More Than A Table For Two
The Difference a Christ-centered Marriage Makes in a Culture of Fragmented Families
mtl Note: In her book, Then Comes Marriage?: A Cultural History of the American Family author Rebecca Price Janney examines how people in other eras throughout American history conducted their relationships and how we got to where we are today.
by Stephanie Duncan
With thirty-six days standing in between us and our vows, Zach and I are still trying to track down late RSVPs and figure out the difference between white, ivory, and champagne. But even with so many pressing details, we know that these are fringe matters compared to the glory we will represent when we soon meet at the altar. The pastor, who is Zach’s father, will say a few words about how marriage is a picture of Christ’s love for the Church, we will all (pastor included) cry our way through the vows, and then in front of everyone we will be declared husband and wife.
In many ways, we have no idea what we’re getting ourselves into. If you’ve spent any time on a Christian campus (like the one where we met with courtyard foliage that incidentally spells out “I Do”), you know that it can double as a stage for relational drama. Between the two of us, Zach and I know at least eight couples who have broken off their engagement. And while we have friends whose marriages we greatly admire, the tragedy remains that the divorce rate for Bible school graduates is no different than the world’s.
But what anchors us to a sanctified perspective is that in thirty-six days we will join ourselves together in the divine portrait of the Savior’s all-giving love for His Bride. How miraculous it is to reflect the Father’s naming attribute, as He is called Love, and extend this care to another. It is this understanding that prompted Zach, during a surprise snowstorm one April, to tell me that he loved me. And from the conversation that followed until now, we have understood that because God is Love, to proclaim love is to invoke His very Name. To me this seems sacred, something I cannot afford to take lightly.
This is why we are delighted, anxious, excited and scared half to death of putting into practice this whole imitating-the-love-of-Christ-for-His-Church thing. How, I think, will this majesty translate into brushing our teeth at the same sink and doing our laundry together? How can my messy, trip-up self be entrusted with the high calling of reflecting redemption in our daily domestic life?
Paul answers me simply enough, “This mystery is profound” (Ephesians 5:32a). It is a mystery as much as it is a mercy, I think, that a husband and wife might rehearse the love they have divinely received in their conduct towards each other.
Yet our culture tells so many stories of relational wreckage. Instead of learning love from a Personal Being, a secular marriage too often practices love not as a sacred quality but a sentiment divorced from its very Creator. In a sense, they are borrowing an attribute that belongs to a God they don’t know and exercising a representation of a spiritual truth they don’t believe. To be fair, there are people with good marriages who have detached the basic virtues that uphold their relationship from theology. But if they do not understand the holy reason behind why their marriage works, neither can the fragmented family be expected to pull together apart from God’s paradigm of sacrificial love.
In Then Comes Marriage?: A Cultural History of the American Family, author Rebecca Price Janney names the distinction between secular and Christian marriages. Of the Christian couple she says, “Crowning their life together is the kind of giving, empathic, other-oriented love of which Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12, what he called ‘the most excellent way.’ Such love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. It never fails (1 Corinthians 13:7-8a). That is the essence of the Christian model.”
Reading this book enlightened me with several insights as I approach tying the knot. First of all, I appreciate the focus of Janney’s message. Rather than condemning the culture, Janney turns this scenario on its head by placing the weight of responsibility on Christians to display “the most excellent way” and shine all the brighter. Janney navigates through centuries of marital tradition, tracing both the progresses and the pitfalls along the way, to prove the timeless power of this most excellent way of love. And after intriguing tales of bride ships, Victorian modesty, and feminist activism, Janney brings her readers to the conclusion that the restoration of the American family is up to the saints.
This connects for me as I consider marriage as a metaphor for the relationship of Christ and the Church. This saving relationship does not keep to itself, but produces a natural outflow of love and service as the redeemed person reaches out to those around him. Likewise, the Christ-centered marriage is not intended for isolation, but extends the same care the couple has divinely received to the community.
Janney affirms this, “There’s a wholeness to the family that is intact that trickles down through all society as they experience the benefits of relationships as they were meant to be.” She cites the Schaeffers as one such family, who knew that marriage, as Edith Schaeffer said, “is meant to portray something within the family of the love of God for His family.” The Schaeffers’ commitment to the family enabled them to open their doors to many others, a ministry that grew into the L’Abri legacy.
My own family has taught me the value of hospitality. When my parents and two sisters moved into our manor-like home built in 1852, we asked our pastor to lead us in a house dedication. My parents bought the house with the intention of sharing it, and twelve years later we have hosted a foreign exchange student from France, a pastor’s daughter from Brazil, a neighboring family who lived with us one summer, our nursing student friend, various missionaries on furlough, great uncles, college roommates, and a handful of other friends and folk. My mother likes to say she has eight children, referring to her three girls and the five foster kids who have become part of the family.
Janney writes, “…there is a certain winsomeness about families who follow Jesus, especially as He calls people to love others as we love ourselves.” She points out that families of faith should be easily identified by certain characteristics, such as selflessness, patience, and the fruit of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22-23. Some of these characteristics will be countercultural, but this only ensures that the Christian family will stand apart from the family struggles that surround it. These are the families, she observes, that serve on emergency response teams, volunteer in their neighborhoods, and pursue adoption. In this way, Janney’s review of the state of the American family is both encouraging and challenging: she is realistic about the deteriorating family model but seizes this as a momentous opportunity for Christian witness.
It is a challenge I cannot help but take to heart. Zach and I may not have company china or the kind of house that can accommodate a church retreat, but we will get to know our neighbors. In August we plan to run a 5K together to support the local crisis pregnancy center, and once we find a church we plan to get involved. This is not because we think we have anything fantastic to offer, but because we feel that opening our lives to others is part of spiritual obedience and we want to start this habit now.
When Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize for her internationally renowned Christian charity, she was asked what people could do to promote world peace. Her response was simple: “Go home and love your family.” Likewise, starting small and praying big, we can be confident that God will shine through our relationships with His redeeming light.
 Rebecca Price Janney. Then Comes Marriage?: A Cultural History of the American Family (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2010), 223.
 Edith Schaeffer. The Hidden Art of Homemaking: Creative Ideas for Enriching Everyday Life (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1971), 58.
 Janney, 221.
Dr. Rebecca Price Janney is a theologically trained historian and the author of 18 books including Who Goes There: A Cultural History of Heaven and Hell, Great Women in American History, Great Stories in American History, and Harriet Tubman. A graduate of Lafayette College, and Princeton Seminary, Rebecca received her D. Min. from Biblical Seminary. She resides with her husband and son in suburban Philadelphia.