Choosing a Partner


We are these Lord’s Day evenings considering the Bible’s ethics of marriage having spent some weeks first on the Bible’s theology of marriage. We always have both in the Bible: the indicative and the imperative; what is and what this means for our conduct. How ought men and women to live together as husband and wife? We first considered from Ephesians 5 the Bible’s assumption that men and women do not bring an identical life to marriage, that their sexual differentiation is the plan and purpose of God and is key to a holy and happy marriage as God designed it. But in that text Paul teaches that both men and women have the same responsibility, viz. to sanctify their sex to God. If men do that and women do that, their natural differences will take care of themselves, fit neatly into a loving relationship, and prove a blessing to them both. Men and women have been designed for marriage but a holy, happy marriage requires unashamedly Christian manhood and Christian womanhood. We then considered, from Genesis 3 and the account of the curse visited upon men and women because of sin, the sinful tendencies of men and women in marriage, again not the same. Women tend toward discontentment; men toward irresponsibility, facts so obvious in human life and American culture that the observation of them ought to deepen our confidence in the Bible as a guide to reality. You open this book and you discover how things actually are. Then we spent two Sunday evenings considering speech: the words husbands and wives speak to one another and speech as the principal instrument of married love. There are other ways for men and women to love one another; but first among them and necessary to all the others is the speaking of love, the communication of appreciation, celebration, and compliment. Wherever the Bible gives us a peek into a happy, holy marriage, we see spouses celebrating one another with words!

I have tried to make these evening sermons as practical as possible. I want you to know how to have a happy marriage, not for a short while, but all your life long. 1) Don’t chafe against the calling of your sex: God designed men and women differently and that distinction has everything to do with your happiness in marriage. Worry about your holiness instead of your sexual differentiation and you’ll soon say with the French, Vive la difference! 2) Be quick to recognize your sinful tendencies as men and women. When you men find yourself resenting your responsibilities, as every thoughtful Christian husband will tell you that he does from time to time, say to yourselves, “They told me I would find it natural to think this way and to feel this way. But not for me! I’m going to respond to the summons of my manhood and I’m going to accept responsibility for the relationships in my life. It is what real men do in obedience to Jesus Christ.” And, in the same way you women. When you begin to feel the discontentment rising within, cut it off at the root. “That’s what sin will do to me; but sin shall not have mastery over me.” 3) “Since words are the most powerful thing in the world, and the right words, words of worship, are normally more potent than anything else to preserve and deepen love, say to yourself, my marriage is going to be bathed in such words, every day, day after day.”

But now another question: isn’t it possible that a happy life-long marriage depends absolutely on having made the right choice at the very beginning? In doing a mathematical problem, if you get one of your sums wrong at the outset, you can go on and on and on forever and you’ll never get the right answer at the bottom. Is that possibly the case with marriage as well? Isn’t it possible that if you make the wrong choice no amount of effort, even mutual effort, can alter the fact that the ingredients of a great marriage are simply missing; have always been missing? I suppose we can immediately think of cases in which this is and must be true. If a Christian marries an unbeliever, nothing is ever going to be as it might have been. A young woman who convinces herself that she is in love with an irresponsible dolt and marries him, even against the urging of her loved ones, may well discover that her marriage is little more than a ball and chain. Who can deny this? We’ve seen it too many times.

But nowadays, especially in the western world, there are those who argue that a happy marriage absolutely requires a significant measure of personal compatibility. The personalities need to mesh. I have minister friends and counselor friends who will have the young couple take the Taylor Johnson Temperament Analysis or the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory to discover how alike or different they are. They’ll show the couple the results and how close to one another their bell curves are. This sort of information is intended, if not in some cases to dissuade them from getting married in the first place, to help them get along when they are married. Now there is nothing wrong with such information, and in some cases it may prove useful, but as a predictor of marital happiness, it is obviously hard to believe that our modern ideas of compatibility are reliable indicators of marital success. Before anyone had ever heard of Taylor Johnson or Minnesota Multiphasic the majority of couples remained happy in marriage for life or at least they remained secured in the life of marriage. That is no longer the case. In so many ways in our modern world, we now think and talk endlessly and with furrowed brow about how to be successful at something even while we become ever less successful at it. In the Bible as in human life it is not knowledge, it is never knowledge that will prove the decisive factor in your marriage; it is, as it has always been, character.

To be frank, this is true even if the couple is not Christian. Character will always tell the tale. I remember being fascinated by the account that Ravi Zacharias gives of the father of one of his childhood friends. Mr. Krishnan was a devout Hindu and a man of impeccable character, widely known for it. He was not, however, a good looking man, quite the opposite, and he had a high and shrill voice that was something of joke among the young people who knew him and his family. Like many young men in India in those days, he did not meet his wife until the day they were married. His wife did not really get a good look at him or hear his voice until they were home from the wedding ceremony. She was disappointed to say the least.

“When he saw the look on her face, he was silent. ‘I’m sorry,’ was all he could bring himself to say. After he gathered his thoughts, he told her, ‘I can see why you have reacted as you have. I want you to know, you don’t owe me anything. We have one bedroom, and that will be yours. I will sleep in the verandah. Then he made her a promise. ‘I will treat you with dignity and respect,’ he said, ‘and do all for you that you ask of me.’” [Walking from East to West, 90]

Mr. Krishnan had an important post in the government, but never put on airs. He was a genuinely humble man.

“Day after day, his wife watched this man conduct himself honorably, and over time his character won her over. She began to see him for the extraordinary human being he was — and ultimately the marriage worked.” [91]

The story ends more happily still, as Mr. Krishnan became a Christian believer later in his life. [237] But take the point. Even a lack of physical attraction can be overcome by character and often has been overcome. The compatibilities we take for granted in the western world often take a couple only months or a few years into a marriage. But character will take it to the end!

The fact is that most people marry when they are young, too young really to understand the subtleties of personality types or what sort of compatibility might prove most important in the long run. And yet through the ages many happy and solid marriages have been made by such young and inexperienced people. As God designed marriage and human life, young men and young women grow up into the life of husband and wife. Further proof that a happy marriage cannot depend upon some abstract notion of compatibility is that, through the ages, so many marriages, like Mr. Krishnan’s, have been arranged. But though the couple never met until the day of the wedding, the marriage was more likely to last and to be reasonably happy than marriages based on the shared experience of romantic attraction and supposed compatibility  which is now the norm in the western world. Ask the Windsors whether their 20th century marriages proved happier than, say, Queen Victoria’s to Prince Albert or, for that matter, Queen Elizabeth’s to Prince Philip! Both of those marriages that were in some significant way arranged.

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 did not marry Canaanite women but returned 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; and the protest against such intermarriage in Ezra, Nehemiah, Malachi, etc.). This may safely be regarded as the chief interest of Holy Scripture with respect to this matter of choosing a mate.

We should not pass by this emphasis too quickly, as if it were so obvious as not to require mention or not that terribly important. 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 many 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 or prove himself to be a serious Christian.  But, almost without exception, the result is the reverse. The Christian spouse grows weak and the children do not grow up in the faith of Jesus Christ. God does not promise covenantal blessings, he does not promise to be the God of our children when we 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, hear 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 real follower of Jesus Christ apostatized after marriage. I am speaking of cases when a marriage with an unbeliever was entered into by a Christian who knew better and should have done better.

It is, perhaps much more to the modern person than to people of other days, a striking fact that the Bible tells us only this one thing about choosing a mate: we must marry in the Lord. Christians must marry Christians. Were the Bible being written today we might expect to find somewhere a chapter entitled “The Ten Secrets of a Happy Marriage,” or “How to Choose the Right Spouse.” But there is nothing like that. Positively and negatively we are taught that we must marry only within the faith. The rest is up to you, but Christians must marry only other Christians, real Christians, devout Christians, serious Christians.

Our poor results in creating happy and lasting marriages in American has led to a small revival of the older system of parentally supervised “courtship.” Some now will say this is the only safe and proper path to marriage. Doug Wilson and others have recommended the restoration of 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 actually selecting the possible relationships from which she must choose. Much of this is cultural, of course. We may find wise the idea of parental supervision of the process of finding a mate for our children, but we are unlikely to return to the related customs of paying a bride price, considering betrothal as the legal equivalent of marriage, or (especially!) to the custom of the young couple living for years with his parents.

It is an interesting and important observation that those sorts of considerations, those sorts of customs, those sorts of expectation, have changed from culture to culture and from era to era. Nor does the Bible actually command any of them, even those we today, and I think perhaps in many respects rightly, find persuasive: common interests, compatibility of personalities, or similarity of 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 and 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]. 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 the norm). But surely we think, don’t we, this is too young. We may like the idea of courtship, but it is but one part of a package of ancient marriage customs, most of which we have no sympathy for. Or take another example. 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 very cruelly ostracized from her family by marrying outside of her class – the Victorian Britain “middle class”).

The fact is we don’t know all that much about how marriages were made in the ancient world, about how exclusively any particular system of the choice of marital partner operated in a culture. And the Bible certainly never commands us to select our spouses the way Abraham selected Rebekah for Isaac. There is precious little in the Bible to direct us in one way or another. I’m not myself persuaded that the “courtship” model is any more biblical than another. To be sure there is a long tradition of parents, fathers especially, exercising an important role in the choosing of a spouse for son or daughter. Abraham did this for Isaac (though Isaac was 40 years old at the time) and Isaac did the same 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 the possible marriage of their daughters.

But it must also 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 it sometimes happens that parents are less reliable judges of character than their Christian children.

But that is by no means the only way marriages were made in Israel. Some were 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) and he chose her because he loved her. Shechem (Gen. 34:4) fell in love with Dinah, love at first sight really, 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 some Muslim lands today, and went out unveiled (e.g. Gen. 29:6: Rachel: came to the well to water 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.).  So, young men could make up their own minds about young women they met and approach them themselves. The young couple in the Song of Songs found one another without the help of their parents. Paul, in 1 Cor. 7 deals directly with young men and women about their plans to marry (7:25-28) and not with their parents, as if the decision were theirs to make. In the case of those who marry later, it is a decision obviously made by adults concerning their own lives (e.g. David and Abigail).

Still, clearly, taking the Scripture as a whole, its doctrine of parenthood and childhood, its doctrine of wisdom, we expect that parents should play an important role in this process, especially with their children who are marrying when they are comparatively young.  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.  But 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. Why would she object to her parents expressing an opinion and a judgment about the young man in whom she finds herself interested? These are the people in her life who care most for her happiness. These are people who are more experienced than she and can make a considered judgment about something she’s never done before in her life. And why would they object to a young man or young woman unless they see that their son or daughter’s happiness is in jeopardy? 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 the wishes of their parents (or without parental involvement because the parents’ opinions are not wanted unless they happen to coincide with the child’s) I say, usually the choice ends up being foolish and ends badly.

What I am sure of is that biblical wisdom is key to this important decision, as it is key to so much else in our lives. Wisdom, remember, is that skill of living successfully in a world that is not easy to navigate; the wisdom that is recommended to us in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Wisdom incorporates those principles of right living that one scholar saysare too fine to be caught in the mesh of the law. There is a law about choosing a spouse. As a Christian you must marry another Christian; but there are principles of wisdom that should guide us as well.

A college acquaintance of mine, ahead of me a year or two, came to the end of his senior year with no girlfriend and no plans for marriage. He hadn’t been dating anyone so imagine our surprise when we heard a few days later that he and another college classmate recently graduated were engaged to be married. They had not been a couple previously. We hadn’t known that they had any sort of relationship at all. But near the end of the school year, virtually at the very end, they fell to talking and somehow the conversation turned to their futures, to marriage, and eventually they came to the conclusion that they had a lot in common and would make a good match. They decided to marry. It really was that calculated a decision. It was not a love match. But, I think at the time, they imagined that this was actually quite a mature way to proceed. Both were solid Christians and came from devout homes. At the time I remember thinking, “Well, it takes all kinds.” But the marriage, very sadly, did not last, though it didn’t end until there were already children in the picture. And it didn’t last, in some significant part, because they were not a good fit; one of the reasons why it had surprised everybody who had heard that they were planning to marry was that nobody thought of them together. I mention this only as a warning against supposing that one system or another of choosing a spouse is in and of itself more likely to guarantee a happy result.

Here are some principles of wisdom that bear on choosing a spouse.

  1. In Proverbs and in the Song it is a feature of the love that carries a young couple into marriage and through the years of a happy marriage that they are romantically and sexually attracted to one another. You cannot read the father telling his son in Prov. 5:18-19,

“Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.”

I say, you can’t read that without realizing that in the matter of choosing a spouse, real wisdom will take attraction into account. Surely mere attraction is not enough; but the lack of it is no virtue and may prove a great impediment to a successful marriage. Even Eleazar, Abraham’s servant, made a point of noticing, when he first laid eyes on her, that Rebekah was “very attractive in appearance,” (Gen. 24:16) a detail that may have had more to do with her selection than we might have first been led to think. 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. Consider 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. He 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 canny advice he received from an old, experienced Christian minister just months before he was to leave for India.

“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, her 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 understood that and married Anne Drysdale, with whom he happily congenialised for 40 years. But the point is people were practical enough in those days to recognize that there would need to be some real, personal attraction between the parties.

Sometimes in an overly spiritual way of thinking about life, 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 their attraction. 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. He wanted her desperately, but thought it unspiritual to admit it!

The Bible certainly does speak practically of marriage as a partnership and as the divinely appointed instrument 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. But take the point: if a happy, holy marriage has a romantic and erotic dimension, there ought to be, you would think, the raw material of that attraction as the young couple comes together.

  1. We read in Proverbs again that “It is better to live in a desert land than with a quarrelsome and fretful woman.” [21:9; 21:19; 25:24] That statement, by the way, is made three times in the book of Proverbs! Well, if that is true, as surely it is, and as true of being married to a tiresome man, then obviously one should not marry such a person. You might think that so obvious that it hardly need be mentioned. But the fact is young men and women in love are past masters at making excuses for their partners and imagining that marriage will cure the person of the defect that everyone else also can see. I have seen it too often; we have seen it here: couples struggling to get along as they make their way to marry. I’ve even seen couples, engaged or not yet engaged, go to counselors to work out the conflicts in their relationship! Young people, if you need to see a counselor because of tensions in your relationship, any person with a modicum of good sense will tell you that is far, far more likely evidence that you are not well-suited to one another than that a loving, happy relationship is right around the corner. If you are struggling to get along before you marry, don’t imagine that being married is going to solve that problem. It is far more likely to exacerbate it. The feeling of being stuck is a huge impediment to moving forward. Remember what Timothy Edwards, Jonathan’s father, said to a young man who wished to court his daughter Martha, who was by all accounts not an easy person to get along with. He warned the young suitor of her temperament. The suitor replied that he was sure Martha had received God’s grace. True enough, her father said, “but the grace of God will dwell where you or I cannot.” [Marsden, 18-19] Don’t marry someone who is already hard to get along with. Surely that is wisdom!
  2. There is also this principle of wisdom, likewise found more than once in Proverbs: “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” [11:14; 24:6] And who is the fool in Proverbs, the person who is always making unwise decisions? The fool is the one who will eventually say, “I did not listen to the voice of my teachers or incline my ear to my instructors.” [5:13] You young men and women have people in your life, wise people, who wish the very best for you, who want you to be happy and holy and to live a fruitful, useful, and satisfying life: your parents, your siblings, your elders and pastors, your teachers, and your peers. Why in the world would you not want them to weigh in on the most important decision of your life and why would you not virtually take their advice as law? They want for you what you want, but they can see more clearly than you can; they have more experience of life; they are not caught up in the emotional attachment as you are. Surely if those who love you most fear you are making a mistake, you are simply foolish to proceed as if you knew better. Why, after all, should it be difficult for a young man or a young woman to convince those who love them best that this is a good match? Promise your parents that you will not proceed without their blessing. That is maturity and wisdom.
  3. Other things might be mentioned.  If there are significant differences in viewpoint — in theology or politics — or in the habits of life, it would be foolish not to consider these things as possible impediments. When one is falling in love, such things seem to matter so little. When one has been married for some years, they can be the fingernails on the blackboard.
  4. But, chief among the pieces of wisdom that ought to govern our choice of a spouse is the quality of his or her Christian character. Will this man or woman be a good companion, a good mother or father to your children, a good provider and a hard worker, a true Christian partner in the life of faith? 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 should be looking for and whether he or she has found it. But, I say again, important as this decision is, the key is not first how a couple finds one another, but how they live together when they have. Godly character will tell the tale. If husbands and wives are to be heirs together of the gracious gift of life, then let them prove that they are heirs of that life before they marry; the surest way to know that they will be so after the wedding.