In the modern marriage, continued commitment is contingent on self- fulfillment. Indeed, one of the main criteria that sociologists now use to measure marital success is happiness or personal satisfaction. A common phrase describing marriage is that it is a 50/50 agreement where each partner supports exactly half of the entire marriage. Dissatisfaction or unhappiness occurs when an individual perceives their load to be greater than 50 percent. A marriage is considered successful if the partners describe themselves as happy or satisfied. Realizing that something is missing in the concept of commitment to marriage as an institution, many people have discarded the whole concept of commitment in favor of individual happiness. This is a tragedy because commitment is the cornerstone of the marriage relationship. The problem lies with too narrow a definition of marriage: in the past, it was solely a commitment to the institution; in the contemporary secular view, it is solely for self-fulfillment.
One way to frame this issue is to emphasize either the togetherness aspects of the relationship (marriage is an institution) or the individualistic aspects of the relationship (personal happiness is all that matters in the marriage). Neither of these approaches the beauty of the biblical perspective that God created humans in his image in the context of relationship. Genesis 2 recounts that God saw it was not good for the man to be alone, so God created the woman. The man recognized her as equal and complementary, bone of his
bones and flesh of his flesh; they became one flesh and were naked and not ashamed (vv. 23–25). This is a beautiful picture of interdependency built on complementarity and sacrifice.
Marriage is not only a commitment to the institution but also a commitment to the relationship and the well-being of the marital partner. The relationship is vital in and of itself and needs to be nourished to grow into all God intended it to be. The commitment of Yahweh to Israel as depicted in the book of Hosea provides a profound example of a commitment that endures, renews, forgives, and restores. Marriages are strong when both partners are committed to the institution, to the relationship, and to each other as persons. Commitment only to the institution results in legalism; commitment only to the other person results in humanism. A commitment to all three (person, institution, and relationship) fosters a transformative, authentic marriage that reflects or images (eikon in Greek) the trinitarian God of the Bible. This biblical model takes into account the importance of caring for the needs of the individual, the relationship, and the social system.
In the complex interplay (perichoresis) of the life of the Trinity—our model for relationality—identity is not diminished in the relationships among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Modalism is a trinitarian heresy (Horton 2012) that views God as a single person in three different forms—Father, Son, and Spirit. This distortion is reflected in traditional approaches to marriage, in which the individual is subsumed in the marriage. Tritheism, another heresy, views each person of the Trinity as a distinct, separate divine being (Horton 2013). This distortion is reflected in humanistic or modern approaches of maximizing individuality; the partner and his or her “needs” and desires for self-fulfillment take precedence over the relationship. As the church has rejected both modalism and tritheism, so should Christians reject their implications for developing a trinitarian view of marriage.
A trinitarian view of God shapes our view of marriage as a covenantal relationship between two complementary relational partners. Because of the mutual interplay of the relational partners, their love expressed in the covenant fosters individual growth and becoming. Each partner desires the best for the other. Further, each partner learns to “take up their cross” (Mark 8:34) in denying one’s immediate, self-centered desires in order to benefit the covenant relationship. Over time, individual needs are balanced with togetherness needs as the covenant marriage grows over the course of the partners’ lives.
The core passage in Genesis 2:24 reads, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (ESV). This “one flesh” perspective emphasizes both the individual identity aspect of husband and wife while also highlighting their “one flesh” unity. When these passages are used in the New Testament by Paul (in Ephesians 5:22–33, for example), the emphasis is not on either one (husbands or wives) or the one-flesh nature of the relationship. The focus is on both the relationship and the individuals in the relationship.
This biblical model also speaks directly to a Christian view of marital sexuality. In traditional marriage, sex is viewed as a right to pleasure for the man but as a duty to be endured by the woman. In modern marriage, sex tends to be self-centered, with the emphasis placed on each individual’s right to personal pleasure. There is much to be said for the idea that married people are to be fulfilled sexually, but when this becomes the dominant emphasis, the relationship suffers and the real meaning of sexuality is lost.
The biblical response emphasizes person-centered, affectionate sex in marriage. Scripture advocates mutual pleasure and mutual benefit. This involves a mutual decision to give and receive in love. First Corinthians 7:3–4 clearly states that our bodies are for each other as the ultimate expression of ourselves to each other.
The security that stems from a commitment to the marriage relationship provides an atmosphere of freedom and willingness to learn together through the sexual expression of love. Spouses learn to mesh their lives as sexual persons in the security of relationship commitment. The biblical ideal, then, is much more than personal sexual pleasure or one spouse submitting to the other out of commitment to the institution of marriage. It is relating to each other on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. The scriptural concept of one flesh entails a mutual commitment to one’s mate, the relationship, and the institution of marriage.
Relevant to covenant commitment is the finding by Ellison et al. (2011, 404) that although general religiousness “bears a weak relationship to marital outcome—sanctification strongly predicts desirable marital outcome . . . [and] appears to buffer the deleterious effects of financial and general stress on marital quality.” We would propose that couples who define their marriage as a sacred relational union—what we call a covenant relationship or marriage—relate to each other in sanctified and sanctifying ways such as “going the second mile” when it comes to handling various
marital stressors. Likewise, in their study of marriages Day and Acock (2013) report a positive association between couple well-being and the relational virtues of commitment and sacrifice.
Adaptability In traditional marriage, roles are inflexibly segregated. The husband usually assumes the role of working outside the home, and the wife assumes the role of homemaking and caring for the children. Most people who argue for separation in marital roles are not aware of how recent this phenomenon is. Until the Industrial Revolution, 90 percent of all families lived on farms, and even as late as one hundred years ago, two-thirds of all families in the United States did so. That the marital roles were far from segregated will be no surprise to anyone who has lived on a farm. Whereas some kinds of work were designated as the man’s or the woman’s province, both husbands and wives performed manual labor on the farm, and both shared the responsibility in raising their children.
The Industrial Revolution transformed the nature of the family and economy, which had a profound effect on familial roles (Frederick and Dunbar 2019). Industrialization fostered the view that the family is a separate sphere from work and that men could earn enough money so that the wife would not have to work outside the home. These separate spheres of work and family life directly led to the segregation in marital roles developed in the urban family, where home life and work life are divided. In this type of family, the husband works outside the home, leaving childcare to the wife. One would be hard-pressed to argue, on the basis of either historical or biblical evidence, that woman’s place is in the home and that man’s place is in the business world outside the home.
The modern view that spouses can take on any role in marriage in many ways is refreshing, yet at the same time, undifferentiated roles may result in chaos or conflict about what will get done and who will assume a given responsibility. In the modern world, who does what is often worked out according to a system of social exchange. This system is based on the simple assumption that all relationships involve costs and rewards. What one gives to a relationship is experienced as a cost, and what one receives is experienced as a reward. Marriages thrive when the rewards outweigh the costs for each partner. As long as one gets more than or as much as one gives,
there is reason to stay married. The concept of social exchange can be stated as a formula: rewards minus costs equals profit.
Let’s imagine a couple trying to decide who will cook the evening meal. The conversation may begin with the husband suggesting that his wife cook, pointing out that he has had a hard day at the office and that he cooked the previous night. The wife may respond that she has had an equally hard day at work and that she cooked dinner three out of the last four evenings. The husband may then agree that he will cook if she cleans up, washes the dishes, and takes out the garbage. The point here is that this arrangement demands constant bargaining and negotiating skills. Each partner keeps a running tally of rewards and cost and they are constantly calculating the profit margins. Disaster looms around the corner when roles are not agreed on beforehand.
We suggest that roles be clearly defined but interchangeable in terms of gender and subject to change (with the obvious exception of biologically determined roles like childbearing). In the case of segregated roles based on a traditional view of marriage, tasks are predetermined according to gender, with no room for change. In modern marriages, roles are often undetermined. Determining roles through mutual agreement opens up creative possibilities for husbands and wives to serve each other through their roles. They are committed together in cooperative efforts to take on certain tasks of daily living. They agree to periodically review how things are going so that they can make changes when necessary in order to maximize their relationship profit.
Although no Bible verses deal explicitly with marital roles, Scripture does teach that everything ought to be done with a sense of order and harmony. Assigning tasks on the basis of a person’s interests, skills, and availability is a loving way to work out marital roles. It also respects differences and recognizes the unique talents of each spouse and his or her special contribution to the marriage.
Of the various tasks to be performed, parenting is without question one of the most crucial. In the traditional family, the mother automatically does most parenting and caregiving. Unfortunately, this leads to the neglect of fathering, a major problem in our society today. In the traditional family, the distinct division of gender roles and responsibilities leaves the emotional nurture to wives and economic development to husbands. Modern families remove the role of economic training from families and foster the male being removed from the family as he is breadwinning. Both of these approaches to fathering
contribute to fatherlessness. In modern marriages, parenting roles and responsibilities may be avoided or excused because of overinvolvement in work and extracurricular roles, to the detriment of parenting. These parents should increasingly prioritize the needs of children over and against their career goals. Single- and dual-earner parents often rely on excellent childcare facilities to fill in for them while they are bringing in the income.
In a biblical marriage, both the mother and the father are actively involved in the parenting process. There is no biblical evidence that would lead one to believe that a mother’s involvement with children is more important than a father’s involvement. Scripture refers to the responsibility of both parents, as in Ephesians 6:1–4: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother.’ . . . And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Coparenting seems especially critical in our day and age, as the lack of effective fathering often relates to breakdown in the family system (Lindsey, Caldera, and Colwell 2005) and many other social ills (Lamb 2017).