Picking the right spouse is just the warm-up for the real challenge of marriage. The hard part is sticking with our spouse and being faithful to covenantal vows. Even when our spouses change and we do too. Even when it’s arduous and inconvenient. Even when we get bored and more attractive options present themselves.
The same goes for sticking with a church.
THE PROBLEM OF “COMPATIBILITY”
The ease with which Christians “break up” with a church these days reflects Western society’s relational woes. Church commitment is fragile for the same reason marriage rates are declining: people are more sceptical than ever of long-term commitments and less willing to risk a union with a partner who’s not the perfect fit. In 2012, 1-in-5 adults ages 25 and older had never been married, while in 1960 only 1-in-10 adults had never been married. The median age for first marriage in 2012 was 27 for women and 29 for men, while in 1960 it was 20 for women and 23 for men.
Why this increased reluctance to get married? Pew reports that among those who aren’t married but desire to be married, three-in-ten say the main reason they aren’t married is that they “have not found someone who has what they are looking for in a spouse.”
This desire for perfect compatibility is a problem. And that makes sense for a generation that’s grown up in a consumerist society where there are limitless options of brands and apps and genres and communities that can be tailored and curated in a perfect-for-me sort of way. We approach the church with the same mentality.
Furthermore, our low-commitment mentality toward church parallels our cultural acceptance of no-fault divorce. We separate and go our own ways as soon as it becomes inconvenient. The church’s permissive attitude toward divorce has greatly undermined its witness. If the message a church sends is “no-fault divorce is fine!” then how can it complain when a long-time church member goes through a mid-faith crisis and starts “dating” the hip, more attractive church down the street?
THE CHURCH AS RUNAWAY BRIDE
What would happen if we had higher expectations of commitment, both in marriage and in church? Christena Cleveland puts it this way in Disunity in Christ:
Theoretically, married people can’t quit a marriage. In the same way, theoretically, Christians can’t quit the body of Christ. . . . Our submission to God, irrevocable commitment to each other and interdependence should hold us together when we want to distance ourselves from Christians who fail to live up to our gold standards or who complicate our lives.
What if we took seriously our “for better or worse, till death do us part” vows in marriage and then applied them to church? What if we loved our spouses and loved the church like Christ does?
The church as a bride isn’t just a random, pleasant metaphor in Scripture. It’s of profound theological importance. It’s how God relates to his people. “The church is the beloved bride of Jesus,” writes Sam Allberry in Why Bother With Church? “Church is not his hobby; it is his marriage—and it’s ours too”.
We see it in the Old Testament when God made a covenant with Israel and was faithful to the union, even when Israel was unfaithful. Much of the story of Israel is the story of a chronically unfaithful wife, a runaway bride who, as one author recently put it, “has an affair on the honeymoon.” And yet God, is faithful. He keeps pursuing this runaway bride. He ultimately sends his Son to take the punishment for the bride’s infidelity so that her shame and impurity can turn to virginal beauty once again and the marriage can be restored.
In Ephesians 5:22–33, Paul famously compares husbands and wives to Christ and the church. He says things like “the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body” (v. 23) and “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (vv. 25–27). This passage foreshadows Revelation’s visions of a perfected bride: at the marriage supper of the Lamb, for example (Rev. 19:7–9), or as the New Jerusalem described as “a bride adorned for her husband” (21:2), “the wife of the Lamb” whose radiance is like “a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal” (21:9–11).
This cosmic romance between the bridegroom (Christ) and his bride (the church) is hinted at and reflected in the way a marriage between men and women should be, argues Paul. A husband should love, nourish, and cherish his wife as he would his own flesh, because that is what Christ does to the church, his body. The one-flesh union of a man to his wife, Paul argues, is just like Christ and the church, the head and the body, in a “profound mystery.”
EPHESIANS 5 & THE CHURCH
Ephesians 5 is often looked to as an instructive passage for marriage, and it is. But I think it’s also an instructive passage about the church, especially in an age where many evangelicals have a take-it-or-leave-it ecclesiology somewhere between “I love Jesus but not the church” and “I’ll go to church but only as long as it meets my needs.”
When Paul says “Christ is the head of the church, his body,” it’s a statement of union, of one-flesh connectedness. A head is necessarily connected to a body. The head directs the body and has authority over the body but also needs a fully functioning body for effective movement in the world. In a profound and mysterious way, Christ has humbly attached himself to an imperfect body (those who believe in him) and loved this body, filling it with his sanctifying Spirit so that it will be perfected for that future moment of “without spot or wrinkle” glory.