding commitment to each other before God and those who witnessed our marriage. We sealed a covenant.
– A covenant is a bond, a pledge, a vow, an unequivocal commitment.
– A covenant is a very special relationship bound by unfailing and unwavering love, faithfulness, and devotion.
– Our covenantal marriage means that we will act in love toward each other unconditionally.
It is not love that depends on my spouse loving me back. It is not love that lasts only so long as he/she measures up as my partner and does all the things I think a good spouse should do. It is my love, freely given to my life’s partner, whether I think it is “deserved” or not, just as God loves each of us whether we deserve it or not!
Biblical Keys to Partnership
There is so much in the New Testament that teaches us about how to have and maintain Christian relationships. It’s strange, isn’t it, that we so seldom stop and think of applying these biblical principles to our Christian marriage!
One biblical key to Christian marriage partnership is found in serving one another. In demonstrating for us love in action, Christ washed the disciples’ feet – something that only the lowest of slaves would do in that first century culture. After Christ finished, He said, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” Notice His emphasis on Doing. Do as I have done to you.
Most of us don’t literally wash each other’s feet today. We generally understand Jesus to have been using a first century custom to illustrate His principle of “love each other just as much as I have loved you.” Then, we are to apply that principle by ministering to a relevant need in another person’s life.
A second biblical key to partnership is defer to one another. In Romans 12:10, we read, “Be devoted to one another …; give preference to one another in honor.” The verse literally says, “Outdo one another in showing honor.” Wouldn’t that solve most of our problems in marriage, if we were to be so devoted to one another that we would outdo one another in showing honor?
A third key to partnership is the extraordinary, uniquely Christian principle of mutual submission. Although it is described in many places, the term “mutual submission” is derived from the language of Ephesians 5:21 where the Apostle Paul wrote that we are to “submit (yield) to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
“Mutual submission” – two -way submission – is a distinctive of the Christian faith. The world surely cannot understand it. It is a magnificent phenomenon that stems from our loving each other just as much as Christ has loved us. It is pictured when we serve each other by doing things as humbling, as repugnant as washing one another’s feet.
Mutual submission is a fruit of the Spirit-filled life. We are to yield to one another, defer to one another, give preference to one another in honor, all because that is the Jesus’ way. Rank or position or roles have nothing to do with it. Those are worldly status symbols. As George puts it, “If I am to yield to all other fellow Christians, then I should mutually submit to my life’s partner, Emily, my truly best friend in all of life.”
A fourth key to partnership is esteeming one another as peers – as equals. In Galatians 3:28, Paul made an absolutely astounding proclamation: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In Christ is the one true Haven of Rest, the one true sanctuary in all the world, where secondary distinctions are of absolutely on consequence. In Christ, we are all one! Bias, bigotry, favoritism, intolerance, and prejudice are a way of life virtually everywhere outside of Christ. But those things have no place in Christ. Behold, in Christ the old has passed away. We are new creations. All things have become new!
And finally, a crucial biblical key to our marriage partnership is leave authority structures out of it! Jesus literally prohibits us, His followers, from exerting authority over any other Christian in Christian relationships. Here’s what Jesus said that apparently is so important that His exact words are carefully recorded in three Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
”You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their leaders exercise authority over them, but it shall not be so among you!”
1had been doing it all wrong at times in our marriage, mainly because I though that was the way it is supposed to be. 1knew that being dominant and the final decision maker in our family often didn’t work. In fact, it hurt our relationship more than it helped. It was a tremendous barrier to closeness when I exercised unilateral, one-way authority – no matter how kindly – in our relationship. In those verses, Jesus is saying that I was trying to exert over Emily an authority which He never gave me.
Jesus says that lording it over another Christian is a pagan practice, not a Christian custom. He says that even the management principle of “exercising authority” over another Christian is the world’s plan, not God’s plan. His command is stern and clear: “It shall not be so among you.”
The biblical ideal for marriage is a partnership where we relate to one another in mutual submission. We have already seen that authoritarian forms of leadership are forbidden by Jesus in Christian relationships, which certainly includes our marriage. We are not to lord it over one another because of role, or the stronger over the weaker. We are not even to exercise authority over one another, not even in supposedly benevolent ways. As partners in marriage, we are to relate to each other in mutual submission. We are to reach decisions by mutual agreement.
Is mutual decision making in marriage a weak and inefficient method? On the surface, one could argue that mutual decision-making makes the marriage leaderless. If we share the accountability, rather than having one of us be in charge, then it could end up that things “slip through the crack” because of the fact that responsibilities are shared.
And yes, that is a risk. But mutual submission does not imply a lack of taking initiative. It only requires joint or mutual decision-making where we reach a consensus by reaching agreement. In every situation, one of us takes the initiative to get us together to pray about and negotiate a solution. But it’s taking the initiative to bring up the issue; it’s taking the initiative for getting us to talk about the issue; it’s not taking the initiative to decide the issue. It doesn’t make the marriage leaderless and weak. On the contrary, it greatly strengthens the relationship. Rather than one-way leadership, it is mutual leadership in which we both share management responsibilities. Negotiation and joint problem solving builds a stronger, healthier, closer relationship.
Skills of Mutual Decision-Making
The first thing each of us had to do to put mutual decision-making, mutual submission into practice in our marriage was to put an end to any attitude we personally might have of one of us being superior to the other in any way, or of having more authority before God than the other has. God doesn’t categorize us that way, and we certainly must not either.
The second step is to talk it through with each other and decide how deep is our commitment to oneness in our marriage. We have had many loving discussions in which we each indicated to the other our willingness and commitment to share and share alike all the responsibilities and decisions of our marriage, our family, our home. After all, family life today is such a complex task that it needs all the responsible leadership it can get! And what a difference that has made in our marriage. We thank God that He has called us to be a team.
The third step toward practicing greater mutual submission in our marriage is to decide in very practical terms which of us will be primarily responsible for which matters in our home life. How do we determine who takes the initiative in which situation? We decided to make such decisions on some rational basis, using the “sound mind” principle set forth in 2 Timothy 1:7 – “For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” We call it the CAP principle.
C stands for Competence – which one of us has more skills or talents or personal interest in this area? We’re not both “good” at the same things, and that’s perfectly natural. We all have our gifts. But our partnership will be so much stronger if each of us operates from our strengths, rather than from our weaknesses. Who has the greater competence in this particular matter?
A stands for Access. Perhaps we’re both about equally competent to handle something, but one of us has more convenient access. George assumes the responsibility for going by the tax office since the town in which he works is in the county seat. He has easier access than does Emily to handle this matter. It’s more convenient for Emily, on the other hand, to be responsible for handling banking matters since our bank is in the part of town close to where Emily does a lot of things.
The thirds factor, the P in the CAP principle, is Preference. We each have our likes and our dislikes when it comes to handling the various aspects of family life together. So which one of us prefers doing this more, or conversely, which one of us dislikes it less?
When it comes to pumping gas and filling the car, there is a strong preference differential between us. George doesn’t mind doing it, but Emily loathes and despises it. How can the CAP principle help us here?
We’re equally competent at pumping self-serve gas (even though Emily wouldn’t admit that fact). We both drive by all kinds of gas stations all the time, so we have equal access to the solution to this problem. Therefore, it boils down to preference – or, as in this case, which of us finds it less distasteful. So guess who pumps gas in our family?
You may be wondering: what happens under mutual submission when the two of us cannot reach agreement on a decision that needs to be made? Who has the ultimate responsibility and authority to make the final decision? What if we reach an impasse and can’t agree? Should George break the tie because he is the husband?
First and foremost, Jesus Christ is the head of our marriage. George is not! And those are more than just words to us. Since Jesus is our final authority in everything, we have to pray a lot more to discern His will. You see, in true mutual submission, it’s not a matter just alternatively getting my way one time and giving in to Emily the next time. It’s mutually submitting or yielding or deferring to each other in the power of the Holy Spirit.
When we don’t agree on a major decision, we halt the decision-making process, share our feelings and attitudes with each other, and go back to the Lord in prayer, asking Him to bring us to a point of being of “one heart and one mind” in the matter. Incidentally, doing that is not a burden; it is such a marvelous privilege to pray so much together about decisions we are making together as a couple.
What Mutual Submission in Marriage Has Meant to Us
We want to close by sharing with you just a tiny bit of what practicing a mutual submission partnership has meant to our marriage. If we had the space, we could paint for you a very vivid before-and-after picture, for it has made an absolutely incredible difference in terms of our closeness, our oneness, and joy. It was not until 1979 that we consciously began trying to live according to the biblical principles of mutual submission in our marriage. And it is a growth process. Today, we regularly are experiencing an intimacy that is deeper and more mature than we had ever experienced in the past.
We certainly don’t agree on everything all the time, and that, too, is OK. But we have grown so much in our ability to negotiate final solutions to problems in a way that is Christ-honoring, rather than the one-sided way we did it before. It’s a miracle, actually, that two such strong-willed, stubborn, opinionated people could grow so significantly in this area.
Our home life with our kids is so much more pleasant. They now see us coming “two to a package.” They’ve commented on how they like the way that we share responsibilities. Our married daughter and son in-law have studied our relationship closely, and are working very hard to learn how to practice mutual submission in these early days of their marriage. And it’s surely working for them.
The children have also observed that we rarely argue any more, which is a big growth step for us. But mutual submission brings so much more than simply “getting along” together. Remember, we can “get along” even under autocratic decision-making (“one-vote” system), so long as the person without a vote doesn’t mind being completely a follower. We can “get along” under default decision-making where we just ‘1et it happen” and try to maintain peace at the price of never resolving the issue. But using mutual decision-making principles has brought us a new and deeper closeness and intimacy, fellowship, and partnership, and a deep, abiding friendship and trust in each other.
And the fact is that I no longer think I have to “prove” anything to you, Emily. I’m so comfortable with you and being around you. I appreciate your femininity, and I know you respect my masculinity. But rather than majoring on the ways we are different, we now focus more on the ways we are “one.”
George, this major growth step with you has brought me the greatest joy of all the years of our marriage. I am tasting of greater depths of a more mature oneness with you. I believe that’s true intimacy, the highest level of closeness. I know we still have a lot of growing to do, and I’m glad we can look forward to that. When we hit a rough spot in our relationship, it serves to remind me how things used to be most of the time in our earlier marriage. But those times are so few and far between now.