Back in 2001, a little before this book was first written, David Popenoe of the National Marriage Project told the House of Representatives that “since 1970 the rate of marriage has dropped by about one-third, the out-of-wedlock birth ratio has climbed from 11 percent to 33 percent of all births, the divorce rate has doubled, and the number of people living together outside of marriage has grown by over 1,000 percent.” The numbers today are even more stark. In Marriage Made in Eden (2010), Alice P. Mathews and M. Gay Hubbard give some excellent reasons why people today just aren’t getting married as much as they used to: (1) divorce rates prove that most marriages just don’t work; (2) marriage limits individual freedom; (3) marriage doesn’t allow for personal growth and change, especially for women; (4) marriage imposes unreasonable expectations on both spouses; (5) commitment can be expressed in other ways; (6) marriage is not the only way to be in a morally responsible relationship; and (7) marriage lets the church and the courts interfere in my personal life. People who choose not to get married often do so for very good reasons. But as this book argues, there are even better reasons for getting and staying married.
It is tempting to think that the flight from marriage is a problem particular to our postmodern, liberal culture. People did have happy marriages in the past, didn’t they? To bust this myth, Mathews and Hubbard go back to the Victorian era, when “men were men and women were women.” The idea that men have particular gifts that are different to women’s gifts and that each should work in his or her particular domain is known as the doctrine of separate spheres. It emerged in the early nineteenth century as a reaction against Enlightenment arguments for women’s equality on the grounds that both men and women were equally human. Mathews and Hubbard show that once the idea of separate spheres became entrenched in Western society, more women stopped getting married than ever before and the number of divorces skyrocketed. Clearly, teaching “traditional” gender roles wasn’t the way to secure happy marriages. Moreover, the idea that separate spheres comes from the Bible simply isn’t true. Mathews and Hubbard argue that during the Industrial Revolution, “the biblical vision of shared parenting, shared provision, and shared accountability had been subverted by Constantinianism,” which is to say, by a capitulation to secular American culture and its restrictive gender norms.
Nor is it true that the Bible teaches one way to be a man or a woman. Beliefs about male and female sexuality, and the idea that men and women have gender roles they should conform to, change radically throughout history and across cultures. Most of the time these roles are restrictive, difficult to live up to, and destructive to our relationships. Mathews and Hubbard even go so far as to argue that “any obsession with definitions of masculinity or femininity is an idolatry that breaks the second of the Ten Commandments.” After presenting overwhelming historical and sociological evidence that the “traditional” definition of marriage just doesn’t work, they decide that we need to redefine what marriage is about, why we do it, and what it should look like. They write, “God’s call to his people today is to live out marriage as a mission to a watching world. Rather than discussing roles (appropriate versus inappropriate) and structures for Christian marriage, we ought to focus on how we live in our marriages as missionaries to the culture in crucial areas of witness.”
Part of the problem with trying to decide what the Bible says about marriage is that we usually look in all the wrong places. The Bible is full of broken marriages and disfunctional relationships. Abraham kicked out his concubine to satisfy his wife’s jealousy, Judah slept with his daughter-in-law, and David killed Uriah to cover up the fact that he’d got the man’s wife pregnant. Yet the Bible still seems to think that marriage is important. Clearly, Mathews and Hubbard say, “marriage matters to God for some reason in addition to human happiness.” God’s purpose in marriage is part of His bigger plan for redeeming humanity. Mathews and Hubbard begin in the garden of Eden where they suggest that “God’s purpose in marriage was one of relationship and community (the image-bearers with each other and with him).” And this purpose did not change after the Fall. The purpose of marriage might not have changed, but living it suddenly got a lot harder, because now it had to be done with people who were broken and sinful. Christ redeemed us on the cross but we still live in a sinful world.
Our job is to live as new creations and as a testimony to God’s goodness. They give Philemon as an example. “Is the letter to Philemon about marriage? Of course it is. There was a marriage at the center of this drama. The returned slave Onesimus and the church that welcomed him met in the home of Philemon and Apphia. Their relationship and the home growing out of that relationship provided a space for the family of God. … [Paul] was sending his son Onesimmus back to Archippus and to Philemon and to Apphia and to the church that met in their house.” A marriage establishes a new household and a new community that can share God’s love with the world. Christian marriage is therefore inherently missional – it is not about couples, it is not about gender roles, and it is not about power. It is about forming a partnership that spreads the gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit. They conclude, “God’s case for marriage includes the possibility of our being a daily, living demonstration to a watching world of the relationship of Christ to his bride, the church. Thus our marriages and our radically changed lives are vehicles through which God speaks to the world around us.”