True Marriage: A Covenant of Love

bonhoefferQuaint and pithy sayings are often mistaken for genuine wisdom, especially when they are given to us from historical figures or men of renown. Great danger comes when the hearer becomes passive with such "wisdom" by failing to measure everything by the standard of Holy Writ. No man can match the ancient wisdom of God’s Word.[1] Consider the following counsel offered by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to a young couple about to be married:

“It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, [it is] the marriage that sustains your love.”

We should wonder if this is true. Can it be said that the marriage covenant itself is what sustains love? One problem with Bonhoeffer’s statement is that it is rather vague, and leaves itself open to a variety of possible interpretations. Ultimately, what sustains any marriage is the Lord Himself. But accepting his statement at face value, I would suggest that Bonhoeffer has created an unhelpful dichotomy – especially for a marriage between two believers. You see, when two genuine Christians enter into the bond of marriage, they are doing so within the perfect bond of unity – agape-love. If they are Christians at all, then the centerpiece for all their affections is rooted and grounded in such love. Now we should clarify an important point here: when speaking of agape-love we are not talking about the self-oriented infatuation which is common in our world (eros-love). Such a distinction is essential, especially since men like C.S. Lewis have popularized the idea that marital love is rooted in such eros-love:

"By Eros I mean of course that state which we call ‘being in love’; or, if you prefer, that kind of love which lovers are ‘in.’"[2]

Unfortunately, Lewis’ interpretations of eros-love reveal a lack of understanding of simple history and etymology. Because of such a shortcoming, he fails to offer a scriptural description of genuine love found between two believers in Christ. What must be understood is that true marital love is rooted in a Christ centered, Christ exalting, love which establishes the perfect bond of unity in all our relationships:

Colossians 3:14-19: 14. Beyond all these things put on love [ten agapen], which is the perfect bond [sundesmos] of unity. 15. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. 16. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father. 18. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19. Husbands, love [agapete] your wives and do not be embittered against them.

Paul’s description of the centrality of love in verse 14 should not be seen as separate from his continued instructions in vs. 18 & 19 – all of these summary commands are related to the principal injunction [by ellipsis] to "put on love" as our chief garment in Christ. Should we conclude that Paul has not marriage in mind when speaking of the perfect bond of unity – love, then we have missed too much. Paul’s emphasis on the primacy of agape-love is very consistent throughout his writings, and reveals his commitment to the Savior’s injunction concerning the foremost commandment of love: Mark 12:28-31, such that “on these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”[3] It is this same bond of agape-love to which the Lord refers when He reveals the basis of His covenant faithfulness to Ephraim, despite their wickedness:

Hosea 11:4: 4. I led them with cords of a man, with bonds of love [desmois agapeseos], And I became to them as one who lifts the yoke from their jaws; And I bent down and fed them.

As well, it is such love that is especially modeled in the Savior’s relationship with His bride, the church:

Ephesians 5:22-25: 22. Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. 25. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her…"[4]

The constancy and centrality of love within the marriage covenant cannot be ignored, nor should it be separated from the marriage covenant itself as if it could be in a Christian marriage. Like our faith in Christ, agape-love will wax and wane in any marriage, but what sustains the believer’s love is not a covenant, by itself, but the Lord Himself and His unfailing love. If we love at all, we do so, as believers whom the Lord loved first.[5] Without such love, there can be no perfect bond of unity in any relationship. Thus, when two unbelievers face marital difficulties, there is a great danger that looms in their midst. Without the bond of God’s supernatural love, there is no substantive bond between them beyond the legal covenant itself. But when two believers face marital difficulty, there is something very powerful and needful there that cannot be removed from the marriage union itself – the perfect bond of unity – the bond of God’s love. When two believers face struggles and trials with one another, such is a time that requires an even greater measure of agape-love. Romantic affections will especially wax and wane, but genuine love will always stand as the centerpiece of every godly marriage. If a man were to believe that it is his covenant promise alone that sustains his marriage, he has made too much of his oath,[6] and too little of the power of God’s love in his life and in the life of his wife. If he thinks that his marriage can be sustained without love, then he has been reduced to a miserable condition of thought concerning the nature of God’s faithfulness, power, and sufficiency. An anniversary card from such a man should never be crafted nor given:

"The first 20 years were great. The next 20 years will be difficult, but just remember – I’m enduring it because of my oath. Happy Anniversary Honey!"

Without the love of God, every marriage is reduced to a mere contractual obligation, with brief hints of eros self-satisfaction sprinkled here and there.

But that is the world’s version of marriage.

I have seen some very sweet and elderly marriages which revealed the fragrant aroma and evidence of Christ’s sanctification in their lives – marriages that went beyond 50 & 60 years. It is not that these were perfect people, but what I have witnessed is the power of God’s love and sanctification in the lives of genuine believers, such that the perfect bond of unity was a growing reality in their lives, even more real than when they first said to each other: "I do." This is what one might expect from people whose lives are being conformed to the image of Christ on the sure foundation of agape-love. Thus, what a young couple ought to hear is this:

“You will be sustained by the power of God’s love in your marital covenant – for His love, in and through you both, will supply the perfect bond of unity to weather all of the storms, struggles, and changes of life.”

There is great hope in the message of God’s great love, and it is for this reason that I have felt so compelled to write Altar to an Unknown Love in view of the many obfuscations of this important subject. The subject of genuine love is nothing to trifle with. Whatever Bonhoeffer meant by what he said, I must prefer Scripture and the power of God to sustain anything.

[1] Psalm 119:100: I understand more than the aged, Because I have observed Your precepts.
[2] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves.
[3] Matthew 22:40
[4] As the church is called to a loving submission to Christ, so too are wives called to submit to their husbands. The absence of the word love in Paul’s instructions to wives must not be construed as denoting an unloving submission: this would be contrary to his earlier point made repeatedly in Ephesians chapter 3.
[5] 1 John 4:19.
[6] Matthew 5:31-37: 31. “It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; 32. but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33. “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ 34. “But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35. or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36. “Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37. “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.

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