By Mark Liederbach and David McWhite
Okay men, time for a marriage and manliness moment—or, as my brother John used to say to me, “Time for a checkup from the neck up”—as it relates to how a man understands his commitment and role in marriage.
Consider with me the difference between indicatives and imperatives. To understand what I mean, let’s look at the definitions of these terms.
Indicatives are statements of facts. They simply spell out what the nature of a thing is. For example, right now I am sitting at a table upon which my computer rests. It is a fact that the table has four legs and that its color is brown. These qualities are indicative of this table. Whether or not I like these facts is irrelevant; they are what they are.
An imperative, on the other hand, has to do with action or command. Imperatives tell us what we ought to do. Thus, if I am commanded by a boss to come to work at eight o’clock in the morning, then I ought to do so. In fact, if I want to keep my job, then it is imperative that I do so.
This distinction between an indicative and an imperative is important as it relates to marriage. Scripture teaches us that marriage is a picture of Christ’s relationship with the church. It also teaches us that marriage is a covenant and, as such, is indissoluble. These facts are indicative of marriage. Nowhere does the Scripture give an imperative to make our marriages into covenants or to make our marriage into a portrait of Christ and the church. These realities just are.
This does not mean that God does not give imperatives regarding marriage—he does. In fact, Ephesians 5:22–33 is full of imperatives regarding the way a husband and wife ought to treat each other. But each of these imperatives is based on a prior truth, namely, that marriage already is a covenant and already is a picture of Christ’s love for the Church.
Because Scripture is clear that marriages are covenants and that they are portraits of Christ and the Church, we are not free to evaluate or decide whether or not we want to treat them as covenants or as portraits of Christ and the church. Those facts are already true of all marriages by default. The implication, then, is that the only thing a man can decide about his marriage is whether or not he will strive to make his covenant marriage a good portrait or a bad portrait.
Recently, I learned of a man who decided after years of marriage that he was no longer going to honor his marital vows. Upon being challenged about this, he responded that he and his wife were no longer “in love” and, thus, he believed that his vows no longer applied. In his words, he was confident that “since so many Christians get divorced, I too ought to be given a pass on my promises.” What this man failed to realize, however, is that regardless of what he “thought” or “felt” about abandoning his wife and kids, his actions and beliefs did not change either the nature of his marriage or the travesty of his choice. Because it is indicative of a marriage that it is a covenant and that it is a picture of Christ’s relationship with the church, his only choice was in how he was going to represent Christ to his wife, kids, church and world.
You see, if he had understood what it means to be a man as it relates to marriage, then he would have realized that he did not have the option to simply act as if the marriage was a contract he could break. He did not have the option to simply “go back” on his marital vows or decide they no longer applied. Whether or not he wanted to accept or believe it, because marriage was explicitly designed by God to be a picture of Christ’s love for the church, his actions said to the watching world that Jesus can (and perhaps will) divorce the church and that God is not trustworthy when it comes to keeping his covenant promises.
Men, realize this: even if this man were to scream at the top of his lungs to the watching world, “I did not mean to imply those things about Christ!” his cry would not change the nature of what he did. His marriage is a covenant; it is a picture of Christ’s love for the church. Therefore, in leaving his wife and kids, he painted a picture before the world that blasphemed the name of Christ.
This is an important point to reflect upon. We must avoid the temptation to treat marriages as mere contracts. That is, we must avoid the temptation to think that a “covenant marriage” is something we aspire to or can achieve if we simply crank up our level of commitment. Such thinking may have noble intent, but in actuality, it dilutes the very nature of what marriage already is and how we ought to think of it.
Whether or not a person recognizes it, affirms it, likes it, or even eventually disagrees with it, once he enters into a marriage, he has entered into a covenant. And if he has entered into a covenant, then he is at liberty to flourish only by the nature of the covenant. And if flourishing happens only as we live by the nature of the covenant, then the only acceptable option of worship for a man who is married is to live according to the plan and structure of the covenant established by our good, kind, wise and loving God.
Consider the parallel. When a person comes to faith in Christ and enters the “new covenant” in order to worship in “spirit and truth” (John 4:24), he or she needs to live a life in keeping with the nature and obligations of the covenant, even when things get tough. This commitment to the covenant is why the saints of old were willing to die for their faith rather than recant.
Jesus said, “If you love me you will obey me” (John 14:15, 21). Indeed, according to Jesus, this was the path toward the abundant life he promised in John 10:10. If we love Christ, then we will obey him by viewing our marriage in light of what God has declared marriage to be: a covenant and a portrait of Christ’s love.
Because marriage is designed by God to represent Christ’s love for the Church, a man’s view of marriage must display for the watching world a love for his wife that honorably represents his covenant with God and Christ’s love for the Church. As Paul puts it, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25).
So what is this moral of this marriage and manliness moment?
Men understand the difference between indicatives and imperatives. Thumb-sucking boys in adult male bodies leave their wives. Men do not.
Below is a song David wrote out of Ephesians 5 on the devastating situation we would be in if Christ treated His relationship with us (His Bride) the same way we often treat our own marriages. Thank God Christ is faithful to us, even when we do not honor our covenant with Him as we should!