Jacques Tredoux | 7 July 2020 | 8 min read
Just a quick Google search on marriage will yield thousands of articles. On the one hand you may ask, why then write another one? Isn’t it a topic that has thoroughly been dealt with by now? On the other hand the fact that there are so many things written about marriage, might just suggest something about the relevance and complexity of the topic.
Marriage is an ancient institution and has been around for thousands of years. Marriage (and the institution of the family that goes with it) has been at the center of most civilizations throughout history. This is still the case today. Yet, as we will briefly discuss, there has been radical shifts in what some cultures think marriage is, but the idea of marriage is still one of the fundamental building blocks of society everywhere in the world.
As a Christian, I believe that the Bible can contribute to the thousands of voices out there. It also gives us a unique perspective on what marriage is, and how it can lead to the flourishing of the human race.
From “Ever After” to “Happily” – a Cultural Shift
So, let’s start off by looking at some of the major cultural shifts regarding the institution of marriage. The well-known line from most Disney fairy tales, when Prince Charming on his white horse finally wins the heart of his beloved princess, in some way captures the two sides of the spectrum: “And they lived happily ever after…”
In more traditional settings, the emphasis in marriage fell far more to the side of “ever after” than on “happily.” In most cultures, up until the modern secular Western culture, marriage was primarily seen as something that is beneficial to society, rather than to the self. For various reasons such as security, better economic welfare, the continuation of the “family name,” strengthening the clan by raising children and more, getting married was the wise thing to do. This by no means entails a unanimous view on marriage in history. Aspects such as polygamy vs. monogamy, arranged vs. chosen partners, and marriage between different ethnic groups has always been points of difference.
What has been agreed upon though, is that marriage is something that is beneficial for the whole society, and it is something that is lifelong. In the traditional view, divorce is always frowned upon, partly because it is counterproductive to the stability marriage is supposed to bring to society. In commenting on the traditional view, Timothy Keller says the following:
“In particular, lifelong marriage was seen as creating the only kind of social stability in which children could grow and thrive. The reason that society had vested interest in the institution of marriage was because children could not flourish as well in any other kind of environment.”
There are of course many stigmas that go with this view. Men and women have very set and distinct roles within the family, and a patriarchal and sometimes oppressive power structure are seen to accompany this view of marriage. This may or may not be true, but that is a discussion for another day.
Today, however, it is not the case that most people will agree on the “ever after” view of marriage. According to Keller, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Enlightenment brought a major shift in how culture views marriage:
“Older cultures taught their members to find meaning in duty, by embracing their assigned social roles and carrying them out faithfully. During the Enlightenment, things began to shift. The meaning of life came to be seen as the fruit of the freedom of the individual to choose the life that most fulfills him or her personally. Instead of finding meaning through self-denial, through giving up one’s freedoms, and binding oneself to the duties of marriage and family, marriage was redefined as finding emotional and sexual fulfillment and self-actualization.”
This shift swung the pendulum from the “ever after” side to the “happily” side. Marriage is no longer about the good and flourishing of the society, but about my own happiness and fulfillment. This has major implications for the institution of marriage. In this view, divorce should be easy, because I have to be able to get out of a relationship if my needs aren’t met. The major drive in finding a partner is things like sexual and emotional “compatibility,” finding someone who doesn’t want to “change” me, but who wants to enjoy life with me. Cohabiting becomes a way to find out if we are compatible or not, trying to enjoy some of the “advantages” of marriage, without the “ever after” commitment.
In this view, nothing outside of my own desire and subjective needs are allowed to define marriage. It is easy to see how same-sex civil marriages, trans-gender marriages and even polygamist marriages are accommodated in this view.
This view can also be called the revisionist view and is defined as follows:
“It is a vision of marriage as, in essence, a loving emotional bond, one distinguished by its intensity – a bond that needn’t point beyond the partners in which fidelity is ultimately subject to one’s own desires. In marriage, so understood, partners seek emotional fulfillment, and remain as long as they find it.”
I will simply call this view the “happily” view, focusing on self-fulfillment rather than on the marriage, the partner or the benefit it provides for society. As long as the specific partners involved get what they want as individuals, the marriage remains.
A Rainbow of Views
Coming a bit closer to home and maybe getting a bit more practical, lets briefly look at how marriage is viewed here in South-Africa.
Being a pastor in a traditional, Afrikaans church, and having the privilege of working with a lot of students and young adults, I do quite a bit of pre-marital counseling. I am often struck by how the “Afrikaner” culture lies somewhere between the more “traditional” and “liberal” cultures. When it comes to marriage, most of the Afrikaner young adults I engage with, come from a background where the “ever after” view of marriage prevails. They have a high view of the institution of marriage and think it is a good thing that there is some sort of commitment beyond their own needs. However, when asked why they want to marry each other, I almost always get answers like: We make each other happy; We feel that we are meant to be together; We enjoy and love each other etc. This gives away how young Afrikaners have bought into the “happily” view of marriage.
On a broader spectrum, three quick examples can show how South-Africa is truly a “rainbow nation,” also in our view of marriage:
- Our former president, Jacob Zuma has been married six times, divorced twice, lost one wife who committed suicide and is engaged to one lady whom he never married. He is a polygamist who currently has four wives. Polygamy is also legal in South-Africa under the “customary marriage” act.
- A well-known wedding venue in the Western Cape province has been taken to court after denying a gay couple the use of their venue for a marriage ceremony. The owners of the venue did so from their traditional Christian conviction that marriage is between one man and one woman. Just by looking at the reporting (and especially the comments) on this event on two news websites – Maroelamedia, a conservative Afrikaans news platform and Daily Maverick, a liberal English news platform – you will soon realize how divided the general public’s view is on the issue of same-sex marriage.
- The third example shows that even in the church, you will find a rainbow of views. During a General Synod in 2015, the Dutch-Reformed Church decided that same-sex marriages can be recognized as legitimate within their congregations. However, this resulted in a back and forth battle between the pro- and against same-sex marriage camps, that eventually ended up in the High-Court.
It is clear that in South-Africa we literally have a rainbow of views on what marriage is. Ranging from very traditional, patriarchal views to very liberal revisionist views – you get every color and flavor.
A Biblical Rainbow View
As a Christian, it can sometimes be hard to navigate through all these different views. What makes it even more complex, is that a large number of Christians are embracing a liberal theology that moves away from the traditional biblical view of marriage. I believe however, that a traditional, biblical view can give us a unique view of marriage that can be really helpful in navigating this complex issue. I will call this a biblical rainbow view.
Today, when you think of a rainbow, most people think of the LGBTQ+ movement. In South-Africa, you might also think of the idea of the Rainbow Nation, referring to a melting pot of different cultures, races and ethnicities coming together to form the new South-Africa. Biblically speaking though, the rainbow was given as a sign of the covenant that God made with Noah after the flood. Hence, a biblical rainbow view on marriage, is a view where marriage is seen as a covenant relationship. This is not just a third way between the “happily” and “ever after” views of marriage, or a combination thereof, it is a whole new motivation for marriage.
The concept of a covenant is central to the whole Bible. Whenever God enters into relationship with people, this relationship is described as a covenant. A covenant is more than just a mere agreement between parties. The motivation for entering into a covenant, is for the benefit of the other, not the self as is the case in most agreements. We see this in whole story of God’s covenant with Abraham. A covenant relationship is thus in essence, a relationship not focused on the self, but on the other and therefore will not sit well with the “happily” view of marriage.
Furthermore, a covenant relationship, is an exclusive relationship, that lasts a lifetime. This is illustrated in God’s unfailing commitment towards His people, Israel, even when they were unfaithful. Fittingly, this is described using marital language in the book of Hosea.
Another point to emphasize is the fact that a covenant relationship has a profound personal element to it. We can see this in the personal language used in the Psalms, and how the biblical figures often refer to God as “my God.” Applied to marriage, we can, for instance, look at a book like Song of Songs, to see that the Bible includes, affection, love, sex, and enjoyment in its view of marriage. It is not just about the flourishing of society and the clan, like you often find in the “ever after” view.
What I call the biblical rainbow view of marriage, can thus be defined as follows: It is view of marriage where you enter into the relationship, primarily for the benefit of the other. It is a covenant relationship, motivated and defined by God’s love as we see it in the Bible. Such a relationship is beneficial to the whole society, but also brings fulfillment and enjoyment to the individuals in the relationship.
I can agree with Timothy Keller when he explains that the “Christian teaching does not offer a choice between fulfillment (the “happily” view) and sacrifice (the “ever after” view) but rather mutual fulfillment through mutual sacrifice (the biblical rainbow view).”
More than Happily Ever After
Knowing my own heart, and the heart of others, the above-mentioned definition of marriage sounds almost impossible to achieve. Thankfully, in a Christian view of marriage, it is not our ultimate goal to achieve a “perfect” marriage. We do not strive to live happily ever after. A Christian view of marriage goes beyond that. The goal is rather to live in a sacrificial covenant relationship that points to the ultimate covenant relationship between Christ and His Church.
In Ephesians 5:21-33, Paul calls marriage a profound mystery, and he then applies it to Christ and the Church. Somehow, our broken, imperfect, messy marriages can teach us something of the love that Christ has for His bride, the Church. Love so great, that He has given His life for her. Somehow, marriage goes beyond the pleasures and challenges, the joys and sadness of this world, to give us a taste of what God has in store for us when we meet Him face to face someday. Somehow, marriage becomes a picture of the Gospel, the good news that this broken, and messy world, is not all that there is. That is the unique hope that the Christian view of marriage offers the world.
Girgis, Sherif et al. What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. New York: Encounter Books, 2012.
Keller, Timothy & Keller, Kathy. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Marriage with the Wisdom of God. London: Hoddon & Stoughton, 2011.
The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.
 Timothy Keller & Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Marriage with the Wisdom of God (London: Hoddon & Stoughton), 27.
 Ibid., p. 28.
 Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson & Robert P. George, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York: Encounter Books), 1.
 This biographical information of Jacob Zuma is availalbe at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_Zuma#Personal_life, accessed July 7, 2020.
 An example of a Maroela Media article pertaining to this event is available at https://maroelamedia.co.za/nuus/sa-nuus/stryd-oor-venue-wat-gay-paartjie-wegwys-woed-voort/, accessed July 7, 2020.
 An example of a Daily Maverick article also pertaining to this event is available at https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2020-01-19-the-beloftebos-wedding-venue-heterosexism-and-colonial-christianity/#gsc.tab=0, accessed July 7, 2020.
 By a traditional, biblical view of marriage, I mean the view that marriage is meant to be between one man and one woman till death do them part. This will thus exclude same-sex-, transgender- and polygamous marriages as legitimate Christian marriages. Although there are a lot of Christians embracing another view on marriage today, this is the traditional and orthodox Christian view.
 See Genesis 9:12-13.
 Although God’s covenant with Abraham is ultimately about Himself and his honor and glory, it is striking to see that all the “benefits” of the covenant is promised to Abraham and all the “risks” of the covenant is taken by God. It is in essence therefore a “other” focused covenant by God. See Genesis 12-15.
 Hosea as a prophet is called to marry a prostitute and keeps on going back to her every time, she is unfaithful in order to model God’s commitment to an unfaithful people. See Hosea 1-2.
 Keller & Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, p. 28 (My own comments in brackets).