Marriage as Parable of Permanence 3

WeddingRing.jpgWe are discussing marriage by examining the recent book of John Piper’s called This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence

In the first chp Piper examines marriage in two respects:

* It is from God.
* It is for God’s glory.

Anyone who has read Piper knows he reads everything through the lens of the “glory of God,” which is (for me) theologically true yet somehow Piper manages to emphasize a theme far more often than does the Bible. We’ll see that a bit later in this post.

First, marriage is from God. He examines Genesis 1-2 and finds four ways in which marriage itself is an act of God:

1. Marriage is God’s doing in creating male and female.
2. Marriage is God’s doing in that God gives away the first bride (Gen 2:22).
3. Marriage is God’s doing because God spoke marriage into existence: become one flesh.
4. Marriage is God’s doing because the one-flesh union is established in each marriage.



Second, then Piper goes to Ephesians 5:31-32 to establish marriage as for God’s glory. Here are the words from Eph 5:

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery–but I am talking about Christ and the church.

Marriage, he says, “is designed by God to display his glory in a way that no other event or institution does” (24).  Thus, it is “patterned after Christ’s covenant commitment to his church” (24). And the “ultimate thing we can say about marriage is that it exists for God’s glory” (25).  It puts the covenant of Christ and the church on display.

Well, you can read these verses in Eph 5 and not see the word “glory” brought up. Two things: Yes, of course, indeed, by all means and all that sort of thing … everything redounds to God’s glory but the Bible doesn’t say this in this passage. What it does say, second, is something else: it says that marriage is a profound mystery and this is what is found in the context for what that might mean: ” just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” And “After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church.”

Maybe I’m being picky because I have for years thought Piper overemphasizes God’s glory (some will say that can’t be done; I say, let’s say it the way the Bible does). But what I observe is that marriage is intended to depict the sacrificial love of Christ for the church. There’s a difference here: love as sacrificial giving and glory are not the same thing.

And one more point because what he says makes me a little skittish: “Staying married, therefore, is not mainly about staying in love. It is about keeping covenant” (25). Divorce is bad because it breaks covenant and breaks the display of God’s covenant. And, marriage “puts the glory of Christ’s covenant-keeping love on display” (25). Well, yes, I agree. Marriage is about keeping covenant.

But what is love? I sense that Piper lets his meaning of love absorb the inferior use of the word “love” in our culture, where it means very little because it is used for too many relations and ideas. (Maybe that is the basis for his contrast between “love” and “keeping covenant.”) But, my view of love just happens to be “covenant keeping,” and that is what love means in the Bible.

So, staying married for me is about love because love is covenant-keeping and marriage is given by God to depict God’s love. How so? God is Love. God’s creation and marriage partners in particular  are invited to participate in God’s love and, in loving, they display God’s love (or covenant keeping).

Am I being too picky?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Tim Hallman

    I don’t think you’re being too picky towards Piper on this issue.
    If marriage came first, how can it be patterned after Christ’s covenant relationship with the church? It seems like Piper is trying to make Paul say more clearly what Paul left more mysterious – the connection between the covenant love of husband and wife and the covenant love of Christ and the church.
    It’s probably better to insist that God is glorified when a husband loves his wife like Christ loves the church – rather than insisting that marriage exists to glorify God. Paul isn’t trying to make that point, Jesus doesn’t try to make that point, so why should Piper? Piper is trying to make the institution of marriage a bigger deal than the Bible makes of it. It would seem that Paul here in Ephesians is less interested in upholding the institution of marriage and more interested in making a big deal about husband loving their wives. l

  • http://www.christspeak.com ChristSpeak

    I wouldn’t say that you are being too picky per se, but more just not taking one final step. I think Piper would agree with you that marriage is meant to “depict the sacrificial love of Christ for the church,” and I think that is his reason for saying that it exists to glorify God; he would likely say that the showing of that kind of sacrificial love shows the love of God that much more clearly and therefore brings glory to him.
    Tim, in reference to the first line of your third paragraph (“It’s probably better to insist . . .”): I think we do both agree that showing this covenant love to our spouse does bring glory to God through modeling his love to the church; however, you are correct (as I think this is part of your reasoning) in that there are other reasons for marriage as well (i.e., children and the population of the Earth).
    However, even those other purposes also exist, in the end, to bring glory to God. Perhaps it is along this line of thinking that Piper summarizes the entire foundation of marriage as bringing glory to God, since, when all is said and done, each of its distinct purposes exist themselves to bring him glory.
    All in all, I think it can be said as this: the totality of marriage is to bring glory to God; however, marriage consists of many sub-purposes such as rearing children, building up one another in the faith, providing a team for ministry, etc.

  • E

    “There’s a difference here: love as sacrificial giving and glory are not the same thing.” I think that since we have the gospel of John then all our thinking about Glory is turned upside down. in John`s Gospel God the Son is glorified on the cross as an act of sacrificial love for those he loved. is it fair to say that the cross as the revlation of God`s glory changes the very meaning of the word “glory” as we know it? and is it fair to say that alot of times we use of phrase “God`s glory” or “to glorify God” with out thinknig of the cross ( as sacrificial love ) as it`s center and as the act that defines it`s meaning?

  • http://anewlanguageforchristians.blogspot.com Bill

    Not too picky. You note his statement on (24) marriage “is designed by God to display his glory in a way that no other event or institution does” which does display Piper’s taking the concept of God’s glory to a place not indicated in Scripture. While marriage is indeed a reflection of God’s love and Christ’s relationship with the church, I am uncomfortable with the idea of covenant. It is one of those terms that culturally has no meaning any longer – a sacred, or special, contract, but caution is necessary when speaking of contracts as culturally contracts may be terminated often without consequence.

  • http://www.jesustheradicalpastor.com John Frye

    You? Picky? I don’t think so. There is a huge difference between being “picky” and being precise. You are wanting to be precise in holding to “let’s stay with what the Bible says.”
    As for Piper, a mosquito exists for God’s glory as well as a flea and a tumble weed (in his view). So marriage is no greater value than a mosquito. When “God’s glory” is the end game for everything, then everything is boringly the same…IMHO.

  • RJS

    On the reference to Ephesians 5. I don’t think that Piper is getting his view from the text. I think that he is reading the text in the context of his predetermined theology – which comes from “reason” and Calvin more than from the pages of scripture. This is and has been my opinion of most of Piper’s writing and speaking for some 30 years – since I knew him and of him as a professor at the college I attended.
    Paul uses an analogy between marriage and Christ/church but it isn’t an equality. Marriage came first – so the analogy tells us more about Paul’s thinking about Christ and church than it tells us about marriage or “idealized marriage.”

  • http://www.willkinchlea.com/blog Will K.

    Before I say anything, it should probably be noted that I’m 25 and just about to hit my first wedding anniversary.
    Now, I’m aware that my views may be skewed due to the hours of television that partially reared me, like any good city kid, but Piper’s singular Glory of God view seems lacking. First, like RJS and Scot, I just don’t see the ‘Glory of God’ in the Ephesians text. What I see is the proof to an ethic of living which brings Glory to God, like all aspects of the Christian Life. The Glory of God is the primary purpose of everything we do, so therefore, we can take it out of the picture.
    Romantic love is undeniably in the Bible, most notably in Genesis 2 and the Song of Songs. Why can’t the purpose of marriage be “it is not good for man to be alone”?

  • http://thekingandhiskingdom.blogspot.com Nick Mitchell

    Scot,
    I think what Piper is trying to make the foundation something objective. So often people base their marriage on nothing more than subjective feelings toward one another. If that is the basis the marriage crumbles when the feelings go away. Affection is a non-negotiable to Piper; anyone who reads him will know that. But affection is something that needs to be fought for because it is subjective. For a Christian marriage is permanent because it is based on a rock solid covenant.

  • RJS

    Nick,
    The union of man and woman is instituted by God and the point of much of Genesis 2-3. This is good – relationship, companionship, team work, soul mate, protection, procreation – we are created for relationship. The NT teaches us much about how these relationships, within family and in broader context should work among God’s people.
    But founding a view of marriage on glory of God and the relationship of Christ/church seems to me to be a fiction read into scripture. I mean, come on – Paul was single and he felt that singleness was a reasonable and even desirable alternative to marriage. In fact he goes so far as to seem to regard marriage as an alternative preferred because of weakness of the flesh. I think this extreme also misreads Paul – but is a necessary leaven thrown into the discussion.

  • RJS

    For a Christian marriage is permanent because it is founded on the NT ethic of sacrificial love for each other. It is founded on regarding one’s spouse as a neighbor in the Jesus Creed sense. It is founded on the conviction that who we are, how we treat our bodies, how we treat our fellow humans actually matters and has a greater significance over merely here and now pleasures and whims.

  • joanne

    i believe we are to reflect God’s glory in all aspects of our lives. I think Glory refers to God’s image. By reflecting God’s glory we are reflecting his character in the earth as we were called to do in the beginning.
    I think in marriage, we are to seek to reflect God’s character in how we relate to one another. It involves covenant, and sacrifice but also the hard work of relationship.
    Re: God gives away the first bride… that is a human imposition on the scripture in my humble opinion. God creates the woman as the one who will be his conterpart, no doubt and brings them together.
    Re: “Marriage, he says, “is designed by God to display his glory in a way that no other event or institution does”
    I suspect a note of idolatry in this.
    God’s glory, I contend is about being a people who display the character of God (loving God and loving one another) in the earth as a people in union with Christ and one another.

  • joanne

    i think marriage reflects God’s glory only in as much as it reflects his character. We do that imperfectly.

  • http://faithandfood.morizot.net/ Scott Morizot

    I think scripturally of God’s glory as simply something that is, not something he’s overly concerned about. Isaiah and Habakkuk come to mind here. The whole earth is filled with his glory. And one day all that is will be filled with the knowledge of his glory. It seems to me that most, like Piper, who speak of “glory” are not speaking of it in that sense, but are rather speaking of some idea of “honor” or “prestige” or proper “recognition”. And I find they are attributing to God a concern we find nowhere revealed. This is the God who is made known in part through the actions of Hosea with Gomer. This is the God who emptied himself in the Incarnation and endured the shame of the cross. He’s a God of tremendous glory, everywhere present and filling all things. But it’s not something external that he’s concerned about protecting. He’s markedly unconcerned about receiving honor. Instead, he makes of himself a servant. So I don’t think much of this talk about God’s “glory” is really about God at all.
    I also don’t see Paul in Ephesians talking much about covenants at all. Nor is he using an existing practice to illustrate the relationship of Christ and the Church. First, he is redefining a Christian marriage. Whatever marriage had been in any culture, it had never looked like what Paul describes. And it’s really only a description that could be given in the fullness of the light of Christ. Paul is not saying, “Look at our human marriage and that’s what Christ is like.” He’s saying, “Look at Christ and that’s how you are to live out your marriage.”
    When Christians do that, Paul does not then talk of covenants. No. He uses the language of mystery. There is something in the fullness of a Christian marriage that reveals, witnesses, shows Christ and the Church. It’s a union not just of two, but of three. Thus the different terms that have been used over the centuries: theophany, martyrdom, mystery, sacrament.
    However, the call to a celibate life in Christ is not any less. It’s simply other. In some ways, Paul and even Jesus certainly seem to have considered it perhaps greater. It seems to be a path of emptying yourself in the service to all.

  • Jjoe

    I see very little relationship between the concept of marriage and Christianity. Marriage would still exist, and does exist globally, without Christianity. Marriage existed way before Abraham.
    I’m totally ignorant of the reams of scientific data that undoubtedly exist, but at first cut marriage would seem to be an adaption to environmental factors. Couples who stay together produce better adapted children and thus whatever gene cues us to partner with another human being for life is passed along.
    To that extent, that it drives evolution, you can say God designed it, but to make marriage something inherently religious is just painting it a different color.
    As we see with divorce rates, sometimes Christianity can be decremental to marriage or at least not helpful. Here in Arkansas, we’re very religious but we also are among the nation’s leaders in divorce.
    People need to be as rational as they can in an emotional situation when they make the decision to marry. Leaving those pesky financial details up to God, or thinking that God wants two teenagers to get married because their bodies are screaming to procreate, is not a good strategy for making long term decisions that do end up glorifying God.
    Just my $0.02.

  • http://belovedbeforetime.blogspot.com Andrew H.

    I don’t think there is a distinction between covenant-keeping and love. In Deuteronomy Israel is urged to “love” their covenant Lord by holding fast to his laws. (Law is not opposed to relational love!) And nearly all mentions of God’s love in the OT is his chesed, his steadfast and unswerving commitment to his people. Hence the ESV translates it as “steadfast love” and the NIV “unfailing love.”
    But I do not think there is a contradiction when Piper says that marriage displays God’s glory and Paul says in Eph. 5 that marriage displays Christ’s sacrificial love. Is it not such love that is the heart of God, that is, his own glory and excellence? 2 Cor 4:6 says that the glory of God is seen in Christ, which surely includes his redeeming love at his own expense and pain.

  • Mark Phifer-Houseman

    I think we chafe at Piper’s “glory, glory, glory” argument because he’s more than a bit pedantic, but also because we don’t see that God’s glory being uppermost in his affections is actually for our good — our lives would be far less secure in God and far more boring should God not be most concerned with his repuation, his Name as savior, Lord, Father, etc.
    On what Paul was up to in chapter 5 of Ephesians, it has to be read in context with Ephesians 1 where Paul makes it very clear that the drama of redemption is “to the praise of his glorious grace”.(v. 6) and “so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.” (v. 12) Then he piles metaphor/symbol upon symbol to show what this salvation looks like – redeemed rebels (ch. 2) a multicultural temple of reconciliation (ch. 2), a cosmic demonstration to the angels and powers of the varied manifold (polypolikulos) wisdom of God (ch. 3), the household of the eternal Father (ch. 3), the Body of Christ (4), the Bride of Christ (ch. 5), and the army/soldier of God (ch. 6). In all these metaphorical realities, God is uppermost in his affections and we are the beneficiaries, the ones who get to come along for the wild ride of redemption.
    So, reading the book as a whole, one would have to read Paul’s statement about marriage in the midst of his household instructions, “I am speaking of Christ and the Church” (5:32, to mean that Paul is turning over the cards about marriage and showing that, in it’s sanctified form, where “laying down life kind of love” exists, it’s a display of Christ’s love for the church and the church’s response to that love. Let’s also remember our Greek, that “mysterion” does not mean “wow, that’s deep, it’s beyond words, it’s heavy, give me another glass of wine late at night under the stars . . . “. It means something concrete that is meant to be uncovered, like the mysterion that the Gentiles are fellow heirs with the Jews (3:4-6). So, marriage is an experience, an institution that exists in an “already and not yet” way, but now, on the other side of the Cross/Resurrection/Ascension, makes sense as a parable and showcase of what Christ’s love for the church means.
    Just like Jesus and Paul uplifting human parenting and fatherhood by likening it to God’s fatherhood of his people, his use of marriage as a metaphor for Christ’s love for the church uplifts what marriage is in this life of trials and gives hope to all us strugglers, that there is a tractor beam of eternal power flowing from Jesus to the church that empowers us to lay down our lives for one another in marriage and mirror Jesus’ sacrificial love for the church.
    Celebrating 25 years of marriage this month with many friends who roasted my wife and I reminded me that I have been a bozo, but God has worked for his great Name in our lives so that generations of other marriages have been impacted for his glory. Have my wife and I worked our butts off to keep covenant with each other in the life of faith? Damn straight. But, when we look back at the 25 years, all we can do is stand in awe and say, “You have made your Name great. You have drawn beautiful pictures with bent sticks. You have even used our foolishness and folly for your glory and our good.” There is no greater safety than knowing that the Holy Trinity is “pursuing after us to do us good all the days of our lives like a highway patrol car on I-5 near Fresno” (Psalm 23 paraphrase).
    I have never read any Calvin and precious little Piper. But, I have read the Bible over and over and God’s glory does seem to come out as a major major theme as progressive revelation reaches its climax in the church and the eternal party portrayed in John’s Revelation.

  • Scot McKnight

    Mark, I’m not sure I recognize your name but thanks for speaking up — and welcome if you are a visitor. I think your comment puts this well — yes, by all means, glory of God but in its context the idea is sacrificial love — which of course will bring God glory. But we dare not miss the emphasis of Paul on sacrificial love as his central point.

  • http://unveiledface.blogspot.com Mick Porter

    I wonder if the issue is not just whether God’s glory is the root issue, but also what it is that most glorifies God?
    If we accept Piper’s statement that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, we will have to look beyond our marriage etc. – always looking to a satisfaction in God.
    NTW has made statements to the effect of God being most glorified in his people when his people reign obediently over his good creation. God is glorified when his new covenant people live lives that bring him glory, when they are obedient to him (at least that’s the picture I get from Ezekiel 36).
    1 Cor 10:31 is very revealing in this regard. When it’s taken in the “satisfied in him” respect, it can become individualistic and about eating and drinking whilst somehow reflecting on God’s great gifts etc. (I’ve heard Piper’s thing on how to eat an orange to the glory of God). But the context is much more down-to-earth – Paul is talking about glorifying God by maintaining peace in the tricky world of first-century eating: sitting between a rock and a hard place of church/Jews/pagans and striving to not cause offense. You might even say “good works” bringing glory to God.

  • JAM

    Thank you, Scot, and others here who have offered their critique of Piper’s grand, sweeping, “glory, glory” style of expression, although well intentioned seems to go way too far beyond the text (whatever happened to “sola scriptura”??). This has been a complaint of mine for years, especially when it comes to Piper’s teachings on marriage and singleness.
    Will K. aptly observes, “Romantic love is undeniably in the Bible, most notably in Genesis 2 and the Song of Songs. Why can’t the purpose of marriage be “it is not good for man to be alone”?”. Absolutely! Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:2, “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband”, suggesting that marriage has indeed been designed by God to meet ordinary, practical human needs. But somehow, this fact seems to make a lot of popular writers uncomfortable, as if it’s suggesting that it’s OK for people to marry mainly for fleshly purposes — well, maybe it is!
    Boundless.com, Focus on the Family’s ezine for young adults, has been courageous at challenging some of the impractical, over-spiritualized teachings to singles.


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