Keeping Marital Vows in an Egoistic World

One of the fatal weaknesses of the modern evangelical church, and to a great (though lesser) extent of those who are active Roman Catholics, is that we have not demonstrated, to a watching world, a radical commitment to honor our own marital vows through thick and thin.  We allow the slightest things, even variations in our feelings and personal emotional states, to serve as excuses to walk away from our marriages and, when we deem it necessary, our children. Leaving our spouses to find greener pastures appears to be about as common among professing Christians as everyone else. (I will back this up with some data in my next post, but I don’t wish to focus on statistics here.)

High divorce rates, low and declining marital rates, high out-of-wedlock birth and cohabitation rates and (yes) homosexual “marriage” all reflect this highly individualized, “therapeutic” view of matrimony.  That is, marriage is seen as being just one relationship choice among many to be abandoned or turned down if it fails to deliver personal happiness or fulfillment, vows or not, children or not.  Not surprisingly, the more Americans look to marriage as just another “voluntary committed relationship” to deliver subjective and emotional benefits on their own terms, the less it is able to actually deliver these desired “goods.”  As Robert Bellah et al pointed out in the 1985 social science classic Habits of the Heart:

‘Finding oneself’ is not something one does alone.  The quest for personal growth and self-fulfillment is supposed to lead one into relationships with others, and most important among them are love and marriage.  But the more love and marriage are seen as sources of rich psychic satisfactions, it would seem, the less firmly they are anchored in an objective pattern of roles and social institutions.  Where spontaneous interpersonal intimacy is the ideal, as is increasingly the case, formal role expectations and obligations may be viewed negatively, as likely to inhibit such intimacy.  If love and marriage are seen primarily in terms of psychological gratification, they may fail to fulfill their older social function of providing people with stable, committed relationships that tie them into the larger society.  (P. 85)

Love and commitment, it appears, are desirable but not easy.  For in addition to believing in love, we Americans believe in the self.  Indeed…there are few criteria for action outside the self.  The love that must hold us together is rooted in the vicissitudes of our subjectivity.  (P. 90)

Every trend that Robert Bellah and his co-authors noted in Habits of the Heart regarding love and marriage has accelerated in the thirty plus years since it was first published.  At that time the authors noted that the evangelical church was one of the few remaining groups consciously and intentionally bucking the therapeutic view of marriage.  Since then, it too has increasingly succumbed to the siren call of rooting marriage in egoism, rather than seeing it as love realized in action within institutionalized and publicly affirmed solemn commitments.  Marital love of this latter, more durable sort is actually able to deliver personal meaning and happiness better precisely because it is motivated by things far larger, better, more important, beautiful and profound than self-gratification.

Even the rationale for having children, and what we expect from them and feel we owe them, is now seen in egoistic terms not only in the larger culture but, too often, in the professing church.  Every time a professing believer says to me, “The main way to make sure children are happy is to ensure that the parents are personally fulfilled” (usually as an excuse for “moving on” in divorce) I cringe, and am saddened that even our commitments to our children are now subject to the adult quest for self-realization.  A sad fact I have to cover each time I teach Marriage and Family class is that, according to most research, the presence of dependent children has little impact, pro or con, on the chance that a married couple will divorce.

(If our culture as a whole, including the professing church, has pushed increasingly toward the “therapeutic” orientation described in Habits of the Heart, the so-called “millennials”– professing believers or not–are going beyond anything Bellah and company might have predicted, and to breathtaking degrees.  Not only have their “committed relationships” become extremely fluid and anomic, but we now even see therapeutic, subjective, shifting choice in sexual roles and identities.  Many if not most millennials take it as an article of faith that reality can be bent to match their personal feelings, including their “gender identity”.  Each year, fewer millennials view living consistently, and comfortably identifying, with their biological sex as something normal and natural to be embraced. Rather, according to some studies half or more see their gender identities as “assigned” or “chosen” rather than God-given and rooted in biological fact, shifting with time, self-perception, and peer-influence, and available in more “flavor combinations” than Baskin Robbins ice cream.)

Marriage as a disposable consumer good?   It was not always so.  As recently as the time when many Baby Boomers like me were born, believers and unbelievers alike accepted the idea that marriage was something larger than the individuals within it and their personal gratification.  In ideals, culturally-admired examples and heroes, and often in fact, the idea that simply keeping one’s word, including one’s marital vows, is honorable, morally good, and expected, even though it might become very hard, was widely held.  That this involved men taking on the obligations of men, and women those of women, and both willingly sacrificing themselves for the welfare of each other and their children, as well as for their communities, beliefs, and nation, was unquestioned.  We saw it all around us.

My wife Kathy’s family doctor from when she was growing up in the 1960’s was not a Christian believer. And yet he displayed wonderfully the beauty of commitment to marital vows to remain faithful to our spouses in all circumstances as long as both partners live.  His wife had a complete mental breakdown.  She had been locked up in a mental hospital for decades, and was probably going to remain so for the rest of her natural life.  This physician thus had no normal access to his wife – sexually, emotionally, or relationally – other than to visit her in the state hospital.  There wasn’t much opportunity for her to satisfy his “felt needs.”  People used to ask him why he just did not simply divorce her.  His answer was very simple, and went something like this: “When I promised that I would be faithful to her in sickness and in health until death do us part, I meant it. I am going to honor my promise”.  Now this is an unbeliever honoring his promise to his wife through enormous distress in ways that go beyond what many believers would be willing to endure.  Can I learn from that? Should we all learn from that?  Should we respect that?  Should we honor a man like that?  Unbeliever or not, is Jesus modeled in that, does this physician tell us something about our Savior?  I think the answer to these questions is clearly, “yes”.  I know that he had a very powerful and positive impression on my wife, and I am grateful for that. Because you see, by God’s grace, my wife and I hope we have that kind of commitment to each other, and we know that the future could require just that kind of sacrifice to something larger than ourselves, and to each other.

Compare this unbelieving physician to Rev. Pat Robertson, the famous television preacher, faith healer, and ordained Baptist minister. You may recall the dust-up a few years ago when he claimed, on national television, that it is acceptable for a committed Christian to divorce his wife and marry someone else if she has Alzheimer’s disease. His reasoning was that a wife with advanced Alzheimer’s was more or less dead, unable to meet her husband’s needs.  So at that point, as long as her husband makes sure she is taken care of, he should be able to put her away, divorce her, and get himself another wife who can better fulfill his marital needs.  That is a hideous claim.  I know there are a lot of wonderful things that Pat Robertson has done and said, but the bottom line is that this counsel encouraged the man in question to defy the vow that he and his wife almost certainly made to each other before God and human witnesses when they got married.  It doesn’t, at all, fit the teachings of the Scriptures that married persons are bound to their spouses as long as either of them lives (or for many, unless the extremely serious moral failing of one party has created legitimate grounds for divorce).

From which person am I getting a more truthful statement about what marital vows should mean for, and might require from, me – my wife’s childhood family doctor, or Pat Robertson?  I think the answer there is quite obvious.

Rev. Robertson would probably assert that his teaching here bears no resemblance to that of the Christian rock musician Trey Pearson who recently claimed that, having “discovered” that he was homosexual and would never change, he was being “led” to leave his wife and two children to pursue the gay life, apparently with the blessing and encouragement of his professing Christian counselors and pastors.  It is interesting to see the way Mr. Pearson describes this, in terms that Robert Bellah and his co-authors would have found very familiar:  “There is absolutely no conflict with accepting who I am and following Jesus.  God wants me to be healthy, authentic, whole, integrated and my truest self.”  Trey Pearson has to be “me.”

Authentic identity for a true Christian can only be found in self-sacrificing service to the Lord Jesus Christ in obedience to the Word of God which He is also identified with and affirms as being the essence of (John 1:1-5).  This includes keeping his public vows to his wife and two children.  Apparently, these are not constraints that Mr. Pearson or his pastoral counselors felt should interfere with his pursuit of self-fulfillment.  My heart breaks for him, as it does for the false guides who helped to lead him to this awful decision.  I am further grieved by his choice to market this “revelation” to the larger Christian church.  This hope that he has and that he was promised is a mirage; it is sand not water, and it will not deliver the goods for which he longs.  “For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water.”  (Jeremiah 2:13)

We find something similar in the “testimony” of the (now retired) highly popular Evangelical (now, “and Ecumenical”) Women’s Caucus speaker Virginia Ramey Mollenkott.  What she describes as the “Voice” spoke to her brain, as her husband and son lay sleeping, and informed her that God just wanted her to be happy.  Thus, she was able to joyfully leave her husband and son in order to pursue life as a self-described Bible-committed lesbian activist, in about 1973.

These kinds of stories are becoming increasingly common, and those of us who remain committed to a Biblical view of marriage and sexuality find them, and their broadening acceptance in both the larger culture and in the professing Church, disturbing and saddening.  However, if we are honest, how much worse or different are these than the many narratives of heterosexual professing Christians explaining and justifying why they have abandoned their spouses?  I recall one very nice woman who was one of my students in Dallas.  Describing herself to me as a committed, conservative, Bible-believing Baptist, she went on to tell me that she was in the act of divorcing her husband, despite the toddler son they had together. Why?  Because, tied up as he was in completing a medical residency, he did not feel he could quit to stay home with their son full-time so she could attend law school (and first, finish college).  God did not want her to be unhappy, she informed me, and He had also promised to take care of her son after their marriage dissolved.  She did not see any conflict between her Biblical convictions and leaving her husband.  This is not quite as bad as the woman I know who left her husband for someone else’s husband because (she claimed) the latter was a “stronger Christian leader,” but its right up there!

Years ago, my pastor in Texas gave me a book of sermons by a fellow that I had heard of but was not personally familiar with, named B.B. Warfield.  Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921), the famous “Old Princeton” Seminary professor and minister, had quite a pedigree: his uncle was a former U.S. Vice President and Confederate general, his father a U.S. Senator and Attorney General, his brother a college president.  This set of sermons my pastor gave me is called Faith and Life.  It is a collection of sermons that he preached to Princeton seminary students on Sunday afternoons.  Every single one of these sermons was theologically rich but practical and inspiring.  Dr. Warfield was the quintessential Renaissance genius, but the warmth of his heart was incredible.  After reading a few of these sermons I decided that this is a man I wanted to know more about, to see what B.B. Warfield the man was all about.  And here is one of the things I read about (sometimes exaggerated in some accounts, but even in recent, carefully checked biography still inspiring and convicting).

B.B. Warfield

B. B. Warfield

In 1876, Benjamin Warfield got married.  He and his wife Annie took a honeymoon to Europe.  When he was with his brand new bride, probably married for a few weeks, they were in the mountains hiking.  They were caught in a severe lightning storm.  If you have ever been out in one of those, you know what they are like. Something happened to her that day, no one appears to be certain exactly what, but it appears to have led to a nervous disorder.  She progressively got worse over time, eventually becoming an invalid.  Though many accounts appear to have overstated the speed of the onset, and severity, of her disability, there appears to be little doubt that she required a lot of ongoing care that increased over time especially by the 1890’s, and that her husband lovingly cared for her until her death in 1915, then he died about five years later.  They were never able to have children.  Caring for her certainly meant limiting his engagements elsewhere (a tough thing for a world-famous Princeton theologian), especially in their later years.  Interestingly, this appears to have increased his scholarly productivity.

People used to comment that B.B. Warfield was called “the Lion of Princeton” and “the last of the great Princeton theologians”.  Dr. Gresham Machen, no slouch himself in the defense of orthodox Protestantism, said “When B.B. Warfield died, old Princeton died”.  Some people were afraid of him. When he would go into a meeting and begin to attack heresy, his opponents had to hold onto their hats, because he was going to win.  He hated to see professing Christians corrupting the church.

Imagine his students observing his care, devotion, and commitment to his wife and his marriage, living out the tenets of the Westminster Confession of Faith that he loved and defended so ably, including its categorical call to marital commitment and endurance in Chapter 24 section 6, and the reminder that the purposes of marriage include the “mutual help of husband and wife” in section 2 of that same chapter.  We know that the quality of Warfield’s marriage had a profound impression on not only Machen but one of his other famous students, O.T Allis.

Warfield would be someone with real “street cred” when it comes to faithfully applying Biblical teaching on marital commitment, to use the modern slang.  He would certainly not agree with Trey Pearson and his counselors, or Virginia Mollenkott and her Voice, or Pat Robertson (“my happiness, ‘needs’ and personal fulfillment, vows or not!”); but his life would also give his faithful Biblical teaching authenticity.  Nobody could say that B.B. Warfield was not committed to the institution of marriage and that he was not willing to give up personal pleasure if that is what it took to maintain his vows.  Is this characteristic of the church today?  It should be.

In contemplating this, I will say that when I need examples of marital commitment, tenderness, fidelity, and self-sacrificing love I don’t need to only think of well-known Christians far away in status, space and time like B.B. Warfield.  I have had the privilege of knowing more than a few folk, some of whom I know I have profound theological and political differences with, who inspire me with the love they have given their spouses, and continue to sacrificially serve when many others would have given up.  I have seen, and been inspired by, this across decades of my Christian experience.  Marriages that have withstood the overdose deaths or suicides of sons or daughters, spouses who have remained tender and faithful in the face of the complete disability of their partner through various forms of profound, chronic, and terribly disruptive mental and physical disability, permanent emotional and sexual rejection, and more.  Yet, like Jesus to His Bride the Church, to His people, to us — faithful.  May that be said of us, lesser, married saints also.