To stand in front of a pastor and friends, boldly declaring we will love and be faithful to one person for the rest of our lives is already a courageous act. Every day after that, though, takes even more courage and dedication as we seek to follow-through on our promise. In this article, marriage ministry leader Alissa Coburn helps us to more deeply understand God’s design for marriage and how we can grow in spiritual maturity when we submit fully to the covenant of marriage and our unique roles within it.
When I finally left my first husband in 2009, after a tumultuous and volatile 13 years, an older woman at church (exasperated with her own husband) looked at me and said, “Don’t get married again. If you find a man you love, just live with him.” I was shocked and dismayed, but sadly, she isn’t alone in her opinion. Most of us know we should save sex for marriage, but we’re not sure why or what the point of marriage is—beyond the ability to have sex without guilt.
So what’s the point? What’s the purpose of marriage?
The Sunday School answer is this: Marriage is the covenantal union of one man and one woman who come together to become one flesh, taking on various roles assigned to them by God.
This sounds great (and it’s true, so even better), but what does it really mean? What exactly is God’s design for marriage and WHY did He make it that way? Beyond that, how does God use marriage to help us grow?
GOD’S DESIGN: ONE MAN AND ONE WOMAN
First, let’s start with why it has to be a man and woman. God designed humans to reproduce sexually. Therefore, in order to procreate and make more humans, men and women must come together to reproduce. It’s simple biology. But while biology (and every other scientific discipline) comes from God, it merely scratches the surface.
In the Garden of Eden, after each day of creation, God would look at His work and declare that it was good. Until day 6. On that day, after creating all the other land animals, God began to create the culmination of his masterpiece. He made a man. He formed him from dust in the ground based upon His own image. And then He breathed His divine breath into the man’s nostrils. The first man, Adam, was born. However, when God looked at Adam for the first time, He said something was NOT good. “It is not good that the man should be alone,” God said. “I will make a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18).
God then created Eve, the first woman, from the rib bone of Adam. I’ve often wondered why God chose to create her that way. Why didn’t He create her separately? Why did she need his rib? Only God truly knows, but I have an idea. Man and woman together, united as one, is the closest expression of the imago Dei—the image of God. Together, they were made in God’s image. They each received a portion of His characteristics, which are most fully realized when they stay in connection with Him. This creates a deep intimacy—a knowing—that should remain between and unite a couple for a lifetime.
IN COVENANTAL MARRIAGE
Covenant isn’t a word that’s used much today. We’re much more familiar with contracts. These are documents that outline agreed upon stipulations for cooperation. They give a path out of the deal if one or both fail to honor the terms of the agreement. Covenant, on the other hand, is far more binding. A covenant consists of a pledge to the other party and to God that you will uphold your promises no matter what. It is binding and, in the case of marriage, is meant to be permanent. In an article on covenant, FamilyLife® founder Dennis Rainey said this:
“A contract has an end date, a covenant is permanent. A contract usually specifies a part of a person’s property or services, a covenant involves a person’s total being, which in marriage means a commitment that extends beyond performance, health issues, and financial prosperity to a promise of a lifelong fidelity.”
As I mentioned before, I have been divorced and then remarried (my husband Josiah and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary this year). Many theologians have debated long and hard about whether there are biblical grounds for divorce, and if so, what those grounds are. If God did give us a ‘way out’ of marriage in the Bible, my first marriage would have fit each one. However, I prefer not to look at it like that. I prefer to say I, as an incredibly imperfect human, enthusiastically accept God’s grace and mercy for breaking my covenant with my first husband, despite anything he might have done. And I am filled with gratitude that He gave me a second chance with Josiah. Our God is a God of second chances, Amen? Nevertheless, a marriage covenant is meant to be lifelong.
AS ONE FLESH
The term “one flesh” actually has two coinciding meanings. First, two humans come together to form the most intimate human relationship between two people. Indeed, they are to know and accept one another so completely that they are inextricably entwined. The second meaning of the term “becoming one flesh” is the outward expression of that intimacy sexually with our spouse. In marriage, we become one flesh in spirit and body, united in both agony and ecstasy. We are to become one.
IN THEIR RESPECTIVE ROLES
In marriage, just like any partnership, each party has an assigned role or position. Both parties are equal in value and importance. But the husband is the designated leader, and the wife is to submit to her husband’s leadership and be his helper. From here behind my laptop, I can already hear shrieks of rage over those terms. But I think if you’ll bear with me, we’ll come to a better understanding of what they mean.
First, let’s talk about what the terms do not mean. Being a leader doesn’t mean singlehandedly making all the decisions or being a despotic dictator. Biblical leadership requires sacrifice, discernment, wisdom, and cooperation. A husband who is leading well will make God the highest priority in His life and then his family will be next.
Also, ‘helper’ and ‘submit’ are two words with a horrible reputation in our society. They are seen as weak and mousey, without value and honor. However, the true biblical meaning of these words reflect that they are highly valuable and honorable roles.
First, let’s look at the word helper. Do you envision a child when you hear the word? “Mommy’s little helper,” perhaps, or the “teacher’s helper” for the day. Biblically, the definition is much different. The Hebrew word is ezer (pronunciation ay’-zer), and it means “to help” or “one who helps.” The word is used 21 times in the Old Testament. Twice it refers to God’s creation of woman (Genesis 2:18,20), but the other 19 times it’s used to name God as a Helper to a person, Israel, or mankind. Men and women make up different parts of the image of God. And women reflect that He is the ultimate Helper of mankind. Not only does it not represent weakness, but the word has warrior connotations and is closely related to its root word, which means “to surround and protect.” You know that mama bear instinct you have to protect your family and others who are vulnerable? THAT is what it means to be an ezer. We are helpers, and that is a position of honor.
Next, we come to the word submit. And that word’s bad rap comes from the way we’ve abused it. Isn’t that the way of sinful humanity, though? To take something good and holy and distort and sully it. Submission is not synonymous with ‘doormat’, though, nor does it stink of powerlessness. Instead, it’s a beautiful symbol of both Christ and His church.
First, though Christ was and is God, He “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6). In coming to earth, He gave up His will and submitted wholly to the will of His Father in Heaven. Jesus still let His will be known to the Father. But instead of insisting on His will, He said “but Your will be done,” even to the point of death on the cross.
Second, let’s look at the full context of verses telling wives to submit in Ephesians 5:22-24. “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”
A Deeper Look
Once again, we are a part of the Lord’s army. And He’s using military terms here so that we will understand the positions we hold. The word “submit” in Greek is hypotassō. This was a term used to describe troops under the command of a military leader. Strong’s Bible dictionary notes that outside of military use it was “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.”
A proper and careful study of this passage in Ephesians (as well as Colossians 3:18-19 and 1 Peter 3:1-7) reveal a beautiful and challenging truth. God has called us as wives to give order to our homes by cooperating equally with our husbands, but voluntarily conceding the right to make the final decision to them. We submit to the authority of our husbands, using the Church’s submission to Christ AND Christ’s submission to the Father as our examples.
(As always, the disclaimer to this statement is that we are called to submit UNLESS our husbands are leading us into sin or causing us physical or inflicting severe mental/emotional/spiritual abuse. God is always the ultimate Authority. And He never calls us to follow others into sin. Nor does He want His daughters or their children to be abused. If you are experiencing abuse and/or are in physical danger, please seek assistance immediately and pray for your husband’s deliverance from a safe distance.)
GROWTH THROUGH GOD’S DESIGN
We’ve finally navigated our way through how God designed marriage. But the question remains. How does God grow us through His design?
In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were one with one another and God. They existed in perfection. However, when Eve defied God’s order and listened to the serpent, sin—and by extension sickness, death, and heartbreak—entered the world. Immediately, Adam and Eve knew fear and shame. Their intimacy was broken, and they started playing the blame game. Sin became a barrier to the oneness they once knew, both with God and one another.
Since then, every married couple has wrestled to get back to that oneness. Admittedly, those of us who experience marriage after Christ’s death and resurrection and have accepted Him as our Savior should have a distinct advantage. We have the power of the Holy Spirit living within us. Nevertheless, we’ll only fully experience that advantage if our hearts are malleable and we allow the Holy Spirit to do His full work, making us mature. As we attempt to regain the oneness of Eden, the Holy Spirit uses our marriages to extract the impurities in each of us that get in the way.
We’re all different. Therefore, we will be shaped in diverse ways through our marriage relationships. However, here are just a few key areas where many experience growth. Some of them are combined with others, but in reality, they’re all interwoven.
To stand in front of a pastor and friends, boldly declaring we will love and be faithful to one person for the rest of our lives is already a courageous act. Every day after that, though, takes even more courage and dedication as we seek to follow-through on our promise. Most of us realize quickly we can’t do it on our own.
Life is scary. We face sickness, heartbreak, job losses, financial woes, and deaths of loved ones. Through these, though, we learn to rely upon one another. And, more importantly, we learn to depend upon the Lord.
We cling to one another through storms and strife, trusting God to deliver us. We humbly submit ourselves to God’s plans and to each of our husband’s leadership, becoming daughters of our spiritual ancestor Sarah when we “do good and do not fear anything frightening” (1 Peter 3:6).
Recently, I’ve pondered that verse many times. If something is frightening, how do we live life unafraid? The answer is simple in theory, but more difficult in practice. We trust God to guide our husbands and take care of us in every situation. We humble ourselves before an Almighty God and throw every concern on Him with a deep knowing of how much He cares for us (1 Peter 5:6-7). He is our Stronghold, our Refuge, and our Deliverer.
We depend on God to take care of us, but still we will endure hardship. Sometimes, we think we’re on the wrong path if circumstances are exceedingly difficult. However, God never promises our lives will be easy, only that He’ll be with us through the hardships. In fact, if we’re married, Paul warned us life could be even harder than being single. In his first letter to the Corinthians he says, “those who marry will have worldly troubles” (1 Corinthians 7:28). Anyone who has been married will likely concur.
Nevertheless, those of us who experience the troubles which come with marriage should also be strengthened by the perseverance necessary to come through those challenges. “Count it all joy,” James says, “when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let that steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). When we have troubles, we learn to persevere. And when we learn to persevere, it brings our faith to maturity.
Paul’s letter to the church in Rome takes these notions even further. He says:
“…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
I’ve wrestled with this verse frequently this year. There have been times where I’ve been deeply discouraged and experienced immense difficulty. I’ve crumpled in a heap on the floor, feeling like I was sitting in a garbage dump of shredded hopes and crushed expectations. In those seasons, I’ve looked at these verses and, frankly, become very angry with God. He says suffering is supposed to lead to endurance, character, and hope. But in those moments, all I could see was sadness and discouragement. To make matters seemingly worse, Josiah was weathering the same storms with grace and steadfastness, which felt like lemon juice being poured over a heart covered in paper cuts.
However, over time as I let “perseverance finish its work” (James 1:4, NIV), I came to see the hope Paul was talking about. As I let go of my demands and expectations, I set my hope on God’s perfect will and His glory. I gave over control, submitted to God’s plans and timing, and learned to be thankful for my husband’s steadfast example. If we hang on long enough, hope will come.
AND SO MUCH MORE….
This list is far from exhaustive. We could talk about grace, mercy, joy, faith, gentleness, humility, patience, and of course, love. But then this would be closer to a book than a blog post. The bottom line is this. God designed marriage to reflect who He is and to grow us into who He created us to be.
How have you seen God’s design for marriage grow you spiritually? How have you seen your role as a wife influence your role as God’s daughter (and vice versa)? As you ponder these things, please consider sharing them with us! We all grow from learning from one another.
Photography by: @kristyberends
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