Reflections on the Biblical Meaning of Christian Marriage: Natural Institution or Alliance of Grace?

We know that marriage, which is a sacrament in the Catholic perspective, but only a natural institution in Protestantism, is causing enormous turmoil among Catholics today in the context of debates on remarried divorcees. These debates should lead us Protestants to ask ourselves many questions: where does the divorce between Catholic doctrine and the “new pastoral”, desired by Pope Francis, who wants to be much more welcoming to the world, come from? for the divorced-remarried? And what does Christ mean when he states, in Matthew 19, 6: "What God has united, may not be separated by man" ? Have we sufficiently explored the meaning of this word, and in particular the idea that God is directly the source which is at the origin of this link? How is it that men today manage to dissolve so easily what God himself has united?

Olet us first observe that from the Catholic perspective, God is less originally of this link that it is not the guarantor. The spouses, in fact, choose or recognize each other, and the sacrament of marriage (the exchange of consents), from the Catholic perspective, is what divinely “seals” this union. God therefore here only confirms the decision of the spouses, which he unites one to the other through the mediation of the sacrament. Nevertheless, is it sufficient, for there to be marriage "before God", that the spouses have given each other the sacrament of marriage? A priori no, since the Catholic Church recognizes that marriage can be "void" if one of the following four conditions is lacking:

  1. The spouses must be free in their commitment (which excludes both external pressure and passionate blindness).
  2. They must promise each other fidelity (a marriage where one of the two would not intend to be faithful when his promise is "void").
  3. The spouses must be open to the reception of life and to the education of children (a spouse who does not want a child could see his marriage annulled later).
  4. Finally, the spouses must have carnally consummated their union.

But are these conditions sufficient to consider that there has been a marriage "before God"? Is it not above all that the spouses have recognized that the love they have for each other is indeed in God its origin and its source, and that it is only thus that we can say that it is really God? who "united" them? What makes the specificity of the “new covenant”, if we are to believe Holy Scripture, is that it is “sealed” in the hearts of regenerated believers, which would be confirmed by a text as decisive as Ezekiel. 36. This is what St Paul calls the “circumcision of the heart”, which is for him true circumcision. Why not think then that the union of the spouses is sealed in the heart of these, a heart that has been inclined towards one another by God, who unites them in HIS love? Is.

How do I know that the love I have for my spouse really comes from God?

But we will say: this criterion is very subjective. How do I know that the love I have for my spouse really comes from God? St Paul, in I Corinthians 13, 4-7, however gives interesting elements to discern true love, that which truly finds in God its source and its origin: it "takes patience", it "renders service", it "does not he is not jealous ", he does not" brag ", he does not" swell with pride ", he does" nothing improper ", he does not" get angry ", he" does not maintain of resentment ”, he“ finds his joy in the truth ”, he“ forgives everything ”, he“ believes everything ”, he“ hopes for everything ”, he“ endures everything ”. Few people are certainly capable of such love, for we are all clay vessels wounded by life and damaged by sin, yet this is how we are called to love. And if our heart has indeed been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, we must be capable of such love ... It is of this love that Paul tells us "that it will not pass away", and we then understand that the bond which unites the spouses who love each other with such a love can be truly indissoluble in the eyes of God.

What then is the meaning of "marriage"? In reality, the spouses only "consent" to a love that goes beyond them (one speaks moreover of "exchange of consents" more than of the "choice" of a spouse, and the biblical examples of the Old Testament seem to show that the best way not to be mistaken is to entrust to God himself the care of choosing this one for us), love which must draw its source and its origin from God. Henceforth, marriage does nothing but objectify, by a "visible" sign (it is the exchange of alliances), this "invisible alliance" which God has sealed in the hearts of the spouses, when he inclines them one towards the other.

It is therefore no coincidence that the apostle Paul gives as a model for human marriage the covenant of Grace of Christ with his Church.

For this reason, I admit, so it seems difficult to reduce Christian marriage to a simple natural institution. It is undoubtedly so for non-Christians, who live under the regime of "common grace". But the Christian perspective promotes marriage to a new dignity (which is also a "restoration", for Jesus reminds us, in Matthew 19, that divorce was not originally in God's plan, and that it is only the "hardness of heart" - in the absence of regeneration - which made it possible under the law of Moses), by making it enter, for Christian spouses, into a "theology of the covenant of grace" . This is what justifies suddenly the spiritual character of Christian marriage, irreducible to a simple natural institution, and it is in my opinion what Catholics have clearly seen when they make marriage a "sacrament". it was not yet in the Old Testament, where the alliance was more carnal, since the simple fact of having sexual relations (what is called "knowing" in the biblical sense) committed the husband to marry the woman " known ". It is therefore no coincidence that the apostle Paul gives as a model for human marriage the covenant of Grace of Christ with his Church: “Husband, love your wives as Christ loved the Church. He gave his life for her, purifying her by the bath of baptism and the Word of life, because he wanted her to be resplendent and without spot or wrinkle of any kind » (Ephesians 5:25).

It is true that by making divine love that one carries to another the "criterion" of the validity of marriage before God, there is a risk of subjectivism, capable of justifying all future betrayals. Because how can we be sure, it will be said, that the love I have for my spouse really comes from God, and that it is not only a passional and fleeting attraction (if it is true that love passionate, based onEros much more than on theagape, only lasts, they say, for three years…)? The Christian engagement is theoretically there to help the future spouses, often with the help of third persons, to “test” the quality of their love, so as to make possible an authentic discernment. The public exchange of consents then makes it possible to objectify, once and for all, this "alliance" sealed first in the hearts of the spouses, so as to subsequently free the subjectivity of its "procrastination" and any doubts that could. always invade it afterwards.

But it is still necessary that the exchange of consents could correspond to a "true interior reality" at the time of the engagement.

But still it is necessary that the exchange of consents could correspond to a "true interior reality" at the time of the engagement, because it is this invisible reality (the heart inclined by God towards its spouse by virtue of a love divine) which alone can give meaning to this commitment itself. On the other hand, when this interior reality is lacking in one of the spouses, can we say that there really was a marriage "before God"? In other words, is the sacrament what "seals" this unity, or only what "attests" it objectively in the eyes of the Christian community, as is also the case for biblical baptism, a visible sign? of belonging to the people of God?

On the other hand, if marriage is a "purely natural" institution coming under common grace, and not a work of grace that God accomplishes in the hearts of those whom he regenerates by his Spirit, then does not this come down to endorse the consequences of sin in the institution itself (the "domination of man over woman" and "wife's lust for her husband", as Genesis 3:16 teaches us)? Should we not then make marriage a real "sacrament" (as in Catholicism), but a sacrament which does not derive its meaning from an effective grace by which God would engage in this sacrament (as Catholics believe? ) but rather of the “invisible reality” (the union of hearts regenerated by faith) of which the exchange of the sacraments is the “visible sign” (which is the Protestant meaning of the sacraments)? The wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus fills the bottles with new wine, seem to go in this direction, for Jesus here seems to promote marriage to a new dignity, a dignity that he did not yet have in the Old Testament, where marriage was not "indissoluble" because, as we have seen, it was possible for the man to repudiate his wife. Certainly, Jesus, when he affirms the indissolubility of marriage, only refers to the origin, that of a bond which made man and woman "one flesh". But the corruption of the heart, resulting from sin, suggests that it takes a regeneration of the human heart (in other words, it takes the Holy Spirit and the intervention of Grace in the heart of man) for it to be this may be able to truly love as St Paul asks us in I Corinthians 13. A marriage that does not take its source in God is not therefore doomed to failure and can we say then that spouses have been united by God ? Is it not rather them who are then united themselves ?

Concerning the conditions which may possibly legitimize the divorce

Concerning the conditions which may possibly legitimize divorce, or even a possible remarriage, if Christ, in Matthew 19: 9, explicitly admits a "clause" of divorce and possible remarriage, in the event of an illegitimate union or of infidelity of the marriage. other spouse (provided, one might think, that this infidelity takes hold in the couple, and results in a manifest double life in one of the spouses refusing to change behavior), the decisive text on this subject is found here in I Corinthians 7, 8-16, which mentions two possibilities: in a "mixed" couple, that is to say one uniting a believer and a non-believer, divorce and remarriage are not permitted for the believing party only if the believing spouse is abandoned. “Our brothers and sisters,” said Paul, “must not feel bound in such a situation” (I Corinthians, 7, 15). We can therefore think that remarriage is allowed in this situation, even in the absence of adultery by the departed spouse, and all the more so since it is doubtful that the spouses could have been united by God if one of the two did not recognize God as the origin of this love. On the other hand, when it comes to marriage between two regenerated Christians, this marriage cannot be dissolved (except, one might think of the "exception clause", by the betrayed spouse in the event of an illegitimate union. of his or her partner) since marriage between two regenerated Christians is “indissoluble”. A legal separation is therefore possible and conceivable, but it does not lead to a right to divorce, nor any right to remarry (unless the marriage was done too quickly without people taking the time to discern God as the source of their love) "To those who are married (Paul is addressing Christian couples here), I give this order - it does not come from me, but from the Lord -: that the woman not separate from her husband; if she is separated, remains alone, or reconciles with her husband; and that the husband does not send his wife away ” (I Corinthians, 7, 10-11).

Finally, an ultimate interest of this conception of marriage would make it possible to clearly distinguish between unions legitimate before God (monogamous, heterosexual) from those who are not (polygamous, homosexual). We know that the (Protestant) Church has always recognized civil marriage as "valid", since it comes under "common grace". But in the name of what could it then invalidate same-sex marriage, which is now legalized by authorized institutions? From this point of view, we have to recognize that the Catholic position is much more comfortable, since by making marriage a "sacrament", it does not consider valid. in front of God that the only heterosexual and monogamous marriage, even giving the right to those who married civilly (without being religiously) to divorce civilly, to remarry later in the Church. Hypocrisy, some might say? Not sure, because can we recognize as really married before God those who have not discerned God as being at the origin of their love, and who love each other with a love that is only "human", love also inheriting, by therefore, consequences of corruption in the absence of regeneration? A synthesis of Catholicism and Protestantism on this subject would undoubtedly be desirable, because it would make it possible to resolve many of the difficulties encountered by Catholic and Protestant churches in the face of the increase in divorces today, and in the face of the emergence of unions. unprecedented and contrary to biblical principles. And they could at the same time show themselves perhaps all the more tolerant towards these same unions (at least when they do not involve children), since they would not be required to consider them as a "True marriage" before God.

Charles Eric of Saint Germain

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