The starting point for renewal is not to put blame on who is responsible for the decline of marriage. The PEW study gives some indications but those are so general that little emerges as a clear path forward. In any case, the factors responsible are unlikely to contribute to a renewal of marriage. What is more important is to understand the foundation of marriage from the Christian perspective. Although marriage is a social institution with economic, political, and cultural impact, the roots of what constitutes marriage do not lie in a society’s definition of marriage. In fact, it is precisely the lack of that definition that currently undermines its stability. What is needed is a definition of marriage!
As I drove home the other day, I saw in front of me a car with the license plate “her wife.” Whatever the intentions of the owner, the two words put together the most important elements of what constitutes a marriage, albeit not in a biblical manner: the relationship between two persons traditionally referred to as “husband” and “wife.” These two terms, from a biblical perspective, belong together and, from the biblical perspective of marriage, cannot be replaced by alternative constructs. Thus, there is only “his wife” and “her husband” that represent the bond in which both persons have surrendered authority over their body to the other (1 Cor. 7:4). Marriage in scripture is deeply connected with the sexual act between husband and wife, and a renewal of marriage must begin with a renewal of sexuality.
Of course, sex is not the chief goal of marriage. It is true that marriage sanctifies sexual relations between husband and wife, but the two do not marry only in order to entertain sexual relations that are acceptable from a Christian point of view. The foundation of marriage is not sex but love. The renewal of marriage inevitably needs a renewed understanding of what love is in its essence.
The churches have failed on both accounts! The message of the gospel is certainly a message of love. But as the PEW study implies, the love of God shown in Christ Jesus and poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit has become disconnected from the manner we identify love in our homes and families. The topic of sexuality–particularly in the context of marriage–is probably the most neglected topic of our times. Many Christians are uninformed and ill-informed about love, sex, and marriage. This is where the renewal must begin!
Who is going to participate? Pastors who are more comfortable preaching an exegetical sermon than teaching about sex? Priests who under the commitment of celibacy have severed the bond to first-hand experience of marrital and sexual relations? Congregations who are offended by sex-talk in the midst of their clean Sunday-morning routine? Adults in the sanctuary while their teenage children are off in the different world of a safe Sunday School environment? The masses of singles and divorced who experienced pain and suffering through problematic relationships and marriages? The ever increasing number of single parents who (had to) choose a life of parenthood traditionally reserved for the married couple? It seems to me that all of these need to participate in the conversation. In this sense, the beginning of the renewal of marriage is perhaps found in our surrender of pain, false expectations, misunderstandings, and suffering to God and in a shared desire to discover God’s intentions. Our churches and homes should be filled with unpretentious conversations about marriage. We need examples that do not shy away from making explicit the reality of married life. These steps take courage. If we Christian do not have it, who does?