Elements of Seventh-day Adventist Faith, Belief #22: Marriage and the family. "Marriage was divinely established in Eden and affirmed by Jesus to be a lifelong union between a man and a woman in loving companionship. For the Christian a marriage commitment is to God as well as to the spouse, and should be entered into only between partners who share a common faith. Mutual love, honor, respect, and responsibility are the fabric of this relationship, which is to reflect the love, sanctity, closeness, and permanence of the relationship between Christ and His church. Regarding divorce, Jesus taught that the person who divorces a spouse, except for fornication, and marries another, commits adultery. Although some family relationships may fall short of the ideal, marriage partners who fully commit themselves to each other in Christ may achieve loving unity through the guidance of the Spirit and the nurture of the church. God blesses the family and intends that its members shall assist each other toward complete maturity. Parents are to bring up their children to love and obey the Lord. By their example and their words they are to teach them that Christ is a loving disciplinarian, ever tender and caring, who wants them to become members of His body, the family of God. Increasing family closeness is one of the earmarks of the final gospel message. (Cen. 2:18-25; Matt. 19:3-9; John 2:1-11; 2 Cor. 6:14; Eph. 5:21-33; Matt. 5:31, 32; Mark 10:11, 12; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:10, 11; Exod. 20:12; Eph. 6:1-4; Deut. 6:5-9; Prov. 22:6; Mal. 4:5, 6.)"
Marriage! The oldest of all human institutions—a twin of the Sabbath,1 but a day older. It was the very first Friday when God said, Therefore a man shall leave father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall be one flesh.' So dear is marriage to the heart of God that all through Scripture human marriage is the symbol of choice for God's love for His people. All that God created on the sixth day was Very good.' God has not changed His mind about that. Marriage is very good!"
These thoughts still linger in the homily notes, memories, and memorabilia from the high day when our son Jeff and our daughter-in-love Pam commit ted their lives to each other. Christian weddings give us opportunity to bring to life the truths we affirm and to gaze again on marriage and family from God's perspective. Such moments are important, for the times we live in are not the best for the institution of marriage. Maligned in the media, made a mockery by "stars," and challenged by so-called alternative sexual relationships in the social marketplace, marriage often seems to come up the loser.
Many adult children are frightened by commitment, sickened by the mari tal abuses they've witnessed, and seared by divorces that have altered their lives. Many others like our son and his wife still choose to make promises to love, honor, and cherish one another for as long as they live, no matter what life may bring.
With their promises, they join a braided cord of couples stretching back across time to Eden itself when the first man and the first woman surrendered themselves to marriage before God.
The spiritual significance of family relationships
Article 22 in the Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists, "Marriage and Family," reflects the importance Scripture places on human relation ships. In the biblical understanding, life among humankind was meant to be an expression of the self-giving love and relational nature of God.
God is love (1 John 4:8) and God is manifested to us in Three Persons (cf. Matt. 3:16, 17; 1 John 5:7). The perfectly harmonious Trinity Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exemplifies the essence of self-giving love that is manifested in the fellowship of persons in relationship. As creatures made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), the need for harmonious and loving relationships are integral to our very being.
Jesus elevated human relationships by assigning to them a moral significance alongside a relationship with God. "You shall love the Lord your God," He said, and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:37-40, NKJV). Neighbor is often taken to mean the individual with the closest street address, but the original word has a more intimate, homey sense. Your neighbor is "the per son next to you." The way we live with others who eat, sleep, work, play, and worship beside us our closest neighbors in marriage and family life matters much to our God.
Centerpiece of the family
As the cornerstone is to a great edifice, so is marriage to the family. It is the social relationship at the foundation. Upon its integrity and strength, the quality of all family relationships rest. Says the psalmist, "Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain" (Ps. 127:1, NIV).
In Genesis 1 and 2, the divine Architect revealed His blueprint for marriage. The plan calls for marriage to be a lifelong, covenant-based, exclusive union of mutual companionship between one man and one woman. Jesus affirmed this creation plan (Matt. 19:4-6) and it is of paramount importance that we rediscover and reaffirm God's design in our time. Profound in its simplicity, it really needs no updating, no retouching. It needs living!
Marriage is the only divinely ordained setting for sexual intimacy. The union of one male and one female is specifically intended in the divine blueprint. Such a complementary, committed union reflects in a singular way the Godhead who dwells in a unity of love.2 Scripture specifically denounces sexual inter course between members of the same sex (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; cf. Rom. 1:26, 27; 1 Cor. 6:9). All are called to respect marriage by their adherence to God's plan for sexuality with singles living celibately and the married living faithfully (cf. Exod. 20:14, 17; Prov. 5:1-20; Song of Sol. 2:16; 4:12; 6:3; Matt. 5:27, 28; 1 Cor. 6:15-19; Heb. 13:4).
The blessings of friendship and the fellowship of the church the household of God are available to all regardless of their married state. However, Scripture places a solid social and sexual demarcation between such friendship relations and marriage.3
The injunction to leave father and mother (Gen. 2:24) further recognizes the precedence marriage is given over other family relationships. "Leave" implies sufficient maturity on the part of the couple and obliges the older genera tion to release the younger to establish a new home. An important boundary is thus established around the couple, even as they continue to receive support, nurture, and counsel from family members and others who can help them.
More than any natural order or assigned primacy, the nature of the marriage relationship establishes it as the centerpiece of the family. The marital union is not secured by ties of blood, but by ties of promise.
Marriage as covenant
To use biblical language, marriage is a special human covenant a mutually binding agreement with each other before God that includes promises, priv ileges, and obligations. "She is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant" (Mal. 2:14, NIV; cf. Gen. 21:27-32; 31:44-53; 1 Sam. 18:3; 20:8, 16; 23:18). The foundational passage on marriage in Genesis 2 uses covenantal language: "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Gen. 2:23). Attachment, mutuality, and self-giving further describe this covenant. As the bride declares, "My beloved is mine, and I am his" (Song of Sol. 2:16, NKJV; cf. 6:3; 1 Cor. 7:3, 4).
While the eternal covenant of God is of a different order (cf. Isa. 55:3; Heb. 13:20), Scripture sometimes uses marital imagery to describe God's relationship with His people (cf. Isa. 54:5; Jer. 3:14; 2 Cor. 11:2). Couples are thereby summoned to marriages of steadfast love, goodwill, fidelity, commitment, and permanence that reflect the relationship between Christ and His church (Ps. 89:28-34; Song of Sol. 8:6, 7; Isa. 54:5, 10; Jer. 32:40, 41; Hos. 2:19-23; 3:1-3; Rev. 21:2, 3). Scripture consistently calls for marriage to be between partners who share a common faith (2 Cor. 6:14-18; cf. Gen. 24:3; 28:1; Judges 14:3; Ezra 10:2, 10; Amos 3:3).
The marriage covenant is not, how ever, inherently indissoluble. It must be maintained with constant vigilance. "Guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth" (Mal. 2:15, NIV).
"Marriage rests on principles of love, loyalty, exclusivity, trust, and support upheld by both partners in obedience to God (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:6; 1 Cor. 13; Eph. 5:21-29; 1 Thess. 4:1-7). When these principles are violated, the mar riage is endangered. Scripture acknowledges that tragic circumstances can destroy marriage."4
Divorce is the antithesis of covenant. In the expression "I hate divorce" (Mal. 2:16, NIV), we hear the profound sadness of the Creator as His creation is marred. In the discussion of marriage and divorce in Matthew, Jesus acknowledged that the provision for divorce had been given because human hearts were "hard," adding wistfully, "It was not this way from the beginning" (Matt. 19:8, NIV).
Hardness is evidenced in the willful breach of covenant, as well as in the erosion of human relational capacities including the ability to apply the healing balm of grace to troubled marriage relationships as a result of sin. Jesus pointed to the tragic consequences of indiscriminate divorce and indicated that the circumstances for which divorce might be contemplated should be rare (Matt. 19:9).
The Church Manual expresses the Seventh-day Adventist view: "Scripture recognizes adultery and/or fornication (Matt. 5:32) as well as abandonment by an unbelieving partner (1 Cor. 7:10-15) as grounds for divorce."5
When marriages struggle
Couples who marry embark upon a life experience together. Many today put almost exclusive emphasis on mari tal satisfaction. The downside of this heavy accent on marriage as an experience is that, with legal and social supports for marriage diminished in many places, the dissatisfied can and do leave marriage with greater ease than ever before. While we cannot support all their reasons or the seemingly casual way in which many exit marriage, we can affirm that an increased emphasis on quality of life in marriage has also been a good thing.
Too often in the past the state of mar ital life has been downplayed for the sake of the estate of marriage. Many spouses and children have been trapped in abusive situations with no recourse. That unfortunate circumstance is changing. The Church Manual acknowledges that sometimes marriage relations deteriorate to the point that individuals, for personal protection and other stated reasons, need a change in marital status.6
Child sexual abuse is specifically cited as "just cause for separation or divorce."7 Increased attention on the experiential aspect of marriage has also engendered greater appreciation of scriptural themes about the joys of married love and faithfulness (Prov. 5:18-20; Song of Sol. 2:16; 4:9-5:1; Heb. 13:4), the possibilities of forgiveness and renewal in marriage (|er. 3:1; Hos. 3:1-3; 11:8, 9; Luke 17:3, 4; Eph. 4:32), and the lofty principle of mutual submission which counteracts fallen human tendencies toward power and control (Eph. 5:21-33).
Couples need encouragement and support to honor their promises and enrich their experience: "Although some family relationships may fall short of the ideal, marriage partners who fully commit themselves to each other in Christ may achieve loving unity through the guidance of the Spirit and the nurture of the church."8
The Church Manual speaks of specific ministries: "The church as a redemptive agency of Christ is to minister to its members in all of their needs and to nur ture every one so that all may grow into a mature Christian experience. This is particularly true when members face lifelong decisions such as marriage and distressful experiences such as divorce.
"When a couple's marriage is in danger of breaking down, every effort should be made by the partners and those in the church or family who minister to them, to bring about their reconciliation in harmony with divine principles for restoring wounded relationships (Hos. 3:1-3; 1 Cor. 7:10, 11; 13:4-7; Gal. 6:1).
"Resources are available through the local church or other church organizations which can be of assistance to members in the development of a strong Christian home. These resources include programs for: (1) premarital preparation, (2) marriage and family strengthening, and (3) the support of troubled families and divorced individuals."9
The family circle and its mission
In God's plan, married couples are entrusted with the responsibility for the perpetuation of the human family (Gen. 1:28). Scripture puts a high value on children as an inheritance from the Lord (Ps. 127:3). Children can be a source of great joy as parents delight in the wonder of new life and share in the original creation blessing. They can help parents to better understand God and to grow in compassion, caring, humility, and unselfishness.
Bearing children, however, is not to be a selfish act nor is it an obligation in order to please God, family, or society. Rather, it is a divinely bestowed privilege, a choice to be made responsibly, with the parents' ability to provide for children a primary consideration (cf. 1 Tim. 5:8).
The family is "the primary setting in which values are learned and the capacity for close relationships with God and with other human beings is developed."10 Parents are disciples making disciples. Introducing children and youth to Jesus so they may also follow Him is the family's highest mission.
Looking to the heavenly Parent for guidance and strength, parents build strong connections with children as they attend to their physical, emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual needs, especially the need for love. They patiently seek to pass on a legacy of truth, modeling the Christian life in winsome ways and correcting their children with a redemptive rather than punitive spirit.
God feels the distress of parents whose children ignore counsel, behave in disappointing ways, and even discard home values (cf. Hos. 11:1, 2). As our heavenly Parent, He has bound Himself to all children through Christ11 and will never let them go except by their own deliberate, persistent, and ultimate choice. Yet, He values human freedom. God will help earthly parents do the same to take a long view of their children's salvation and keep the conduit of parental influence open through warm relationships.
While our work for Christ is to begin with the family,12 the mission of the home extends beyond its members.13 Families where Jesus has transformed hearts and lives are beacons of light for the community, winsome witnessing centers that draw others to the Savior. In the quest to discover God's purpose for our homes, the various personalities, talents, gifts, and abilities of each family member are recognized as precious resources for the mission God has in mind for our unique family circle.
The gospel message and family reconciliation
The Seventh-day Adventist doctrinal statement on marriage and family closes with a reference to Malachi 4:5, 6 which points to increasing family closeness as one of the earmarks of the final gospel message. Malachi predicts a work of reconciliation and reconnecting in families, a turning of "the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of children to their fathers." This is to be accomplished by Elijah and is predicted to happen "before the coming of the great day of the LORD."
In the time of historic reform begun by the prophet Elijah (cf. 1 Kings 18:36- 39), God had shown Himself to be a gracious Father whose heart was turned toward His errant children and who longed for them to respond by turning in faith to Him (cf. Isa. 44:22; Mal. 3:7). Elijah had prayed for God to give evidence that the work of reconciliation was His "so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again" (1 Kings 18:37, NIV, emphasis supplied).
Jeremiah corroborates what Elijah understood; any turning we do is in response to God's grace. "Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may return" (Lam. 5:21, NIV). On Carmel, the people had turned their hearts toward God as, in a mighty demonstration of grace, God's wrath against their sin had fallen on the sacrifice instead of them (1 Kings 18:39). Refreshing rains had ended the curse upon the earth (1 Kings 18:45). The sacrifice on Carmel pointed to Jesus, in whom God reconciled the world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:18, 19). God has once for all turned His Father heart toward His children and embraced them in Christ.
Included in the magnificent mystery of the Cross is the reality that Christ has brought estranged people together in His crucified body (Eph. 2:13,14,16-18). As God's messengers carry the gospel of grace to the world with renewed urgency, it is as though Elijah has reappeared, for the message is like his.
God's ambassadors plead with all to believe and accept the incredible good news of a Father who has already turned His heart toward them and longs for them to cease their hostility and unbelief and be reconciled to Him and to each other (2 Cor. 5:20).
The most significant arena in which this final gospel message must take hold is the home. Like all things created, marriage and family are entangled in the web of the great controversy between Christ and Satan. It is the purpose of the gospel to restore marriage and family to God's original design.14
Families desperately need reconciliation between the generations, within each generation and between the genders. The world desperately needs the witness that such reconciliation bears. So significant is this coming together in unity that Jesus made it the focal point of His prayer for His followers.
Through our relationships in Christian marriage and family life, we may honor Jesus' prayer: "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (John 17:23, NIV).
1 See Ellen G. White, Thoughts Prom the Mount of Blessing (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1955), 63.
2 "An Affirmation of Marriage," General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Administrative Committee, April 23, 1996.
4 Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, Revised 2000, 193.
5 Ibid., 194.
6 Ibid., 196.
7 Ibid., 195.
8 Fundamental Beliefs, Article 22.
9 Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, Revised 2000, 196.
10 Ibid., 116.
11 See Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1892), 72.
12 ————, The Adventist Home (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1952), 35.
13 ————, The Ministry of Healing (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1942), 3SZ.
14 See Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, 64.