Six years ago, I vowed with my husband, Andrew, to enter into a covenant oath until death do us part. We said to each other: “I set you, this day, as a seal upon my heart to have and to hold, in want and in plenty, in hunger and in satisfaction, in sickness and in health, to love as an example of Christ and the church, until death brings us face to face with our King.” Those are not just words, but they represent a lifestyle that we try to embody through our everyday marriage. They are words we retell each other every December 21st. And often, in the midst of big arguments, I am reminded of them. They haunt my selfishness and hold my actions toward my husband accountable. I believe in covenant marriage: a committed relationship between God, a man, and a woman.
#1 Not all heterosexual marriages were created equal.
It seems the church equates the government’s definition of marriage with the biblical definition of marriage. I am not sure when the government has ever defined things as the Bible has, but for some reason, we seem amazed that the two definitions are not lining up. Let’s simply look at heterosexual marriages first. Do I believe a covenant marriage should be between a male and a female. Yes. Why? Because I believe in the Bible and the Bible defines my outlook on life. Do I believe that a non-Christian male and a non-Christian female who join in matrimony are officially married? Yes. Why? Because I believe that their definition of matrimony and mine are different. I don’t go around saying, “Because you aren’t Christian, you aren’t married.” Do I believe they are in a covenant marriage? No. Why? Because their idea of marriage is not based on the Bible, and I do not hold them to that Biblical standard. A very close friend of mine married a man and four years later they were divorced. She was not a Christian when she got married nor was she a Christian when she was divorced. Many Christians had major issues with her getting a divorce. As sad as I was to see her go through the difficulty of divorce—and the social ousting that happens to divorcees even in the non-Christian world—I had no major issues with her getting a divorce. Why? Because when she married, she did not define marriage the way my Biblical worldview defines it. If I cannot hold her to a standard of other Biblical definitions, why should I expect her to uphold the standard of Biblical marriage? My problem with the church’s problem of homosexual marriage is that it doesn’t seem to have a problem with non-Christian heterosexual marriages. If we are up in arms about the fact that the Bible defines marriage between one man and one woman, should we not also be up in arms that the Bible defines marriage as a covenant relationship between God, man, and woman—and every non-Christian marriage is missing the most important of those people. If we picket the government to maintain the Biblical definition of marriage, let’s picket the government to actually define marriage in its holistic Biblical definition. It’s not just a marriage between a man and a woman. It’s so much more. We cannot forget the rest of its definition. Additionally, government incentives for a homosexual marriage have nothing to do with the root of the issue. If the church is bothered by tax breaks for homosexual couples, it should also be bothered by tax breaks for non-Christian heterosexual couples. The church is not the government, and while I firmly believe that Christians should be involved in all sectors of life including the political, I find it ridiculous when church-goers equate a political party with being on the “right” team. There is no culture on Earth—including a political culture—that aligns fully with Biblical culture. Yes, I desire God’s kingdom to come, but I do not think it is fully here already. In the words of Shane Claiborne, “Jesus for President.”
#2 Divorce rates in the church are the same outside the church—50% is too high.
If Christian marriage is such a sacred thing, why is it so commonplace to break that sacredness inside the church? If we want to show the government or the non-Christians or the rest of the world the beauty of a covenant marriage, so much so that they want what we have—we’ve got to start looking at the planks in our own eyes. What frustrates me about the Church’s issue with homosexual marriages is that it takes the focus off what we need to improve about ourselves and points the finger to outsiders seemingly saying: You’re messed up, we’re not. I know Christians who have bad marriages who don’t get divorced because either they are scared of Jesus’ words about it, or they don’t want to be another statistic. But they continue to live as they always have. Unfortunately, they offer something just as sad to the rest of the world as the Christian divorcees. A selfish marriage is a secular marriage. Because the Biblical definition of marriage is a portrayal of Christ and the Church. Now, that doesn’t mean selfish Christians can’t get married. But what it means is that when I, selfish Gena, took him, selfish Andrew, to be my husband, with God in the center of that covenant, we both took a vow to seek the kingdom of God first above all else. (Quite literally as those words were a part of our vows). This means when my flesh pounces to show off how great I am—because it will and it does—my life-long accountability partner has the right to fight it. We don’t have an argue-free marriage. But conflict isn’t a sin; in fact, it can be a sign of good accountability. My independent, strong-willed self can easily lead when it shouldn’t, and without conflict, it would. If Andrew did not keep me in check, my pride would get our family into ions of trouble. If we want the rest of the world to redefine their definitions of marriage by the Biblical framework, we have to offer actual examples of that covenant relationship that portrays Christ and the Church. So far, on a large scale, I’m afraid we are not doing this.
#3 We aren’t redeeming the word nor are we redirecting the concept.
Andrew and I were missionaries for over four years. The first year or so, I actually despised the word “missionary” and I really despised telling non-Christians we were missionaries. Why? Because I’d heard stories of what missionaries were like, and I’d met some rather irrelevant ones. My mind would conjure up ideas of big Bibles smacking people in the face or the Crusades of the Middle Ages, door-to-door tracks and women who only wore ankle-length skirts. But after a while, I had to come to grips with the fact that I was a missionary. So I decided that I would do my best to redefine that word and make it better. I stopped being shy about telling the international climbers that came into our coffee shop that we were missionaries, and decided that if they wanted to get to know us better they’d start to see a different way of defining that word. Not all of them did. But many opened up to us in a way that was surprising. Many talked to us about their ideas of God and their experiences with Christianity. I think the Church needs to do the same thing with the concept of marriage. There’s a difference between a covenant marriage and a civil marriage—even if that civil marriage was done in a church building with invitations to a ‘holy’ matrimony. There’s a difference. But that difference isn’t going to be shown by our anti-gay parades or our legally-drafted marriage definitions we put in our church’s policy book. That difference will be shown by living everyday life. It’s portrayed the moment we step back from an argument and ask ourselves what motivations are fueling this fire. It’s portrayed when we enjoy the company of our spouses in public and in private. It’s shown when we don’t just “survive” marriage in fear of being another divorce statistic. It’s shown in going to marriage counseling when we realize we need help. It’s shown when we wake up early to serve our spouses and go to bed late doing the same thing. It’s in the details of life, when we selflessly love each other: picking up his dirty laundry on the ground without an annoyed attitude, vacuuming her car because she hasn’t for the past six months, sincerely thanking him for finally hanging up the mirror without pressing on about how long it took him to do so, thanking her for all the secretarial work she does to keep the household running. These are the things that get discussed the next day with our coworkers, and we either share with them a negative concept of our spouses and their lack of love for us or we share with them a perception of a very counter-cultural, selfless love that points to Christ. That is the whole point of marriage: to be an example to our neighbors, our coworkers, our grocers, our children, of the authentic, eternal, and unconditional love of Christ. The love that accepts us for who we are yet pushes us to be better.
#4 We focus on the wrong ‘big picture.’
I know this is not the case for every engaged Christian couple. However, when the church is so focused on opposing the homosexual agenda, it feels like the concept of covenant marriage gets tossed on the back burner as church leaders extol the young, virgin church-goers as fulfilling a Biblical marriage simply because they attend church and they are male and female. Tim Keller preached a sermon called A Covenant Relationship that highlights God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15. Keller says, “If you understand what happens in Genesis 15, you’re at the heart of what the Bible is all about.” God tells Abraham to cut in half a heifer, a female goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon. He creates an aisle between the halves to prepare for a covenant agreement. Keller explains, “... In those days, when a great lord wanted to make a covenant with a peon or a peasant or a lesser vassal or servant, that's how it was done. Animals were slain, the pieces were arranged, and when the servant took the oath of loyalty to the lord, the servant did so as he was walking between the pieces. Why? He was acting out the curse of the covenant. He was saying, ‘I swear loyalty to you oh lord, and if I do not keep my promise, may I be cut into pieces like this.’ So Abraham figured he was arranging a situation for a covenant ceremony. And so he cut the pieces up and he expected that he would be called to walk through because lords never walked through the pieces.” But in this situation, God promises to bless Abraham while walking through the pieces Himself. Abe never walks through the aisle. God made the promise for them both, taking the curse for them both. Keller continues, “He was saying, ‘Not only, will I be torn to pieces if I don't keep my promise, I'll be torn to pieces if you don't.’” This is the essence of the gospel. Jesus dying on the cross was God taking on this curse, tearing himself in half, because we, the sons of Abraham, did not keep our side of the promise. If the heaviness of this covenant does not sink us to our knees we should not enter into covenant marriage. Because this is what covenant marriage is supposed to portray. This weight of glory is not to be trifled with. This is the seriousness of entering a covenant relationship with another sinful human being. Statistics show that at least half of us churchgoers don’t get this. Christians who live in selfish marriages don’t get this. It’s not about fearing divorce, fearing statistics, or fearing change. It’s about fearing God. The God whose love for us is so intense that he takes on our curse. The God who cuts himself into pieces to show us how great he loves us. If that love doesn’t compel us to love our spouses in the same way, maybe we don’t believe in covenant marriage.
#5 The root issue is NOT homosexual parents.
Some Christians argue that if God blessed homosexual intimacy, it would procreate. Genesis tells us to procreate, and therefore, homosexual intimacy is an abomination to God. Others say that they worry about what type of life a child being raised in a home with two moms or two dads will have. First of all, I know some amazing Christian couples who live in exemplary covenant relationships who cannot procreate for no fault of their own. Are they cursed? No. We simply live in a fallen world. Secondly, those who are concerned about children being raised in households with two dads or two moms should also be just as concerned for children being raised in non-Christian hetero households. I’m confident there are plenty of loving homosexual parents and plenty of unloving heterosexual parents. The root issue is not two parents of the same sex. The root issue is two parents living in sin—whether that sin is homosexuality, drug addiction, internet addiction, television addiction, selfishness, pride, greed, lying tongues, false witnessing, or a host of other potential sins. And there are plenty of Christian parents who live in sin. The root issue here is that sin surrounds us, and the wages of sin is death. But we like to think only that the wages of external sin is death. But the wages of internal sin is death too. So any parent living in sin is an issue. I’m bothered that we lump certain parents who live in certain sins in one category and never discuss the adverse effects of parents living in the greed of the American dream or parents who idolize successful children.
#6 We aren’t all of the sudden becoming a nation not built ‘under God.’
I hear a lot of Christians talk about how the Supreme Court decision has pummeled this country away from it’s biblical foundations. Yes, this country was built on religious freedom, but to say its biblical foundations were pure seems heretical to me. I think of the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, the fact that we even had to have an Emancipation Proclamation. These are the topics of America’s history books, and they do not align with my interpretation of the Bible. I think about the Industrial Revolution and how children and the economic poor were abused and exploited, and I wonder what Christians thought about America’s Biblical foundations then. Christians have always had to fight for their Biblical standards in this country. The American government has never been fully supportive of what the Bible says. But one day, there will be a government on a pair of shoulders redeeming all governments and all politics—and only then can we say the government is fully under God.
Here’s what I’m NOT saying:
—I’m not saying this is a topic we need to shut up about. What I am saying is that our discussions need to start focusing more inward and less at pointing fingers elsewhere. What has the American Church not been doing that she should start doing to help her non-churched neighbors see Christ in the midst of this difficult topic?
—I am not saying that Christians interested in politics should just give up because there’s no hope for government offices to be Spirit-filled. Engaging ourselves in the social and political issues of this day is part of being a light in this world. But how we engage is just as important as what issues engage us. There must be a spirit of humility.
—I am not saying that I think a homosexual lifestyle is an amoral issue.
—I am not saying that we should remain quiet with our children on this issue. We talk to our 4-year-old son about this because it's already relevant to his life. Our goal as parents is to teach him that every human being has value whether or not their values align with ours, but that The Bible defines how we, in our house, ought to live; and ultimately that style of life, we hope, will portray an unconditional love to others that is impossible to ignore. Of course this is much easier said than done.
Maybe if the Church made as much of a fuss about these other marital issues, it wouldn’t come across as so pridefully anti-gay. Christ came because we could not keep the law. This doesn’t mean we should ignore the law, but it does point to human nature: the heart must change before the head does. If we want America to turn it’s head in favor of a Biblical definition of marriage, we need to change its heart to see the beauty of selfless love by displaying that same love. God changed our hearts by selflessly loving us, may we change the hearts of our fellow citizens by selflessly loving God, our spouses, our children, and our neighbors.