Marriage and the Family - 1 - The Basis of Christian Living in the Home

Chapter One
Building the Basis   

When George Washington was appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental forces at the outbreak of the Revolution, he replied to the Congress by saying, “Although I am truly sensible of the high honor done me at this appointment, yet I feel great distress from a consciousness that my abilities and experience may not be equal to this extensive and important trust ... I beg it be remembered by every gentleman in the room that I this day declare with most sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.” The feelings of the writer run in a somewhat parallel course with his illustrious predecessor.

The idea of contributing a series of articles on marriage and the family is a bold undertaking for anyone. For someone with his own family, and less than forty years of marriage to his credit, this may seem dangerous. When it was suggested that I consider contributing this series, I was not enthusiastic.
Yet the need exists and we cannot ignore it. The reader will, however, not find this a ‘how-to” manual on raising children and establishing the perfect marriage. There will be no insightful first person stories from the life of a victorious Christian and his family.

The articles will contain simply the scriptural pattern and principles which should govern every family relationship. These are God’s standards. If there is some flaw in the writer, it is not the standard but the saint who is at fault. Some might think that these are the musings of an idealist, someone divorced from the real world. Be assured that God’s ideals are far above anything an idealist can imagine. If any should challenge us as to whether we have experienced in full the blessings of these scriptural principles, I would simply ask, “Who has ever exhausted all the joy and blessing from what New Testament Christianity has introduced?” In every sphere of our lives we can, like Paul in his relentless pursuit of Philippians 3, seek to press on.
In the first article of this series, we will look together at courtship. Not only is courtship the first event in time when considering the courtship-marriage-family cycle, but it also is the very basis for much that follows.

The Problem Defined

Some might think that an article on courtship will be an exercise in creative writing. What can one possibly find in the Scriptures concerning courtship? Eastern marriages were arranged with businesslike precision. Surprisingly, these are both principles and examples that will be of great profit for us to consider.

If anyone is not aware of some of the problems confronting out young believers in the area of courtship, allow me to articulate some of their concerns. One of the greatest fears of youth is failure and embarrassment. All of us can recall with a very uneasy feeling the emotional trauma that attended some of our early mistakes as teenagers and young adults. Unfortunately, the assemblies would qualify as a subculture with its own rapid communication network. News spreads from Boston to Toronto to Vancouver to Washington and back with amazing speed and accuracy. All of this has its advantages to us but it also has its liability to young people. A rejection of a person by another soon becomes common knowledge; a break up in a relationship carries with it the added spiritual toll of public failure. The questions arises, “How could one have known the Lord’s will about their relationship and then have it end?”

Perhaps we, as older believers, should be more careful in our spreading of news, more reserved about “gossip.” It would doubtless at least spare a lot fo feelings and embarrassment.
How are young people to get acquainted? How are they to know the character of others without keeping company? Any interest soon becomes interpreted by others in a more serious light than is usually intended. Talking together is interpreted to mean that they couple are soon to be married. The overly sensitive avoid suggestion of interest for fear of gaining, unjustly, a reputation for lightness. Others court this reputation flagrantly. These are very real problems which our young people face. Answers are not always as easy to formulate as questions. Not everyone will be satisfied with what follows, but read on.

Coupled with this is a very relevant question, Is marriage for all? The Lord Jesus spoke of those who cannot marry and others who chose not to marry for the Kingdom of God’s sake.

The Priority Discovered

I was recently asked an excellent question: “If marriage is really the second most important decision a person must make in their life, why has God allowed it to be so subjective?” We have all been at crisis decision points in our lives and have wished for a book of rules, some plain guidelines for decision making.
Recently, there has appeared in evangelical circles a new teaching. Its main theme is that there is no such thing as a specific will of God for your life. Simply stay within the broad scriptural guidelines and whatever you do is fine. Translated into everyday terms, this new teaching states that since the Scriptures only require you to marry a believer in the Lord, any believer who fits this description will do. Don’t worry yourself over a particular one that the Lord has for you.
This might sound like a tremendous burden-lifter for those of you who are spending hours, days, weeks, even years waiting upon God for an answer to a specific request. Though it has the appearance of a great spiritual tranquilizer, it is, in reality, a robber of spiritual blessing. Waiting upon God serves many purposes. Many believers gladly testify that the experience of seeking God’s mind is often as valuable as the expression of God’s mind. The refining process, the wait which is so difficult for the flesh, frequently brings our priorities into focus. This is, perhaps, a partial answer to the question that headed this section. God has made the matter subjective that we might be cast more upon Him and learn our hearts and develop priorities in this most important realm.

The Purpose Declared

What is the purpose of courtship? This might sound to the sophisticated as a relatively naive question. Allow the question to have its place on the page and its moment in your thoughts. Dating should never take character from the world. The purpose of courtship is with a view to marriage, the joining together of two to become one, a union intended to be of the total person for the total life. Dating for “fun” has no place in a believer’s thinking. Emotions are too vulnerable. It is for this reason that you should begin praying as early as possible that God will keep you from error and direct you to the right person. To only begin praying when your emotions are involved is to wait until it is too late. Our hearts are deceitful enough without the added bias of infatuation. Even in situations where friendship is the avowed intention of the two, one is usually hurt in the end. Every courtship then should be with a view to determining if the person is God’s choice as your partner in life.

The Pattern Discussed

Where then can we look for help in the Scriptures in attempting to find principles to guide us in this important step in life? Courtship and dating can’t be found in Strong’s or Young’s Concordances.
The best place to begin a search is in the first three chapters of Genesis. If we search together here, we will not be disappointed. Notice carefully what is written in Genesis 2:22, “And the rib, which the Lord God has taken from man, made He a woman, and brought her unto Adam.” Did you notice how the Spirit of God has expressed this primal courtship? God brought her to Adam. Amazing statement! One would have thought Adam of sufficient common sense, and Eve likewise so gifted as to realize that, with the absence of anyone else, they were meant for each other. The choice was relatively obvious and simple. Yet God did the bringing together. Is this lesson, stamped as it is on the very first pages of our Bibles, to be lost upon us? Hasn’t God put it right here for our instruction in this essential step in life.
Allow me the boldness of this simple question: If you are now keeping company with someone do you have the consciousness that it was God who brought you together? Or was it a certain amount of maneuvering, flirting, or chasing that accomplished this? Was it the makeup or the mind of God?

There is nothing that will give stability to your marriage and confidence when praying for the salvation of children born to that marriage as the firm conviction that God brought you together. It is tragic to have to confess failure in courtship later when the children are not saved and are drifting away from the gospel! This by no means suggests or even hints that if children are unsaved the parents made a mistake. Further still, it does not imply that if parents find that they were wrong in marrying that they cannot own it before God and cry to Him to save their children. What I am emphasizing is the great confidence to be able to approach God knowing that my marriage and its fruit have been in accordance with His will.
But come a little further along in Genesis to the well known story of Isaac and Rebekah. I can hear someone object that there can scarcely be anything here on courtship. This was a long distance engagement, arranged by an intermediary. Isaac had not even seen her before the engagement. While some in our reading audience may applaud the virtues of this method, we have to own that its practice is foreign to our culture. What then can we learn?

How did the servant “know” the right woman for his master’s son? There were express requirements laid down by Abraham as to family, country etc. Could we liken this to the general guidelines of the Word of God as to a Christian, and marriage in the Lord? But then the servant asked for an additional sign. He would know that it was the right woman if she offered to give water to his camels. Why this sign? Was this a simple whim? A stab in the dark for a really unusual sign? Consider the possibility that what he was looking for was the expression of not only outward beauty, but character. The girl who would agree to the monumental task of drawing water for the camels was one marked by hospitality, kindness, consideration, and a willingness to work; not bad qualities to look for in a prospective wife. The moral of this lesson is that Rebekah became a wife by displaying character, not cunning; by inner beauty, not outward attractiveness.

Would there be anything wrong with having a “check-list” of qualities which you look for in a prospective partner? Look around at the “good” marriages in your assembly. What is there about them that have contributed to making them good? What qualities do you see in others that you admire and would value in a life partner? Parents could well spend time discussing with their teens the qualities which they value. Older role models can be assessed to discover the traits that are prized by their children in those older believers. One of the greatest benefits of group activities, is that young people are able to discover, in a safe and nonthreatening atmosphere, the qualities and traits of others.

One more illustration may suffice for now. The story of Ruth the Moabitess is familiar to all. Naomi, her mother-in-law, encouraged her to return to Moab so that she could find a husband there. The prospects for a husband were almost nonexistent in Israel for a Moabitess damsel. Now Ruth was not ignorant or misled; she was no starry eyed idealist who hoped against hope that somehow her mother-in-law was wrong. Counting the cost, she returned to Bethlehem.
Mark now the lessons which flow from the ancient, yet fresh love story. How did Boaz become acquainted with Ruth? The first contact and impression was through her labor in his field. In the company of other young people, he had the opportunity to observe her. Her industry was observed by others. Boaz could ask the counsel of the servant over the reapers concerning Ruth. It soon became common knowledge in the city that Ruth was a virtuous woman (Ruth 3:11). Could this be a partial answer to a query raised earlier in this article? Group activities among young people form the safest way for initial impressions to be made. Obviously it does not allow the opportunity for more than a superficial knowledge, but it is a beginning. Many a prospective spouse can be scratched from the list with just this casual observation.

Boaz also asked others about Ruth. Don’t be afraid to approach older mature believers for their counsel. Just don’t stack the deck in your favor by going only to friends of the one in whom you have an interest. In the multitude of counselors is safety (Prov 11:14).

The end of the story finds Ruth in Boaz’s home. How did she get there? It was not through chasing Boaz or “high visibility” techniques. She simply was carrying out the will of God for her life and God brought her into his field, family, and future. That should be a great encouragement for younger men and women. God is able to control the circumstances that bring young men and women together.

Ruth needed one more lesson. She had to learn patience. “Sit still my daughter,” counseled Naomi. Waiting upon God and patience are difficult for us all. My flesh does not differ from yours. Waiting is painful to us both. Yet, in waiting, God’s will is perfected.

It may sound overly simple and perhaps a bit old fashioned, but can’t God be trusted for a partner in life? Do we have to aggressively seek one? God will never give you second best for life if you are trusting Him. It may not be the person upon whom your heart is set, but it will not be second best for your life.

When someone has expressed an interest, would it not be better to wait together in prayer for God to guide further and confirm the interest and exercise? Letter writing reveals more about a person than simply their ability to spell. This can be an effective means to know the priorities in a person’s life. It can help to show their interests and goals. Someone may say that this is the ideal but is not realistic in our society. God has called us to manifest Christian principles at every level of our life. Going for a walk together, going to dinner, and other means of becoming acquainted are excellent for couples who are exploring their interest in each other. Absolute honesty is imperative between both, lest one be led along unkindly. In your courtship you are building the basis for your future together. The principles which have permeated your relationship up to marriage will not likely differ drastically from those that will control your days after marriage.

It must be stressed that those are not the workable principles of a particular subculture. It is not that we have to use this means because of our circumstances. These are divine principles that should be used because they will ensure the mind of God for you without the emotional cost of mistake and tragedy.

May I be allowed to address older believers for a moment in this article for younger Christians? If what has been written is true, how can we justify our frequent role as matchmakers? The writer is penning these words with embarrassment upon his face and a confession upon his lips. Mia Culpa! Yet if we are to be consistent with the idea that young people must discover the will of God for their partners in life, can we profess to know the mind of God for them? Can we dare risk pushing something if God is not in it?

Practices Dictated

Some of the issues raised here may also raise the eyebrows of some. It is not intended to have this result. These are practical matters which need to be addressed.

Are we on the same page?

Courtship is not simply a time to be together and have “fun.” It should be a time when interests and goals are discussed. Do you have the same desire for a family? How about the size of a family? What about your spiritual goals? Does one desire to be a missionary and the other a bank executive? Do you share the same commitment to the assembly or is it simply something which is a convenience to one and a commitment to the other? Issues such as where you will live, careers, spiritual goals, assembly involvement, hospitality, and other interests need to be explored and agreed upon.

Saying No

Boy meet girl. Boy is attracted to girl. Boy feels his long breathed prayer is finally answered! He approaches said girl and asks to begin dating. Unfortunately, this answered prayer is not the experience of the girl. How is this to be handled?
Keep in mind that you are dealing with another believer. You are dealing with another Christian in one of the most sensitive and vulnerable areas of life. Keep in mind that in all your dealings with others, you are to be marked by love - you are to always do what is best for another.

Does that mean you say “yes” even when you are sure it is not the mind of the Lord? Let me ask in turn, “Is going against the mind of God ever the best for anyone?” But how do you say “no” in a gracious and kind manner? Your purpose is not to destroy, belittle, or devastate another. It is to communicate that you do not have peace before the Lord about the step which is being suggested. To do so graciously and kindly will take help from the Lord.

Breaking up

What happens when, in the course of your courtship, you either individually or unitedly begin to suspect that this is not the mind of the Lord? What if the awareness is suddenly faced when the engagement has already been made, arrangements and deposits already done, and everyone primed for a wedding? Whenever the awareness that this is not the mind of the Lord, dawns on a couple (or one of the individuals), the only honorable step is to call a halt to all. Far better to waste a few dollars made in deposit, more honorable to endure some temporary embarrassment for what has happened, than either a life time of regret, or the even sadder step of ultimate divorce.

Here again, care must be taken to avoid any suggestion that “something is wrong with the other person.” It is a matter of the will of God. Care, sensitivity, kindness, and grace must all be shown. The honorable thing to do would be to make amends wherever possible to those who have lost, either financially or in other ways, as a result of any last minute decisions. This is not written to encourage hasty retreats from the marriage vows, but to stress the permanency and life-long effects of marriage. It must not be entered with any uncertainty about the will of the Lord.

There may be occasion when someone who is in a relationship is converted. It is obvious that the relationship cannot continue, regardless of the level of involvement. But again, this must be done honorably and with a view to the testimony before others. Financial obligations must be owned and provision must be made if two people have been living together.  Conversion was never meant to be an escape door from earthly obligations.

Purity That is Demanded
Paul could tell the Philippians that for him to pen certain things was not grievous to him and for them it was safe (Phil 3:1). It may seem unnecessary to write of the demand for moral purity in your relationship, but suffer the reminder for the present. The examples of Scripture are abundant: Rebekah’s veil, Ruth’s behavior, Joseph’s initial concern over Mary’s pregnancy; even Lot maintained moral standards for his daughters in wicked Sodom. They were virgins before marriage. The clear instructions of the New Testament should never be interpreted in the light of the Old Testament and its legislation concerning required marriages for premarital relationships (Deut 22:28,29).

These principles apply to both brethren and sisters. Since they are God given they apply equally well now as then. The standard, the ideal is high. As you strive to reach it, God will give what is best for you.

Preparedness Demonstrated

Some issues must be faced in deciding if you are ready to marry. “Love” is not the determinant as to your preparedness for a life-long relationship. Maturity, commitment, financial ability to maintain a spouse - these and other questions enter into the decision making.

Are we emotionally ready?

Are both individuals prepared to leave prior headships and establish a new relationship with all its obligations and demands? Are both prepared to leave the emotional cocoon of home and parents and genuinely “cleave” to each other?

Are we Financially ready?

Can you afford this or will you be dependent on parents and others? It is one thing for parents to willingly help a couple starting out if that is their interest. But it is another, and dangerous, thing for a couple to look to parents for support. Do you have debts incurred from single days which will be a burden to your early days? Perhaps it would be better to pay them down before embarking on a life together.