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    colorful painting of a man embracing a woman

    Putting Marriage Second

    How the Gospel Saves Fidelity

    November 17, 2020
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    Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. —Ephesians 4:3

    True love is born of the Holy Spirit. Don’t we often overlook the depth of this truth? We tend either to dismiss true love as a flimsy fairy tale or to focus so much energy on finding it that we miss it entirely. But the true love that stems from the Holy Spirit is not brought about by human effort. A married couple who experiences its blessings will notice their love increasing with each passing year, regardless of the trials they may encounter. Decades into their marriage, they will still find joy in making each other happy.

    When two people seek to have a deeper, more intimate relationship, they usually do so in terms of mutual emotions, common values, shared ideas, and a feeling of goodwill toward each other. Without despising these, we must recognize that the Holy Spirit opens up an entirely different plane of experience between husband and wife.

    Certainly, marital love based on the excitement of emotion can be wonderful, but it can all too quickly become desperate and unhappy. In the long run it is an unstable foundation. If we seek only the unity and love that are possible on a human level, we remain like clouds drifting and suspended. When we seek unity in the Spirit, God can ignite in us a faithful love that can endure to the end. The Spirit burns away everything that cannot endure. He purifies our love. True love does not originate from within ourselves, but is poured out over us.

    Gustav Klimt, The Tree of Life, from the Stoclet Frieze (1905–1911), detail

    Gustav Klimt, The Tree of Life, from the Stoclet Frieze (1905–1911), detail (public domain)

    In his Confession of Faith (1540), the Anabaptist Peter Riedemann describes God’s order for marriage as encompassing three levels. First is the marriage of God to his people, of Christ to his church, and of the Spirit to our spirit (1 Cor. 6:17). Second is the community of God’s people among themselves – justice and common fellowship in spirit and soul. Third is the unity between one man and one woman (Eph. 5:31), which “is visible to and understandable by all.”

    Paul the Apostle also draws a parallel between marriage and spiritual unity when he tells husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). For Christians, marriage is a ­reflection of the deepest unity: the unity of God and his church. In a Christian marriage, therefore, it is the unity of God’s kingdom, in Christ and in the Holy Spirit, that matters most. Ultimately, it is the only sure foundation on which a marriage can be built. “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33).

    Marriage should always lead two believing people closer to Jesus and his kingdom. It is not good enough for a couple to get married in a church or by a minister. To be drawn nearer to Christ, they must first be fully dedicated as individuals to the spirit of God’s kingdom, and to the church community that serves it and stands under its direction. First there must be heartfelt unity of faith and spirit. Only then will there be true unity of soul and body as well. This is why (at least traditionally) so many churches have been reluctant to bless the union of a member with a spouse who does not share his or her faith in Christ (2 Cor. 6:14).

    Here it should be said that the demands of a godly marriage can never be met by a human system of answers or solved by means of principles, rules, and regulations. They can be grasped only in the light of God’s unity, by those who have experienced his Spirit, accepted it personally, and begun to live in accordance with it.

    The very essence of God’s will is unity. This is why Jesus, in his last prayer, prayed that his followers would be one, just as he and the Father were one (John 17:20–23). It was God’s will for unity that brought Pentecost to the world. Through the outpouring of the Spirit, people’s hearts were struck, and they repented and were baptized. The fruits of their new life were not only spiritual. The material and practical aspects of their lives, too, were affected and even revolutionized. Goods were collected and sold, and the proceeds were laid at the feet of the apostles. Everyone wanted to give all they had out of love. Yet no one suffered want, and everyone received what he or she needed. Nothing was held back. There were no laws or principles to govern this revolution. Not even Jesus said exactly how it should be brought about, only, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21). At Pentecost it simply happened: the Spirit descended and united the hearts and lives of those who believed (Acts 2:42–47).

    We ourselves are not capable of bringing about the spiritual unity in which two hearts become one. That can happen only when we allow ourselves to be gripped and transformed by something greater than ourselves.

    Marriage contains a mystery far deeper than the bond of husband and wife: that is, the eternal unity of Christ with his people. In a true marriage, the unity of husband and wife will reflect this deeper unity. It is not only a bond between one man and one woman, because it is sealed by the greater bond of unity with God and his people.

    This bond must always come first. In my church, we affirm this unity at baptism and reaffirm it at every celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and we remind ourselves of it at every wedding. How little the marriage covenant amounts to when it is only a promise or contract between two people! How different the state of the modern family would be if Christians everywhere were willing to place loyalty to Christ and his church above their marriages.

    For those who have faith, Christ – the one who truly unites – always stands between the lover and the beloved. It is his Spirit that gives them unhindered access to one another. Therefore, when sin enters a marriage and clouds the truth of love, a faithful disciple will follow Jesus in the church, not his or her wayward spouse.

    True love does not originate from within ourselves, but is poured out over us.

    Emotional love will protest this because it is prone to disregard the truth. It may even try to hinder the clear light that comes from God. It is unable and unwilling to let go of a relationship, even when it becomes false and ungenuine. But true love never follows evil: it rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6). Both marriage partners must recognize that unity of faith is more important than the emotional bond of their marriage. Each of us who claims to be a disciple must ask ourselves: “If my first allegiance is not to Jesus and the church, who is it to?” (Luke 9:57–60).

    When the smaller unity of a married couple is placed under the greater unity of the church, their marriage becomes steadfast and secure on a new, deeper level because it is placed within the unity of all believers.

    The conviction that love to Christ and his church must take priority over all else is also important for understanding the difference between man and woman. It has been said that the body is shaped by the soul, and this is a deep thought. The soul, the breath of God, the innermost essence of each human being, forms a different body for each. It is never a question of who is higher. Both man and woman were made in the image of God, and what can be greater than that? Yet there is a difference: Paul likens man to Christ and woman to the church (Eph. 5:22–24). Man, as head, portrays the service of Christ. Woman, as body, portrays the dedication of the church. There is a difference in calling, but there is no difference in worth.

    Mary is a symbol of the church. In her we recognize the true nature of womanhood and motherhood. Woman is like the church because she receives and carries the Word within her (Luke 1:38) and brings life into the world in keeping with God’s will. This is the highest thing that can be said of a human being.

    It is clear, of course, that the difference between man and woman is not absolute. In a true woman there is courageous manliness, and in a true man there is the submission and humility of Mary. Yet because the husband is the head, he will give the lead, even if he is a very weak person. This must not be taken as if man were an overlord and woman his servant. If a husband does not lead in love and humility – if he does not lead in the spirit of Jesus – his headship will become tyranny. The head has its place in the body, but it does not dominate.

    When I marry a couple, I always ask the bridegroom if he is willing to lead his wife “in all that is good,” which simply means to lead her more deeply to Jesus. In the same way, I ask the bride if she is willing to follow her husband “in all that is good.” It is simply a matter of both of them following Jesus together.

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    In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul points to the self-sacrificing love that lies in true leadership: to love one’s spouse “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). This task, the task of loving, is actually the task of every man and woman, whether married or not.

    When we take Paul’s words to heart, we will experience the true inner unity of a relationship ruled by love – an inner speaking of the heart to God from both spouses together. Only then will God’s blessing rest on our marriages. We will constantly seek our beloved one anew and continually look for ways to serve each other in love. Most wonderful of all, we will find everlasting joy. As the church father Tertullian writes:

    Who can describe the happiness of a marriage contracted in the presence of the church and sealed with its blessing? What a sweet yoke it is which here joins two believing people in one hope, one way of life, one vow of loyalty, and one service to God! They are brother and sister, both busy in the same service, with no separation of soul and body, but as two in one flesh. And where there is one flesh, there is one spirit also. Together they pray, together they kneel down: the one teaches the other, and bears with the other. They are joined together in the church of God, joined at the Lord’s table, joined in anxiety, persecution, and recovery. They vie with each other in the service of their Lord. Christ sees and hears, and joyfully does he send them his peace, for where two are gathered together in his name, there is he in the midst of them.


    This article is adapted from Johann Christoph Arnold, Sex, God, and Marriage (Plough, 2014).

    Contributed By Johann Christoph Arnold Johann Christoph Arnold

    A noted speaker and writer on marriage, parenting, education, and end-of-life issues, Arnold was a senior pastor of the Bruderhof, a movement of Christian communities.

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