Best Marriage Quote Ever: Alexander Schmemann on Marriage as Mission

In light of the Supreme Court Ruling yesterday about marriage and DOMA, I wanted to share the best marriage quote I’ve ever read, at least in relation to the modern institution of marriage. Alexander Schmemann was an Eastern Orthodox priest, writer, and theologian. His book For the Life of the World is a must-read. It is on my list, The Top Ten Books Every Christian Should Read. Schmemann remind us that marriage can become an idol or an icon (something that points beyond itself to God).

“A marriage which does not constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency, which does not “die to itself” that it may point beyond itself, is not a Christian marriage. The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of “adjustment” or “mental cruelty.” It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God. This is expressed in the sentiment that one would “do anything” for his family, even steal. The family has here ceased to be for the glory of God; it has ceased to be a sacramental entrance into his presence. It is not the lack of respect for the family, it is the idolization of the family that breaks the modern family so easily, making divorce its almost natural shadow. It is the identification of marriage with happiness and the refusal to accept the cross in it. In a Christian marriage, in fact, three are married; and the united loyalty of the two toward the third, who is God, keeps the two in an active unity with each other as well as with God. Yet it is the presence of God which is the death of the marriage as something only “natural.” It is the cross of Christ that brings the self-sufficiency of nature to its end. But “by the cross, joy entered the whole world.” Its presence is thus the real joy of marriage. It is the joyful certitude that the marriage vow, in the perspective of the eternal Kingdom, is not taken “until death parts,” but until death unites us completely.” – Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, Chapter 5, p.90.

Schmemann is rightly claiming that marriage is unintelligible not only outside of the church, but more importantly outside God’s mission of redemption. The mission of God is what gives marriage a proper sense of itself. He’s exposing one of the most important realities of our current culture when it comes to marriage: Most people think of their own marriage as something that exists “for my spouse and I, so that we might be happy and have our needs fulfilled.” Schmemann unequivocally says this is idolatry. It is allowing the marriage to turn in on itself – we look to our marriage to meet our needs and it will always fail and thus so many marriages end in divorce.

Christian marriage does not exist for the benefit of the two people in the marriage, it is for the benefit of the world, that God would be glorified in it. The main purpose of marriage is not the enjoyment of the two people who are married, the main purpose of marriage is to glorify Christ as we participate in the Mission of God. Anything less is making an idol out of marriage. When it comes to marriage, this is my primary concern, and it points us to the deeper meaning of marriage. I’m challenged by this today.

About Tim Suttle

Tim Suttle is a pastor, writer, and musician. He is the author of two books: Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), and An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade Books, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, The Wall Street Journal, and other magazines and journals. Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. He has planted three successful churches over the past 12 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.

  • scott stone

    This is an issue that I admittedly struggle with. I have views that vacillate on any given day and can see both sides of the issue. What I can unequivocally say is that DOMA was bad law. From a pure constitutional position it needed to be overturned. It was far too reaching and something that should not have been enacted in the first place. I’m still of the belief that it was just political expediency by President Clinton.

    I agree in principle with Schmemann on his views regarding marriage but would take issue with using his statements in the discussion of marriage and the SCOTUS ruling and the fallout that is occurring because of this ruling. If, as is being argued, that this issue is THE civil rights issue of our time (and I’m being very specific when I use the term civil rights), Schmemann’s statement that “In a Christian marriage, in fact, three are married; and the united
    loyalty of the two toward the third, who is God, keeps the two in an
    active unity with each other as well as with God.”is a deal breaker. Why limit marriage to three? If a Christian marriage is one that will “constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency” why could that not occur with four or five? Remember, this is being litigated as a civil rights issue, not a religious issue.

    Marriage is many things but it is primarily the mechanism for societal stability. It is the institution that creates families and support structure for growing communities. Does it matter whether the union is between same sex individuals? I certainly don’t want to be the one answering that question.

  • Mike Mayer

    I’m not sure what to make of this post. Maybe I’m missing the point, but it sounds as though the point being made is that marriage is not about the people in the marriage, but about how the couple can better serve God through marriage. While I do believe that having a marriage that includes God in the equation has an added dimension to it, it seems as though you (and the clergy who made the original statement) have forgotten (or failed to ever see) that marriage is a gift from God to the people in the marriage.

    Am I missing the point? Or is this another example of elements of the church so desperate to save the “good old days of the church” that they would drive it into complete irrelevancy???

  • caroljlecompte

    Thank you for sharing this, Tim. I’m adding to my ‘collection’ along with this by Bonhoeffer:

    Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which he wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time. In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom.

    In your love, you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man.

    As high as God is above man, so high are the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of marriage above the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of love. It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.

    (Letter and Papers from Prison, http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1153999-widerstand-und-ergebung-briefe-und-aufzeichnungen-aus-der-haft)