Yesterday I was at a friend’s house and she was catching me up on the latest season of The Bachelor, a reality show in which an eligible young man is presented with 25-30 potential life-mates and through spending time with them and systematic elimination, finally chooses a bride. We watched part of the first episode, and expressed our disbelief that for some people, this is how they make one of the most important decisions of their lives. We noticed how differently these televised relationships are formed from our own. Their romance revolves around the myths that love is synonymous with chemistry and attraction, that if the “feelings” are gone then the relationship must be wrong, and that values are not important to talk about during the dating period. No wonder only one of The Bachelor couples out of fourteen seasons is still together. Their matchmaking track record is not looking so good.
But the sad truth is, as Ashley recently mentioned, the divorce rate for Christians is no different than the world’s. Even among Bible student graduates, 50% of their marriages end in divorce. Between the two of us, my husband and I know at least eight couples who have broken off engagements, and have also observed Christian marriages unravel. So what’s the difference? Shouldn’t there be a difference between marriages governed by Christ’s love and marriages governed by love according to the world?
In Ephesians 5, Paul describes the relationship between a husband and a wife as reflective of Christ’s love for His church. He does not promote any easy answers, but says, “This mystery is profound” (Ephesians 5:32a). It is a mystery as much as it is a mercy, I think, that a husband and wife might rehearse the love they have divinely received in their conduct towards each other.
And that is the difference: reflecting the Father’s naming attribute, as He is called Love, and extending this devotion toward another. It is a covenant, a promise, a high calling.
Yet our culture tells so many stories of relational wreckage. Instead of learning love from a Personal Being, a secular marriage too often practices love not as a sacred quality but a sentiment divorced from its very Creator. In a sense, they are borrowing an attribute that belongs to a God they don’t know and exercising a representation of a spiritual truth they don’t believe. To be fair, there are people with good marriages who have detached the basic virtues that uphold their relationship from theology. But if they do not understand the holy reason behind why their marriage works, neither can the fragmented family be expected to pull together apart from God’s paradigm of sacrificial love.
In Then Comes Marriage?: A Cultural History of the American Family, author Rebecca Price Janney names the distinction between secular and Christian marriages. Of the Christian couple she says, “Crowning their life together is the kind of giving, empathic, other-oriented love of which Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12, what he called ‘the most excellent way.’ Such love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. It never fails (1 Corinthians 13:7-8a). That is the essence of the Christian model.”
Reading this book encouraged me because rather than condemning the culture, Janney turns this scenario on its head by placing the weight of responsibility on Christians to display “the most excellent way” and shine all the brighter in the world. Janney navigates through centuries of marital tradition, tracing both the progresses and the pitfalls along the way, to prove the timeless power of this most excellent way of love. And after intriguing tales of bride ships, Victorian modesty, and feminist activism, Janney brings her readers to the conclusion that the restoration of the American family is up to the saints.
As I consider marriage as a metaphor for the relationship of Christ and the Church, this call to duty only makes sense. Christ’s saving relationship with His people does not keep to itself, but produces a natural outflow of love and service as the redeemed reach out to those around them. Likewise, the Christ-centered marriage is not intended for isolation, but extends the same care the couple has divinely received to the community.
Janney affirms this, “There’s a wholeness to the family that is intact that trickles down through all society as they experience the benefits of relationships as they were meant to be.” She cites the Schaeffers as one such family, who knew that marriage, as Edith Schaeffer said, “is meant to portray something within the family of the love of God for His family.” The Schaeffers’ commitment to the family enabled them to open their doors to many others, a ministry that grew into the L’Abri legacy.
My own family has taught me the value of hospitality in sharing the gospel. When my parents and two sisters moved into our manor-like home built in 1852, we asked our pastor to lead us in a house dedication. My parents bought the house with the intention of sharing it, and twelve years later we have hosted a foreign exchange student from France, a pastor’s daughter from Brazil, a neighboring family who lived with us one summer, our nursing student friend, various missionaries on furlough, great uncles, college roommates, and a handful of other friends and folk. My mother likes to say she has eleven children, referring to her three girls and the eight foster kids who have become part of the family.
Janney writes, “…there is a certain winsomeness about families who follow Jesus, especially as He calls people to love others as we love ourselves.” She points out that families of faith should be identified by certain characteristics, such as selflessness, patience, and the fruit of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22-23. Some of these characteristics will be countercultural, but this only ensures that the Christian family will stand apart from the family struggles that surround it. These are the families, Janney observes, that serve on emergency response teams, volunteer in their neighborhoods, and adopt children into their families. In this way, Janney’s review of the state of the American family is both encouraging and challenging: she is realistic about the deteriorating family model but seizes this as a momentous opportunity for Christian witness.
It is a challenge I cannot help but take to heart. Zach and I may not have fine china or the kind of house that can accommodate a church retreat, but we will get to know our neighbors. This year we ran a 5K together to support the local crisis pregnancy center, we joined a book club that allows us to connect with people in the community, and we are getting involved with our church and small group. We are also planning a house dedication ceremony of our own for the house we bought earlier this year. We want to start our life here by opening our doors, because we feel that opening our lives to others is part of spiritual obedience and we want to start this habit now.
When Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize for her internationally renowned Christian charity, she was asked what people could do to promote world peace. Her response was simple: “Go home and love your family.” Likewise, starting small and praying big, we can be confident that God will shine through our relationships with His redeeming light.