Marriage in Honor - Dr. W.G. de Vries
|Dr. W.G. de Vries (1926-2006) wasa minister in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.He received his doctorate from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches in Kampen.He was also editor of Petahja, a monthly publication for the Reformed Men's Societies in the Netherlands.|
The couple assembles before the congregation to be united in marriage. In the presence of the Lord's people, the minister asks them in turn whether they will promise to live with their spouse in the bonds of holy marriage according to God's ordinance, as long as they both shall live.
When the bride and bridegroom have both answered " yes," the minister states: "According to the laws of the state and the ordinances of the church of Christ, I now pronounce you husband and wife, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. "
Of course one can say that marriage becomes reality through a marriage certificate no more than a child exists by virtue of a birth certificate. The marriage solemnization is preceded by the marriage choice. The two have first become one in thought. and now they are one in marriage. That fact is officially registered and sealed by the state and the church.
Even though church and state do not bring about the marriage, they do solemnize it. Prospective husband and wife stand together in sincere love, presenting themselves as two people who have chosen each other until death parts them. The state fosters the "lock" they desire around their lives, making their marriage absolute and binding before God and man. Only then are they bound to one another with bonds not of this earth but laid by God Himself.
We must not think that this solemnization by the state and church is of minor importance. After all, it is the event by which two people enter into a new relationship with the community around them. In the presence of their family, society, the church and the state they have become a new
unit in life that differs from others. This new cell can expand through the birth of children through whom more new cells of life will later develop.
Marriage is a relationship that cannot be compared to any other in the world. It is an absolute, all-encompassing relationship that is typified in the Bible as a 'leaving" of father and mother and becoming one flesh. Even more than the parents, the bride and bridegroom deeply experience this "leaving" emotion on the wedding day. A period of life has ended. Both are leaving their parents' home to make a new one. A different life has begun; a new future beckons.
Should not believing young people desire at this junction of their lives to ask God's blessing upon their marriage in the midst of the congregation? Should they not wish to seek certainty for an unknown future not in themselves but in the God of their life?
It is not my intention to discuss thoroughly all the history and principle of confirmation in church. Sadly enough, in practice, marriage services have become more of a family gathering than the appearance of bride and bridegroom before God and His holy congregation. Often the congregation is completely absent.
Neither having the service at night or moving it to a Sunday solves the problem. In the first case the congregation still does not come. In the second case the whole congregation is together but the preaching of the 'Free counsel of God" suffers unless only a blessing is asked upon the marriage at that time. But then the preaching is not directed to this special moment in the life of the bride and bridegroom.
We must abide by what the churches themselves have laid down in the Church Order of the Reformed Church. According to Article 70: "Since it is proper that the matrimonial state be confirmed before Christ's Church, according to the form in use for that purpose, the consistories shall attend to it. "
Marriage forms a new cell not only in society but in God's Church. In His Word the Lord strongly emphasizes the special value and central position of the family in the midst of the congregation. Through the marriage of His children, God seeks a "godly seed" (Mal. 2:15). He is "witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth" (Mal. 2:14), in order that marriage be faithfully maintained.
The Church has everything to do with the marriages of its members. Therefore the marriage of believers should be confirmed in the midst of the congregation in order to continue God's covenant and the future of the church.
People about to be married in the Lord should have a discussion with their minister. Questions about proper preparation can be dealt with in such a talk. Education and training, essential for one's task in life, are also essential for marriage. So much depends on the success of this allencompassing union that it would be foolhardy to enter it without preparation. It could otherwise end in disaster. Many years are spent studying and reflecting in preparation for one's life task. One's task in marriage and the family also needs this kind of thought.
There seem to be serious shortcomings concerning this in catechetical instruction. Much more attention should be given than often is given. Is this subject not too painstakingly avoided, even today? It is avoided despite the fact that married life is a depiction of the unity and communion that exists between Christ and His congregation. No communion comes into existence by itself, least of all the communion of marriage. Marriage communion grows through a struggle of faith, and is achieved only by means of faith and prayer.
If there is one thing clearly taught in Scripture and manifested by the hard facts of reality, it is this: man is by nature incapable of any communion. Since the Fall, man is the communion-disturber and communion-breaker in all of God's creation. He hates God and his neighbor. No one does good; no one seeks God, says Scripture. By nature, no one seeks real communion.
It is the lie of many novels and love songs to suggest that marriage communion grows by itself without any effort or struggle. We have already said how vital it is that the engagement be not too short. The confirmation of a couple's marriage in Church then is in one way a mere formality. The couple must understand the communion of marriage in the context of the Kingdom of God and their future with Christ. It must be clear to them that a marriage confirmation in the Church is more than the ceremonious crowning of one glorious day.
Conversely, Christ's Church cannot confirm the marriage of a believer and an unbeliever, for there is no communion between the temple of God and the idols, between Christ and Belial, between light and darkness.
Prospective marriage partners' attending different churches is not a small matter. The Reformed Churches have made their view of this matter clear. A statement in the Church Order of 1923 discusses the confirmation of marriages. It states: "The Reformed Churches judged that generally there are great objections to them (mixed marriages). Being members of different denominations harms the couple's spiritual life, easily disturbs the proper harmony between man and wife, and often destroys unity of worship among the children. It is therefore the general opinion that a marriage between members of different denominations can be held in church only when the party who belongs to another denomination declares to the consistory that the family will join the local [Reformed] church, shows himself willing to be instructed, and promises to cause no hindrance in the education of the children they may receive."
Iwould like to state this view even more positively: Church unity is a condition for marriage unity. The sin of being self-willed concerning worship is very serious, and even more so when it prevents real marital unity and even real marital happiness.
Not whether one feels happy but whether one is declared happy by God is decisive for the future of a marriage. For this reason bride and bridegroom ask for God's blessing upon the marriage just solemnized. Proverbs 10:22 holds true for marriage as for all else: "The blessing of the Lord makes rich."
Parents, relatives, and friends can wish the newly married well, but. they are just well-meant wishes. What person has power to make these wishes come true? They remain kind words. No one can control life so that he can guarantee that his wishes will come true.
In contrast, the Word of God says: "The blessing of the Lord makes rich." God does not just stammer a well-meant wish; no, His blessing will do something, it has power. What He speaks is there; what He commands happens.
The first thing God did after creation was to bless animals and man. To bless literally means to broaden, to widen, to spread. It means to develop something fully. The blessing of God causes life to blossom and leads to its richest development.
Without God's blessing, married life does not fully develop and bloom. If husband and wife have not put their hope in God and do not accept and educate their children in Christ, they are heading for everlasting destruction and their children await eternal misery.
There is nothing more tragic than a marriage in which husband and wife have given their hand to one another but not to God. At the same time, there is nothing richer than the confession of two people before God and His holy congregation that their "help is in the Name of the Lord. "
Despite the many current problems arising from the practice of confirming marriage in the Church, we must plead that it be continued. Whoever is a member of the Church and wants to submit himself to the Lord cannot enter into marriage without having bowed down in the presence of the congregation to ask for the Lord's blessing.
Like everyone else, newly-married young people live in the midst of an insecure world in which countless marriages break up, where faithfulness falters and egoism reigns. Only those who begin their marriage with God will receive "blessing and righteousness from God, the God of salvation."
Blessing is often found where it is not expected. Even adversity may be used by God to prune our lives so that they may fully flourish. The marriage of believers will not be easy. God's blessing means that He will be all things for the two who have come together. In spite of adversity and the crosses which they bear because of sin, the promise still stands: "Blessed are those whose strength is in thee, in whose heart are the highways to Zion" (Ps. 84:5).
The "highways to Zion" were the roads which the pilgrims followed on their way to Jerusalem. The roads in Palestine were so littered with rocks and stones that they were nearly impassable. However, certain roads had been cleared of sand, gravel, stones, and rocks. These were the roads that led to Jerusalem, the city of the temple. Those going up to the temple for the first time would not easily forget the experience. Those who regularly went to the temple in the joy of faith got to know these highways very well. Every curve in the road, every village and tree along the road, became a signpost.
The believers had these highways in their hearts. They would recall them with joy for they reminded them of the hours of gladness they had known as they knelt before God in His house. Indifference to these "highways to Jerusalem" betrayed indifference toward the temple and for God. Because their strength was in the Lord, they bore in their hearts the highways which led to Him.
Who are those whose strength is in the Lord? The psalmist says that they are those who like to 90 to the temple. Today that means those who like to go to church. There the Lord gives rest. His people commune with Him there. There the weak and weary receive new strength. We must seek God where He allows Himself to be found. According to His ordinance. He is found where His people are gathered.
Serving God in His church will help marriage reach its goal. But in many marriages, church attendance is a nuisance. Sometimes people play guiltily at faithfulness to God's church. From its very beginning a marriage can be threatened by such faithlessness. Blessing and happiness are promised only to those whose strength is in the Lord and in whose heart are the highways to Zion. This means those who gladly go to church, believing the fountains of strength for marriage to be found there.
The Church must continue to proclaim a message of hope for marriage. It should indeed concern itself with the marriage, Jesus Christ shares that concern. He wants to give His grace and blessing to His people in their marriage.
It is vain for husband and wife to rise up early, to sit up late, and to eat the bread of sorrows, for all of man's own efforts and rationing are to no avail if God does not grant His blessing-if in Christ marriage is not delivered from vanity to reach its goal in redemption. If the covenant of marriage is not borne by the covenant of God, its development will be unhealthy.
The significance for marital intercourse of the Old Testament sign of circumcision has been mentioned. During their love-play before God, a husband and wife would be aware that only within a covenant with God can marriage be successful and children considered a blessing. We who are privileged to see the fulfillment of the Covenant of grace in Christ should be even more aware than was ancient Israel that only by the grace of God are marriage, intercourse, and posterity holy unto the Lord.
Through the confirmation of marriage in the Church, it is proclaimed that marriages of God's children are holy, separated from the world and consecrated to God. Only such marriages become rich and joyous.
The communion of marriage is a total one: "Totus tuus" -"completely yours"-husband and wife say to each other. This is made a fact in the daily routines and monotonies of life; it is not just something to declare at the height of idealistic endeavors and deep, spiritual discussions.
I have previously pointed out that husband and wife share everything. Their lives are interwoven- their physical life with its needs, their spare time, food and drink, family and friends, their home, living room, bedroom and, if they receive them, their children. Always and everywhere they experience each other's influence and have to consider each other.
Someone once said that a good marriage is characterized by the interchange of "going out" and "coming in." The husband working away from the home brings back to it what he has done and experienced away from it. He discusses the hardships and joys of his job, the successes or failures, the nice and difficult things.
The wife listens, appreciates, corrects, and stimulates. Through listening to her husband, she actively helps him. She "moulds" the man with a view to his outside task. It is impossible to describe just how great an influence this woman can be. The French proverb, "Cherchez la femme" portrays a profound truth.
As a rule, the mutual moulding by husband and wife is underestimated. It is sometimes said in jest that husband and wife become more and more alike in marriage. In a good marriage this is true. The other's thoughts and wishes can be guessed without words. Much can be gleaned from a gesture, a facial expression, a tone of voice. Both partners have entered the marriage with their own abilities, characters and psychological possibilities, however, and the period of accepting each other in the two-oneness of marriage takes time.
Does not marrying mean that we want to give each other and ourselves a new existence? Do we not want to help, support, and provide for each other, adapting ourselves to the marriage and thereby becoming different persons? To marry means being faithful to the other person and accepting the changes that are demanded in our own life.
Willingness to adapt to each other indicates that love is the driving force between husband and wife. If there is one situation in which it is impossible to hide from each other-either mentally or physically-it is marriage. Whether or not husband and wife realize the fact, life does not consist of going out, parties, hobbies, or interesting conversations. In normal, everyday life, in the living room and bedroom, in the kitchen and at meals, a person's true character is revealed. Small as well as big faults surface, irritating or strange habits appear. If love is not the driving force between husband and wife, irritation and endless accusations will threaten to choke the marriage.
When the old form for the solemnization of marriage states that "married persons are generally, by reason of sin, subject to many troubles and afflictions," this undoubtedly not only refers to illness, poverty, sorrow, and other difficulties that come from the "outside," but also to difficulties and tensions between them. Young people have little idea how complicated and intricate life can be. That is a good thing! However, once they stand in the hub of life as married adults, the dangers and problems will become evident. This is especially true when one discovers the weaknesses, tempers, apathies, and other character defects of one's spouse.
I hope to return to this point when dealing with the dangers that threaten marriage. It will suffice to say for now that only the love which stems from God makes a good marriage possible. Not our own will, our own determination or our own spiritual strength and self-discipline can conquer so much bitterness and uncertainty.
When Scripture states that husband and wife become one flesh, it refers not only to physical unity but to a complete unity of body and soul. The word flesh in the Bible often means one's complete existence in the body, not something merely bodily, but a unity of body and soul. Not just part of the husband and part of the wife become one but the husband himself and the wife herself are united. Scripture states.. "He who loves his wife loves himself" (Eph. 5.28). It is not just a part of himself that he loves but himself in the complete unity of body and soul.
Marriage is an unrepeatable and incomparable relationship between a particular man and a particular woman. It is also exclusive; there is no room in it for a third person. Marriage is not temporary, it endures as long as both shall live. Therefore marriage must be founded on a conscious choice whereby the man chooses a woman and the woman a man for life.
Love should rest in faithfulness towards one another, for marriage is more than love alone. A marriage must flow from this love and must be continually fed by it. In essence marriage is the complete communion of life between husband and wife; through marriage, love is sealed in a covenant. Marriage as a communion of life proves the soundness of love; it is the lifelong "proof' of love. This communion does not fall into anyone's lap. It is achieved only as it is consciously and responsibly accepted as a mandate.
Marriage may not exist to serve an inferior goal. It may not serve just to satisfy the sexual desires or to lighten the workload of a man. Nor may it serve to satisfy a woman's desire to set up a home of her own and bring up children.
All these aspects deserve a place in the marriage but when one of them becomes a goal in itself, the all-encompassing value of marriage has been undercut. The first word spoken by the Lord God concerning marriage remains in force: "It is not good that man should be alone" (Gen. 2:18).
According to God's initial intention, the essence of marriage is the complete communion between a man and a woman who glory in Him, the Creator of all things. If this communion is made central and if all other intentions are subjected to it, then the other facets will find their rightful place also.
Within this complete unity of body and soul, there is a place for satisfying sexual intercourse. Then the marriage becomes the foundation for the husband's joyful work and the wife finds her place in arranging her home tastefully. joint responsibility will foster a healthy atmosphere for bringing up children. In this way -as far as it is possible in a discordant world-there will be harmony in married life. Then a quiet beauty will radiate from the full and rich communion of life in marriage.
The completeness of the communion of life in marriage does not imply the equality of husband and wife, however. They are not equal partners in the modem sense of the word.
The Bible states emphatically: "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord" (Col. 3:18). We read the same thing in Ephesians 5:22: "Wives, be subject to your husbands." Similar injunctions appear in I Corinthians 14:34 ("but [they] should be subordinate, as even the law says"), 1 Timothy 2:11 ("Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness"), Titus 2:5 (". . . and submissive to their husbands"), and 1 Peter 3:1 ("Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands").
Attention has rightly been drawn to the fact that this is a special kind of "submission." It is not the submission of a subject towards the government nor a submission which makes the wife the property of her husband.
But on the other hand, it does not make sense either to twist the original word for submission into an equalization between husband and wife.
The unique character of wifely submission becomes clear in Paul's explanation in 1 Corinthians 11:3. There the husband is called the head of the woman, Christ the Lord of the man, and God the Head of Christ. The remarkable thing is that Paul relates the headship of the husband over the wife to divine ordinance. "Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man" (I Cor. 11:9).
This mandate and norm is not time-bound. For all time, the wife is subject to the husband. It has been rightly established that when Paul speaks about the obedience slaves owe their masters, he does not refer to a divine ordinance. But he does do this when he talks about the husband-wife relationship (J. Kamphuis). The word which Scripture uses for submission in the latter context is submission to a "well-ordered situation or ordinance (taxis) which God instituted."
The wife must submit to her husband because of Godgiven ordinances, not because he holds a higher position than she or has certain innate privileges. The wife should subject herself to her husband because God created them for that particular relationship. She must do so for God's sake, not as a servant of a human being but as a "slave" of Christ.
That the husband is called the head of the wife has great significance. Ephesians 5:22ff. teaches that the wife ought to be subject to her husband, even as the Church is subject to Christ. Being the head signifies a position of dominion and control; that cannot be denied. However, Christ's headship of the Church has its foundation in the fact that He is Savior and Preserver of His Church. The Church has her origin in Christ and is therefore dependent on Him.
The husband's position as head must be understood in this way: the wife finds in him her origin and protector and depends on him. The "woman [is made] from man," says 1 Corinthians 11. For this reason she is the glory of her husband as the Church is the glory of Christ.
Being head does not only refer to domination; it also refers to protection. Tyranny has nothing to do with this. As Christ loves the Church, so the husband loves his wife by protecting and leading her. He must not act like a potentate. Yet as head of the wife he must take the lead and initiative in watching over her.
This care has nothing to do with "having dominion over her" in a brute, coercive sense. Some people refer to Genesis 3:16 to justify brute force because there God says to the woman: "and he [the man] shall rule over you." This is an unjustified inference. It is the curse of God which struck the life of the woman which is the point of this passage. Of course, God's curse is not a norm to live by.
The old form for the solemnization of marriage speaks incorrectly in this context of an ordinance of God which the woman should not resist. Not the dominion of man over woman but the husband's headship over his wife is an ordinance of God. All tyranny and coercion is far removed from "being head."
On the one hand God's Word says: you wives be submissive to your husbands" (1 Pet. 3: 1) with an appeal to the conduct of the holy women " . . . who hoped in God ... and were submissive to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord" (1 Pet. 3:5, 6). In the same context we read: "Likewise you husbands, live considerately with your wives, bestowing honor on the woman as the weaker sex" (1 Pet. M).
The phrase "bestowing honor on the woman" is in conflict with the notion of a husband ruling over a wife as something that "fate" has decreed. She who reached for leadership in paradise was placed under tyranny as punishment by God. The fate of women in the ancient East makes this punishment frightfully clear. The wife was reduced to a slave, a piece of merchandise, an object of lust, a mere "thing."
Christ has redeemed womanhood from a position of slavery. In Christ the woman is restored her liberty, dignity, and responsibility as a real help to her husband. This does not undermine or defeat the creation-structure regarding the relationship between husband and wife. On the contrary, Christ leads human life back to its beginning. In the Church the woman becomes a true woman again.
A believing woman has enormous beneficial influence. Peter speaks about the difficulties of women whose husbands do not want to be obedient to God's Word. What must such a woman do? Must they endlessly talk about faith and regard their husbands as objects of evangelism? No marriage could survive that.
No, these women must remain wives even if their husbands do not believe. They must keep submitting themselves to God's ordinances regarding their husbands. Their conduct will show what God's grace and power can do so that unbelieving husbands "may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives" (I Pet. 3: 1).
The wife then, is no slave, bereft of influence. On the contrary, she exercises a beneficial influence. In the full sense of the word she becomes a help to her husband. She helps him in the direction of eternal life.
Once again, the wife does not do this by leaving her place and ruining the marriage through constant evangelism. Through faith she will be a good wife - a Christian wife - to her husband and show herself helpful in all things that are good and lawful.
The unbelieving husband may be sanctified through his wife. "If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him" (1 Cor. 7:18). Then she will live as wife in the way in which the Lord has "assigned" or "called" her (1 Cor. 7:17). Called with this calling from the beginning, she acknowledges the husband as her head and herself as his help. She is. however, a help to him as a responsible, not a slavish, wife.
It has rightly been pointed out that a woman who slavishly obeys her husband is essentially a rebellious woman. She reaches for dominion over her husband by always doing everything his way. In this way she has "power" over him. Often this coincides with a tyrannical husband. His tyranny is not necessarily crass and brutish. There are also quiet, gentle, amiable, good-natured tyrants.
What is the basic nature of a man's tyranny? A husband is a tyrant when he does not accept his headship according to the ordinance and mandate of God, but assumes a male superiority. This type of husband is as proud as a peacock about his masculinity. He is absolutely convinced that the male sex is more highly placed than the female sex. In all amiability he lets his wife feel this at every opportunity.
The slavish wife who has resigned herself to this role acts accordingly. She anticipates her husband's wishes, flies for his demands, and adulates him. She never utters a word of healthy criticism. She is busy pleasing herself just as her husband pleases himself. However strange it may sound, by slavishly attending to her husband, the wife has him in her power. She is not concerned to help him. She does not act responsibly. In reality, such a marriage is a permanent secret power struggle. The husband has to maintain himself at all times as the strong man while the wife in a show of loving submission knows exactly how to attain what she wants.
A relationship becomes irrevocably warped when husband and wife forget that their relationship should be one of service to the Lord. Service allows the husband to step forward as head of the wife, not because he considers himself to be such a he-man, but because God has given him the task of leading and protecting his wife. Service allows the wife to acknowledge her husband in his position as head not because she finds it easy to, be the docile little woman but because God has given her the task of submission.
Not for naught does Ephesians 5 say: "Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God" immediately before it gives instruction concerning married life. Those words are intended for both husband and wife. The husband is submissive when he leads. He is then the one to serve. The wife is submissive not when she meets her husband as a slave but when as a responsible help she points out his place to him as often as necessary.
Then will the marriage become a holy context for the proper conduct of both in the places assigned to them by God. The marriage communion will become firm and genuine, a communion such as instituted by the Lord God in the beginning and restored in Christ. Then both will walk "in step" according to the ordinance of God and in the way of the Lord.