Marriage in our broken world has fallen on hard times. The Supreme Court spurned the traditional definition of marriage. Many couples give up, since they view marriage more as a contract than as a covenant. It hurts when pastors see couples who they married get divorced. It happened to me when I was a campus pastor.
Marriage has never been easy. Even the best marriages are tested and may fail. Divorces not only separate couples, but also injure children and alienate family members and friends. It is no surprise that the prophet Malachi writes, “‘The man who hates and divorces his wife,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘does violence to the one he should protect,’ says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful” (Malachi 2:16).
While some divorces are unavoidable as a last resort, churches must earnestly endeavor to strengthen marriages and families in general. Many Christian ministries are dedicated to supporting strong marriages, not least of which is Focus on the Family. What might local pastors do in their roles as teachers and counselors to help marriages stay together and even thrive?
The evident first point is that married pastors should have strong marriages that serve as models for their church members. Both spouses should be committed to the ministry of the church. Sadly, some pastors wives view their husband’s church work as in competition with their marriage. Sometimes it is. Because of this, couples need to discern how to protect their marriage and support the ministry of the church—not one over the other.
One safeguard is to take a weekly Sabbath for rest and the replenishment of the married relationship. There are far too many ministry widows out there. Paul wrote, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). I believe this principle applies both to financial support and to the emotional and spiritual needs of one’s spouse.
Pastors can teach and preach what the Bible says about marriage in light to today’s social pressures that undermine healthy relationships. More important than any “how-to list” is the divine dynamic of love. Paul tells us that love is patient, kind, and is not irritable or resentful (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). It is by love that those outside the church can know that the Gospel is real (John 13:34-35). Constant screen time, making entertainment the default mode for living, and endless multitasking easily undermines love. Love needs to be uni-tasked, as spouses attend to each other in gentle and touching ways. My wife often tells me, “You are so attentive to me!” May that continue.
Since American culture is sexually insane, pastors should be a voice of sexual sanity. Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher wrote in Pensées:
When everything is moving at once, nothing appears to be moving, as on board ship. When everyone is moving towards depravity, no one seems to be moving, but if someone stops, he shows up the others who are rushing on, by acting as a fixed point.
The Bible is the fixed point in a degenerating world because it is “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17; see also Psalm 119). As teachers of the word of God, pastors call and draw people back to our ultimate fixed reference point—the living (Hebrews 4:12). This task takes courage, and God is there to give it. “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord” (2 Timothy 1:7-8).
When people turn from their Creator, they turn in on themselves and become spiritually autistic (see Romans 1:18-32). Since erotic urges are insistent and easily felt in most people, they can outpace spiritual and moral standards in those who have no fear of, or love for, God. The results are all around us: same-sex “marriages,” fornication of all kinds, adultery, out-of-wedlock pregnancies (which must be brought to term), the pornography pandemic, and more. Sexual restraint, saying “no,” is an essential aspect of a clean conscience, a godly life and is the price of civilization. Saying “yes” to heterosexual monogamy means saying “no’ to many other socially acceptable “options,” which are really wide roads that lead to destruction.
Our Christian “yes” is far greater than our “no” when it comes to sexuality and marriage. As Paul affirmed: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through Him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 1:20). Jesus came to give us abundant life in every way (John 10:10), including erotic love within marriage. If pastors are shy to teach and preach about sex, they should realize that everyone else is talking about it, and most of it is trash. For example, a Lutheran pastor named Nadia Bolz-Weber advocates all manner of sexual perversion—from same-sex marriage, to pre-marital sex to cross-dressing—in her book, Shameless: A New Reformation.
Besides speaking of the Bible’s guardrails, pastors can emphasize how couples can carry on inside of them! The Song of Songs celebrates erotic enjoyment and is a romantic feast for lovers.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
for your love is more delightful than wine.
Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;
your name is like perfume poured out.
No wonder the young women love you!
Take me away with you—let us hurry!
Let the king bring me into his chambers (Song of Songs 1:2-4).
As wonderful as sexual oneness can be, it is not the end-all of marriage. As a friend told me, “In marriage, sex will not get you through times of no love. But love can get you through times of no sex.” Thus, pastors should underscore the need for holy commitment in married life. Married love is sealed and consecrated through the exchanging of vows, which are made before the face of God. I recommend the traditional Christian vows, all of which involve pledging unconditional love “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance.”
Francis Schaeffer lamented that he saw many perfectly good marriages fail because of unrealistic expectations. As he put it in True Spirituality, “substantial healing” is possible as part of the Christian’s sanctification within marriage and in other relationships. The Holy Spirit imparts the fruit of the Spirit to mend deep wounds and renew loving bonds. However, we still live in a fallen and broken world. Thus, we sometimes have to make due with less than our dream come true. We may even have to live through some nightmares. What keeps us on the straight path is not constant emotional satisfaction, but sacred commitment before our God and our neighbors. As a Christian in the family of God, a pastor can model an honest and healthy marriage before the congregation. As a preacher in the pulpit, a pastor can bring the congregation living truths about the realities of marriage straight from Holy Scripture and in the power of the Holy Spirit, come what may. Since the church is “God’s household” and “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), there is no better place to honor and support holy matrimony.