"Well, I’m sure that I’ll miss you terribly. But life goes on and, given the right circumstances, I’d remarry."
He pondered this momentarily and then asked, "Well, would you stay in this house?"
"Of course! I love this house. We built it for ourselves, we’ve lived here for thirty-two years and it’s paid for. Yes, I’d stay in this house."
Suddenly troubled by what might become of his memory, he pondered this in uncomfortable silence. Finally, he screwed up the courage to ask, "Would you keep the car?"
This one wasn’t as easy. She had to think about it for moment. "Yes. It’s a good car, it’s fairly new and it’s paid for. I can’t think of any reason not to keep it."
Hmmm. This didn’t look good. She’d remarry, live in the same house and keep the car. This wasn’t looking good. At last he asked the question that really was uppermost in his mind.
"Would you let him use my golf clubs?"
"Of course not! He’s left handed!"
In the creation narrative, we hear these significant words, "That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united with his wife, and they become one." We find these words taken up by both Jesus and Paul when talking about marriage (Mt. 19.5; Mk 10.7, 8; 1 Cor. 6.16; Eph. 5.31).They are important defining words about the nature of marriage.
The marriage relationship is part of God’s good purpose and extends far beyond the need to propagate the human race. Love and companionship are important ingredients, and the old marriage service spoke first of "the mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and in adversity". It then went on to say, "It was also ordained that children might be brought up in the knowledge and love of God and to the praise of his holy name". For marriage provides the background of love and security within which children can develop the basic resources for living.
But when Genesis, Jesus and Paul talk about husband and wife becoming "one" – literally "one flesh" in the original – they are speaking about a strong and deep bond. Over thirty years ago I had to do a major study on the New Testament teaching on marriage and divorce as part of the requirements for an honours degree. As part of that study I noted, "The concept of ‘one flesh’ thus involves a deep union of man and wife based on the creative will of God, the covenant between the two persons and the physical relationship thus established. The relationship, however, is not merely physical, though the depth of the bond may depend on other factors. Within this bond, the two personalities complement one another and fulfil different roles though equal in status. The relationship is meant to be exclusive, permanent and monogamous" (Whom God has Joined, p. 10).
This command specifically refers to the violation of marriage vows, and yet, in context of the teaching of the law of Moses as a whole, we may quite rightly extend it to cover all expressions of sex outside marriage – all are a violation of the loving purpose of God.
We recognise the importance of a stable home environment for the personal growth and development of children – the next generation of society. However – so it is pressed upon us – isn’t it just a matter of personal preference what "consenting adults" may choose to do? That may be so, in terms of the freedoms and limits that society deems appropriate. However, our desire here is to understand God’s purpose and ideal for marriage. As we shall note, we fall short in many ways, but we are seriously in error if we think we can simply choose to ignore the ideal.
The purpose for which God created the possibility of sex cannot rightly be fulfilled outside the loving faithful marriage of a man and a woman.
But, Jesus said, this was not the original purpose of God – "No human being must separate, then, what God has joined together" (vv. 3-9).
Marriage is a deeply personal relationship and its breakdown is traumatic. But it is far more than a legal contract. And that is why Jesus speaks so strongly and straightly about it. We need to hear and recognise what he is saying, even as we stand alongside those who continue to face the reality of marriage break-down within all our modern expressions of human hard-heartedness.
In the reading from Ephesians 5, Paul teaches that marriage is a mutual bond. In v. 21 he says, "Submit yourselves to one another because of your reverence for Christ." This is a key principle for both partners in marriage. These days we have rejected "submission" – whether to one another or to God! Yet Paul is saying that, because of our relationship to Christ, we are to commit ourselves to serving one another. Paul assumes that in marriage the two have become "one flesh". It is now important for each to choose to be submitted to the other.
Paul does not teach the inferiority of women. We hear him writing, "So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free people, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3.28) – a revolutionary statement in the first century AD.
What he does say is that husbands and wives have equal status and complementary roles. Paul’s words have been caricatured and misunderstood. In saying that "wives are to submit completely to their husbands", he is not expecting more of them than of the husbands who are to give their lives for their wives. When he says the husband is to be the "head" ("authority" in GNB), he is not approving harsh domination. Men are called to responsibility for their homes and families. Our society suffers greatly from weak and irresponsible men.
I understand that a TV programme this week has raised concern about a movement known as the Promise Keepers. I cannot comment on the accuracy of that programme nor on the movment itself. I have a copy of their statement of faith and of the seven promises expected of members. There are just two of them that relate to marriage – commitments to "practising spiritual, moral, ethical and sexual purity" and to "building strong marriages and families through love, protection and biblical values". The feminist movement – inside and outside the church – has been greatly alarmed. Personally, I think it is time men began to take responsibility for their own lives and for their families.
It is not simply a matter of sticking together for life ("and keep thee only unto her/him as long as ye both shall live" as the old marriage order put it). We need the complete harmony of mutual love to which the love of Christ calls us. So may we learn to build into marriage those qualities, attitudes and actions that will be for our common good as together we serve Christ.