The Choice of a Spouse

October 17, 1999 AM
By Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
From: The Doctrine and Practice of Marriage


  1. The establishment of marriage and the creation of man and woman for marriage.
  2. Celebratory Speech as the primary means of the practice of married love.
  3. The Headship of the man in marriage and the submission of wives as realities of nature, and so divine callings, that are to be sanctified and practiced in a Christ-like way, to the mutual pleasure and blessing of man and woman.
  4. Last week, the endemic temptations of married life: the peculiar temptations of men and women in marriage and where, so often, marriages go wrong.

The Choice of a Spouse

We have already touched on this subject in noting that God brought the woman to the man, Eve to Adam, and, in doing so, set a pattern from every marriage: "whom God hath joined together, let man not separate." But, of course, it was a simple matter in the case of Adam and Eve. There was but one to choose for each of them. Not so today, where a man is confronted with the prospect of choosing from, say, a billion nubile women and vice versa! Which one? And how do I know which one?

It may seem to many of you that this is not so relevant a question for a class of this type. Obviously, most of us are already married. We are interested in how to live with the spouse we have, not how to find another one! But, the questions of whom to marry and how to find that someone is an important part of the Bible’s reflection on marriage and there are implications in this subject for those who are already married as well. The whole subject has become more interesting in our circles, as well, because of the effort of Doug Wilson and others to restore the courtship model of spouse-finding, in which parents, especially fathers, take a much more active role in the process by regulating the advances of a young man toward his daughter and by suggesting, if not arranging, possible relationships.

The Biblical Data

It is worth saying at the outset that there is no specific teaching anywhere in the Bible regarding the choosing of a spouse, apart from the single commandment that believers must marry "in the Lord" (1 Cor. 7:39). That is a command that is given in a variety of different forms throughout the Bible (e.g. Abraham and Isaac ensuring that their sons do not marry Canaanite women but return to Ur to find young women from the extended family; the Mosaic law forbidding intermarriage with Canaanites; the disaster that overtook Solomon and other kings as a result of spiritually mixed marriages; the protest against such intermarriage in Ezra, Nehemiah, Malachi, etc.) and may safely be regarded as the chief interest of Holy Scripture in the question.

We should not pass by this emphasis too quickly, as if it were so obvious as not to require mention. Probably no single sin has been the instrument of sending more people to hell who might have gone to heaven than this sin of spiritual intermarriage, which almost always breaks a believing line and often for generations. The Christian young man or young woman who violates this law and marries an unbeliever (or, in many cases, a person he or she has had to talk himself or herself into believing is a Christian) always thinks that the unbeliever is going to become a Christian, if he or she is not already. But, almost without exception, the result is the reverse. The Christian spouse grows weak and the children do not grow up in the faith. God does not promise covenantal blessings, he does not promise to be the God of the children of his sons and daughters who flaunt his most emphatic and important commandments. Malachi makes precisely this point: the stress on marrying in the Lord is due to the consequences in the rising generations. The Lord desires a holy seed; he will not get one through spiritually mixed marriages (2:15). Now, here me. I am not speaking of cases in which one spouse was converted after marriage or when a husband or wife whom everyone took to be a Christian apostatized after marriage. I am speaking of cases when a marriage with an unbeliever was entered into by a Christian.

But, taking the Bible’s entire doctrine of marriage into account, it seems right to conclude as well that all that the Bible means by marriage, the blessing God intends for it to be to men and women, all of its sacred and important blessings, depend on a spiritual union of husband and wife. It is not only that such Christian unity is necessary for raising Christian children, it is necessary for everything happy and holy and life-giving in marriage.

But, beyond this requirement that Christians marry in the Lord, search high and low, and you will not find any specific instruction to those needing to make this decision or who are facing a choice between several suitors. The subject is never directly raised.

This is an interesting and important admission in view of the fact that we do not hesitate to think that there are any number of factors that should be weighed in making this choice. It is certainly surprising that the Bible does not specify any of them: common interests, compatibility of personalities, a similarity in age [In 1558 Calvin and the other French reformers were flabbergasted to learn that William Farel, Calvin’s predecessor in Geneva and now 69 years old was engaged to a teenager. They protested, rebuked the older man, but he had given his word and there was nothing illegal in such a marriage. Calvin and Farel’s relationship was never the same after that. T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin, 178-179], and so on. For example, no age restrictions are mentioned in the Bible and clearly girls often married quite young in those days (The Talmud set the minimum age for marriage at 12 for girls and 13 for boys, though there is little to suggest that marriage that young was a norm.). The Bible certainly says nothing and implies nothing about marrying within one’s race or within one’s class, ideas that have often been thought self-evident and of the first importance (even by Christian people who should have known better; e.g. Bishop J.C. Ryle’s sister was ostracized from her family by marrying outside of her class – the Victorian Britain’s "middle class").

But that is not to say that the Bible does not illuminate the question in certain important respects.

  1. The Bible does address the question of who is to make the choice of a marriage partner, but does so in a nuanced, complex way.
  1. First there is a long tradition, in biblical culture, of parents, fathers especially, exercising an important role in the choosing of a spouse for son or daughter. Abraham does this for Isaac (though he was 40 years old at the time), Isaac for Jacob. Reuel "gave his daughter, Zipporah, to Moses for a wife" (Ex. 2:21); Naomi was, as much as possible, the arranger of Ruth’s marriage to Boaz, and so on. (There is a possibility that Paul, in 1 Cor. 7:36-38 is found still dealing with fathers in connection with in connection with the possible marriage of their daughters, but that interpretation of those verses is disputed and may not be the most likely. It is not taken by the NIV, e.g.) Now, much of this was common to ANE culture with a lot else that we do not incorporate in our custom today: the laws of betrothal, the bride price, etc. But, there is practical wisdom here too that the Bible confirms, as we shall see.
  2. In any case, it must be acknowledged that parents did not always and would not always exercise their authority in this manner in a way conducive to their children’s happiness. A scoundrel like Laban was willing to consign his daughter Leah to a loveless marriage and her children to endless competition with their half-brothers, all to aggrandize himself. And, today, many parents are less reliable judges of character than their Christian children are!

  3. But that is by no means the whole story. Marriages in Israel were also the result of romance blooming between a young man and a young woman, who, for all intents and purposes, made their own choice. Jacob chose Rachel (within the parameters set by his father and later, deceptively, by her father) because he loved her. Shechem (Gen. 34:4) fell in love with Dinah and asked his father to secure her for him as his wife. Michal fell in love with David (1 Sam. 18:4). In OT times women were not kept secluded, as in Muslim lands, and went out unveiled (e.g. Gen. 29:6; Rachel: came to the well to with her father’s sheep; Gen. 34:1 Dinah went visiting in other homes; Ex. 2:16: Zipporah came to draw water; Ruth 2:4: Ruth gleaned in Boaz’s field; 1 Sam. 1:13 Hannah: Eli saw her lips move.). So, young men could make up their own minds about young women and approach them themselves. Paul, in 1 Cor. 7 does deal directly with young men and women about their plans to marry (7:25-28) and not with their parents, as if the decision were definitely still theirs. In the case of those who marry later, it is a decision made by adults concerning their own lives (e.g. David and Abigail).
  4. The Song of Songs, which is clearly the celebration of love between two who are about to marry and then who marry places the emphasis on the strength of romantic and erotic attachment the man and the woman have to each other, not at all on the decisions of parents.
  5. Still, clearly, taking the Scripture as a whole, its doctrine of parenthood and childhood, its doctrine of wisdom, parents should play an important role in this process, especially with their children who are marrying younger. A man or woman in mid-30s or mid-40s is not going to be, in all likelihood, nearly as much in need of, or if he or she is, nearly as susceptible to, parental oversight of this process of courtship and betrothal. In any well-ordered home, parents will have a great deal to say about the choice of a spouse to be made by one of their children and, in a well-ordered Christian home, the children themselves will consider the counsel of their parents virtually the voice of God to them. For in such a home, a child learns that no one cares more for one’s happiness than one’s parents. Why would they object to a young man or young woman but they see that happiness in jeopardy for some reason. I tell young people with faithful Christian parents that they ought to promise the Lord they will not marry against the wishes of their parents. The parents will still have their wits about them when the son or daughter’s mind is clouded with strong feelings.

By and large, it is my experience that when children marry against he wishes of their parents (or without parental involvement because the parents’ know their opinions are not wanted, unless they are in agreement with their child’s) the choice is foolish and will end up a disaster.

  1. Second, the Bible does not hesitate to acknowledge the important role that sexual/romantic attraction plays in bringing a particular man and woman together.

We will speak in some detail later in this course of studies in marriage about the sexual aspect of this relationship. Suffice it to say here, that it does not embarrass Holy Scripture to say that sexual attraction plays a vital role in God’s bringing a couple together in marriage. It was sexual attraction that led Shechem to seek Dinah’s hand in marriage (Gen. 34), that led to David and Bathsheba’s marriage, but those are cases of ill-made marriages (or in Shechem’s case, no marriage finally at all).

But, consider Deut. 21:10-22:

"When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife." [Clearly this is warfare against other more distant nations, not the Canaanites with whom Israel was explicitly forbidden to intermarry.]

The assumption here is that men will be attracted to women who are beautiful – beautiful to them, of course; such beauty is, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder -- and not to others. Jacob preferred Rachel, in the first place, because she was more beautiful than Leah. It is interesting to observe how often the Bible draws attention to a woman’s appearance. (vs. Reg McLelland’s remark.). All of this needs to be held in tension with Prov. 31:30: "Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised."

In Proverbs 5 we read of the father’s wish for his son that he should have an erotically fulfilling marriage. We may assume, I think, therefore, that a wise parent would consider carefully the sexual and romantic fire provoked in son or daughter by some prospective spouse. (We will return to that text in a later study.)

But, the chief evidence comes from the Song of Songs, which, without doubt, is the Bible’s great celebration of married love, a highly charged erotic and romantic love, with no parents to be found anywhere in the poem. Surely, then, we have the Bible’s own witness to the importance of romantic, erotic attraction, in the choice of a spouse. In the Song and in the other places we have mentioned, such attraction is already present before the marriage, not just afterward.

Through the ages, wise Christians have understood this and have been comfortable resting a great deal on the natural attractions that bring a man and a woman together.

Here is the Puritan Daniel Rogers.

"Marriage love is…a secret worke of God, pitching the heart of one party

upon another for no known cause; and therefore when this strong lodestone attracts each to the other, no further questions need to be made but such a man and such a woman’s match were made in heaven, and God hath brought them together." [Cited in Packer, Quest for Godliness, 264]

Throughout Christian history there have been multitudes of great love stories of just this type. John Newton and Mary Catlett would be one lovely example.

Another would be the case of Alexander Duff, one of the famous St. Andrews Seven, a pioneer missionary to India in the early 19th century. Duff was one of those giants of gospel zeal of which there were many in those days and had never thought that he would take a wife, supposing that the work he had chosen for himself would be the work of a single man and being willing to give up marriage for the Savior’s sake. But Duff was brought up short by the advice he received from an old, experienced Christian minister.

Well…my advice to you is, to be quietly on the look-out; and if, in God’s providence, you make acquaintance of one of the daughters of Zion, traversing, like yourself, the wilderness of this world, here face set thitherward, get into friendly converse with her. If you find that in mind, in heart, in temper and disposition, you congenialise, and if God puts it into her heart to be willing to forsake father and mother and cast in her lot with you, regard it as a token from the God of providence that you should use the proper means to secure her Christian society. [The St. Andrews Seven, 104]

Well, somehow Duff grasped the meaning of all that and married Anne Drysdale, with whom he happily congenialised for 40 years.

But, sometimes, Christians have supposed that there is something at least slightly worldly about the strong emotions that make a man and a woman want to marry and that make marriage the seemingly inevitable conclusion of such feelings.

George Whitefield, arguably the Christian Church’s greatest English speaking evangelist, wanted to marry a young woman by the name of Elizabeth Delamotte. He wrote this letter to her parents explaining his reasons.

"I find by experience that a mistress is absolutely necessary for the due management of my increasing family [he is speaking of the entourage that accompanied him on his preaching tours and also of the orphanage in Georgia that he had founded] and to take off some of that care, which at present lies upon me. Besides I shall in all probability, at my next return from England [to America] bring more women with me; and I find, unless they are all truly gracious…matters cannot be carried on as becometh the gospel of Christ.

It hath been therefore much impressed upon my heart that I should marry, in order to have a help meet for me in the work whereunto our dear Lord Jesus hath called me. This [letter] comes to know whether you think your daughter…is a proper person to engage in such an undertaking? If so, whether you will be pleased to give me leave to propose marriage unto her? You need not be afraid of sending me a refusal. For, I bless God, if I know anything of my own heart, I am free from that foolish passion which the world calls LOVE." [Dallimore, I, 470-1]

Well, Whitefield didn’t know his heart as well as he thought. When his clumsy proposal came to nothing and he learned of Elizabeth’s disinterest, he was depressed for weeks. There is a tinge of this in the early Lewis as well. I say "early Lewis" for I doubt he would have written this paragraph the same way after bachelorhood had, in his own case, given way to a love affair. This is from the Screwtape Letters, written years before he met Joy Davidman. Here is Uncle Screwtape to Wormwood [Letter xviii].

Humans who have not the gift of continence can be deterred from seeking marriage as a solution because they do not find themselves "in love" and, thanks to us, the idea of marrying with any other motive seems to them low and cynical…. They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion."

The Bible certainly does speak of marriage as a partnership and as the divinely appointed means of propagating the race and preserving chastity, but it never pits those things over against the romantic, erotic impulse that it openly acknowledges in many places customarily lies beneath and before a marriage.

III. Third, and finally, the Bible does emphasize the practical uses, functions, and blessings of marriage, and so gives a further set of considerations to prospective spouses.

If you interrogate Holy Scripture as to what marriage is for, you will learn that it is for

  1. companionship at the deepest level ("it is not good for man to be alone"; "one flesh"; "heirs together of the gracious gift of life" 1 Pet. 3:7)
  2. procreation in the context of family love ("be fruitful and multiply")
  3. chastity and sexual fulfillment ("it is better to marry than to burn with passion" 1 Cor. 7:9; 1 Tim. 5:11)
  4. romantic fulfillment (Song of Songs, etc.)
  5. practical provision, especially for women (Ruth and Boaz; widows in general in the Bible, etc.)

Obviously, therefore, a Christian man or woman should consider whether a particular woman or man is likely to be a good companion, a good mother or father to children, a good provider or a hard worker, a true Christian partner. Is the man or woman being considered likely to make of a marriage what the Bible says a marriage ought to be. That is very often a very illuminating question to put to oneself or, if you are parents, to put to your son or daughter.

It was this practical consideration that led Henry Smith, one of the Puritans, to write, "The report, the looks, the speech, the apparel, and the companions…are like the pulses that show whether we be well or ill." [In Packer, Quest, 268] Lots of simple things tell a wise young man or woman what he or she would be getting.

All of this must be thought through keeping several things in mind.

  1. In marriage we are talking about two fallen sinners living together for the rest of their lives. TV and movies can give us unrealistic, exaggerated expectations: we should have a man or woman physically perfect, unendingly witty in conversation, producing an explosive romance.
  2. Many things marriage does not supply and Christians are not to look to marriage to supply, because God himself and Christ supply such things: security, the fundamentals of happiness. Far too much of this in today’s world: marriages groaning under the weight of burdens that it was never intended to bear.
  3. All over the world arranged marriages have produced more romance, happiness, and permanence than our romantic culture is producing today. Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth have certainly had a better marriage than their children have enjoyed!
  4. The final and ultimate key is how two people live in their marriage, not how perfectly they came together in the first place.

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