Marriage: Foundation of the Family

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God's Word declares that "he who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD" (Proverbs 18:22, New International Version). The same is true for women who find loving and responsible husbands. Marriages are the building blocks of communities, societies and, ultimately, civilizations. A society is only as strong as its marriages and families.

From the beginning God taught that "a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). This special arrangement, this bond between a man and woman, was intended to last, as traditional marriage ceremonies put it, "until death do us part." It was designed to be a lifelong relationship (Romans 7:2-3) that would produce godly children (Malachi 2:15) and help both spouses better understand the deep, loving relationship between Jesus Christ and the members of "the household of God," His Church (Ephesians 5:25-32; Ephesians 2:19-22).

A happy marriage is one of the greatest blessings we can enjoy. God intended for couples to live happily ever after once they exchanged their marriage vows. To this end Ecclesiastes 9:9 instructs husbands to "enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life, and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun" (New American Standard Bible). Likewise, wives should enjoy life with their husbands.

Yet, judging by the divorce rates in many countries, mankind has not learned how to do this. Everyone wants a good marriage, but few are willing to follow God's instructions that, if followed, would produce loving, committed relationships.

God designed marriage and wants us to be happily married (Genesis 2:24). For success in this area of life, we need to learn from the Creator of marriage the principles that lead to happy, successful unions. In short, we need to understand and apply concepts that work rather than following modern paths that so often lead to failure.

Dating: preparation for marriage

According to God's Word, the foundation for a good marriage is laid long before the wedding ceremony. It is established when two people begin dating.

As children grow older, "When can I begin dating?" is a question they commonly ask their parents. Though the Bible gives no specific age when dating is appropriate, wise parents will teach their maturing children sound biblical principles that will help them follow God's standards of behavior. Parents should determine when their children are ready to date based on their maturity and readiness to accept responsibility for their actions. Before parents allow dating, they should teach and encourage their children to follow biblical standards rather than turning them loose to do whatever comes naturally.

Teaching children God's standards before allowing them to date may sound terribly old-fashioned and restrictive to some with supposedly enlightened ways of thinking. But most governments do not allow people to drive automobiles until they demonstrate the knowledge and ability to do so in a safe manner. No responsible parent would put his or her adolescent child in an automobile in the middle of a busy highway without having given that child instruction on how to drive.

Dating in our modern world is not without its dangers. Without proper instruction, too many youths become promiscuous, contract sexually transmissible diseases, experience unwanted pregnancies and choose wrong paths that seem enjoyable and right at the time but lead to untold anguish (Proverbs 14:12; Proverbs 16:25). They need instruction early and interactive discussions on why and how biblical values can protect them from such suffering.

Without this proper instruction, many people will never experience a happy marriage. Loving parents would never wish misery on their children! But leaving them ignorant is a sure path to heartache. A thorough understanding of God's standards for dating and marriage is one of the greatest blessings children can receive from their parents.

Yet many, of course, are far past that point, having already reached adulthood—some having perhaps gotten married and even divorced. Teaching young people proper behavior for dating is obviously ideal. But what about adults? Do the principles change? Because adults are older, does that give them license for more liberties than adolescents may take? Are all things appropriate for consenting adults?

As we shall see, God's standards for dating apply to people of all ages. He does not have two sets of guidelines, one for adults and one for youths. Following the biblical laws is equally beneficial no matter one's age. Breaking God's laws is equally disastrous for people of all ages.

Modern standards of dating

To understand the difference between God's way and the world's, consider the dating practices common in the Western world.

Many assume that when people are dating, sexual intercourse is appropriate to determine if they are compatible. They believe sex is simply a natural expression of love between two people and thereby the natural thing to do for individuals living together or "going together" in an exclusive dating relationship. If such a couple then breaks up and the two start dating others, the common assumption is that they are then free to have sexual relations with their new partners.

This practice of serial monogamy—being sexually active with only one unmarried person at a time—is widely considered a suitable way to date and find a future mate.

In the United States about two thirds of married women in their 20s cohabited with their future husbands before marriage (Robert Moeller, "America's Morality Report Card," Christian Reader, November-December 1995, pp. 97-100). This dubious practice is followed by all too many young adults in the Western world.

Another honorable principle, according to current standards, is that partners should disclose any sexually transmissible diseases before intercourse so appropriate protection can be employed. In addition, practicing "safe sex" (using contraceptives to avoid disease and unwanted pregnancies) is touted as the right thing to do. These practices are so widely accepted that increasing numbers of school systems provide free contraceptives to students, no questions asked.

Although these approaches may appear to be logical, they do not measure up to God's standards. What many do not understand is that such faulty logic is precisely the cause of so many unhappy relationships and failed marriages. Let's consider what God says.

God's standards for dating

Historical records, like those of the ancient city of Corinth, reveal that in the heart of the Roman Empire , the most technologically advanced civilization of its day, the sexual values of the first century were similar to the modern concepts of dating today. Standards were so skewed that sexual relations with temple prostitutes were not looked upon as scandalous but considered an appropriate form of worship.

Through the apostle Paul, God taught the Corinthians a better way.

"Flee sexual immorality," he wrote. "Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit . . . and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's" (1 Corinthians 6:18-20).

How could Paul dare to address others' private behavior? He could be so bold because he understood that God sanctions sexual relations only within the marriage relationship (Genesis 2:24; Hebrews 13:4). Sexual relations in any other situation were and are immoral.

Later Paul addressed relationships between members of the opposite sex even more directly. Urging the brethren to live their lives in a way pleasing to God (1 Thessalonians 4:1), he wrote:

"This is the will of God, that you should be holy: you must abstain from fornication; each one of you must learn to gain mastery over his body, to hallow and honour it, not giving way to lust like the pagans who know nothing of God; no one must do his fellow-Christian wrong in this matter, or infringe his rights.

"As we impressed on you before, the Lord punishes all such offences. For God called us to holiness, not to impurity. Anyone therefore who flouts these rules is flouting not man but the God who bestows on you his Holy Spirit" (verses 3-8, Revised English Bible).

The custom and practice of dating—which leads to marriage—should be conducted with honor. It should not be devalued into an excuse for sexual gratification. God expects us to enter marriage as virgins. This approach shows respect for God, our bodies, our futures and the divine institution of marriage.

God's way is the best for making marriage work. Sociologists have found that God's standard for dating is the one that produces marriages that last. "After analyzing cohabitation and marriage patterns among some 13,000 adults, two University of Wisconsin–Madison sociologists have concluded that couples who live together before marriage experience higher levels of marital conflict and do not communicate as well. Such couples were less committed to marriage and saw divorce as more likely than those who had not cohabited prior to marriage" (Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 54, 1992).

Dating: Teach the right way

How can concerned parents counteract pressure on their children to engage in immoral dating practices?

The first step, as noted earlier, is to teach them godly principles of dating and friendship. When their teens are ready, many families have found group dating to be a good way for youths to enter their next stage of life.

Since teenagers are generally not ready for marriage—because of immaturity and the need for educational and occupational training —some of the pressures and temptations of one-on-one dating can be avoided through group dates. Social development and learning to have fun in the company of the opposite sex are healthy experiences for teens in a safe environment.

Dating for marriage

When two mature people begin dating each other with an eye toward marriage, they must consider many things. What values does the other person hold? Does he believe in God? Does she obey God? What is this person's background and personal standards and values? What are his preferences, dislikes, character and personality? Will this person be a complementary match? Can I love and respect her?

Often in modern dating little thought is given to a potential partner for life—other than whether the two enjoy their sexual activity. Yet when two people refrain from the emotionally charged arena of sexual relations as God instructs, they can much more rationally consider the values and traits of a potential spouse.

Finding a mate with similar religious values is an especially important consideration. The ancient nation of Israel repeatedly lost its spiritual moorings when its citizens intermarried with people with different religious convictions and practices (Numbers 25:1-3; Nehemiah 13:23-26). Marrying within one's faith is still just as important.

Ideally children should have two parents who believe, practice and teach the same religious principles. When children have parents with different values, they are confused. Even if children are not involved, clashes between two competing value systems can be painful. Through bitter experience, many afterward wish that when they were dating they had followed the apostle Paul's advice against being "unequally yoked together" with someone of different religious beliefs (2 Corinthians 6:14).

As two people consider getting engaged to be married, if they are wise they will seek premarital counseling. Such counsel can help couples consider their strengths and weaknesses before marriage. In addition to an objective review, they can discuss their relationship skills.

Although the decision to marry is a personal one, this kind of information can help couples make wiser choices about whom they marry. For those who choose to proceed with marriage, insights gained through premarital counseling can lay a foundation for a relationship that will last.

A foundation for marriage

Within marriage God gives husbands and wives specific instructions that will produce peace and happiness. Whether or not one has followed God's instructions regarding dating, these principles can help any marriage.

Although the best course of action is always to follow all of God's instructions, God also allows and encourages everyone to turn from past sins and begin obeying Him (Ezekiel 18:21; Acts 2:38; Acts 26:18). (If you would like to know more about the purpose of human life and how to commit your life to God, read our booklets What Is Your Destiny? and The Road to Eternal Life.)

Although solid relationships are built more quickly when both husband and wife accept and practice God's laws, God expects each of us to respond to Him regardless of the circumstances of our marriage (James 4:17). Even when only one mate commits his or her life to God and His standards, this opens the door to God blessing both partners (1 Corinthians 7:13-14). A positive, loving example of obedience to God by a husband or wife may influence the other to want to please God (1 Peter 3:1-4). One person can make a difference.

Let us consider some biblical principles that when followed make marriages work.

A lifelong commitment

Early in the book of Genesis God tells us that it is appropriate for a man to "leave his father and his mother" and "cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh" (Genesis 2:24, King James Version). The Hebrew word translated "cleave" is dabaq, meaning "to cling, cleave, keep close."

"Used in modern Hebrew in the sense of ‘to stick to, adhere to,' dabaq yields the noun form for ‘glue' and also the more abstract ideas of ‘loyalty, devotion'" (Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, 1985, "To Cleave, Cling").

When a husband and wife obey the biblical command to cleave to each other, they will literally join together. Having sexual relations, being "one flesh," is part of commitment to each other in marriage. Commitment includes fidelity, trust and the character to act properly when under pressure or temptation. Yet too often people engage in sex without commitment—a contradiction of this foundational principle for successful marriages.

When two people exchange wedding vows, they make a lifelong commitment. Biblically speaking, this is a covenant (Malachi 2:14)—a solemn promise to God and one's mate to be faithful.

This commitment should not be taken lightly or maintained only when we feel like it. We need to understand that our feelings can mislead us. God does not advocate only occasional bursts of loyalty and obedience to Him whenever it is convenient for us. Similarly, people who desire good marriages do not look for people who will stay committed to them only most of the time.

Good relationships stand on long-term, trustworthy commitments—even under trying circumstances. When two people commit to follow God and His instructions within their marriage, they take the first steps to a happy, lasting relationship.

What is love?

To love and be loved is one of the most exhilarating experiences people can enjoy. Writers and poets ancient and modern speak of the power and emotion of romantic love. Yet the Bible reveals that love, in its broadest sense, is a choice. Love is something we choose to do.

God tells husbands to love their wives (Ephesians 5:25-28; Colossians 3:19)—and not just if they feel like it. Lacking a foundational understanding, many couples have tragically assumed they have no control over their feelings. Concluding that love just magically appears or disappears, too many have suffered and even dissolved relationships over
difficulties that could have been resolved.

In a beautiful explanation of the love God expects of us, the apostle Paul describes the nature and qualities of love: "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails" (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, NIV).

Love is much more than a vague emotion or physical attraction. Practicing real love requires conscious choice and determination. Genuine love resolves to show kindness and patience in the face of suffering. It does not return evil for evil (Romans 12:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:15). People who exemplify this kind of love follow the example of God Himself, who "is kind to the unthankful and evil" (Luke 6:35).

Full, complete love is the love God expects husbands to show their wives. It is the foundation of godly leadership. Without it husbands cannot properly fulfill the leadership God expects from them within marriage (Ephesians 5:23). When a husband demonstrates godly love, his whole family benefits. His wife and children feel secure. When they know they are honored and loved, it is much easier for them to respect him as the leader of the family.

Husbands must understand that even though God has given them responsibility within the family, their position of leadership is to be used only for the good of the family. It should never be used for selfish reasons. This kind of leadership flows from the understanding that first and foremost the husband, too, is under authority—God's authority (1 Corinthians 11:3).

Because husbands historically have not lived up to God's expectations for them, some have concluded that a father's leadership position within the family is evil and outdated. The real problem, however, is with husbands who neglect or reject the character traits of godliness—not with God's model for families. If we accept God's instructions, we must accept His teaching on the marriage model.

God places on a husband's shoulders immense responsibility for leading his wife and children in gentleness and love. God gives him no mandate to use his position harshly or selfishly, nor the right to neglect his family's well-being. Humility, the opposite of pride and arrogance, is essential in godly leadership.

In a poignant letter to Titus, Paul explained that God's structure for families is a foundational biblical teaching: "But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine: that the older men be sober, reverent, temperate, sound in faith, in love, in patience; the older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior . . . —that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed" (Titus 2:1-5).

Respect: key to a successful marriage

God set husbands in a leadership role in the family, but He expects men and women alike to practice biblical love and respect (Ephesians 5:21).

Besides detailing for husbands how they should love their wives (Ephesians 5:25-33), Paul gives specific instructions to wives: "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything" (Ephesians 5:22-24).

This verse teaches us that a wife's willing acknowledgment of her husband's leadership role is a vital ingredient in the godly model for marriage. This doesn't mean the husband must make every decision. Many couples successfully divide household responsibilities, working together according to their respective strengths and interests. In a loving marriage, both partners should discuss major decisions and priorities. Then, according to the biblical model, if the husband chooses to make the final judgment all family members should honor it.

But there are times when a husband should wisely defer to the preferences of his wife and children. Just because he has the right to make family choices does not mean it is always best that he does. Many decisions are a matter of preference, and preference is an individual matter. A loving husband and father should be sensitive to the desires and preferences of every family member as long as they don't violate family and godly standards.

No husband can successfully head his household unless his wife cooperatively respects the leadership position God has given him. Without her conscious decision to obey God's instruction, she will usurp his leadership role in the family, or the husband and wife will constantly argue. Paul urges wives to respect their husbands (Ephesians 5:33). Attitude—of both husbands and wives—is the key to making the biblical model of marriage a joyful experience.

Like love, respect also implies making a choice. We can choose to respect people for their positive qualities or despise them for the traits we dislike. The best time for critical evaluation is before marriage. Afterwards spouses need to focus on mutual respect. Deal kindly with imperfections and abundantly praise good qualities. Benjamin Franklin, early American statesman, wisely and humorously put it this way: "Keep your eyes wide open before marriage and half shut afterwards."

Conflict and communication

Researchers have found that the way two people communicate mirrors the state of their relationship. Positive, encouraging communication indicates a good relationship, and excessive criticism indicates a poor relationship. Depending on the circumstances, the two little words "I'm sorry" can be as effective as "I love you."

Some marriage counselors claim couples should learn to fight fairly and not worry about the number of arguments. "Get it off your chest, and get it all out in the open," they advise.

Although candor can be healthy, fighting and arguing over every disagreement has proven to not be so wise. A study of 691 couples indicated that the more partners argue, regardless of their style of quarreling, the more likely they will eventually divorce (Richard Morin, "What's Fair in Love and Fights?," Washington Post Weekly, June 7, 1993, p. 37). Conflicts lower respect and can build resentment. An argument can turn into the catalyst for a divorce.

How much conflict can a relationship stand? One method of measurement, which claims 90 percent accuracy in predicting which marriages will last and which will fail, is based on the percentage of positive comments vs. negative comments between mates. Among newlyweds researchers found that partners who would end up staying together made five or fewer critical comments out of each 100 comments about each other. Newlyweds who later divorced had made 10 or more critical comments out of each 100 (Joanni Schrof, "A Lens on Matrimony," U.S. News and World Report, Feb. 21, 1994, pp. 66-69).

Since no two people, even happily married couples, agree on everything, learning how to peacefully resolve differences is an important part of maintaining respect. Here are a few principles couples should follow:

Talk matters out. Take turns expressing your beliefs and concerns in a kind way, without raising your voices (Proverbs 15:1). Refusing to talk about difficulties does not resolve problems. Learn to express your opinions in a nonjudgmental way.

Respect differences in your mate. Since God created humankind with a broad range of personalities, we need to appreciate those different perspectives. Even the steps we take to fulfill God's instructions can vary from person to person (2 Peter 3:9).

Seek a win-win solution. Whenever possible look for solutions to problems that are acceptable to both parties (Philippians 2:4). If possible, have two winners rather than a winner and loser. We must at times be willing to yield as long as a choice or action isn't in conflict with God's instruction (Matthew 5:9; 1 Corinthians 6:7).

Paul beautifully explained this principle: "Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:4-5).

Forgive. Everyone makes mistakes. Forgive so God and your spouse will be inclined to forgive you (Matthew 6:15; Luke 6:37). Put your best foot forward. Action often follows thought. Approach your marriage partner in a spirit of love and forgiveness and ask God to restore you to a right attitude (Psalm 51:10). Instead of letting your negative emotions rule you, determine to treat your spouse with respect (2 Corinthians 10:5). Often your emotions will match your actions.

Seek help. If you have applied everything you know to do and are still struggling, look for competent professional help. Both you and your spouse may be making mistakes neither of you has recognized but which a counselor can discern. Healthy, mature people are not afraid to seek help when they need it (Proverbs 4:7; Proverbs 11:14).

The value of teamwork

God intends couples to work, live and grow in harmony. Instead of waging a war of the sexes, which modern philosophies often fuel, God teaches husbands and wives to work together as a team. "Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered" (1 Peter 3:7).

Working together, husbands and wives can accomplish much more than they can working independently. In the first century, Aquila and Priscilla set a fine example as a husband-and-wife team dedicated to God and serving His people. Together they worked as tentmakers with the apostle Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:2-3), traveled with him to Syria (Acts 18:18), helped Apollos understand "the way of God more accurately" when he was new in the faith (Acts 18:24-26) and provided a meeting place for a church congregation in their home (1 Corinthians 16:19).

They were loved and respected. Notice Paul's commendation of them: "Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles" (Romans 16:3-4). This couple saw a bigger purpose for their lives than arguing over inconsequential matters. They were living examples of "heirs together of the grace of life" (1 Peter 3:7).

When husbands and wives lovingly submit to the roles God established in marriage, they learn how to submit to God. Intimate, loving relationships between husbands and wives teach us much about the relationship of Christ to the Church (Ephesians 5:32). Applying God's principles for marriage not only produces happy relationships in this life, it yields greater understanding of godly principles that will last for eternity.