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Marriage and Martyrdom

March 11, 2013

The sexual connection between two people, be it love or just sex, is a huge focus in our culture. For many people establishing some sort of sexual connection with another is their biggest goal beyond simple maintenance (keeping a job, having enough to eat, etc). On one end are the stereotypical frat boys whose sexual exploits are the basis for their evaluation of their manliness and on the other are the people who are sure that if they can only find a girlfriend/boyfriend or get married then all will be right with their lives. Perhaps it makes sense that as a culture where people have enough food, enough water, and sufficient shelter that we would focus on another biological imperative but that doesn’t make it morally correct to focus so much on this one (entirely optional) aspect of our lives. Indeed, it is common to hear such a focus directed towards things other than Christ termed idolatry within Christian circles.

Christian culture has done little to respond to this obsession with sexual connection. Instead, what I mostly see is Christian branding of these idolatrous impulses. Oddly, Christianity is focused on Jesus (celibate) and in Protestant circles at least Jesus primarily seen through the lens of Paul (another celibate). Despite this, the responses Christians have had to this obsession with finding someone to love have mostly consisted of placing some limits (no sex before marriage and make sure the relationship is heterosexual) and some advice on how to find that special person.

Perhaps this is why the advice given is so terrible. On one end is the Joshua Harris “courtship” where Bronze Age cultural relics are slightly updated to fit a modern era but the basic framework of heavy supervision is left intact (after all, the single most important thing about getting married is to make sure you don’t sleep together first). On the other is regular old dating with “don’t have sex until after you get married” thrown in. Both of these frameworks, though, are based around odd things. The Bronze Age customs that appear in the Bible are those of the Bronze Age Near East and its obsession with making sure women married as virgins in ways that strengthened their father’s social position. Yes, these customs appear in the Bible but they aren’t dating advice. Resurrecting them to serve similar virginity-maintaining roles in modern society doesn’t create a system meant to find the right person for you. Much of our modern dating culture on the other hand is focused on finding someone you’d feel comfortable having sex with and so saying, “Yeah, do that except the part it’s all aimed at,” is similarly a dud.

Complaining about this has a place but that place should ultimately get us somewhere useful. So, without more ado I present the best marriage advice I have ever heard (originating, I believe, from an Orthodox monk): there are three paths to holiness: marriage, monasticism, and martyrdom, and it’s sometimes hard to tell which one you’re on.

I don’t run into a lot of people who like this advice. It’s not happy flowers and bluebirds for sure. However, unlike happy flowers and bluebirds it’s advice that will be there for the hard times. It speaks to the biggest issue when Christians talk about marriage: what is marriage for? Holiness. Our culture tells us that marriage is for happiness. Sometimes marriage does make you happy – I’m very happy to be married to my wife. However, marriage can also be really difficult (I’ve done some of that too). Whatever fleeting emotions marriage elicits it should always be pushing us towards holiness. If we are happy in our marriage then it should be leading us to act righteously. If we are unhappy then our marriage should be pushing us to clean up our act and focus on God. However, frequently even Christians cave to the “marriage is about happiness” idea and talk as if marriage should always be making each member of the relationship happier. On one hand it should because Christians should be acting in perfect righteousness and a marriage between two perfect people would be very happy. On the other hand we know that perfect people aren’t just rare birds but extinct ones and so we should expect that even in very good marriages there would be times of uncomfortable growth.

Happiness is self-centered. This is why everyone loves romantic love – it gives back. You love someone and it makes you feel good. Christianity simply isn’t self-centered. Yes, you can be unhappy about how something makes you feel but ultimately Christ asks you about you and not the other guy. Marrying for happiness is something anyone would do. Marrying for holiness is distinctly Christian. (To avoid sounding too preachy I’d like to point out that most of these thoughts are ones I worked out after I got married.)

If you are marrying someone so that you’ll be pushed towards greater holiness this has a real effect on how you think about getting married. Obviously this requires a Christian marriage. Most Christians are aware of this. However, it also requires a degree of equality in personalities. If you are going to be helping correct one another and steer one another to a better place, then you need to be people who have the personalities to do that for each other. Some people can’t correct anyone without being a pain in the butt. Some people are also mismatched in personality. I have a strong personality. I married a woman who knows how to hold her own. I need that. If I married a woman who lacked that ability I would bulldoze her. Perhaps I would provide her with good guidance (doubtful in that dynamic) but she wouldn’t be of any use to me. She’d lack the ability to put the brakes on me.

This is actually something that worries me about one end of the church these days. Some of the only distinctly Christian discussion I hear about the relationships between men and women is stuff that strongly emphasizes male leadership in the household. One product of this is that these churches train men to look for women who can be led. Who is easier to lead than someone who never talks back and corrects you? Now I readily admit that some people don’t need the level of directness that I do. I have good friends who would probably find the ways that I need to be corrected really excessive and would ultimately feel badgered and harried. They would do much better with someone who had a gentler personality. However, emphasis on leader-follower roles really does run the risk of preventing a holy mutual correction by steering men to marry women who they can bulldoze.

The reason I like the advice I mentioned before (“There are three paths to holiness: marriage, monasticism, and martyrdom, and it’s sometimes hard to tell which one you’re on”) is that it appropriately sets Christian expectations. If you aren’t married it warns you that marriage won’t always be easy and that this isn’t because you got married to the wrong person. It also steers you towards considering how a potential spouse would make you more or less the right kind of person rather than asking whether they would make you more or less happy. (Another pitfall of happiness: everyone is happy at first just to be in a romantic relationship.) If you are married this advice helps you think about what it is that you are doing in your marriage. Are you seeking self-centered pleasure? Are you just sort of existing side by side? Or are you building each other up in love, correcting one another when it’s needed, and supporting one another in a mutual journey towards the person of Christ?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Dylan permalink
    March 11, 2013 9:41 am

    There used to be a billboard around here with an abstinence PSA that had a picture of a wedding ring and the caption “sex symbol.” It made me wonder if the obsession with “no sex before marriage” as the key point of dating advice might end up turning marriage into “that thing you do so you can have sex.”

    • Eric permalink
      March 11, 2013 10:22 pm

      I think that’s absolutely what marriage is for a lot of teenage and just-past-teenage evangelicals.

  2. E. John permalink
    March 11, 2013 4:11 pm

    I really like the idea of a christian marriage being centered around pursuing holiness. This is the first time I’ve heard someone else verbalize the idea. In my church, most of the guys are told they need to be spiritual leaders in the home/relationship so they look for a girl who is less theologically grounded then they are. (As you might guess, the girls have pretty much stopped contributing in the singles sunday school class). I wonder how the dynamic in my church would change if people started looking for a mate that would help them pursue holiness instead of looking for someone to lead/be lead by.

    • Eric permalink
      March 11, 2013 10:32 pm

      Stunting one’s own growth in order to get married sounds (correctly) like an awful thing. Wanting something that amounts to wanting someone who is doing that seems hard to justify as anything but just as bad.

      I would be a lot happier if Christians would get their non-gendered advice down (love one another, grow in faith, do what God asks of you, pray without ceasing) before offering gendered advice (men: do X, women: do Y). Too often the gendered advice clearly conflicts with the non-gendered advice.

  3. March 12, 2013 3:56 pm

    If you think marriage is for holiness, then do you think that a Christian shouldn’t marry someone who isn’t of the faith? Is it possible for a non-Christian husband or wife to help contribute to your holiness?

    • Eric permalink
      March 12, 2013 8:15 pm

      I think it is probably not a great idea to go looking for a spouse who isn’t Christian. Under some circumstances other rules may take priority – for instance, if you’re engaged and convert but your intended does not. That’s a really obvious example but there are other cases. But were I single I wouldn’t start dating a woman who I knew wasn’t Christian.

      However, part of holiness is being a good person and anyone can potentially steer you towards those sorts of right actions. A non-Christian just couldn’t steer you in some other critical ways.

  4. March 13, 2013 12:18 am

    Ahh, you’ve managed to touch on 3 things here that, in my opinion, are all out of whack in today’s Christian culture. 1.) The idolatrous worship and fixation on marriage. 2.) Looking at Jesus through the lens of Paul instead of filtering Paul through Jesus. (Really, is Paul the Savior? To hear some tell it, you’d think so.) 3.) The superior/inferior model that lords it over people in complete defiance of Jesus’ teaching. A better understanding of the ruler/servant model that Jesus taught is that they’re one and the same because they’re both providers. If you’re ruling, you’re serving, and vice versa. Hence, the lofty position of the “lowly” servant who reigns with Christ.

    • Eric permalink
      March 13, 2013 10:01 pm

      Totally agreed. To the last one I think this is a clear case where people need to see the general (Jesus’ idea of servant leadership) before they reach the specifics (who is leader over whom).

  5. March 29, 2013 10:44 am

    Totally new here, but I really like what I see. Thanks for sharing your studies and thoughts that go with them, particularly those re: the leader-follower dynamic in a Christian household (says another woman who holds her own with a strong-willed husband ;) )

    • Eric permalink
      March 29, 2013 11:53 am

      Thanks! I’m slowly working my way towards Paul and Peter’s comments about husbands and wives in my Women in the Bible series as well.

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