On Marriage.
TEXT: EPH. v.22-31.

IN completing lately the annual round of our Christian holy-days, I expressed to you the wish that the holy emotions which our hearts experience at such seasons might not pass away with them; but that the impressions then made might accompany us during the other half of the year, so that without any extraordinary festival incitement we might constantly retain a more lively sense of communion with the Redeemer, and a fuller enjoyment of what the eternal Father has done through Him. Now if we find that this is not the case, and inquire for the reason, we usually hear this answer, That it is the pressure of daily life that continually draws us back from elevating communion with God into the tumult of the world. And yet, my friends, what constitutes the life on which we would so fain lay the blame of our waning feelings of devotion, of our instability and our transient impressions? It consists, in fact, of just those natural relations which God the Lord Himself has established, out of which the Christian community must be built up, and in which, in their turn, all the blessings of true Christian piety are to take root, that they may be more and more widely extended. How then can this life draw us away from communion with God and the Saviour, when it is really His own holy body winch ought to be thoroughly pervaded by His own living power? If this does take place, must it not be because we have lost sight of the real meaning of these relationships, or because vain and false ideas that have become associated with them have hidden from us their true nature?

I have therefore thought it might not be superfluous to take a survey of the most important of our life-relationships, and to study them in the glass of the divine Word, in order both to revive in our minds the Christian meaning of them, and that we may more consciously realize that, far from drawing us back from communion with God and devoted love to the Saviour, they are fitted greatly to confirm those graces in ourselves and through us to call them forth in others.

We will begin this series of meditations with the relation ship which is the foundation of all others, namely, the holy bond of marriage, which we must regard as the first appointment of God after His almighty Word had called man into existence. Out of this sacred union are developed all other human relations; on it rests the Christian family, and of such Christian families Christian communities consist. Moreover, on this union depends the propagation of the human race, and the transmitting of the power of the divine Word from one generation to another. Therefore let us to day consider this foundation of the whole Christian Church in the light of God's Word.

The leading idea in this representation of Christian marriage is, that while the apostle reveals to us the inmost depths of love on which the whole fabric of the Church is founded, he at the same time draws our thoughts to the holy relationship between Christ and His people. I say it is the leading idea; for we thus see clearly that in marriage, as the original root of all social life, there should be nothing that could draw us away from Christ our Lord; rather we are taught to refer everything belonging to it to that great union of our hearts with the Saviour. We shall best under stand the apostle's ideal of Christian married life by considering two points in his description of it: first, an earthly and a heavenly view of it, which are yet one; and secondly, a difference which resolves itself into a most perfect likeness.

I. First, then, let us see how the earthly and the heavenly view of Christian marriage which the apostle presents to us are thoroughly one, and cannot be separated.

He gives us first the earthly view in the words, A man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. Certainly it could not be more clearly and strongly set before us than in these words, and we could find no clearer rule by which to judge of the many and varied phases of the married state which we see around us, even in what calls itself refined society. For, alas, how often among Christians does marriage assume, even from this earthly point of view, a truly dreadful aspect! How often do we see the two who should be one giving way to anger against each other, separated by dissension and strife, and sometimes even so embittered against each other that, instead of trying to avoid quarrels, they wilfully seek out occasions for them. In such cases it need not be said that two have not become one. Again, how often has the married state a troubled aspect, when, for want of any glad assurance of being one in heart, both parties keep watchful guard over themselves, seeking by the most obliging and compliant manner and behaviour, and by self-denying sacrifice, to avoid all occasions for dispute, and trying by the most tender considerateness to make up, if possible, for the absence of true love. And here also, even if it is only one of the parties who is obliged to exercise this self-constraint, while the other is in the right position, it is easy to see that the two have not become one -- that there is no true union, but only a carefully maintained contract. Once more, how often has marriage a repulsive aspect, when married people live, it is true, in peace and harmony, but only because in course of time they have become accustomed to each other, and because, while they make as little demand as possible on each other, both find their real satisfaction in other relations of life and in other companionships! That in a connection so indifferent and dead the two are not one flesh is certain, for that implies a living union; and it is equally certain that in this case there has been no heart impulse constraining to leave father and mother and cleave to husband or wife, and that therefore even the earthly side of a Christian marriage is wanting. But why should I go on to multiply these illustrations? Let me rather say in a word that, in so far as each has separate joys and sorrows (even supposing that they have much more regard to the interests of each other than to their own); in so far as the wife needs to remind herself to be submissive, and the husband to remind himself to give honour to the weaker vessel; however faithfully they may obey those admonitions of conscience; and in short, wherever there are opposing wishes and aims to be adjusted, fully and generously as those mental concessions may be carried out; just in so far as these conditions exist, the word of the apostle is not yet fulfilled, -- the love that makes truly one is not and never has been enthroned there.

But let us suppose that a conjugal union, viewed on its earthly side, does fully correspond to the deep meaning of that apostolic word about the life that has become one through love; let us suppose that there is no need for one of the pair to forget himself or herself out of love for the other, because each feels and shares every emotion of the other, and a kind of intuitive perception of the wishes on the one side inclines the other towards the same objects. Let us suppose that no happiness is enjoyed and no pain borne, apart; that the minds arc occupied with the same desires and aims, so that they have really one common life; and that even if days of adversity come, the consciousness of their true heart-union will enable them to bear the trial so well and wisely that, when it is past, they will be glad to have gone through such an experience together. Let there be all this, and so a marriage answering, in this aspect, to the word of the apostle; yet, if it is nothing more than this, we can hardly venture to hope that it will continue to be even thus. Rather we should be ready to fear that, as is too often the case, this beautiful harmony was only the effect of the first glow of affection, which might gradually die away as the more lively emotion gave place to a tranquil and customary state of feeling. A union like this is indeed rare and beautiful; and much good, in many ways, may result from it; but if this earthly perfection is not founded on something greater, it still lacks its true proportion, and the marriage still fails to correspond with the picture which the apostle has drawn for us, because there is still wanting the resemblance to the union of Christ with His Church.

For this is the other side of the apostle's picture; setting before us Him who so loved the Church that He gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it.

Here, then, is the heavenly side of Christian marriage union; its higher aim is that each should sanctify and be sanctified by the other. Without this aim, even that perfect harmony that we have described is so wanting in an adequate object, that it can hardly fail to be resolved back into nothing. And what gain worth reckoning could come from a life-fellowship so narrow that it could only be nourished or exercised in connection with outward life ? The twofold life would in that case be no better than the single. Where married life is such as this -- regular, pure, cultured, it may be, but still, when weighed in the Christian balance, only sensuous, and in the highest sense of the word, unspiritual -- we cannot count the difference so very great, whether it is lived by each separately, or by the two for each other and unitedly; nor can that union deserve the high honour which is here put on marriage by the apostle. The results of conjugal love in such a marriage are no doubt great and beautiful. It makes a cheerful and pleasant life even when there are few external helps; it makes it easy to be tranquil on all occasions of difficulty and vexation. But for us Christians this is not enough. Things are only right when all the faculties and energies of the human soul thus developed are at once instruments of the divine Spirit, and, in order to continue such, find their own natural key, and keep it steadily in tune. For if in a thoroughly Christian marriage we had no other joy than this, that it exhibited to us a harmonious play of natural powers, and if this were the highest end of conjugal love, I could find there no resemblance to the relationship between Christ and His Church. Married love is Christian only when each party receives a spiritual stimulus from the other; when that which, in the nature of the one, is opposed to the influence of the Spirit, is restrained and softened by the other; when each, if inclined to grow weak in this direction, is lifted up arid sup ported by the other; when both see more clearly through the eyes of each other how they stand as to their fellowship with God; in short, when both parties feel the power of the Spirit exalted and enhanced in this union as it could be in no other way. Where the manifold blessings which God has associated with this union are thus experienced and enjoyed in all their warmth and fulness, riot in a mere earthly way, but each heart saying from its depths, Our conversation in in heaven; where love to each other is thus hallowed by mutual, higher love to the Saviour, so that the wife can say to her husband, You are to me as Christ is to the Church, and the husband to the wife, You are to me as the Church is to Christ; where this love is always growing stronger, as experience proves that with their strength united both make more rapid progress towards their common aim of holiness; there, my friends, is the heavenly side of Christian marriage. And of such marriages we may say with truth that they were decreed in heaven; for it has been by the mysterious drawing of the Spirit Himself that the wife has been guided to her husband and the husband to his wife; the unaccountable conviction which is daily more clearly proved to have been true, that each has been predestined as specially belonging to the other, as the most peculiar blessing and the most helpful companion on their common way. But where these things are wanting, beautiful and commendable as every thing else may be, there must be wanting also the true fidelity and security, and with those, the true Christian value of married life.

But if that earthly part of which we have spoken is nothing without the heavenly, it is equally true that the heavenly part cannot do without the earthly, without the closest fellowship in the pleasures and pains, the cares and the work of this world.

It is an old delusion, already long recognised as such among us, but in earlier times very common in the Christian Church, that the Christian who wished to give himself up to the influences of the Spirit, to obtain the salvation of his soul, and to win even in this life something higher than its transitory things, could do no better than to withdraw him self as far as possible from the world, and to flee at once from its pleasures and its business, its sufferings and its cares. From this delusion -- as if the heavenly could exist and dwell in this world apart from the earthly -- arose that long-continued and mistaken habit of looking down on this holy state; a habit which was the cause of so much confusion and vice; and now, after we have so long been aware that no one is so good as to be above this God-appointed means of grace, why should we again surround it with this delusion? And yet this is done when it is asserted that, though it would not be justifiable in a single man, yet a united pair would have the most perfect right, because each found sufficiency in the other, to separate themselves as far as possible from the world, and retire from it for the sake of each other. It is a reviving of this delusion to suppose that by a many-sided, active life, the bond of conjugal love is not sanctified, but desecrated; not enriched, but robbed of a great part of the joys designed for it. A dangerous mistake! for even the deepest love can only make men capable of good and purify them from evil in proportion as it strives to fulfil its whole duty, and shuns no part of its vocation; and two human beings united by God can only be sufficient for each other in so far as a life of activity brings to each the temptations and trials against which they need respectively to guard, and sharpens the eyes of both to search into the depths of their hearts and bring hidden things to light. A questionable fancy at the same time, because even in the most beloved ones we can only have lasting joy and pleasure when we see them in the active exercise of their natural faculties, so that when time has stripped off its early blossoms we see the ripening fruits of the life. And how very far this delusion is from being sanctioned by the apostle's words! For when he points us to the connection between Christ and the Church, is that union in any sense identified with a morbid, contemplative life? Must it not have cost the Lord toil to take captive all those thousands? And is not His Church made up of servants who are blessed only when the Lord finds them watching at every hour? And when the apostle bids the wives be subject to their husbands, has he in his eye that modest, retiring spirit, which makes the distinction between command and obedience naturally disappear, while every desire to rule might be only a groundless whim about little or nothing? No; undoubtedly he was thinking of the necessary relations in which every Christian home stands to the larger economy of the community with which it is associated; in which the husband alone represents the household, and in relation to which it is therefore he who must act, while the wife takes part, not directly, but only through her connection with her husband. And in laying down as a rule the position that naturally results from this, the apostle shows us that it is God's, will that each Christian household should form a part of that wider association, and fill its place in it by fitting and honour-able work. Therefore, without regard to their different positions, or to the greater or less facility with which in union they can avoid hard work, each pair entering on the married state is reminded of the divine rule, that the man is to eat bread in the sweat of his brow, and that it is appointed to the woman, not only to bear children with sorrow, but with the most earnest and diligent solicitude to tend and minister to them and to the whole household.

And let us by no means regard this as a matter of necessity, or as an interruption to our spiritual enjoyments, which God has appointed on account of our weakness, lest they should grow commonplace to us and lose their value. It is only in common, social life that men's happiness and well-being have room to grow, and only by a judicious division of work that each becomes most distinctly conscious of his own powers; and so also it is only through this divine arrangement that we find out what special gifts the Spirit of God has created in each family, and both husband and wife, earnestly working together at their everyday duty, at once find out what is their own work, and enjoy their work in the vineyard of the Lord.

II. I have thus laid before you various considerations, in order to prove that if we are to experience the power and blessing of Christian marriage we must not try to maintain the heavenly aspect of it to the exclusion of the earthly. But these same considerations lead us to the second point which I desire you to notice, namely, that while there is in these two sides of marriage a great apparent dissimilarity, it is needful that we be convinced that even this dissimilarity resolves itself into the most perfect likeness.

Look first at the dissimilarity. When the apostle says husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, we know that this is a love which not only permits but requires love in return, seeing how constantly we are exhorted to love Him who has first so greatly loved us; but we know also that it is from another point of view a love that is raised far above all reciprocal love, seeing that the Church cannot in any way repay Christ her Redeemer, and can do nothing for Him, but only go on receiving from Him a more and more complete redemption. Now if, in the same way, the wife can do nothing for her husband, but be always receiving from him, then the wife is in a bad case as regards her husband, and the woman is always placed at a disadvantage. And again, when we read that the wife is to be subject to her husband as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is of the Church; then if the wife is to be always subject and the husband alone may command -- as unquestionably the Church can never in any sense command Christ, but He must always continue to be absolutely Master -- in this light also the wife is in a bad position in relation to her husband. And we husbands might seem to have just as little reason to be satisfied with the position here assigned to us, well aware as we are that we cannot worthily fill such a position, and that the more spiritual the marriage union is seen to be, the less room have we for the proud assumption that we have got so far in advance of our wives as Christ is above the Church. But neither could we be satisfied with what some say; that as this epistle was written in a time when the marriage union was only beginning to be understood as a union of holy love, and when women still had a much inferior position to men, therefore the language must be taken less exactly, and in a somewhat different meaning, so as to be adapted to present times. For we could not be willing to have the meaning of anything changed that we find in God's word; nor can we allow ourselves to under stand the language less exactly, lest by sophistry and vain interpretation we miss the true comfort which that divine Word contains. Therefore let us rather try to penetrate still more deeply into the meaning of these words, and in order that we may succeed in doing so we must study them in their right connection.

Taking first the words to the wives -- that they be subject to their husbands, and that the husband is the head of the wife -- let us set alongside of them those other words which recall to us the Scripture narrative of the first institution of this holy union, that a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife. How clearly do these words, which describe the universal divine order, point to a power going forth from the feminine nature which takes possession of and masters the man. As soon as a man is in a position to leave his father's house, justified by education and religion in beginning an independent life, he seeks for himself a wife; he seeks, but woe to him if he chooses merely according to his own will, whether he is led by some prudent calculation, or in the self-will of impatient passion seizes on the object of his choice. No security has he in this way that he has found her with whom he can enter on the true life of love; nothing that guarantees to him an attachment that will compensate him for all that he leaves and gives up. If he is to cleave to his wife, a power must proceed from her that keeps so firm a hold of him that he feels every desire satisfied, every longing stilled; and it must be this same power that at first unconsciously attracts and captivates him. And when the wife pronounces the Yes, by which the man becomes her head -- a freely spoken Yes, without which no man can become the head of his wife in Christian communion -- she feels that, according to the universal order and special counsel of God, he has become her head, through an unconscious and involuntary exercise of that power which dwells in her; she feels that, for their whole life together, true Christian fidelity, full unweakened affection depends on the continued operation of this power, which raises a Christian marriage union out of the region of change and accident, and shows it as an eternal work of the eternal Love, worthy to stand among the holiest and greatest of such works.

Therefore the divine rule, that the wife shall be subject to her husband, and the husband the head of the wife, stands unchanged, and it certainly could not be changed by us with impunity; it stands, because it is only in the Christian Church and in a civilized community that there can be a Christian marriage; and in both of these it is the part of the man, to whom God has assigned the binding word and the public deed, to represent the household; and it is never well if the wife takes a direct part in those larger concerns. The rule stands; and yet we find no painful contrast with the higher union, but one which resolves itself into the most glorious likeness. For if things, even at home, in so far as they have more or less bearing on those wider connections, are regulated by the husband; if he pursues his daily work from home quite alone, without the help and company of his wife, so causing to the family some measure of pain and anxiety while providing honourably for their comfort; nevertheless, if he always returns with a heart cleaving to the wife whom God has given him, according to that first divine commandment; if he finds refreshment in his weariness, and strength against difficulties in that union of faithful love; then the true wife also feels that her power and blessing are in all that he does, and orders, and provides; and thus before God and to their own consciousness, they still stand equal as in the moment when, through that voluntary Yes on either side, the husband became the head of the wife, and she became subject to him.

And now let us look once more at that word, that men are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, in connection with those other words, that He is the Saviour of His body, and that He gave Himself for the Church that He might sanctify and cleanse it. For when we find how often, from the beginning, His Redemption is spoken of in the same terms that we have used in picturing the seeking love of the husband -- for Christ also came to seek; -- when we think how, drawn down to us by the sole power of love, He left the glory which He had with the Father to establish a life and kingdom for Himself on earth; when we remember that His own did not first choose Him, but He them, though now, it is true, they love Him with all their hearts who first so loved them; finally, when we realize that Christ now binds Himself up so closely with His people that whatever they ask in His Name He will obtain for them from the Father, and that, though separated from them in body, He is always with them in Spirit; then wo are powerfully struck with the resemblance between this deep, holy mystery of love in individual lives and the great mystery of redemption, and we feel that we understand the apostle's injunction to husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. Are we still inclined to mistake here? to feel as if, according to this view, the husband alone must do all, and that the wife could as little do anything for him, or be profitable to him, as the Church can for Christ? Are the wives, and, for their sakes, the husbands, troubled by the thoughts that what we suggested as equalizing conditions -- the wife refreshing and strengthening her husband while he plans and rules -- must thus come to nothing? Then let us remember that it is impossible that a comparison between Christ and men should apply at every point, and of course the relation of wife to husband cannot, in every particular, present a parallel to that of the Church to Christ. And if we ask, in what special points is this possible, and in what not so, we have the answer in these words, -- that Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her that He might sanctify her. The husband is to take this self-sacrificing love as his example; gladly returning from his wider circle in the busy world to the quiet of his fireside, there to share with the wife of his heart all that is purifying or elevating in what he has met with or done or felt. The likeness is found, not in this, that Christ is our King (as if implying that an exclusive and unlimited authority should belong to the husband), but in this, that to the Church, as His body, He is Saviour and Redeemer. We know that as our Redeemer He has freed us from bondage, for it is the liberty of the children of God to which we are redeemed. Let the husband, then, take this freedom-giving love as his example, and act as the head of his wife in delivering her from all bondage both of heart and life, to which her sex so easily resign themselves, in removing out of her way all restrictions, so that the power of their united life may have unimpeded exercise in her. Then, even on this side, the contrast will pass into likeness; when the husband, although the ruling head, not only is in full sympathy with the body, but draws the brightest gladness and the most powerful stimulus toward everything good from the spiritual freshness and healthfulness of her whose life is one with his own. And thus, in their life together, will be more and more fully realized that which is only promised to the Church in her relation to Christ in the distant future, that we shall be like Him because we shall see Him as He is; as the wife, without leaving her quiet, modest sphere, becomes ever more like her husband, because she both understands and influences him in all his ways and actions. Daily experience teaches this in Christian marriage in the happiest way; and it is thus that our wives enjoy their proper share in all that their husbands accomplish or aim at in the different spheres of public life.

If, then, the wife, while she is and must be subject to her husband, is made more and more free by him who loves her after the pattern of Christ; and the husband, while truly the head, is so only as he cleaves to his wife in inviolable fidelity and deepest love; each merging the thought of rule on the one side and subordination on the other in the nobler and higher sense of a perfect oneness of life; then every appearance of difference from the great model disappears, as even the apostle himself lost sight of his heavenly and glorious ideas in the one thought that two should become one.

When thus every difference is resolved into the mutual and gladsome sense of heart harmony; when to the common life is added a pure spiritual union, that gloriously pictures the Saviour's soul-satisfying love, raising the soul to fellow ship with God; when the hearts so purified feel impelled with increased power to labour earnestly in carrying on the work of God in themselves and in those whom He has given them, and among whom He has placed them; then, according to the mind of the apostle, we have the realized ideal of Christian marriage, the foundation stone of the Church of the Redeemer.

But all these glorious things, and whatever besides may be contained in our text, are summed up in another passage of Scripture in the simple words, Let marriage be had in honour among all. These words indeed send us to self-examination and to humiliation. All the great things that the apostle says to us about Christian marriage come just in plain words to this, that we be honourable in it. So that wherever in marriage the earthly side is not closely joined to the heavenly; where both parties do not lend their strength to each other, that both may faithfully and perfectly fulfil their vocations; where all distinctions are not being constantly equalized into a perfect and conscious unity; that marriage is wanting in true honour. Either it has not been honourably entered on, and the mutual Yes, instead of being true before God, has been an insult to Him; or it has not been honourably maintained, one or other having gone back more or less, and certainly not unwittingly, from that Yes. And indeed the latter failure naturally results from the former; for we find it easy to take back a little from a plighted word when it has not been given with a deliberate and steadfast purpose. Let all then ponder how much is implied in this, that it is only in the Christian sense that the married state can be maintained with true honour. In truth it can only be so when both husband and wife have received into their hearts our Lord and Master, and Ho forms the third in the union consecrated to Him through love. For He never goes back from His word, but is ever mindful of His promise that wherever two are together in His Name, there will He, in whom alone we can be strong and happy, be with them.

vi forgiveness and love
Top of Page
Top of Page