The first couple undoubtedly had the least conflictual first year of marriage on record. There were no parents to forgive or childhood wounds to process. The absence of sin meant they carried no shame. We don’t know if they loved each other as we understand love today, but based on Adam’s exuberant response in Genesis 2, it does seem that they received each other as good gifts.
Looking back on this Edenic match — perhaps the only match truly made in heaven — it all seemed so simple and so enviable. Who wouldn’t want to form a lifelong partnership with a well-matched spouse, in a breathtaking setting with all our needs provided for at no cost?
Based on the myriad of challenges that we face in the 21st century, we may wonder why Adam and Eve weren’t content and why they couldn’t fully trust God. The truth is, we’re all vulnerable to greed and doubt. Because they gave in to those powerful temptations, they suffered a devastating wound. Instead of standing adjacent and upright before their Creator, they turned their gaze away from God and bent in: Eve to Adam, and Adam to his work, resulting in a relationship marked by disconnection, envy, and idolatry. The ramifications of this wound have reverberated through history.
And yet, the injury was not fatal. Marriage has survived.
Marriage continues to be an essential component of God’s plan for humanity. Like the physical and spiritual laws that govern our world, such as gravity and sowing and reaping, marriage is part of the created order and one of the conduits through which God works and reveals himself.
Unfortunately, centuries of sin combined with shifting cultural norms have made it increasingly difficult for us to fully grasp God’s intention for marriage. As this plan pixelates and we viscerally sense that something important is slipping away, we might be tempted to distill the challenges to a singular cause or lay the blame outside our purview. This can lead to a definition of marriage that is a reaction to something outside of God’s plan, rather than an assertion of God’s design. While such responses are understandable, they can make it more difficult for couples to experience the promises marriage means to offer.
Given all these factors, is it even possible to reconnect with God’s original intentions and faithfully create marriage covenants that bring beauty, redemption, and reconciliation to individual households and the culture at large? Yes, but first we need a sturdy hermeneutic of marriage, a long view of how we got here, and commitment to create and pursue our unique marriage telos.
According to the 1559 version of The Anglican Book of Common Prayer, marriage is a holy, honorable covenant, instituted by God, and intended to bind one man to one woman. For centuries, brides and grooms have promised to have and to hold, in sickness and health, for better or worse, “to love and to cheryshe, tyll death us depart.” Duly noted: Those of us who are married most likely did not fully understand exactly what we were saying yes to. If we had, there might have been a longer pause between the officiant’s ask and our responses.
This ancient template harkens back to Genesis 2, where God fashions man and woman: man, originating from the dust of the earth, and woman, drawn from man’s side. We should come to a full stop here and reflect on how this foreshadows the bride that was later formed from Christ’s wounded side. The specifics of the creation account provide a picture of God’s desire for man and woman to partner as equals as they embark on humanity’s mission:
Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground” (Gen 1:28).
To take this mandate literally means that all wives and husbands are called to leave their families of origin; to cleave, or bond to each other; and then meaningfully engage in being fruitful (in its many forms) while caring for creation. That would have been more than enough to keep humanity busy for all time. But due to the fallen nature of the world, our to-do list has grown. We now have to wrestle with infertility, battle systemic racism, and heal the creation from the effects of greed. This is demanding work. In fact, it’s so demanding and so consuming that couples can easily lose sight of marriage’s holy meta-narrative. God’s word reminds and reconnects us with that big picture.
Scripture begins and ends with a wedding, and much has been written about how Adam and Eve’s covenant prefigures the ultimate wedding at the end of time. This offers a context for our marriages and reminds us of the larger story, in which marriage is meant to demonstrate and affirm God’s faithfulness and unconditional love (see Hosea) as well as usher in the kingdom of heaven. These holy actions should happen first in our family and then pulse outward in ever-widening circles to include the local body of Christ and the surrounding community.
The (D)Evolution of Marriage
Even though God clearly communicated what marriage was to be, it didn’t take long for men and women to go off script. Seven generations after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, Lamech married not one, but two women. Abram laid with his wife’s maidservant, Hagar, who bore him a son. Judah had sex with his daughter-in-law, mistaking her for a prostitute. Sit with that one for a minute. Many of the patriarchs had concubines, and some esteemed men of the faith, such as King David, exhibited behaviors that would (hopefully) lead to an immediate removal from leadership in today’s church.
Far from presenting readers with a sanitized history of relationships, Scripture transparently recounts man’s proclivity toward abusing power and forsaking both monogamy and monotheism. It’s not until Jesus inaugurates God’s coming kingdom — and confronts unbiblical divorce, sexual indiscretion (including lust), and polygamy — that the possibility of a lifelong, monogamous marriage, marked by respect, mutuality, mission, and Christlike love comes back into focus. This is a lofty mandate, and through history, marriages have often lacked one or more of those key components.
For instance, until fairly recently, marriage was so steeped in pragmatism that, in the words of historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History, “love was seen as a bonus, not a necessity.” Through the mid to late 1700s, European and North American marriages formed or reinforced family alliances (i.e., augmented power bases), joined together adults with similar or complementary skill sets furthering family businesses, and, according to The Week, bound “women to men … [to] guarantee that a man’s children were truly his biological heirs.” This was essential because if parents could not pass their property and business on to their offspring, the family would likely face financial collapse. Some domestic roles were gender specific (e.g., women typically did the weaving and beer brewing while men plowed the fields), but for the most part, husbands and wives worked shoulder to shoulder to ensure that their families had a place to live and food to eat. We might look at marriages of this time period as less-than because they were so pragmatic, but they provided rich opportunities for spouses to partner vocationally — something that many of us never have the privilege of experiencing. And who’s to say that love and pragmatism cannot share the same bed?
As the United States was forging its new identity, much of the world was transitioning from an economy based on agriculture and craftsmanship — where family units provided for themselves and bartered for whatever they lacked — to an increasingly industrialized market economy — where family alliances and land ownership mattered less, and paid employment mattered more. Many husbands and wives stopped working together in their fields or at the cobbler’s bench, and children from non-wealthy families left home to work as miners, textile workers, bakers, domestic servants, etc. Parents lost their built-in labor and, to some extent, their unifying family mission.
It’s impossible to know whether these and other sociological changes contributed to, or merely coincided with, two major ideological shifts that took place during this time and that continue to affect marriage today: the rise of individualism and the belief that feelings should be the primary driver in choosing our spouse.
Individualism encourages adults to value and then elevate their personal needs and desires over the needs and desires of others. In the 1800s, as this philosophy gained traction in the U.S. and Europe, its impact was felt in family systems, communities, and entire cultures. Motivated by economic opportunity and this newfound sense of agency, people packed up their belongings, said goodbye to their relatives, and relocated. What they gained in autonomy and freedom, they lost in connectedness and built-in support networks that previously characterized family life. While People of Color (and intentional communities like the Anabaptist Bruderhofs) have tended to resist individualism and prioritized keeping their kin circles intact, many American families no longer had relatives in the downstairs apartment who could babysit in a pinch. Moms dealing with postpartum depression and suddenly widowed fathers had to muscle their way through alone. In an article for The Atlantic, David Brooks observes that in the past century, “We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children.”
Not surprisingly, as the fibers that connected families have slowly frayed, it has become less acceptable for parents or grandparents to steer a young couple toward or away from the altar. Today, we’ve become so inculcated by the ethos of individualism that few of us can imagine factoring our relatives’ opinions or needs into the calculus of choosing whom we marry or where we settle — even though ancient and present-day accounts reveal that partners in arranged marriages often grow to love each other.
A much more subjective criteria began to influence the choice to marry once couples were no longer “constrained” by their family members’ opinions or needs: the feeling of being in love. Departing from generations of tradition, potential brides and grooms now expect romantic love as a prerequisite to tying the knot. Most of us probably agree that we should be free to decide who we marry, and love should be one of the primary drivers of that choice. However, this recent development has resulted in several unexpected consequences.
If we were to create a graph depicting the rise of individualism from the mid-1800s through the 1980s, it would neatly overlap with the rise in divorce (see Chapter 4 of Eli J. Finkle’s The All-or-Nothing Marriage). Couples who have been empowered to choose a spouse based on their feelings and their perceived needs rather than what others feel or need, experience less pressure to remain in a marriage if, or when, the (relational) return on investment drops. New legislation was written in response to shifting mindsets. The first no-fault divorce law was passed in California in 1969. Other states followed suit and divorces started trending upward. This continued until the 1980s when the rising divorce rate began to level off. Finkle notes, and census data shows, that over the past 10 years, divorce rates have dropped considerably. And contrary to popular myth, the divorce rate is not, and never has been, 50 percent, especially for first-time marriages. This means we all have more than a fighting chance. Though divorce is always painful and deeply disruptive, it is important to affirm that there are legitimate reasons to end a marriage, such as abandonment, cruelty, unrepentant sin, infidelity, and abuse.
At the start of the 21st century, other fundamental changes started creeping over the horizon. Now that the government, rather than the church, was determining what constitutes a marriage — making it a civil right — and the general public came to understand marriage as a legal agreement rather than a faith-based covenant, it was only a matter of time until the historic, core prerequisite of marriage being between one man and one woman would be challenged. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of legalizing gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges.
This ruling was celebrated by some and condemned by others. It’s far too soon to determine if, or how, this new law might adversely influence traditional marriage. There’s a tendency, and perhaps a preference, to blame outside sources when things go awry (see Adam and Eve). Though the temptation is real, a marriage cannot flourish when dodging and blaming are habitual. Societal factors such as no-fault divorce and gay marriage may influence an individual’s resolve to stay true to their vows, but that person’s choice to disengage from, or give up on their covenant has more power to sink a marriage than a court decision or referendum. Ultimately, neither laws written by human hands nor individuals who disagree with orthodox, biblical standards can thwart God’s purposes. His kingdom will come, and his will shall be done. As we await his return, the question before all of us is this: What part are we going to play?