The issue of marriage within the church—namely the noticeable lack of distinction between Christian and non-Christian marriage, given our equal propensity to divorce—is not about the preservation of a tradition or institution. The reality of marriage and our apparent lack of respect for that which "God has joined together" ultimately reveals a gaping chasm between biblical Christianity and cultural Christianity that must be closed if the church wants to be faithful to its mission.
I am convinced that the recent diminution of marriage—both within the church as well as in the culture-at-large—originates in a fundamental theological misunderstanding among many Christians.
As I (and many others) have begun to argue recently, the gospel of the kingdom has—over the last century or more—suffered a serious reduction to little more than a privatized prescription for personal salvation. Among other things, this severance from the kingdom has resulted in an undue emphasis on the individual's eternal blessing in the future (i.e., saved from hell), rather than on the Savior and his present kingdom that orders and directs our daily lives. As a result, we tend to live and remain largely within ourselves—citizens of this world—never really working to advance the kingdom in a meaningful, biblical way.
The apostle Paul, writing to the Philippians, urged them to "let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ" (Philippians 1:27, ESV)—and according to the Scriptures, the gospel of Christ is the good news of his in-breaking reign or kingdom. This theme is better reflected in the original Greek, which can be translated as, "Only behave as a citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ." This better captures Paul's play on words here and later in Philippians 3:20 when he writes, "our citizenship is in heaven" (NKJV). Later in the same sentence, Paul emphasizes "standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel (v. 27). In the very next verse, Paul explains that this unity is a "clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God" (v. 28). Paul is stressing our responsibilities associated with our new citizenship in the kingdom and that this foreign citizenship is essential to the witness of the church.
In his excellent series addressing "the vexing question of God's goodness and the presence of real evil in the world," my good friend Dr. John Armstrong quotes Dr. David Bryant, a mutual friend and author of Christ is All! Speaking to the problem of our anemic kingdom perspective, David says:
We speak of Christ's greatness in the past tense and in the future tense but rarely do we speak of it in the present tense. We speak of his work of redemption and of his coming again to judge and to save. But too few of us speak of his greatness right now, i.e., in the present tense. [I suggest] that Christ's kingship does not come up in Christian conversations and living because, for all intents and purposes, he is not a part of our daily lives. This is why we do not see Christians pursuing a "purpose driven life" because the Person who gives our lives real purpose does not presently reign in our understanding and affections.
As to the nature of Christ's reign, herein lies perhaps our greatest misconception, which is ultimately rooted in our misunderstanding of God himself. Here again John is helpful in citing a "moving essay on the subject of divine power and human evil" by Donald McCullough:
Jesus, the Crucified One, reigns as our suffering Lord. That means he understands and participates in our pain; his regal throne sits not in the clouds but in the middle of broken human life. Therefore we assert that the essential character of his power is not domination but suffering love. We need a revolution in our thinking. We may no longer think of power as control over something or someone; the Lord who freely takes our pain unto himself teaches us that authentic power reveals itself as power for self-sacrifice with and for others ("If Jesus Is Lord, Why Does It Hurt?" in The Reformed Journal, 35:7, 1985, 14).
Thus the essential character of Christ and his kingdom is not found in a monarchical dominating power but in a "suffering love." On this fact rests the radically upside-down nature of the kingdom into which we enter and from which Christ reigns in our hearts and history. It is the power of Christ displayed through his people by a long-suffering love that is the mark of our citizenship in the kingdom. Expanding upon the nature of this kingdom, Dr. Armstrong writes:
The present kingship of Christ is more real than any kingship in this present age. And this reign is continually increasing in scope throughout this age. … It will never look like the kingdoms of man because this is a kingdom "within you." It is not found in the places of external power, like London, Washington or Moscow. And it operates in a realm that transcends the powers of man. It transforms all that it touches. This kingship means that we must live under his supremacy in sickness or in health, in trial or in blessing. We are a kingdom of priests "chosen to be obedient to Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:2) and we presently reign as "a holy nation" (1 Peter 2:9). This gospel of the kingdom, and of the reigning king, needs to be recovered and preached with joy (John Armstrong, Jesus, the Crucified, Reigns: Part Two).
This means that we believe Christ is reigning now, that nothing occurs apart from God's sovereign purpose, and that in the midst of even the most severe trials we can rest in the assurance that God will somehow use these things for good. With this much we can readily agree, but where we begin to struggle is in this disposition of suffering love. "Wait a minute!" we say. "You mean I have to love the one who causes my suffering?" Yes! Furthermore, this love is not just some internal dialogue but an attitude that yields real expression. It is here that we practically work to the advance of the kingdom, rooted in the power of Christ and only realized in our lives by grace. It is here that we say, "Lord, I can't do this but you can—please help me!"
This plea goes contrary to our feelings and represents that small step of faith that is pleasing to God. We take this step believing, by faith, that God's grace is sufficient and therefore we surrender our fate into his hands, trusting him regardless of the circumstances. It is here we move from mere belief to active, saving faith. This is the life "worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ." This is the kind of life—suffering love—the church must display, for according to Paul, this brings conviction to the lost sinner and testifies to our salvation through Christ Jesus.
Would this same disposition be required of the Christian in marriage? If we were obedient to Christ in these matters would we not only divorce less but also be much more likely to experience marital bliss? Might the world take note of such people and relationships?
© 2009 by S. Michael Craven
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S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit: www.battlefortruth.org
Original publication date: September 28, 2009