MARRIAGE AND THE BIBLICAL VIRTUES
An address given by Dr. E. S. Williams
(Former Director of Public Health for Croydon Health Authority)
We live in a time when the Biblical understanding of marriage has been greatly undermined in both the Church and society. The promotion of same-sex marriage, which is attempting to re-define the meaning of marriage, is surely a symptom of our times. The Christian marriage education movement, which teaches psychological skills and techniques to help couples achieve marital happiness, has been eagerly embraced by many churches. As a consequence, many Christians are no longer sure what the Bible teaches about marriage. In my address, I aim to do two things. First to identify the influences and ideas that are undermining marriage in the eyes of society, and second, to show that the teaching of Scripture contains all that is needed for a blessed and fruitful marriage.
The ‘Marriage’ Word
We need to recognise that the word ‘marriage’ is now deeply contentious, for there is no longer a consensus on the meaning of the word. For over a thousand years the Biblical definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, who become husband and wife, has been widely accepted, but society has now changed the way it thinks about marriage. In the 1990s, the Oxford Dictionary defined marriage as ‘the legal union of a man and a woman in order to live together and often to have children’, omitting reference to husband and wife. This change has come about because of an intense ideological assault on the Biblical view of marriage, and because of reluctance on the part of many churches to teach about marriage. The void created by this reluctance has been eagerly filled by the so-called Christian marriage education movement.
Sociological theory has portrayed marriage as the foundation of the patriarchal society, in which men have power over women. Many sociologists and intellectuals have described marriage as a relationship based on sexual inequality that oppresses women and inhibits their psychological growth. Marriage is held to be simply a lifestyle choice that, while it suits some people, is potentially harmful for others, in that it often leads to male domination and exploitation. These sociological views can be read in any standard textbook and are widely taught to students in schools, colleges and universities. They have also received wide coverage in popular news media, so that most people are aware of the so-called ‘evidence’ that disparages marriage. Sadly, many Christians have modified their views on marriage to take account of the flawed ‘evidence’ provided by sociological research. Much of what goes for Christian teaching today is an accretion of sociological theory with a few Biblical texts added to the mix. As a consequence, politically correct sociological thinking has become the new orthodoxy on family and marriage, replacing the Biblical view that held sway until the middle of the last century.
A sentiment hostile to marriage has penetrated deep into society. Even the messages of sex education, taught to school children, simply ignore marriage. Official policy statements on sex education do not mention marriage and neither does most sex education literature. This means that school children are taught about sex in a framework that does not recognise marriage as important. As a consequence, children are led to believe that sex outside marriage is the acceptable norm.
A teacher, brave enough to report what is actually happening in some schools, explains how she was asked by a senior member of staff to teach a sex education module to a class of 14 and 15-year-olds. She was given the task of teaching the children the mechanics of contraception, with the clear instruction, ‘We don’t, as a matter of policy, mention marriage or use the terms “husband” or “wife”.’
In the UK, the political and academic establishments are intensely hostile to traditional marriage. The terms of reference for a Government Committee on Family Policy did not even mention marriage. Opposition to marriage among the political class is such that the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ have been replaced with the word ‘partner’ in official Government reports. The 2010 Coalition Government, in its policy statement, says that it believes (quote) ‘that strong and stable families of all kinds are the bedrock of a strong and stable society’; yet the policy statement does not use the word marriage.
The war over marriage has had major consequences for society. The past four decades have been characterised by a sharp fall in marriage rates, with a corresponding rise in couples living together who are not married, leading to an increase in the number of children that are born outside wedlock. Just under half of all births are to unmarried mothers; half of which are born to women in a cohabiting relationship. These profound social trends have led to a collapse in the traditional family. In a single generation there have been dramatic changes in family structure. Few people understand the social disaster that will inevitably result.
Adding confusion to the meaning and purpose of marriage is the issue of same-sex marriage. What same-sex ‘marriage’ advocates are aiming to achieve is to divest marriage of its essential meaning as a union between one man and one woman. To call same-sex partnerships marriage is to change the meaning of the word, for same-sex ‘marriage’ dispenses with the concept of husband and wife. In effect, the same-sex lobby is seeking to usurp the word ‘marriage’. We now have the remarkable paradox of a political establishment deeply hostile to traditional marriage that is eagerly promoting same-sex marriage.
Another challenge to traditional marriage is the marriage education movement, which really gained prominence in the 1990s. Marriage education, which is an important arm of the psychotherapeutic industry, is aimed at a group of people who are taught the skills and techniques needed for a successful marriage. Marriage therapy, on the other hand, deals with the marital problems of a single couple, on a one to one basis, between therapist and the unhappy couple.
During the last two decades there has been a massive growth in marriage education on both sides of the Atlantic, with literally hundreds of organisations, both Christian and secular, delivering marriage education courses, seminars and conferences. A plethora of books on marriage education, like 12 Hours to a Great Marriage, or The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work or 5 Languages of Love have become best-sellers.
Marriage education has developed out of a branch of psychotherapy, usually referred to as marriage and family therapy, a profession that is ideologically opposed to traditional marriage. So when the proponents of marriage education claim to support marriage, it is not the Biblical view of marriage they support, but their own, so-called ‘equal-regard’ version of marriage; a version that strongly opposes the concept of male headship of the family, as taught in Scripture.
Marriage education is seeking to create a new marriage culture, based on the philosophy of Carl Rogers, the most influential psychological thinker of the twentieth century and one of the fiercest opponents of the Biblical view of marriage. In his book, Becoming Partners – Marriage and its Alternatives (1972), Rogers aims to help couples find alternatives to traditional marriage. In many ways, Rogers can be seen as the prophet of modern marriage education, for it is his psychological theories that form the foundation of virtually all marriage education programmes. He ridicules the Biblical view of marriage – and encourages people to follow their own way and do whatever makes them feel good.
The Marriage Course
The Marriage Course, which originated from Holy Trinity Brompton, is massively popular in the UK and taught in around 70 countries worldwide. The seven sessions of The Course focus on psychological skills and techniques, such as the art of communication, conflict resolution, positive emotions and the power of forgiveness.
The first session focuses on the emotional needs of a couple. In the second session, the couple are required to each separately complete a psychological questionnaire and then to ‘write down their own three desires and give examples of how their husband or wife could meet their desires’. The outcome of this exercise is that in the coming weeks a husband will concentrate on meeting his wife’s desires and, likewise, the wife on meeting her husband’s wants and desires. The MC, following Carl Rogers’ therapeutic model, places great emphasis on participants sharing their deepest emotional feelings. Husband and wife are told that they must learn to talk about their thoughts, feelings and desires.
Why the Marriage Course Fails
The MC is promoting a psychological view of marriage. Although the MC refers to a few Biblical texts, the underlying pre-suppositions are based on psychological theories. The Marriage Course cynically selects and twists Scripture in order to promote the concept of equal-regard marriage, entirely ignoring the Biblical concept of male headship and submission of the wife to her husband. So the essential Biblical teaching about the role of husband and wife and the governance of the family, as taught in Scripture, is simply disregarded. At this point, we see that so-called Christian marriage education is promoting a view of marriage that is contrary to Scripture.
The Biblical View of Marriage
Now we turn to the Biblical view of marriage. God’s plan for sexual conduct and marriage is one of the most profound teachings of Scripture, for it forms the basis of family life and order in the Church. The Divine plan for marriage and the family is indeed the foundation on which a stable society is built. Because God’s plan for sexual conduct is based in Divine wisdom, it has a great appeal to the human heart. Those who hear God’s plan for marriage know in their conscience that what they are hearing is Divine truth—sometimes they even yearn for this ideal, whatever their own reality may be. In His great wisdom and kindness, God ordained the institution of marriage as a life-long union between husband and wife and safe-guarded marriage with four virtues—chastity, modesty, chivalry and fidelity.
The Sexual Nature of Mankind
Scripture makes it clear that sex is God’s idea. The God of the Bible, who created human beings in His own image, created mankind male and female. In His infinite wisdom, God created human beings as creatures who would reproduce sexually. God’s first command to mankind was to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28), which of course requires sexual relationships. As we shall see, it is God’s will that children should be born into the family created at the time of marriage. After God had created the man from the dust of the earth, He said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him’ (Genesis 2:18). The Wycliffe Bible is helpful: ‘And the Lord God said, It is not good that a man be alone; make we to him an helper like to himself (let us make for him a helper like himself)’.
God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep and created the woman from a rib taken from the side of the man. This is an important truth – for it shows the closeness of the relationship between the sexes.
The Marriage Ordinance
The first marriage is described in the second chapter of Genesis. God brings the woman to Adam and he cries out with delight, ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man’ (Genesis 2:23). God ordained marriage with these words: ‘Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24). Note in the Biblical definition a man is united to his wife.
The symbolism of the rib provides a picture of marriage, for at marriage the rib symbolically returns into the man, as husband and wife become one flesh; they are no longer two separate individuals but one entity—a new family. This is why the woman takes the man’s name, thereby fully identifying herself and their offspring as one family. There is something so deep and wonderful in the marriage bond that we need spiritual insight to understand its divine significance. Scripture uses the unity between Christ and his Church as a symbol of the marriage union of husband and wife (Ephesians 5:31-32). Yet marriage is a creation ordinance, which means that it is for all people, not just Christians.
The Lord Jesus emphasised and confirmed the one flesh union created at marriage with the words: ‘Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder’ (Matthew 19:6). The one flesh union is complete when the couple consummate their marriage union by sexual intercourse. Husband and wife lovingly share their sexual life, accepting that their union, in the providence of God, is likely to be blessed with children. They accept with joy the children that result, for they are the natural, legitimate products of their marriage—clear evidence that they are truly one flesh. The concept of one flesh is illustrated by the children who are born into the family. Both parents contribute equally to the genetic make-up of their children and their physical likeness to their parents witnesses to this fact. Biblical teaching makes it clear that a family is formed by the marriage of a man and a woman.
According to the Lord Jesus, it is God who joins a husband and wife in marriage. And so we see a profound Biblical truth— families are created by God and not by man. Those who marry must understand that they have entered into a life-long union; there is no turning back, no second chance; for the marriage vow is ‘till death us do part’. This is why it is so important for husband and wife to remain faithful to each other.
Working Together in Partnership
The Lord God planted a garden in Eden and put the man in the garden to tend and keep it (Genesis 2:8, 15). Here we see from Scripture that the prime task of man is to work the Garden of God, standing for this world in general. Even before the Fall, it was God’s intention that man, created in the image of God, should work to develop the world. This is a fundamental Biblical truth—work is intrinsic to human life. And God created the woman to help the man work the Garden. God said: ‘let us make for him a helper like himself’. ‘I will make him an help meet for him’ (Genesis 2:18). And here we see an important truth about marriage that is largely forgotten in our day. The man and woman – united in marriage – are together, as husband and wife, to work the Garden.
The primary task of a Godly marriage is for husband and wife to work together to develop God’s creation. The primary task of a Christian husband and wife is to work together as they care for their family, support others and build the Church of God. This means that a Godly marriage is a relationship that is directed toward God and is outward- looking, in which husband and wife engage in their God-given task of working for others. The modern idea of the inward-looking marriage, in which the prime task of husband and wife is to meet each other’s emotional needs, is an aberration. Such a marriage, which focuses on the desires and wants and happiness of husband and wife, is a selfish enterprise that entirely fails to understand the purposes of God.
The Four Biblical Virtues That Protect Marriage
The Bible is clear that holiness must be exhibited in the sexual realm. In 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 we read: ‘For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God’… Therefore, having the promises of God, ‘let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God’ (2 Corinthians 7:1). The Apostle Paul instructed young Timothy to relate to young women as sisters ‘with all purity’ (1Timothy 5:2). It is God’s will that His people should be pure and faithful in their relationships with members of the opposite sex.
Christian sexual conduct is expressed in the four virtues— chastity, modesty, chivalry and fidelity. Purity of heart and mind is the foundation on which these virtues are built. While each virtue applies to an aspect of sexual behaviour, together they form a coherent inner belief system that witnesses to God’s holiness and sets a standard for sexual conduct that gives meaning to marriage and the family. Marriage and the family flourish when all four virtues are practised. And, most important of all, these are the Christian virtues that guard children from danger and abuse—they provide children with God-given security, protecting them from the ravages that result from sexual immorality. In His great wisdom and kindness, God has instituted moral laws around human sexual conduct that preserve marriage, secure the family and protect children. These virtues are based in the holy, righteous character of God and are reflected in His moral law.
The Virtue of Chastity
Chastity is a way of life that seeks after God’s holiness in thought, word and deed and especially in the realm of sexual conduct. The Biblical word ‘chastity’ is translated from the Greek word hagnos; it means ‘pure from every fault’, ‘undefiled’, and is derived from the word hagios, which means ‘holy’, ‘free from evil’, ‘separated from sin’. A chaste mind strives for purity in every aspect of life: ‘Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in His holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully’ (Psalm 24:3, 4). Chastity understands and rejoices in God’s purpose that a sexual relationship is meant only for the marriage union between husband and wife. It encompasses the way we think, the way we speak, the way we act, both before and during marriage. Because chastity is based on the inner desire of the heart for a pure life, all unbecoming, indecent, impure, immoral conduct is recognised as sinful.
Chastity is an essential doctrine of the Christian Church, for chaste conduct is pleasing to God. Our Lord said: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God’ (Matthew 5:8). A chaste mind is cultivated by obedience to God’s word. ‘Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to Thy Word… Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against Thee’ (Psalm 119: 9, 11).
Essential attributes of chaste conduct are purity of speech and purity of the eyes. God’s people must rid themselves of ‘filthy communication’ (Colossians 3:8). We should not let any unwholesome talk’ come out of our mouths, and there must be no ‘obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place… Christian believers do not indulge in course or smutty language.
Our eyes are powerful receptors of both light and darkness. Jesus said: ‘The light of the body is the eye; therefore, when thine eye is single (good), thy whole body also is full of light, but when thine eye is evil (bad), thy body also is full of darkness. (Luke 11:34-35). We must guard our eyes against evil images that deaden our spiritual life.
According to the Heidelburg Catechism: ‘Since both our body and soul are temples of the Holy Ghost, it is His will that we keep both pure and holy; therefore, He forbids all unchaste actions, gestures, words, thoughts, desires and whatever may entice thereto.’
A key ministry for Godly older Christian women is to train younger women to be discreet, chaste and good wives. (Titus 2:4-5).
The Virtue of Modesty – Inner Beauty, Outward Conduct
Modesty is a Biblical virtue that flows from a chaste lifestyle. It is the virtue that reveals a woman’s inner beauty by her outward conduct and good works. The Apostle Paul emphasises the importance of modesty in his letter to Timothy: ‘In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety [decency and self-control]; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works’ (1 Timothy 2:9-10). Modesty is the fruit of Godliness, which reveals itself in the way a woman dresses and speaks, her general demeanour – and especially the way she behaves in the presence of men. A modest woman does not make an outward show of her female attributes and does not dress or behave in a way that is sexually provocative or that attracts undue attention.
The great value of modesty is that it enhances the inner beauty and character of a woman. The Apostle Peter teaches a Christian wife to witness to her unbelieving husband by the purity and reverence of her life; for her beauty comes not from ‘outward adorning’, like clothes and make up, ‘but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price’ (1 Peter 3:3-4). So an important feature of modesty is a quiet and gentle spirit, which demonstrates a woman’s true worth as a person. Modesty is primarily directed towards men – and makes a clear statement of a woman’s intention to preserve her sexuality for the one man who will be her husband and the father of her children. The meek and quiet spirit of a modest wife willingly submits to the headship of her husband in everything. And there is a mystery about the modest woman, for although she does not strive to be overtly sexual, she radiates true feminine attributes. Because modesty reveals a woman’s inner beauty, it is attractive to the man who loves her and chooses her to be his wife.
Scripture provides us with the picture of modesty in Rebecca, the wife of Isaac. ‘…the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her’ (Genesis 24:16). When Rebecca saw Isaac, her future husband, she protected her modesty by alighting from the camel and by taking her veil and covering herself (Genesis 24:64-65).
The Virtue of Chivalry
Chivalry is a male virtue based in the respect and honour that men have towards women. It is cultivated by the inner desire for self-control. Although the term is not used in Scripture, the virtue of chivalry flows from Peter’s instruction to husbands to treat their wives with respect ‘giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life’ (1 Peter 3:7). In verse 8, the Apostle instructs believers to have compassion for one another and to be courteous.
Bound up in the virtue of chivalry is recognition that women are the weaker sex, for they do not have the same physical strength or aggressive nature as men. Chivalry recognises a woman’s sexual vulnerability in that she is prone to pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. A chivalrous man is self-controlled (Titus 2:6) and does not take sexual advantage – and does not place a woman in a compromising position. He is careful to do nothing that will tarnish her reputation.
This virtue provides the moral framework in which worthy men relate to women; it teaches a man to become a gentleman, committed to honour and principle. It reveals itself in a man’s courteous behaviour towards women. He stands up when a woman enters the room and he holds the door for her. Like modesty, it comes from the inner self and is a reflection of God’s moral law. Men are created in such a way that it is natural for them to protect and defend women. God has ordained man as the head of the family; charged him with the protection of his family and instructed him to treat his wife deferentially as the weaker partner. A chivalrous man will never raise his hand to a woman. It is because men are called to lead that they must be the first to sacrifice their lives. Two weeks after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, a naval officer told a United States Senate panel that ‘women and children first’ was more than just the law of the sea—‘It is the law of human nature.’
Chivalrous behaviour inspires genuine, honest relationships between the sexes, such as courtship, love, and marriage. It is the essential masculine virtues that capture a woman’s heart.
The Virtue of Fidelity
The virtue of fidelity comes from the faithfulness of God. ‘Know therefore that the LORD thy God, He is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations’ (Deuteronomy 7:9). As God is faithful in all His promises to His people, so His people are to be faithful in their promises to each other. This is particularly the case between husband and wife who have promised to live together as man and wife for life.
The Divine plan for sexual conduct is based in the wisdom and kindness of God. The Church must teach young people these great Biblical truths, which have been largely forgotten in our day. It is a teaching that our sin-sick world desperately needs. In the early Church, the sexual conduct of Christian believers had a massive influence on the pagan world, for they saw the great benefits of stable marriage and family life. God’s people should not be influenced by the flawed research of sociology. We must not turn to the man-made wisdom of psychology or the facile messages of the marriage education movement. Today the Christian church needs to follow and teach the Biblical understanding of marriage and proclaim the Biblical virtues from the rooftops. We must understand that everything we need to know about marriage, relationships and the family is contained in Scripture. Scripture is sufficient. We are complete in Christ. ‘According as His Divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness’ (2 Peter 1:3).