marriage spiritual discipline

First Corinthians and the Twenty-First Century Church: Marriage as a Spiritual Discipline

September 7, 2020
When we left off our discussion of First Corinthians and its implications for the twenty-first century church, we were talking about 1 Corinthians 7 and how it should shape our attitudes towards singleness. But this interesting chapter also has some things to say about marriage. Some of what Paul has to say can be troubling, especially for those who think (as I do) the rest of Scripture places an extraordinarily high premium on this sacred relationship. But some of what Paul has to say might actually help us live out our high view of marriage.

Experiencing God through Spiritual Disciplines

At this year’s Spring Colloquy, Darrell Eldridge argued 21st-century Christians desperately want to have an authentic experience of God. In his words, they do not want to hear someone talk about Moses’ experience with the burning bush. They want to have their own “burning bush experience.”

The way the church has historically empowered its people to have these experiences is through spiritual disciplines. In Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, author Adele Calhoun defines spiritual disciplines as those “practices, relationships, and experiences” which connect people with Jesus in “the unforced rhythms of grace.” The goal of such “practices, relationships, and experiences” is to bring about genuine transformation in the heart and life of the believer.

Calhoun rightly asserts spiritual disciplines should not be treated as works which earn God’s favor or which demonstrate our spiritual superiority. To do so only deepens our embeddedness in a never-ending cycle of striving and selfishness which robs them of their power. Moreover, she reminds us these disciplines do not work automatically and are not a means by which we can make demands upon God. Rather, they are ways in which we can channel our desires for God (and, I would add, for the good things of God) in ways that open us up to the activity of God through His Spirit. The rest is up to God.

Marriage as a Spiritual Discipline

Over the centuries, the church has found a number of “practices, relationships, and experiences” which can draw people into a deeper relationship with God. It troubles me, however, that marriage is often not considered to be one of these disciplines. Indeed, Calhoun reports that at least some couples come to her asking why they felt closer to God before they were married.

It is true the Roman Catholic Church considers marriage to be a sacrament—a sacred mystery by which grace is mediated to the couple. But there is also a tradition within the venerable church valuing celibacy above marriage. Indeed, sometimes marriage is seen as a concession to those who cannot transcend (to use Calhoun’s term) their desire for sex or for children, and our present text would seem to confirm the wisdom of this point of view.

I am not convinced, however, that marriage is an inferior state to celibacy. In fact, there is as much evidence in the New Testament for marriage as a spiritual discipline as there is for other disciplines like celibacy or stewardship. In other words, marriage is a relationship which, when functioning properly, draws us into fellowship with Christ.

But how can this be the case, especially if C. S. Lewis is right that lovers “stand face to face” rather than “side by side”? How can marriage draw our attention to God when it focuses so much of our attention on one another? This is a serious question, and it seems to stand at the heart of Paul’s concern in our present text. Nevertheless, it is a question I believe can be answered satisfactorily—even from Paul’s own writings. Here are some ideas for you to consider.

As J. D. Greer points out in his video teaching on Ephesians, marriage focuses our attention on love. As we consider the nature and, especially, the source of love, our attention is drawn to God.

Marriage gives us a partner for the journey. Discipleship is a process, and, although many of the disciplines encourage us to get alone with God, we cannot actually complete the journey on our own. Indeed, we were never meant to do so. We find companionship in our congregations, and those of us called to celibacy find it in orders that bring us together with those who are like us. But for those of us called to marriage, we find our first and most faithful partner in our own home.

Marriage shows us who we really are. It reveals our broken places, our deepest longings, and our highest joys—both to our spouse and to us. We see ourselves, if we are truly attentive, as we really are—limited, needy, finite, and selfish. And as we become acquainted with who we really are, we also become more adept at coming to God without pretense. We are better able to recognize not only the ways in which we fall short of what God wants for us, but also the ways in which we question God’s goodness and love.

Marriage teaches us to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven. It is impossible to be in an intimate relationship with another human being without wounding and being wounded by, that person. Marriage isn’t about doing it right the first time every time. If we are truly loving people, we want to be all our mate needs and to never hurt them, but that just isn’t reality. Marriage gives us the opportunity to connect with our Great High Priest as he leads us through the fearsome paths of acknowledging our guilt, asking for forgiveness, and offering forgiveness. In so doing, we discover forgiveness really is what all of us need.

To Be Continued

But, what about 1 Corinthians 7? We will have to return to that text next time, when we talk about the disciplines that make for a good marriage.

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