"Marriage under fire"
"Government to hear testimony on the re-definition of marriage"
"Biblical definition of marriage questioned"
I didn’t rip these headlines from today’s blog roll. Not yesterday’s either. Yes, I know they are an accurate description of the state of the marriage debate our country is currently facing, but we’re not the first society to wrestle over the subject of marriage.
These headlines describe what was happening in 16th century England during the English Reformation. In case it’s been awhile since you sat in a world history class, here is a crash course. Pay attention to the parallels between what was happening then and what is happening now.
- King Henry VIII wanted his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled.
- Catherine had not yet given Henry a male heir, and he had a sudden and passionate interest in a new lady, Anne Boleyn.
- This ignited a frenzy of public debate about marriage, government’s involvement in marriage, and the limit (if any) of the Bible’s authority in our private lives.
- It became a political affair centered around a theological dispute.
- Because of the invention of the printing press, more words were written and circulated than ever before. If you had an opinion, you had the option to share it beyond your immediate circle.
Ultimately, Henry split from the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church and created the Church of England to get his annulment. Why am I taking us so far down this ancient path?
The battle for biblical marriage is not new
Let’s take a slightly shorter trip into the history books and hop back a few decades. In the 1970s and 80s cultural forces converged to create skyrocketing divorce rates. The “no fault divorce” was introduced, and the effect worked like tidal wave in American homes. Almost half of couples who got married in the 70s and 80s divorced. That number stuck in the American psyche and caused much hand wringing, especially in the church.
I was a preschooler in the 80s, too young to be aware of any debate in the public sphere. As the 90s hit, I still didn’t care much about public opinion and was not yet a Christian, but I knew that my parents were divorced, and it was devastating. I started paying very close attention to how people talked about marriage. I picked up on a tone that seemed to say, “Marriage is a doomed institution and married people are more likely to win the lottery than to stay happy.” Needless to say I headed into my own marriage with great fear and low expectations for success.
Now sociologists are telling us there is good news. The divorce surge is over. But for those of us in the church, there is still a great deal of hand wringing and head shaking.
The definition of marriage is still being debated. Is marriage strictly between a man and a woman? Can it be between two men? Two women? One man and multiple women? Is marriage forever or just for now? Is divorce healthy or devastating? Should individuals have the freedom to choose what marriage looks like or do we need to agree on a consensus?
Just like in Henry VIII’s time, the government is involved in the discussion. The church leaders are involved. The public is involved and fractured. Yet, as Christians, we know that, though people have been trying to re-define God’s plan for marriage for centuries, God’s plan still stands.
A house that must be built
Several months ago, I read through the book of Ezra. It’s a short Old Testament book that outlines the rebuilding of God’s temple by a ragamuffin crew of exiled Jews. God’s people begin to rebuild his place of worship. They stake their claim. Draw their lines in the sand and declare, “We will do what God calls us to.”
“Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia” (Ezra 4:4-5).
The general public tried to block God’s people. They wrote accusatory letters, convinced that the remnant was intolerant. There were decrees from kings to cease and desist. The cause looked hopeless more often than it looked hopeful. And yet Ezra 6:16 says, "And the people of Israel, the priests and the Levites and the rest of the returned exiles, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy.” Despite resistance from kings, the pushback of public opinion, and the unpopularity of their cause, God’s people were not stopped.
As I finished the book of Ezra, one theme came into clear focus: The plans of God cannot be stopped.
When it comes to marriage, that’s the good news, but of course there is bad news. Marriage may always be in the sights of the enemy who seeks to kill and destroy all that God has made (John 10:10). That’s because it’s a picture of God’s unbreakable covenant with his people (Eph. 5:32). There have been and will continue to be causalities, marriages that break or miss God’s mark, but all of history will end with the marriage between God and his people. Marriage will stand.
But what should we do in the meantime?
Committed to the Word, prayer and God’s people
Ezra takes the lead in rallying the people toward God’s purposes in the book of Ezra. As Christians in an anything goes world, we’d be wise to take our cues from him.
“For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). Ezra studied God’s Word and taught it faithfully. Even when that was unpopular.
He also prayed like crazy. In fact, at the dedication service for the temple that cost so much blood, sweat, and tears to build, Ezra is deeply broken on the issue of marriage. He realizes that God’s people have intermarried with the pagan people around him and his reaction is anything but passive. He tears his clothes and yanks the hair from his head and beard (Ezra 9:3). He fasted and then he fell on his knees and prayed this prayer: "O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted to the heavens."
Verse after verse, Ezra goes on about the sin of his people, but this is not a “get em’ God” prayer. There was no “us” versus “them.” Ezra lumps himself with his people and asks for mercy in spite of the prevalence of marriages that don’t stick to God’s plan. What happened next?
“While Ezra prayed and made confessing, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly.”
The people repented.
They committed to marriages that honored God.
The tide turned.
Marriage will stand, but there is a battle to be fought for it. God’s plans will not ultimately be thwarted. Kings cannot stop the plans of God. Neither can angry mobs. Cultural trends do not change his mind or dilute his message. That knowledge is enough to stop the hand wringing. And yet, there are many who would come against God’s plan for marriage? What should we do about them? Lets pray like Ezra and watch for the tide to turn.