The whole institution of marriage is under attack today. Even its legal definition has been changed. With statistics consistently showing that approximately 40% of marriages fail and that many couples are choosing to forego marriage altogether, it is understandable that modern society is rethinking the value of marriage. As Christians, we want to resist the prevailing zeitgeist. But perhaps most disturbing for us, is the often-quoted claim that Christian marriages fail just as often. Which raises the question: Does Christian marriage make any difference?

Most disturbing for us is the often-quoted claim that Christian marriages fail just as often

Why it Matters

Obviously, the failure of any marriage is devastating. But anything that might cause doubts in the minds of a Christian couple about the stability of their marriage can have an undermining effect on them and their children. And Christian young people can also become anxious and fearful as they consider the possibility of marriage with all its variables. Anything that weakens confidence in this sacred institution must surely be a cause for concern.

However there is an even more important reason for concern, and that is our public witness to the watching world. If we claim that marriage is God’s design, and foundational to the stability of society—and if we claim that the gospel we believe transforms lives and relationships—then what does the so-called ‘Christian’ marriage failure rate say about God and the gospel? If it reflects negatively on the goodness of God, infers the impotence of the gospel, or adds fuel to the accusation that ‘Christians are just a bunch of hypocrites’, then one of our greatest opportunities to showcase the life-changing impact of the gospel is nullified.

A False View of ‘Christian Marriage’

In the thinking of most people, including many Christian couples contemplating marriage, all that is needed is for a Christian marriage is for two professing believers to go ahead and tie the knot. Bingo! Box ticked! But what does a so-called ‘profession of faith’ mean, and how does this profession translate into married life?

Certainly, the Bible teaches clearly against unequal yoking (2 Cor 6:14, I Cor 7:39). And this requirement should be non-negotiable. However, if I can speak as a pastor, there have been many occasions when I have felt uneasy about marrying couples where a profession of faith has seemed questionable or who have seemed mis-matched in terms of their spiritual maturity.

Many Christian couples don’t actually relate on a deeper level as Christians

But the more important question is how a person’s profession of faith influences the spiritual life of the couple’s marriage relationship. This is where the rubber hits the road. It is easy to call oneself a Christian … publicly identify as a Christian … to go to church … even practise a privatised faith. But how does this faith express itself in building the solid foundations of a truly Christian marriage?

What I have noticed is that many Christian couples don’t actually relate on a deeper level as Christians. To all intents and purposes, they have adopted a shallow, Christianised form of marriage that looks little different from the secular version around us. Their lifestyles, values, aspirations, priorities, goals and ways of relating are largely the same. If this is the case, then it shouldn’t be a surprise that these marriages have a similar failure rate.

True Christian Marriage

None of us can deny that Christian marriages break down far too often, and this is always a cause for great sadness. There, but by the grace of God, it could happen to any of us. Any marriage involving two sinners carries with it the possibility of failure. But to assume that genuine Christian marriages are as vulnerable as our non-Christian neighbours is simply not true.

As they choose to make Christ central along the way, their relationship will work.

When Christ is there—invisible but central—binding a couple’s relationship, the difference becomes profound. The marriage is not just ‘Christian’ in name but Christ himself becomes an essential part of the spiritual DNA of the marriage. The very nature of how that couple relates together and sets the course of their marriage changes. There is a whole added spiritual dimension to their marriage that makes a radical difference.

Generally, this does not happen automatically when a couple begins married life. But if they choose to make Christ central, this is the way their relationship will work and develop. This is not the Hollywood version, but it is God’s blueprint! Two committed Christians intentionally bringing their faith into their marriage and allowing Christ to impact every area of their lives:

  • their spiritual growth (as brother and sister in Christ);
  • the way they set up and use their home;
  • their involvement in their local church;
  • the use of their spiritual gifts (individually and together);
  • the way they manage their finances;
  • their attitude to material things;
  • the way they raise their children;
  • even how their sexual relationship works.

In practical terms, what might this look like?

  • Reading the Bible and praying together regularly;
  • Sharing what God is doing in each other’s lives;
  • Confessing their sins to each another;
  • Holding each other accountable in the struggle with temptations and sinful habits;
  • Encouraging each other and bearing each other’s burdens;
  • Challenging each another to keep growing in Christlikeness;
  • Encouraging each another to actively serve God in some form of ministry;
  • Making a priority of fellowship in a local church;
  • Using their home for ministry, especially hospitality;
  • Discussing sermons, Bible talks and good books;
  • Talking and praying together about big decisions that have to be made;
  • When children come along, including them in this spiritual ecosystem of sharing Christ together.

Is it Time for a Change?

When conducting pre-marriage sessions with young couples (mostly Christians), I usually ask them whether they pray together. Surprisingly often the answer is ‘no’. I then encourage them to do so at least once before the next session. If they are not comfortable praying together before marriage, the chances of this becoming a natural habit after marriage are not good. The centrality of Christ in their courtship is essential preparation for married life. And the sooner they start, the more appropriate and comfortable this will feel to their relationship.

A couple may have been married for many years and never experienced the joys of a truly Christian marriage. It’s not too late to start.

But what about those who are already married? In many cases, a couple may have been married for many years and never experienced the joys of a truly Christian marriage. The good news is that it’s not too late to start.

My suggestion is that they have an honest conversation about where Christ fits in their marriage and begin making some of the practical changes suggested above. This may feel awkward to begin with, but with good-will on both sides, it will gradually become a more natural part of their relationship. Perhaps having family devotions after dinner a couple of times a week might be achievable, or praying together as a couple before bedtime when possible, or sharing what they have been learning from the Lord recently, or deciding to invite a new or needy person (or family) home for a meal … the possibilities are endless. Start somewhere and keep the conversation going. With God’s help, it is possible to change!

What Difference Will it Make?

It has been my observation over many years that the marriages of Christian couples where Christ is at the centre almost never break down. This is in stark contrast to the 40% statistic.

Truly Christian marriage, even in evangelical circles, is radically counter-cultural. And these marriages are desperately needed today. They are distinctly different from the Christianised form of secular marriage that too often passes for marriage between Christians. This is not to say that Christian marriages are perfect. Far from it. But by the grace of God, they are possible.

Few things demonstrate God’s power and grace as much as a husband and wife who, year in and year out, despite their weaknesses and in spite of the relentless pressure of society to live selfishly, seek to honour him in every aspect of their marriage.
(Gil Cann)

So let’s take a positive stand for genuine Christian marriage in these days when the institution of marriage is being seriously questioned. Let’s be confident that Christ-honouring marriage is not an outdated relic of the past. Let’s talk positively and hopefully about Christian marriage to the younger generations.

And may our marriages point more and more clearly to the reality of the God we know and love.