The Church Fathers’ High View of Marriage

Athens MarriageTwo votes at the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) underscored the Church Fathers’ devotion to marriage. The first vote maintained clerical marriage relationships, the second defended surviving spouses’ remarriage. Though the latter was a clear indication of their esteem for the institution, in that they provided for widows and widowers who yearned for a new mate, it was actually a moderating vote. So high was the Church’s regard for a couple’s original vows that such prominent figures as Hermas, Justin Martyr, and Athenagoras argued that the bond outlasted death itself. In the end, their stricture was not adopted, but the very fact of its consideration showed the group was quite serious about marital vows. As one patristic scholar, Willy Rordorf, put it, “Concerning the conception of marriage as a total union of the couple implying a fidelity without reserve, there is unanimous agreement between the New Testament and the Early Church.”

It may seem strange that the Council of Nicaea, known for affirming the divinity of Christ, also dealt with such matters. But, this is not so surprising given the context. According to Roman law (which applied throughout the empire) marriage was a private contract like any other contract—dissolvable by one or both parties. Consequently, divorce was not difficult to obtain. So church leaders took a counter-cultural stance, at odds even with practice within their congregations. When Chrysostom preached on divorce, he noted that some members of his congregation “hung their heads in shame,” and Ambrose found it necessary to instruct his readers not to make use of the government’s divorce laws. In fact (and likely with the empire’s toleration in mind), the Fathers were steadfast in their defense of marriage, which they saw both as a sacrament (symbolic of Christ’s relationship with the Church) and as a means of witnessing to God’s steadfast love for humanity.

The Fathers did disagree on the implications of adultery for remarriage and wrestled over interpretation of Matthew 19:9—“whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (ESV). Some, such as Augustine, prohibited remarriage under any circumstances, and others, such as Chrysostom, allowed for it when a spouse was the victim of adultery. The Shepherd of Hermas took the stricter stance: If a husband finds that his wife has committed adultery and she is unrepentant—he must “dismiss her” and not remarry. But Tertullian claimed exceptions: “Permanent is the marriage which is not rightly dissolved; to marry, therefore, whilst matrimony is undissolved, is to commit adultery. . . . Divorce, therefore, when justly deserved, has even in Christ a defender.” In granting the marriage bond could be “rightly dissolved,” Tertullian suggested “the correlative right to remarry.”

Of course, this disagreement mirrors contemporary debates within the Church. Not surprisingly, those who reject remarriage—without exception—will point to the early Church’s strong defense of marriage. But defenders of a biblical permission to remarry—under certain circumstances—caution us that the Fathers did not speak with one voice on this issue.

How then are the Fathers to be understood? At the very least, they were staunch advocates of marriage in a civil society and culture in which the covenant of marriage could sometimes be seen as a little more than another legal contract—not unlike today. The early Church grappled with the biblical text, applying it to every aspect of their lives—from their doctrine of Christ to their doctrine of marriage. Since we live in a culture willing to throw out marriage, embrace divorce, and assume remarriage—in all circumstances—the Fathers may be worth another look.

Does Christ’s Resurrection Benefit Us Now?

Clouds and sunAs Christians prepare to celebrate Easter, much of our focus will be on the glorious reality that Christ’s resurrection from the dead was the precursor to the future bodily resurrection of all His followers. Indeed, Jesus is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). We must never forget or downplay this truth. But Christians also should not downplay the tandem truth that Christ’s resurrection brings numerous benefits during this life. Here are several:

Christ’s resurrection frees His people from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15). This is a present benefit of the promise of future resurrection, allowing us to confess with Paul, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

The resurrection allows believers to experience Christ’s personal presence. After Jesus charged His followers to “make disciples of all nations,” He promised, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). There is a tangible friendship with Christ that only His followers know—a friendship not possible with a dead man. This personal fellowship is the subject of much Christian hymnody. For example, “And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own.”

The resurrection enables believers to overcome the power of sin. We were “dead in trespasses and sins,” captives to our own selfish desires (Ephesians 2:1-3). But God “made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4). As Paul writes elsewhere, we are “united with him in a resurrection like his … so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:5-6). The resurrection displays the magnitude of power available to Christians in their struggle against sin (Romans 8:11).

The resurrection motivates us to turn away from sin (Colossians 3:1). Because God regards Christians as united with Christ in His resurrection, we should act like people who are spiritually alive and “put to death therefore what is earthly in [us]: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness” (Colossians 3:5).

The resurrection inspires endurance amid persecution. Revelation 7 pictures the risen Lord as a shepherd to those who have endured persecution for their faith. “He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eye” (Revelation 7:17). This promise is for Christian martyrs in Iran and Nigeria as much as it is for the preacher in Indiana who is ridiculed for affirming traditional marriage and the student at a secular university who is belittled for challenging Darwinism.

The resurrection lends credibility to the entire New Testament. In order to be regarded as New Testament Scripture, the early church required that a book be written or endorsed by an apostle. One criterion of an apostle was that he had personally seen Jesus following the resurrection. Had these men lied about seeing Jesus, all of their moral teachings would have been compromised. But because they had truly seen Christ, they could pronounce, “Thus saith the risen Lord.”

In a similar vein, the resurrection lends credibility to Old Testament prophecy. As Peter said after quoting a prophecy of David, “He foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ” (Acts 2:31).

This Easter don’t overlook the resurrection’s importance here and now. As John Stott wrote, “the new resurrection life of Christ … begins now and will be completed on the day of resurrection.” And life is worth the living just because He lives.

The Requirement of Repentance

1 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. 4 But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. 5 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 6 “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7 If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, 8 and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. 9 And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.”

Jeremiah 18:1-10 (NIV)

potterEvery nation on the earth exists under the absolute sovereignty of God and remains at His mercy for security and prosperity. The efforts and actions of any nation are like malleable clay in the hands of a potter. At no point is the clay, with all its intrinsic worth and possible use for the good of the world, in charge of its own destiny.

The word translated “formed” (v. 4) is the same word found in Genesis 2:7, where “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground.” Men and nations are formed by the hand of God. They are either “uprooted, torn down, and destroyed” (v. 7) or “built up and planted” (v. 9) according to His sovereign will. When the clay is marred in the potter’s hand, the potter reshapes the clay into something that seems “best to him” (v. 4c). Israel, as well as every other nation on the face of the earth, was to understand the scope of God’s authority.

Throughout Jeremiah, God took the prophet here and there to observe the conduct of the people, e.g., to Jerusalem (Jeremiah 5:1), to Shiloh (Jeremiah 7:12), and to the potter’s house (Jeremiah 18:2). At each stop, He prescribed repentance as the antidote for disaster.

The founding of any nation or state comes at God’s decree and is ordered by His providence, according to His purposes. His control is absolute, His will steadfast. Therefore, prevailing sin is more than an embarrassment to a people; it is the very warrant for their destruction.

The symbols, tools, and trappings of government can be daunting—richly columned buildings, armored limousines, executive aircraft, vast promenades, and far-flung navies. But these are just so much fancy mud in the hands of the Living God. And should He desire to cast them again on the potter’s wheel, to make of them an utterly different vessel, no one can stop Him.

The hope of a nation is a people who count themselves clay in the Potter’s hands. God shapes their citizenship as well as their private lives, and the nation remains supple to His touch.

Scripture calls the people of God many things—sheep, family, light, salt, priests—and the faithful Christian will note all these descriptions. Some images are more exalted than others, and many may be tempted to dwell on those. But in the course of life, there will indeed come a time when it is a good thing to be reminded that all are clay in the hands of the potter.

St. Patrick’s Day: Not Just about Green Beer

A stained glass image of Saint Patrick inside the Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, CA.

One night in fifth-century Wales, everyone in Calpurnius’ house was in bed asleep—everyone except Patrick, who sat on the edge of his bed. His head was swirling with the dream that had stirred him from a sound slumber. In the dream, a man he had known in Ireland handed Patrick a letter. Accepting it, Patrick read the title, “The Voice of the Irish,” and simultaneously heard voices crying out, “Holy boy, we beg you to come and walk among us once more.” Moved to tears, Patrick was unable to read further. Upon awakening, he realized he had received a mandate from the Lord: He was to return to Ireland, where he had once been enslaved, and bring Christianity to the people.

Little is known about this man now called Saint Patrick. He was born near the end of the fourth century in Wales and grew up in a wealthy, nominally Christian family. But when he was sixteen, raiders pillaged his town and took him captive to Ireland. There, Patrick became a slave to a Druid high priest named Milchu, who made Patrick a shepherd. During this period of isolation and brutality, Patrick came to know the Lord. He wrote of his experience:

“[T]here the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that . . . I might . . . turn with all my heart to the Lord my God . . . And [the Lord] watched over me . . . and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.”

After six years of enslavement, Patrick dreamed that God told him about a ship waiting to take him to freedom. He escaped that very night, traveling over 200 miles to reach the Irish coast, from where a ship, indeed, brought him back to his native Britain.

Patrick had changed. He was now twenty-two years old, fluent in Irish and toughened by trying experiences. At home, he felt restless and made plans to enter the ministry. He traveled to Auxerre, France, where he studied under Saint Germain for some fifteen years. Saint Germain believed in Patrick’s vision and helped him to his appointment as the second bishop to Ireland. It was a fortuitous appointment, for Patrick’s understanding of the Irish culture and language made him adept at winning converts, and he soon developed a following.

Still, the going was tough. Patrick was evangelizing people who warred for a living and whose native religion, Druidism, required human sacrifice. The Druid religious leaders were not at all tolerant of Christianity, and though Patrick converted many of them, others arrested and kidnapped him a number of times. The churches and schools he established were under constant threat of raids and enslavement, but they prospered nonetheless.

Through it all, Patrick remained steadfast: “[D]aily I expect to be murdered or betrayed or reduced to slavery if the occasion arises. But I fear nothing.” The persecution was real, but by God’s grace and after every reversal, Patrick escaped and returned to his evangelical mission.

Of the thousands taken captive by the Irish, the vast majority remained in captivity, living out their days in bitterness and travail. Others gained their freedom within Ireland but conformed to their captors’ culture. A handful managed to escape to their native lands but continued in a pagan lifestyle. And then there was Patrick, one of thousands, who, in the darkness of captivity, turned to God and set his heart on reaching Ireland for Christ. As Catholic journalist Anita McSorley writes,

“It doesn’t take a scholar to recognize how [Patrick] was able to do this. [He] was so certain that he had been specifically called by God to do exactly what he did . . . In this certainty, Patrick finds his strength . . . to overcome every obstacle . . .”

And that strength was sufficient. When he died, he had traversed the entire terrain of Ireland and preached the gospel with great effect, as he was happy to recall:

“So, [that is] how in Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things, they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God . . .”

Iran and Israel: An Ancient Relationship

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress March 3, he referenced the ancient relationship between Israel and Iran, noting that the modern Persian state’s attempts to destroy the Jewish people parallel an ancient attempt to do so during the reign of the Persian Empire. As Netanyahu observed, his Israeli-Iranian-Flagsaddress occurred just one day before the Jewish Feast of Purim, which commemorates an occasion described in the book of Esther when “a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman . . . plotted to destroy the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago. But a courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther, exposed the plot and gave the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies.” Students of Scripture and contemporary Middle East politics might be interested to know that this is but one of many references to the relationship between Israel and the Persians in Scripture.

In light of the present hostility between the Persian Iranians and Israel, some may find it surprising that in the Old Testament, God used the Persians to bring some remarkable blessings to His people. For instance, the Persian king Cyrus defeated Babylon in 539 BC and allowed Jews to return to the Promised Land and rebuild the Temple (Ezra 1:1-4). After a break in construction, the Jews completed the Temple under the Persian monarch Darius I, with Darius funding the project, providing protection for the builders, and donating animals and other materials for Temple sacrifices (Ezra 6:6-12).

Though Daniel began his ministry under Babylonian rule, it continued under the Persians. He prophesied their rise to power (Daniel 5:1-31), and King Darius placed him in a significant position of authority within the Persian Empire (Daniel 6:1-3). Although Daniel was cast into the lions’ den when he prayed to God rather than the Persian king, Darius announced upon Daniel’s miraculous rescue, “I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel” (Daniel 6:26). Later, the Persian king Artaxerxes allowed his Jewish advisor Nehemiah to lead an effort to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls, guaranteeing Nehemiah’s safe passage to Judah and providing timber for the project (Nehemiah 2:1-8).

At the height of its influence, the Persian Empire stretched from Egypt in the south to southern Russia in the north, from Greece in the west to India in the east. It fell when the Greek leader Alexander the Great won a series of military victories in 334 BC. However, Persian influence can be seen into the New Testament, as when Jesus told the repentant thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43), using a word for heaven derived from the Persian term for “park.”

Though the relationship between Israel and Persia had its ups and downs in biblical times, God used His people to bless the Persians. And the Persians often reciprocated, serving as God’s agents to return His people to the Promised Land so that the Messiah could be born there. But a sad chapter in Israel-Persia relationships began when Islam was introduced to the Middle East in the seventh century AD. During the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s lifetime, he grew increasingly violent toward the Jewish people, regarding them as enemies and beheading at least 600 in Medina in 627.

Sad to say, modern Iran and its Islamist leaders continue this tradition of extreme hostility toward the Jews. In November 2014, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted, “This barbaric, wolflike & infanticidal regime of #Israel which spares no crime has no cure but to be annihilated.” Indeed, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s fears that Iran could use a nuclear weapon to destroy Israel do not seem far-fetched. In the face of such danger, followers of Jesus should pray for divine intervention, as in the days of Purim, and that the people of Iran would come to a saving knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.