Christian Distinctiveness | A Biblical Theology of Marriage – Part 4

With natural revelation, the purpose for marriage was for man to have a helper in fulfilling the cultural mandate, and under the banner of common grace, this was further expressed that man with his wife was obligated to fill the fullness of earth with the human species.[1] Beginning with the Abrahamic covenant, a qualification was placed upon who was eligible to be the spouse of a Covenanter. Jews were to remain ethnically pure to maintain religious purity. Not only was the practice of endogamy present in the Abrahamic Covenant, but it also contained a direct command to be fruitful and multiply through the use of physical means.  These laws which are relevant to those who live in the Noahide era become irrelevant to those who have died to the world which is passing away The inauguration of the new creation has created a fundamental difference in the way in which Christians ought to relate to the world around them. The New Testaments theology concerning the New Creation in Christ identifies believers as belonging to the age to come. Paul writes in Colossians 2:20 that with Christ you have died to the στοιχείων of the world. Paul invites his readers to understand the world around them by identifying themselves as a people who have died with Christ and have been raised with him (Rom 6, 1Cor 15).   To do so would be a violation of the common understanding of positive laws as being only applicable to the covenant in which they are given. Paul’s use of the term στοιχείων in Colossians and its complementary work Galatians lumps both positive laws of the Common Grace realm with those of Mosaic/Israelite economy as being worthless things by which Christians are being enslaved (Col 2:8, 20; Gal 4:3,9) Paul demonstrates though by adapting those laws for a new context that a Christian can learn the general equity principles contained in the laws, they are not normatively binding upon Christians.

While Paul understands the Christian has died to the old age and been resurrected in the new, having passed through the final judgment by union with Christ, our bodies remain products of that failing age.  The overlap between this age and the age to come requires a radical reinterpretation of how a Christian should live.  In two places in the Gospels, Christ affirms for the Christian that what would have been considered an abomination in the old age is no longer in the new age.  In Luke 20:34-38, Jesus identifies the two ages and shows that those who belong to the age to come live differently in this age, the age which is passing away.  People who by faith in Christ are considered to be adopted as sons of God, united with Christ in the Kingdom of age to come are no longer obligated to get married.  This perspective is affirmed as well in Matthew 19:12.  Jesus in speaking about divorce tells his disciples that a eunuch becomes a eunuch in one of three ways. Under the command to be fruitful and multiply it would be wrong to choose to be a eunuch, to avoid having children if one can have children purposely, but yet for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven one is now allowed to refrain. If this correctly describes the overlap of the ages, then Christians are free from the obligation to pursue the common good through marriage and procreation.[2]

This framework of two ages and the way that Jesus relates marriage to them is the lens that guides Paul’s statements about marriage. In 1Cor 7, Paul works his way through various situations, but a priority structure rises to the top. For Paul, being single is better than being married. As he states in 7:8-9; 38. There is a quality of life-related to being single that is not present in the married life, as he states, the married are concerned with one another while the single person is free to be focused on the Lord.[3](1Cor. 7:32-33) In 7:31 Paul displays a reliance upon Jesus words in Luke 20 when offering advice to the betrothed and singles, concerning a marriage in light of a world that is passing away. Agreeing with Jesus, Paul classifies marriage as something which belongs to the current age and not the age to come. As it is understood, those who belong to the age to come still live in this age, and so the battle between their fleshly passions and new spiritual nature dwells in their bodies in constant tension.  Marriage in the present form of this world is passing away, and so are the reasons for entering into a marriage. As discussed above Paul understand that the Christian has died to the world which is passing away and, he has repurposed the general equity principles of the old order for the people of the age to come. Paul reinstitutes these principles as a means of preserving them from being consumed by the passions of the flesh and drawn away from their devotion to Christ (1Cor. 7:9; 36, 1Tim. 5:11). Positively, Paul is providing a valid outlet for the desire of relational intimacy.  This desire is not inherently sinful, but the response to the will can either be sinful or God-honoring. The Old Testament in the Noahide era expected people to get married and have children so that that the human race would be preserved and the promised seed of the woman would come, in contrast, Paul expects people to get married so that they do not fall into sin and bring reproach upon the Kingdom of God

By belonging to the age to come the Christian no longer needs marriage to fulfill the cultural commission expressed in the Garden and to Noah after the flood, yet they are not without a cultural commission. The Kingdom of God in that age is governed by a different mandate, one that does not require sex or marriage; it is similar to the original, yet distinct from it as put forth by Christ in Matthew 28:18-20. In the age which is passing away, expansion only came through physical birth, while the expansion in the age to come happens through a second birth, one done by the hand of God, using the preached word calling a sinful man to faith and repentance. Therefore, for those who belong to that age, marriage cannot have the same meaning or sense. As Paul notes, marriage is a distraction from fulfilling the new mandate (1Cor 7:32-35).[4] Paul does not forbid marriage and would disagree with those who do (1Tim 4:3). Rather, he sees profit in the fact that marriage for a Christian can be used as a tool to subdue sin (1Cor 7:9). Falling into sexual sin and being consumed by the flesh is a greater distraction to the Kingdom of God than entering into a marriage. Marriage for the believer is a safe harbor for sexual activity. When two sinners come together, by pursuing each other, they are preserved from having to defend against the temptation of sexual immorality. It is also for their mutual sanctification in other areas of sin, when a marriage works itself as being a type of the relationship Christ has in his love for the Church.(Eph 5:25-33, 1Pet 3:1-2)[5]

In light of this transition between ages, and this relativized picture of marriage, Paul articulates positive laws directed at the members of the New Covenant. Although the Jews laws have passed away, Paul merely reuses and repurposes them for the new context. As always, God hates divorce and Jesus and Paul guard against even more formally. One of the primary distinctions of Jewish marriage beginning with Abraham was endogamy within the covenant community. The purpose of endogamy was for the preservation of the line of promise because God was seeking the offspring in whom all the nations would be blessed. Paul likewise reintroduces a principle of endogamy for the New Covenant community as he states in 1Cor 7:38 that those who seek to remarry after becoming a widow should marry in the Lord,

While exactly what it is that Paul intends could be debated, he makes his case in 2 Cor. 6 where he rules out any covenantal engagement with unbelievers.[6] As in Joshua 6, not only was covenantal marriage off limits between Jews and Gentiles but non-marital covenants were also frowned upon. This does not mean a complete withdrawal between believers and unbelievers, as Paul states in 1 Cor. 5:9-10. Rather what is limited between believers and unbelievers is entering into a marital covenantal relationship. Paul recognizes that sometimes these a person becomes a believer after already having entered into the arrangement and deals with that situation by encouraging maintenance of the relationship. It still stands that for a believer to pursue an unbeliever is to be considered an act of unfaithfulness to God, or a transgression of the covenant, requiring execution of discipline by the church with an expectation of confession and repentance.[7] As Paul reworks this covenantal endogamy in a New Covenant context, the biggest difference from its Old Testament practice is the fact that the lines drawn demarking who is in and who is out have changed.  In the Old Covenant the endogamic lines were drawn around ethnicity, but for Paul, they are drawn between believers and unbelievers. The Old Covenant community was Jewish, and they were required to stay on their own, but the New Covenant community is defined by active confessing faith. In the Old Covenant, to know who belonged required one to reveal the private member of his flesh, but in the New, it is displayed by confession of faith and the good works of obedience to Christ which flows forth from the circumcision of the heart.

Footnotes

[1] If a couple are able to bear and to care for children, they ought to for the benefit of society, if they are unable then they should still seek the good of society, but it may come in ways other then bearing biological children. For Christians even if we are able to bear and care for physical descendents, because we are dead to the world, have a legitimate option to not have any, in our service to the Kingdom of God.

[2] Not all eschatological perspectives would affirm this overlap as it is particular to an ammilenlial interpretation. But this perspective does the best to affirm the indicative statements of the New Testament which understands a Christian as having died with Christ and been raised and seated with him in the heavenlies presently.

[3] cf. Kostenberger. Most scholars would agree that singleness is a gift given by God for particular seasons of life. Some have it for a lifetime, while others may have it just in the time before marriage and in widowhood. Kostenberger does a good job of examining how married people in the church should relate to singles. Recognizing that singleness is a gift, he is trying to promote a less ostracization of singles. Kostenberger brings in the passage on Luke 20 to some extent, contrary to Piper who completely ignores it, but the reality of the kingdom of heaven in the present moment is something that even Kostenberger does not want to concede to.

[4] The case could be made that man still needs a helper for the work of the new mandate, and so should seek after a wife. This is dismissed in light of the fact that God has provided a helper in the form of the Holy Spirit who is described as enabling us in all the facets of the great commission. (John 16:4-15; Acts 1:8)

[5] Eph 5:25, cf. John Piper, This Momentary Marriage: a Parable of Permanence (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2009). Piper does an excellent job detailing the ways in which marriage for believer and unbeliever alike functions typologically of the union between Christ and his Church. Yet where he fails, is to ultimately understand the command of Paul and Jesus in light of the fact that we live in the age to come presently. This is clearly due to his eschatological position. In his book he never once refers to Luke 20 as a way in which Jesus understood marriage. As well in light of Col. 2 and the book of Hebrews, pursuing after marriage with the desire to participate in a shadow, might seem be the wrong motivation. It should be noted Paul never exhorts people to get married for this reason.

[6] Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Romans-Galatians, Volume 10 (Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Zondervan, 1976), 358-361.

[7] The question then becomes when an individual has done this, what should repentance look like. There are two possibilities; the first is the preferred one as the practical implications of the second are distasteful. The first assumes that in places like 1Cor 7:12-16 and 1Pet 3:1-7, that the repentant excommunicant must humbly accept the reality of their new situation, not seeking divorce, but trusting in the providence of God. This second view takes a narrow interpretation of the 1Cor. and 1Pet. text and draws upon the example of Ezra and Nehemiah to say that a proper act of repentance would be confession, divorce, and recommitment to the covenant of God.

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