I want to show you an incredibly scandalous marriage paradigm. But before I get do, I have to talk a little history. So let’s go way back. Back to the first century. Back to the Roman Empire. Back to when people didn’t really marry for love, but married for peace.
Yes. Peace. Good community reputations. Good community relations. Stability. So-no-one-will-talk-about-you peace.
Ancient Roman historians often wrote that a husband and a wife strove to live in peace together. They also wrote that peace was the highest aspiration for any marriage – not love.
So it’s no surprise that Roman marriages, in the time of the New Testament, were generally arranged marriages, made by over-zealous families to ensure peaceful communities and to solidify, or build, good reputations. Love, or even romantic love, was not a necessity, or even an ingredient, in most marriages, because love could be unsteady, emotional, passionate, and, at times, unstable. (Still can be.)
Power and stability had to be maintained and contained at all costs, and due to millennia of patriarchal cultures, even in Rome, men held all the power. They controlled the marriage. They ran the household finances. Their power was so supreme that if they wanted a divorce, they just had to say the word and the wife would be commanded to leave (commanded!) … because, again, peace was the highest aspiration, and if a man believed peace could no longer be maintained in his marriage – for whatever reason – he could just say the word.
Wives, then, held no power at all. Even in the ancient Roman city of Corinth (where slaves outnumbered free people), slaves in households ran the day-to-day responsibilities of the family, including meeting the needs of the kids. Wives weren’t even allowed to he mothers.
So, really, the wife of a well-to-do Roman marriage had little to do, and little to offer. The culture of Rome liked it that way, because it was how the Empire thought peace was maintained.
And they inherited that idea from all of the history that preceded them. Men were in charge.
But that would soon change.
To a culture, dominated by men, with women having little influence, married or otherwise, this is what Paul wrote in his first letter to the people who lived in the Roman Empire, in the imperial city of Corinth, almost 2,000 years ago::
- Each man should have his own wife.
- Each woman should have her own husband.
- The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs.
- The wife should fulfill her husband’s sexual needs (by the way, click here for what Paul taught about sex).
- The wife holds the authority of her body, and gives it to her husband.
- The husband holds the authority of his body, and gives it to his wife.
- Mutual celibacy, in the marriage, should only be done when both agree. It should be for a limited time, and it should be a fast – to spend time in prayer.
- Celibacy, and the ability to remain unmarried, is a gift from God (translated, literally, as a grace from God).
- Marriage, and the ability to live in covenant with your spouse, is a gift from God (translated, again, literally, as a grace from God.
- Sex must remain within the marriage covenant, as written for both unmarried men (widowers), and widows.
- A wife must not leave her husband.
- A husband must not leave his wife.
- The marriage union is holy, even if one of the spouses is a believer and the other is not.
- A husband, or wife, who is a believer, isn’t bound to their unbelieving spouse, should their unbelieving spouse choose to leave the marriage. The believer can remarry.
- Women do not need to be married.
- Men do not need to be married.
- Single men have more time to devote to the work of the kingdom of God.
- Single women have more time to devote to the work of the kingdom of God.
History tells us that the Corinthian culture, and the Roman Empire, gave all marital authority to the men.
But the kingdom of God, as ushered in by Jesus, shatters the presumptions of our fallen world, and restores marital, and gender, equality back to the Garden of Eden.
Men are no longer in charge.
So let’s go back to the Garden of Eden for a moment.
In Genesis 2, God noticed Adam’s isolation. Specifically, God noticed Adam’s loneliness.
The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18)
The word “helper” has lots of different meanings, and nuances, and here, it actually means something like “rescuer” or “deliverer.” Obviously, Adam didn’t need help with naming the animals. He had already completed that task. There is nothing he needed help doing.
But he did need help being.
Eve rescued Adam from his isolation. From his loneliness. Because by himself, he wasn’t complete.
The same was true for Eve. In Genesis 3, when she was tempted to eat of the forbidden fruit, she was alone. Alone, and without Adam, she, too, was incomplete.
God’s design – his original arrangement – for the gift (i.e., the grace) of marriage was mutual completion, with a man and a woman completing the other with full equality in the relationship.
That idea, though, was paused, when Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden. Genesis 3:16 says that their relationship would now be at the expense of sin, and it would no longer be a mutual completion, but rather, outside of the Garden, each would constantly desire to control the other. And, until Jesus, all marriages were trapped in this relationship hell.
And, honestly, if you’re trapped in this relationship hell, then you’re living in a marriage that was designed by God to be without Jesus, meant only allow you to see what marriage can be with Jesus. Simply put, you have not experienced the manifest presence of God.
Because it is Jesus who repairs all of this, who restores all things, who makes all things new, and restores even the relationship between husbands and wives. He brings it back to its original intention.
And this is where Paul takes the Corinthian church.
Men, and women, who receive God’s gift of marriage have full, equal authority in the marriage relationship. In Jesus, they are holy people, sanctified in Christ Jesus. That was scandalous. And it still is. The husband and wife receive this gift as a covenant, and God holds that covenant as holy.
And, if God manifests himself in the marriage (1 Corinthians 12:7-11), then their gift of marriage will be a relationship neither would want to break.
But what’s equally powerful is that marriage isn’t a foregone conclusion. It may not even be God’s calling for every person. Paul wrote that celibacy is a gift from God, equal to the gift of marriage, because both are gifts – are graces – given by God, and are to be used for God. Neither is superior in God’s gift-giving.
But Paul wasn’t finished. He had one more scandalous thing to say about marriage to the young church in Corinth:
But let me say this, dear brothers and sisters: The time that remains is very short. So from now on, those with wives should not focus only on their marriage. Those who weep or who rejoice or who buy things should not be absorbed by their weeping or their joy or their possessions. Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them. For this world as we know it will soon pass away. (1 Corinthians 7:29-31; NLT)
The New Living Translation, above, may have made the passage easier to read. Here it is from the New International Version:
What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
After everything Paul wrote to counsel the Corinthians, he then told them that their status in the Kingdom of God is much more important than their status in society.
This matters to us, dear readers, because we live in an American culture obsessed with marriage therapy that limits itself to the strange idea that a husband and a wife should meet the specific needs of each other, even while idolizing the marriage to an unhealthy level. Against this, then, Paul delivered a scathing indictment.
In the Kingdom of God, it is God who meets people’s needs.
You may be married, and have received the grace of marriage, but even then, you must live like you aren’t because the time is short, and whatever you think you need is “passing away.”
In fact, and even more scandalous, is that whatever need you have is a need supplied only by God, to be filled only by God. Don’t think for a moment that anyone – even a husband or a wife – could ever fill the need God has given you.
In other words, your marriage shouldn’t be your kingdom.
The Kingdom should be your marriage.
And that is scandalous.