Marriage Through the Christian Ethical Lens

Marriage is an institution created by God in order to make the christian community different through their way of life. It sets the community apart from the world and lays out guidelines with the intention of protecting and respecting each partner in the marriage relationship.

As seen in scripture, God has blessed humanity and told them to “be fruitful and multiply”, and the church’s mission through the institution of marriage is to advance the christian community.

What this paper will address is, through the lens of christian ethics, the question of whether or not a christian should strive to marry in order to correctly follow Christ’s calling, and if not, what singleness should look like in a christian lifestyle.

To understand how a Christ follower should go about tackling these questions, one must consider how a christian should do ethics in the first place. Aquinas asserted that good moral practices, or “virtues”, were the backbone of christian ethics. His four cardinal virtues were prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude.

These virtues help to define an individual’s character, and said individual’s character is closely connected to their ethics. All of these virtues that shape an individual’s character lead them toward their telos, or end goal and purpose in life. This telos is the human as-is, the human as they could be, and their ethics that are shaped by their virtues.

Bonhoeffer argued in his book Discipleship that costly grace is one of the most important things a follower of christ should understand and strive for. He defines this costly grace through his definition of cheap grace: that grace which denies God’s living word, denies His incarnation, and it is grace which we bestow upon ourselves rather than having it given to us.

In short, it is following Christ without action. As the inverse to this, costly grace is acknowledgement of God’s word and incarnation, and it understands grace as the gospel which needs to be asked for repeatedly. Bonhoeffer further explains the significance of this grace being costly:

“It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. It is costly because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly,because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s Son…and because nothing can be cheap to us that is costly to God.”

By understanding this, a follower of Christ understands that costly grace calls him or her to discipleship, communion with God, and communion with the Body of Christ, which I will expound upon later.

Simple obedience is another important component to christian ethics. If one accepts God’s costly grace, there is a subsequent call to discipleship, and with that call comes simple obedience. Simple obedience acts within the basis of concrete obedience to God. It requires an individual to answer Christ’s call, a call which supersedes all other commands.

Where simple obedience is absent, the costly grace offered by Christ disappears and the cheap grace of self-justification abounds.When attempting to interpret scripture while following Christ, it is an easy thing to take a passage and impose a non-literal interpretation upon it.

This can lead to a paradoxical interpretation of scripture which is in danger of leading to excuses that allow a Christ follower to flee from concrete obedience. Simple obedience comes after accepting God’s costly grace. It is the earnest, assertive striving to follow the call of Christ without paradoxically misinterpreting his words or scriptures.

The body of Christ is another important aspect of christian ethics. Through accepting Christ’s call, an individual is accepted into the church, which is the body of Christ. Bonhoeffer explains that after humanity’s fall through Adam, the first man, God from then on sent his divine word down to humanity in order to seek after and accept us.

But after Christ, the “second Adam”, came to earth, the “Word became flesh”, as John 1:14 states. He took the sins of man upon his shoulders and died for all of humanity, and was raised from the dead. Because of Christ’s taking on humanity’s sinful flesh and nature, it is not only through the preaching of God’s word that God now accepts humanity. It is now also in the body of Christ.

The body of Christ is the global community of Christ followers. These people participate in the sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s supper. We are dead and buried with christ, and resurrected with Him also. In this way we are no longer an individual; we are a new being residing within the church-community.

The church-community “takes up space”, as Bonhoeffer so poignantly puts it. What he means by this is that the church-community is very involved with all aspects of life in the world while constantly striving not to be conformed to the world: “If it engages the world properly, the visible church-community will always more closely assume the form of its suffering Lord.”

To summarize, the character of an individual shapes what their ethics will look like. christian ethics hinge on three important things. Firstly, accepting God’s costly grace and answering His call. Secondly, striving for concrete, simple obedience by following through on Christ’s call. Thirdly, understanding what the body of Christ is, the process of entering into church-community, and understanding that it takes up space and exists in the world without conforming to the world.

The concept of marriage in regards to the church-community is this: it is an institution that dedicates one individual to another, often with the intention of furthering the kingdom of God through procreation. As we see in scriptures such as Genesis 1:28, God told humanity to “be fruitful and multiply”.

There is also the stipulation of the marriage being between a man and a woman, as gleaned from Genesis 2:23-24: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man. That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

Both of these references were made thousands of years ago, at the beginning of the world and the beginning of humankind. Surely this is a testimony to the importance of marriage, and the bond made between a man and a woman.

Marriage itself is both a sacrifice and a blessing. On the path to marriage, a Christ follower must push past their desires and remain celibate as a testament to Christ’s call and to preserve sex for their partner only. More than this, marriage is sacrificing oneself and one’s own desires and places someone else’s needs above one’s own.

Jesus even “upped the ante” as Wesley Hill puts it, by condemning divorce except within the realm of divorce due to adultery. Clearly Jesus is stressing the importance of marriage and the weight it carries; it is not a union to be separated flippantly. Hill describes this weight like Christ’s cross: “What marriage means for christians is a cross, and if you want to be his disciples, Jesus implies, you will shoulder it with eyes wide open.”

There are also many positive things to be had through marriage. Marriage is a covenant, and the marriage ceremony reflects the story of God’s love through mirroring God’s covenant with his people, Israel. Just as God’s love cannot be separated from His covenant, love cannot be separated from the vows made in marriage.

Mutual, steadfast love can be present and abounding in marriage, and it can lead to a deep relationship surpassed only by God. Marriage as outlined in the Bible is a positive thing that not only furthers the church-community through procreation, but also leads to meaningful relationships, and practices that separate the church-community from the secular world.

To enter into marriage, from all the evidence gathered so far, would indeed be following Christ’s call in simple obedience through following His teachings seen in scripture.

While marriage is a good thing created by God and there are clear benefits to it, I argue that it is not the only correct way to interpret God’s word and follow Him in simple obedience; singleness is also a correct path to follow Christ’s call. Marriage, as Wesley describes it, is “training in the holiness that is preparation for heaven”. But this kind of training in holiness is not just reserved for those in marriage. Those who feel called to singleness should be expected to uphold the same level of discipline in regard to celibacy and self-sacrifice.

In conclusion, marriage is an institution created by God in which joy and fulfillment can be found. It is a self-sacrificing covenant that one enters into while on their path of simple obedience to God. It can help to further the kingdom of God through the act of procreation, and as seen in scripture, is taken very seriously because of its transforming nature, making two people “of one flesh”.

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