Is your church serving your marriage and relationship well? Are you satisfied with what the church has taught about marriage? Is what you pick up from the teaching, examples, or other resources you’re exposed to addressing the challenges you’re facing in your marriage? I hear from many who would say the answer is No. I believe there are several ways the church needs to do better when it comes to marriage.
Much of the hurt and frustration isn’t so much from what’s said directly, although at times that can be the case. What is unstated often hurts more; the assumptions about marriage that seem to be present, the issues that aren’t safe to talk about, or the seemingly superficial ways in which some issues are addressed.
If you’re getting the help you need for your marriage in your church, wonderful! I bless you and your leaders! But I see holes in the church’s perspective and teaching about marriage and relationships. The church’s primary reason for being is to connect people with God’s story. But when it comes to relationships, here are five things I wish the church taught about marriage.
Marriage is Not the Ultimate Goal
Walk into the average Christian church (perhaps especially in the West) and you get the impression (unstated but real) that church is a place for married couples and families. Unmarried people, single parents, even blended families – it’s often hard for those people to feel like this is a place for them. They may sometimes feel welcomed, but they feel others see them as a problem to be fixed.
And that comes from an unstated assumption many in the Protestant Christian church have believed, that getting married and having children is the highest goal for followers of Jesus. Marriage becomes an idol.
And every idol is doomed to disappoint.
It hasn’t always been this way. For the first 1500 years or so of the Christian church the unmarried state was considered the highest spiritual condition. That wasn’t right either.
I wish the church would teach openly and often that marriage is one of the important ways God does His work in our lives, not the only or even always the best way. Married people are not more holy. God does not save couples; He transforms individuals. The ultimate goal of the Christian life is to become like Jesus, not to have a happy family.
Marriage is Not “Happily Ever After”
The reason God instituted marriage was not to make people happy. Instead, He intended marriage to be an earthly human demonstration, an object lesson, of the love and intimacy God has within Himself and that He desires to have with us. And it’s a laboratory in which God intends for us to learn to love well.
In a healthy godly marriage many of our needs may get met. But even in the very best marriage that is partial. When you become disappointed or unhappy with your relationship some people believe that means they married the wrong person and they either settle into miserable marriage détente or they leave the marriage.
The question is not “Am I happy?” I wish the church would stop essentially promising people a happy marriage if they do things “right.” Instead, help people understand that God uses marriage to grow both you and your spouse. A better question is, “Who does God need me to be to my spouse in this season?”
Intimacy and Sex are Related, but Not the Same
I don’t know if it’s a holdover from Victorian sensibilities or an inadequate play on Biblical euphemisms, but saying intimacy when you mean sex is incorrect and hurtful. It’s possible to have one without the other. As God designed it, marriage and sex and intimacy would exist together as a three-fold cord bringing growth and nourishment to people’s earthly experience.
Permit me a moment of stereotypes. When a husband demands sex from his wife “because the Bible says so” and is not nurturing intimacy in the relationship as whole, he is traumatizing his wife and sinning against God for his own sensual lusts. When a wife uses sex as a weapon or tool of manipulation she can hijack what God is wanting to do in her husband.
Married sex is only good when it’s part of a whole-person lifestyle of intimacy–physically, emotionally, and spiritually–between husband and wife. I wish the church taught less about sexual behaviors and more about intimacy and the deeper heart issues involved.
There’s more to a Failed Marriage than Technical Adultery
Toxic marriages exist in our sinful world. The church has too often fallen into the ditch of trying to assign blame and making technical adultery the all-or-nothing dividing line. There’s less of that today than there was in the past, but it’s still real. I’ve heard from spouses, usually husbands, who have said, “I never was unfaithful, so my spouse is sinning in pulling away from the marriage.”
That may be true. It may also not be true. Mutual submission, unselfish love, humility, growing to become more and more like Jesus–those things are not optional for a follower of Jesus. I wish the church would teach about more than technical behaviors and highlight these matters of the heart. I wish the church was a place where truly traumatized spouses, men too but especially women, could receive support, understanding, and someone to walk with them through rebuilding their lives if their marriage fails. And I wish the message women often hear that following Jesus requires them to stay in a relationship where they are being regularly traumatized would go away.
Marriage Requires Healing of Both Men and Women
Every marriage is the union of two sinners. Every human being has experienced harm, and responds to harm in a unique–and sinful–way. The transformation Jesus offers, and requires of us, is the only solution. We hear that spiritually, but we don’t often hear much about how that impacts relationships and marriage.
Men and women will cause each other further trauma in marriage every time, unless they are both in an ongoing process of transformation.
I wish the church helped people experience that kind of transformation more consistently. Sunday services and a six-week book-study small group are important, but that doesn’t do very much to foster ongoing transformation. It must be much deeper than learning propositional truths and showing up in a weekly gathering.
Perhaps you can be one of those who asks questions of your church leaders and fosters conversations among your fellow followers of Jesus in addressing these deeper issues around marriage.
And most of all, I pray and hope that you experience the ongoing transformation Jesus has available for you, and that you experience the blessing that brings to your marriage.
Your Turn: Where have you experienced the church failing marriages? What do you wish the church taught about marriage? Leave a comment below.
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