The Choice of a Spouse


Review

  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.