From 2015 to 2018 I preached a series of messages on the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. This messaged was preached in 2017. Article 19: Marriage.
Rahab the prostitute helped the Israelite spies leave Jericho. When Jericho was conquered by the Israelite army, Rahab was spared and ended up marrying an Israelite.
The first paragraph of article 19 summarizes what we believe: We believe that God intends human life to begin in families and to be blessed through families. Even more, God desires all people to become part of the church, God’s family. As single and married members of the church family give and receive nurture and healing, Christian family relationships can grow toward the wholeness that God intends.
While the title of the article is marriage, there is a significant portion devoted to the topic of family. Marriage and family play a central part in scripture. In Genesis, as God is making the world, he declares that everything is good. The first time God says that something is not good is when he notices how man is alone. The idea of marriage is given in Genesis 2:24 where it says the couple will leave their respective families and become one new family. This critical scripture is repeated at least 2 more times, by Jesus when he talks about divorce and Paul when he talks about the church’s relationship with Jesus.
In Genesis chapter 1, when God blesses the man and woman, one of the blessings he pronounces is to have children so that all their descendants fill the earth. When Abraham is called by God, he is told that he will have countless descendants and that the whole world will be blessed through his family. This theme continues throughout the scripture. Family plays a central role in blessing our communities and the world and marriage forms the center of families… at least ideally.
The ideal doesn’t last long. In Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve rebel against God, God curses child bearing making it a very painful experience so what was supposed to be a blessing is now pain. In Genesis chapter 4, Lamech is the first man to have 2 wives, ruining God’s intent for marriage to be one man and one woman. Abraham, Jacob, king David, king Solomon all had multiple wives and/or concubines which are all distortions of the ideal God intended. The fall continues as women, in general, were treated like property and marriage becomes the one place where a woman’s status could be improved. Scripture doesn’t explicitly say what happened is bad, but we are meant to understand that the world had fallen far from the ideal of what God intended. Marriages were not good anymore. Families were falling apart. That is the reality of scripture.
It’s important to notice that God does not disqualify people for their broken marriages or families. There are often consequences that come from living further from God’s intended ideal, but what we notice most is how God takes what is broken and works at redeeming it, starting with Abraham. So the focus isn’t how fallen the world is, but how is God working to fix this. This is highlighted in the first part of Jesus’ own genealogy:
This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife,Matthew 1:1-6 NIV
There are 4 wives mentioned in this part of Jesus’ genealogy: Tamar, was a daughter in law to Judah, but Judah ended up sleeping with her because he thought she was a prostitute. Rahab is likely the same prostitute that helped the Israelite spies. Uriah’s wife refers to Bathsheba whom David had an affair with. That Jesus descended from these families does not say what happened was good, but it demonstrates how God redeems the broken family.
And this is the theme of the new covenant, redeeming all our families to become part of God’s multi-nation family.
Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.”Luke 8:19-21 NIV
Jesus starts redefining family boundaries, not to exclude the biological family, but to fulfill the promise God made to Abraham, that all families on earth would be blessed through his descendants. While we still consider the biological family important, it is the church family that should define us and it is defined as those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.
Dating sites like Christian mingle just prove how obsessed with match making our church and culture has become.
The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”Matthew 19:10-12 NIV
Matthew 19 is talking about divorce and Jesus emphasizes that divorce is not acceptable, but it had been a common practice in Jesus’ day. And so the disciples wonder if they should ever marry at all if they can’t divorce. Divorce is a much bigger topic, but it is important to remember that in Jesus’ day, women had a very difficult life, unmarried women had little status and divorced women had no status. For a man to divorce his wife was terrible for the woman even if the husband wasn’t a good man.
What’s fascinating is that Jesus is talking about not getting married at all and that being single is OK. Paul also talks about choosing the unmarried life. Yet there is a significant pressure from family, church and culture to get married. We often think of being unmarried as not normal, but Jesus gives 3 reasons why people might choose to not marry: (1) they don’t feel compelled to marry, (2) life has prevented them from marriage and (3) they give up marriage for the sake of God’s Kingdom.
Our confession does recognize the single person: We recognize that God has created human beings for relationship. God intends human life to be blessed through families, especially through the family of faith. All Christians are to take their place within the household of God, where members treat each other as brothers and sisters. We hold that within the church family, the goodness of being either single or married is honored. We honor the single state and encourage the church to respect and to include single persons in the life and activities of the church family. Families of faith are called to be a blessing to all families of the earth.
To be married requires a certain amount of maturity on the part of both the husband and wife. It is never good to be pushed or rushed into marriage. Millie’s grandpa had a great saying: It is better to be single and wish you were married than to be married and wish you were single.
Within our church family, we’ve had a number of us who had lived all their lives single. All contributed to our church family and to God’s Kingdom in ways that we miss today.
In 2015, the Supreme court made same-sex marriage legal nationally. According to a number of news agencies, public opinion swung considerably in the 15 years before this decision so that close to 60% of public opinion was in favor of same-sex marriage where there once was considerable opposition. [Wikipedia]
In September, our conference voted to change the constitution to end our relationship with Mennonite Church USA over the issue of same-sex marriage. Many leaders pointed to Article 19 on marriage, specifically the line that states “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life” as the reason for ending the relationship. It’s a little ironic that many compared our conference leaving MC USA like a divorce and others have noted that it was perhaps a marriage that should never have happened in the first place.
From the 3rd paragraph of our Confession of faith: We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life. Christian marriage is a mutual relationship in Christ, a covenant made in the context of the church. According to Scripture, right sexual union takes place only within the marriage relationship. Marriage is meant for sexual intimacy, companionship, and the birth and nurture of children.
This paragraph sums up the ideal of marriage. I think that the most important part from this paragraph is the part about sexual intimacy. Most of us limit this to sexual acts, but Jesus changes the boundary:
But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.Matthew 5:28 NIV
We’re pretty clear about what the “ideal” marriage looks like, but we don’t do to well in dealing with situations outside the ideal. What does it mean to look at a woman lustfully? What about personal sexual gratification? Churches have a hard time articulating our beliefs about sexual intimacy and gratification and parents rarely talk about it with their children because it’s awkward. What ends up happening is that people are more informed about sexuality from our culture rather than the church. And this creates the situation where our churches end up being influenced by our culture rather than the church influencing the culture.
A lot of church leaders noted that the general acceptance of same sex marriages by our culture over the last 15 years surprised the church, but no one asked the question why we were surprised by it. The answer, as I just mentioned, is that culture is influencing the church a lot more than we realize, because we’re afraid to talk clearly about sexuality.
I do agree with our confession, that the marriage ideal is between one man and one woman for life. Within the church, as far as I’ve read in our confession of faith and in scripture, there is nothing wrong with being homosexual. For someone who is homosexual to remain in good standing, there should be a commitment to the single life and staying away from sexual activity.
The ideal family
There are a good number of TV shows in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, like “Little house on the prairie” that give a picture of the ideal family. TV shows that come out more often these days tend to show the brokenness of the ideal family.
Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”1st Samuel 1:6-8 NIV
The unwritten answer is “not really”. Hannah’s rival Peninnah was winning the better wife contest because she had children and Hannah didn’t. In a similar fashion, we still carry on this idea of an ideal family and we rank each other based on how well our children turn out.
From our confession of faith: Children are of great importance. Jesus saw them as examples of how to receive the reign of God. Children are to be loved, disciplined, taught, and respected in the home and in the church. Children are also to honor their parents, obeying them in the Lord. Younger people are to respect their elders in the home and the church.
Ideally, when parents love each other in their marriage and love their children, then the children will respect their parents and younger people will end up respecting their elders. This is the kind of family life we aim for. What is difficult is when people start comparing others to the ideal standard and the standard isn’t being met.
One of the challenges that Millie and I face is with talking to parents about parenting. It is easy to tell us that we don’t understand what it’s like to be a parent and it’s true, we don’t have any children. The challenge is knowing how to help in a way that doesn’t provoke and irritate.
The redeemed family
Do prostitutes and their clients, known as “johns” belong in God’s family? Ask Judah and Tamar.
Confession: The church is called to help couples strengthen their marriage relationship and to encourage reconciliation in times of conflict. The church is also to minister with truth and compassion to persons in difficult family relationships. As the family of God, the church is called to be a sanctuary offering hope and healing for families.
In the past, the church drew a fairly hard line regarding marriage. “Who could marry who” was often restricted. If someone married a divorced person they couldn’t be a church member. The church as a whole is not as strict as it was before. This is not because the church has given up on the ideal of marriage, but rather we don’t want to drive people away from the work of redemption through the church. The church’s job is, after all, to show the way to enter God’s kingdom and become a part of God’s family.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.Matthew 21:31-32 NIV