Johann Christoph Arnold and his wife Verena joined Pope Francis and religious leaders and scholars from around the world in November 2014 for an international, interreligious colloquium to explore what their diverse faiths teach about marriage and “the complementarity of man and woman.” The text of Arnold’s speech follows.
What a joy it is to be here with all of you to celebrate and proclaim the treasure of God-given marriage — a plan that is as perfect today as it was in the beginning: one man, one woman, for life.
Special thanks to brother Cardinal Gerhard Müller for the invitation and warm welcome, brother Pope Francis for his witness and support of the colloquium, all the brothers and sisters of faith attending, Dr Wael Farouq, for his presentation, and all those that have and will be contributing in the next days. May all praise and honor go to God.
This gathering gives me so much hope and shows the importance of giving living witness to God’s design for marriage. Children and young people desperately need to see role models who prove with their lives that faithful marriage is one of the most wonderful ways one can serve humankind.
But married couples standing alone aren’t enough. We need strong faith communities to sustain and support them.
My wife Verena and I have experienced this during forty-eight years of marriage. At our wedding we made vows of lifelong faithfulness with Jesus Christ as the foundation of our marriage that have been used in the Anabaptist church for nearly 500 years. We received the blessing from the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob that has been handed down for thousands of years. God really blessed us! We have eight children, forty-four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren!
Last year my wife was diagnosed with a serious cancer and more recently she suffered a heart attack. It seemed that the devil tried everything to prevent us from coming to Rome but “Praise to God” we are here today.
I share this because we are just like everybody else, with our struggles and challenges, and have come to understand how important it is to belong to a community of believers that protects the values that sustain marriage. This is true in the Bruderhof, the church community that I come from, and it is so in all the great faith traditions that are here today. This is why I have hope that marriage as God intended it will shine forth victorious even in these dark times.
We live in tumultuous times. The same was true in 1920, when my grandparents, Eberhard and Emmy Arnold, began a small community in Germany based on Jesus’ teachings and inspired by the witness of the early Christians. They banded together as singles and married couples to live a life of complete sharing as described in the Book of Acts. That humble beginning has grown to twenty-five Bruderhof communities on four continents.
While serving as elder of this movement for the last thirty years, I’ve watched the moral and spiritual decline of Western civilization, along with the tragic breakdown of the family. All the more, we have been determined to uphold the sanctity of life, and of sex and marriage.
We believe that marriage is more than a private contract between two people. God did not have in mind merely the personal happiness of separate individuals, but the establishment of God-fearing relationships in a communion of families under his rulership. Marriage is part of God’s original creation and sanctifies each generation as being “made in the image of God”. God created male and female, that through their union they might fill the earth and flourish. In God’s plan, every child has a father and a mother.
As a pastoral team with my wife, we have seen that a marriage is vulnerable without a fellowship of believers who seek each other out for strength, support, and advice. If we want strong marriages we need to build faithful communities dedicated to living out Jesus’ teachings of chastity, forgiveness, and sharing. This means couples as well as single men and women who demonstrate what it means to be true disciples of God.
This is not easy. Our human nature too easily gives into sinful desires. Yet, the selfishness which leads to infidelity and divorce can be overcome through Jesus and his Spirit. What God joins together can remain together. Through Jesus, the walls of bitterness, blame, and selfish ambition that divide us can be torn down.
In my own church community, there are people from all walks of life, many of whom prior to joining came from very broken families. Our couples, like couples everywhere, have to work hard to nurture the kind of love that truly lasts. Sometimes they find themselves in crisis due to mistrust, unforgiveness, or to sexual immorality. But through the help of God and of fellow church members, miracles of reconciliation and healing can and do happen. Prayer is a crucial part of this process; as the old saying goes, “Couples that pray together, stay together.”
To protect marriages, we as individuals, families, and churches must hold each other accountable and encourage each other. Our children need to see a life of modesty, simplicity, hard work, and most of all love to God and our neighbor as ourselves.
Of course, God’s plan will not always be welcomed. In 1995 I sent my first book, Sex, God and Marriage to my dear friend Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus. He presented it to John Paul II and wrote this in response:
I was glad to deliver Sex, God and Marriage to the Holy Father. He was very happy for this ecumenical gesture and, more than that, for the content, and for the harmony of the moral conviction that springs from our common faith in Christ. Such conviction will inevitably arouse hatred, and even persecution. The Lord has predicted it. But with him we must continue in trying to overcome evil through good.
These words have proven to be prophetic, as sadly this hatred and persecution has now started. Today, life-long marriage between one man and one woman is being rejected and those who uphold it are scorned. Yet we must continue to defend marriage for our children.
The family is the bedrock for the survival of the human race. We must remain faithful and encourage one another, like we are doing today. I thank God that our Brother Pope Francis is continuing to do this in the “harmony of moral conviction that springs from our common faith in Christ.” Let us remember Jesus’ words: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I will be also.”
The false teachings about marriage cannot be reversed by words alone. Children and young people need to see God’s love and truth in action. I experienced this through the example of my parents who faced incredible obstacles during their forty-six years of marriage including the loss of two babies. But they never wavered. Through their love to Jesus they had their sights set on God’s kingdom right to the end of their lives.
Such examples are needed today. We need to become more courageous like the early church – a counter-culture of simplicity and practical help where we dedicate our entire energy to building up God’s kingdom, not to chasing after the things of this world. The first Christians turned the Roman world upside-down partly because husbands and wives remained faithful to one another and to their children – something the pagans did not think was possible. With God’s help, we too can do the same today.
We must never be afraid of the ridicule and slander our witness will bring. As the Apostle Paul wrote:
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:7-9)
So, let us hold our heads high knowing that if God is for us, who can be against us? Let us give living witness together that God’s plan for marriage and children is joyful, true, and everlasting. Nothing will be able to stop us from proclaiming this childlike and simple message. It is God who holds the final hour of history in his hands and He will be victorious.