English service - May 21, 2023
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
“What God Has Joined Together”
Five years ago, the mayor of the City of Chicago in the U.S., Rahm Emanuel (who used to work as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff), talked about the shocking number of murders and other crimes in his city. He described what he thought was necessary to fight this problem.
. . . I know the power of what faith and family can do. Our kids need that structure. . . . I am asking . . . that we also don’t shy away from a full discussion about the importance of family and faith helping to develop and nurture character, self-respect, a value system and a moral compass that allows kids to know good from bad and right from wrong.
Some people protested that he was failing to understand how difficult racism had made it for people to live in safety and peace. Others said that he was telling the uncomfortable truth. Since that time, the crime situation has become quite a bit worse in that city.
We have been learning here at Open Door recently what the Bible’s God teaches us about the family. We have seen that it was created and given by Him to people for His glory and our good. In forming human society, God chose to put people together in family units as part of His plan for our wellbeing. For not only those of us in areas like Chicago or the U.S. generally with special trouble stopping crime, but for all of us in every culture, living in healthy family relationships is a key part of human flourishing. It’s necessary for “the good life” as the Lord intends it to be. Without it, everything tends to break down.
Today I’d like to at least begin looking at one key part of family life: marriage. As the Bible presents it, marriage is a key part of God’s plan for the formation of persons. Critics of traditional marriage (many communists and some feminists, for example) claim that marriage is basically a tool for keeping rich people in control of poor and men in control of women.
For Christian reasons, we can agree that if marriage sinks into being this kind of economic and political arrangement, it has lost its essential meaning and purpose. We may disagree about what they think would solve the problem. But because marriage and problems in it are so important, it may help us to look back a little more carefully at what God had in mind when He gave us the institution of marriage in the first place. I’d like to focus on that today.
Speaking generally, the Bible’s God wants to use marriage in His great work of bringing the kingdom of God into this world. As Jesus says in v. 12, people (married and unmarried alike) are here “in order to serve the kingdom of heaven.” That is the kingdom where love motivates and empowers human relationships. It is shown in respect, peace, and cooperation. When marriage plays the role that God intends for it in this kind of world, it does not divide and enslave people but helps unite and free us all.
But let’s try to move beyond the larger, overarching teachings about marriage and look at some more specific and practical questions inside Jesus’ message in Matthew 19. (A similar, but shorter, version is in Mark 10, also.)
To begin with, in the Christian view, is being married better than remaining single? No, not necessarily. Marriage is clearly God’s basic plan for humanity, but He has unique plans for each of us, and He does not lead every person to be married. Jesus of Nazareth is one example, of course. In v. 11 of today’s reading, He talks about “those who have been helped to live without getting married.” He lists different categories of people who are called by God, as His best plans for them, to live as single people.
They include people who have certain physical conditions. These may make living in marriage unworkable.
Also, in Bible times kings, for example, might have a special type of servant called a eunuch whose life was dedicated to his service completely. To avoid the many complications that having sex, family, and children involves, the king would require a eunuch to have some of his sex organs removed. (If we tried to restart that system today, I’m guessing we wouldn’t have a lot of volunteers.)
Besides these that “have been made that way by other people,” there are those whom God has led into lifestyles that they could probably not keep if they were in a married relationship. I think of Sarah Smith, the founder of Hokusei Gakuen, and many other lady missionaries whose life paths have not included marriage. Some of you remember Misses Annie Hoover and Hiroko Nomura, who did so much to begin several of the churches in our Hokkaido Baptist Association. God blessed their single lives richly—and many through them, including us.
Jesus does not present any of these categories of singles as “second class Christians.” So it doesn’t make sense if we somehow develop the idea that they are just ones who haven’t quite found their place in life yet. The single life is the best if God has specifically led you into it, He says, whether temporarily or for your whole life. But it’s not for everyone. Jesus limits His teaching to follow this life to “The one who can accept living that way” (v. 12b).
To these people called to the single life, we could also add those whose marriage partners have died. Some feel called to remarry, but others do not. In either case, there often is a season of life as a single person to which our Lord calls people. When He does, that person’s greatest fulfilment lies in living that single life. It can be especially lonely, and the temptations people face in it are not the same as the ones that married people do. But there is also a particular opportunity to come to know the presence and fellowship of Christ through that time.
To understand the Bible’s teachings to married and unmarried people, we need to see an underlying understanding that its God holds. Sex, marriage, and children come as a set. When we choose to take one or more out or separate them from each other, troubles begin. The Old Testament Law makes this clear, and in Jesus’ time and culture, it was almost not necessary to say it because it was simply assumed by nearly everyone.
But in our day, many of us have grown up in cultures impacted heavily by the Sexual Revolution beginning in the 1960s. In these countries, it has become much more common since then for couples in sexual relationships, and sometimes with children, to live together without being married. Divorces have also increased greatly. According to D’Onofrio and Emery, whose work is reported in World Psychiatry, these trends are strongest in Western cultures but growing in industrializing countries in Asia, too.
Many people welcomed the Sexual Revolution, believing it would bring greater freedom and equality. Now that several decades have passed, we may be in a better position to see its effects. For one, in the U.S., out of 10 births, 4 are now by unmarried women. Only 60% of children there live with both their married, biological parents. The number of children living with a mother only has doubled—a far faster increase than that of the population. And of single mothers, over 36% live in poverty. Even the King of England and kind of head of the Church of England is a divorced person who admits that he had a sexual relationship outside marriage.
Some view these changes as small problems or even improvements, especially for women in unhappy marriages or children living in homes with high levels of conflict. But others see them as a major public health problem, especially for children. The writers say that their work shows a connection between divorce/separation and higher risk for problems in children and teenagers’ lives as they grow up. They include difficulties at school (such as lower grades and dropping out completely), depressed moods, and disruptive behaviors (for example conduct trouble and problems with drugs). Children of divorced/separated parents are also more likely to get involved in risky sexual behavior, live in poverty, and have family instability of their own later in life. The Sexual Revolution doesn’t seem to be delivering all the liberation and happiness it promised.
These are the types of problems Jesus appears to have in mind when He tells His followers not to divorce or move sex and child-raising outside of marriage. “Times have changed. That’s the way things are now.” To Christ and His followers, this is not a convincing argument. Following current trends is not His goal. Avoiding being different from people around Him in order to avoid stress is not on His list of important things to do.
As the Son of the all-knowing God, He understands fully that romantic partners live together outside marriage, and some marriages fail. No one is more realistic than our Heavenly Father. And His love for us does not change, even when we step out of His best plans for our lives. His grace is there for people who don’t commit to marriage, or who experience divorce, as well as for anyone else.
Yet He recognizes the great damage that comes to our lives when we do not follow His plan of keeping sex and child-raising inside the context of marriage. His teaching grows out of concern for the people in the marriage. But it is also for the children, who are just as important in His eyes and less able to protect themselves.
“Wow, Jesus, this is some awfully heavy stuff you are hitting us with!” His disciples are probably thinking something like that when they reply to Him (v. 10), “If that's the way it is between a husband and wife, it is better not to get married.” Many people in our cultures today are also seeing all the difficulty in building and keeping a strong marriage and thinking, “Maybe it’s better not to get married—at least not yet.” Quite a few are choosing never to get involved in a serious relationship that could lead to marriage. Others are choosing to live together and be sexually active without the commitment of marriage. Let’s think for a minute about the second of these responses.
Many young people receive a strong message from their culture today that it’s safer to “try before you buy.” It seems like good advice in buying a car (and we freely test-drive cars in the U.S.), so it must be a wise approach to finding a husband or wife, right? Following this thought, they begin living together with the hopes that, if they are not a good match, they will realize it and break up before making a big mistake.
It sounds understandable, right? But does it lead to good relationships? Two researchers at the Institute for Family Studies, Carroll and Willoughby, looked at a large amount of existing and new data. Their conclusion was that (1) young people are saying they want to have lasting, fulfilling relationships with their partners. But (2) having sexual experience beforehand hurts rather than helps their chances of having it. Using data sets like the General Social Survey, they found that “the lowest divorce rates in early marriage are found among married couples who have only had sex with each other.” In particular,
. . . Women who wait until they are married to have sex have only a 5% chance of divorce in the first five years of marriage, whereas women who report two or more sex partners prior to marriage have between a 25% to 35% chance of divorce.
The researchers found that adults who had only one sexual partner reported the highest overall levels of relationship satisfaction, relationship stability, and sexual satisfaction. The data showed that it did not make a difference whether the sex others had had was with “committed partners” or “casual” sex. Both had negative effects on future marriages.
In light of this study and other similar research, there seems to be little support (“virtually no evidence,” one researcher wrote) for the idea that living together before marriage improves your chances of a successful relationship.
That’s part of why, when Jesus receives a kind of trick question about divorce law, He uses it as a chance to teach something helpful and timeless about marriage and human happiness. He goes all the way back to the creation story and shows how the way God set up marriage then can best continue to guide people of all times. He takes the words of Genesis 2:24 and affirms them as His own instructions: “. . . A man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife. The two will become one.” That two will become one—that God will join people in His covenant love in heart, soul, mind, and strength. That is His will, so for that we pray.
The message I have given you today has focused on God’s leading people to be married. I hope to have another chance to continue our learning of how He can help people to build stronger, richer, more joyous marriages. Let’s now ask God to help us receive the teachings He has given us through today’s time together, in ways that will help us to know and live in His wisest and most loving plans for us. Will you pray with me?
God who brings and keeps people together in love, we have seen again in your word today your deep passion for joining your children through the covenant of marriage. For those who are seeking a marriage partner at your guidance, give opportunities and prepare hearts in ways that only you can. For those of us who are married, help us to live in faithfulness to the promises we have made. Empower us to truly “become one” more and more completely. Forgive us where we need to be forgiven, encourage us where we need to be encouraged, teach us where we need to learn. And no matter what situation we are in, hold us in your deep care and unchanging love. In Christ’s name we ask it. Amen.
Carrol, J. and Willoughby, B. (2023, April 18). The Myth of Sexual Experience. Institute for Family Studies. Retrieved May 11, 2023 from https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-myth-of-sexual-experience-
D’Onofrio, B. and Emery, R. (2019, February). World Psychiatry, Vol. 18(1), 100-101. Retrieved May 8, 2023 from PMC6313686/
Hemez, P. and Washington, C. (2021, April 12). Number of Children Living Only with Their Mothers Has Doubled in Past 50 Years. U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved May 14, 2023 from living-only-with-their-mothers-has-doubled-in-past-50- years.html
Mitchell, M. (2018, August 11). Emanuel gave right message on violence, even if he was the wrong messenger. Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved May 14, 2023 from message-on-violence-even-if-he-was-the-wrong-messenger
September 24, 2018). Cohabitation Experience and Cohabitation's Association With Marital Dissolution. Journal of Marriage and Family. Wiley Online Library. Retrieved January 18, 2023 from
Stonestreet, J. and Baer, M. (January 13, 2023). Cohabitation Doesn’t Prepare You for Marriage. Breakpoint. Retrieved January 18, 2023 from marriage-2/
Stonestreet, J. and Morris, S. (2023, April 26). The Stubborn Facts about Saving Sex: Doing Things God’s Way Works. Breakpoint.
Stonestreet, J. and Morris, S. (2023, April 26). The Victims of Divorce: Statistics and Stories of Hurting Children. Breakpoint. Retrieved May 8, 2023 from