Focus on the Family

The One, Glorious Purpose of Marriage

It turns out that God created marriage for one glorious purpose – to illustrate the love relationship between the Lord Jesus and his church. If couples understood this, then most of the practical problems in marriage could be negotiated and managed successfully.

Marriage is a mess right now. You don’t need to see the statistics regarding divorce and cohabitation to know it’s true – people don’t understand why they should get married (as opposed to just living together); they don’t know who should get married (A man and a woman? A man and a man? A woman and woman?); and they don’t understand why they should stay married once their relationship ceases to be fun and personally fulfilling. And while Christians in Bible-believing churches will probably have the correct answers to some of those questions, my pastoral ministry experience has taught me that most believers don’t understand the purpose of marriage. As a result, many marriages in our churches aren’t much more joyful, peaceful, and God-glorifying than those outside the church.

If you ask most people about the point of marriage, they might come up with something like happiness, companionship, and a stable environment for raising children. Those are all good things and part of the blessings of God’s design for marriage, but none of them is the point. According to the apostle Paul, God had a specific purpose for giving us this institution:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

Ephesians 5:22-25

Pastors faced with a difficult marriage in their church might be tempted to jump immediately to the imperatives in this passage – husbands need to love; wives need to submit. And while those ideas are true and good and important, they aren’t the main thing. Because no amount of encouragement to love and respect is ultimately going to matter if the couple doesn’t understand the deeper theological foundation on which those commands rest: nothing less than the gospel of Jesus Christ itself. 

It turns out that God created marriage for one glorious purpose – to illustrate the love relationship between the Lord Jesus and his church. This concept isn’t something we would be able to figure out on our own simply through reason or observing the natural order, so Paul tells us: This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:32) God didn’t look around over his creation, searching for a metaphor that would illustrate his loving commitment to his people, and ultimately decide that marriage was the closest thing he could find. No, he created marriage specifically to illustrate his intimate and sacrificial love for his church.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this truth for ministry to married couples. Let’s say a husband and a wife come into your office for help. They are both sincere Christians, but they have been married for some time, and things are falling apart. The fun and ease of their early relationship have eroded from the relentless winds of day-to-day life. What started as something like a Hollywood romance has devolved into something like running a not-so-profitable small business together. She feels neglected and resentful of the amount of time he spends at work. He feels criticized and is beginning to look forward to any reason to get away from the house. They don’t have sex anymore, and being married for a few more decades feels more like a prison sentence than a God-ordained blessing. 

What does that couple need from their pastor? It is doubtlessly true that they could both stand to grow in some practical ways, so advice on communication and tips on anger management might be warranted. But they need to understand most that their marriage exists to serve a much larger and more important purpose than their personal pleasure and happiness. They need to believe that they are not at liberty to pursue their own interests and wishes at any cost but that God has given them to each other so that they might display his love to each other, their children, and the world.

Think about what the love of God in Christ looks like:

  • It is a forgiving love (Ephesians 1:7). God’s love doesn’t hold our sins against us but frees us from the guilt that we bear.
  • It is a sacrificial love (Hebrews 9:26). God’s love came at the cost of Christ’s death in our place. 
  • It is a “despite you” love (Matthew 5:44-45). God’s love is perfect because he doesn’t need there to be anything good in us to love us. He loves us even though we have made ourselves his enemies. He loves us when we are unlovely.
  • It is a glorious love (II Corinthians 4:4). The gospel displays God’s glory. God saves his people to demonstrate the riches of his glory to the world (Romans 9:23).

Think about what it would mean for our hypothetical couple if they understood that this kind of love should stand at the center of their relationship. It would cause them to raise their eyes from their own feelings and preferences. It would motivate them to love their spouse even if that person doesn’t change their behavior. And most importantly, it would allow them to glorify God by responding to his sacrificial, forgiving love by showing that same love to their spouse. If both parties in a marriage were committed to displaying the love between Christ and his church, then most of the practical problems in marriage could be negotiated and managed successfully.

What does this mean for pastors? Let me suggest two things:

  • First, married pastors should strive to show this kind of love to their wives. Our churches need to see models of Biblical marital love, so pastors need to be careful not to hurt the church by loving it more than he loves his wife. Our congregations need to see their pastors sacrificing for his wife and loving her as Christ loved the church. 
  • Second, we need to keep the gospel love of Christ at the heart of all our preaching, teaching, and counseling about marriage. We are not primarily dispensers of tips and advice on marriage – but we point our people to Christ and his love for his people. 

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