You’re certainly aware of the debate raging in our society over how to answer that question. The postmodern mindset that dominates the secular world can accept almost any definition, as long as it’s not exclusive.
Even in the church, professing believers are shifting away from the biblical models for marriage and family and embracing the indiscriminant openness of the world. Many others attempt to appease all sides through aggressive ambiguity. But that’s what happens when you prize relevance over truth, and treat the Bible as nothing more than a 2,000 year-old book.
How can God’s people defend the truth from such pervasive error? Plenty have tried to employ political and legal means to defend traditional marriage. But the sad truth is that the church’s supposed moral authority in those efforts is frequently undercut by its hypocrisy. Divorce, infidelity, and all kinds of sexual sin pervade the church, contradicting God’s Word and corrupting the testimony of His people.
The best way to defend and uphold God’s design for marriage and family is not through political or legal action—it’s through the living testimony of a faithful, righteous adherence to God’s design. The watching world needs to see the necessity of God’s design lived out in our daily lives.
The Necessity of Marriage
In recent decades some sociologists and psychologists have argued that marriage ought to radically change or be eliminated altogether. That kind of “enlightened” thinking was based on the notion that marriage had failed to meet people’s needs, and that men and women no longer needed such an institution to live productive, satisfying lives. But marriage hasn’t failed—it’s just that more and more people are avoiding it. And of those who do marry, half eventually bail out instead of exerting the consistent effort and determination necessary to make their marriages succeed.
Even secular thinkers have observed the disastrous fallout from the collapse of marriage. In the June 8, 1992, issue of Newsweek, Joe Klein provided these sobering facts:
The numbers are daunting. There is a high correlation between disrupted homes and just about every social problem imaginable. According to research compiled by Karl Zinsmeister (a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute), more than eighty percent of the adolescents in psychiatric hospitals come from broken families. Approximately three out of four teenage suicides “occur in households where a parent has been absent.” A 1988 study by Douglas A. Smith and G. Roger Jaroura showed that “the percentage of single-parent households with [teenage] children . . . is significantly associated with rates of violent crime and burglary.”Joe Klein, “Whose Values?” Newsweek, June 8, 1992, 19-21.
The Corruption of Marriage
Twenty centuries ago the Apostle Paul foresaw what the future held:
But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. . . . Evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived (2 Timothy 3:1–4, 13, emphasis added).
Notice that the first traits of the last days are an overwhelming self-centeredness and self-indulgence—characteristics certainly true of our day. Our entertainment-conscious society helps feed all sorts of illusions about reality. The fantasy of the perfect sexual relationship, the perfect lifestyle, and the perfect body all prove unattainable because the reality never lives up to the expectation. The worst fallout comes in the marriage relationship. When two people can’t live up to each other’s expectations, they’ll look for their fantasized satisfaction in the next relationship, the next experience, the next excitement—a path that only leads to self-destruction and emptiness.
Two other iniquities Paul mentions directly undermine the family as well: “disobedient to parents” and “unloving,” which could best be translated “without family affection.” Homes characterized by a lack of love and obedience are doomed to produce children lacking respect and a proper perspective of authority. And we’re seeing the result in the rise in delinquency, suicide, and mental illness. Ultimately every sin weakens the relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and brothers and sisters.
The Priority of Marriage
Since families are the building blocks of human society, a society that does not protect the family undermines its very existence. When the family goes, anarchy is the logical outcome—and that’s where we’re headed. Now, more than ever before, is the time for Christians to declare and put on display what the Bible declares: God’s standard for marriage and the family is the only standard that can produce meaning, happiness, and fulfillment.
If we are to impact the world with that standard, we must be different. God has called us to be salt and light in this dark and decaying society. Our responsibility is to embrace a new way of thinking, a new way of acting, and a new way of living—to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which [we] have been called . . . [to] put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Ephesians 4:1, 24). We cannot think as the world thinks, act as the world acts, talk as the world talks, or set goals the world sets—we must be distinct from the fallen world around us.
The apostle Paul and the church at Ephesus faced a culture steeped in pagan ritual and tradition. In Greek society life was especially difficult for wives. Concubines were common and a wife’s role was simply to bear legitimate children and keep house. Both male and female prostitution were rampant. Husbands typically found sexual gratification with concubines and prostitutes, whereas wives, often with the encouragement of their husbands, found sexual fulfillment with their slaves, both male and female. Prostitution, homosexuality, and the many other forms of sexual promiscuity and perversion inevitably resulted in widespread sexual abuse of children. Roman society was just as bad. Marriage was little more than legalized prostitution and divorce was an easily obtained formality.
In the setting of such an immoral world, Paul admonished the believers in Ephesus with God’s elevated and original divine standard for marriage:
For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:23–25)
The relationship between a husband and wife is to be holy and indissoluble, just like Christ’s relationship with the church. And for that type of a relationship to be a reality, Christ must be at its center. Only those who belong to God through faith in His Son will fully understand and apply the power and potential of those principles. Being subject to one another finds its power and effectiveness only in the fear of Christ (Ephesians 5:21).
The family can only be what God has designed it to be when the members of the family are what God designed them to be—“conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29). In the days ahead we’ll examine how that applies to both husbands and wives.