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July 1980 · Vol. 9 No. 3 · pp. 3–10 

Covenant Love: Theological Reflections on Marriage and the Family

Howard J. Loewen

Marriage and the family have always been threatened. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition itself monogamous marriage has invariably had to contend with other forms of sexual union, and the immediate or extended family unit has had to contend with competing forces in the surrounding culture. However, the crisis that is challenging both marriage and the family today may be greater than it has ever been in the history of the western church.

In thinking about this we must not fall into the trap of simply appealing to experience or to tradition or to isolated passages in the Bible. Our theological reflection must be more encompassing, for the problem before us deals with the foundations of human experience. We cannot be concerned merely with isolated family problems or questions of divorce, birth control, or abortion but with the problem as a whole—with the meaning of marriage itself.

I will begin with a historical sketch of the development of three different conceptions of marriage. Then I will briefly sketch the forces that have contributed to the shape and dilemma of marriage today. Finally, in the light of the foregoing, I will set forth three key biblical themes as a suggested foundation upon which to engage in further reflection on the nature and meaning of marriage and the family in our day.


“You have played the harlot with many lovers” (Jer. 3:1).

Sacramental View

Early in the second century the church began to add its blessing to the marriage ceremony, although the state ceremony remained dominant until the fourth century when the church became a favored institution. {4} Within this context marriage became one of the sacraments of the Catholic church. That is to say, it became a visible sign of God’s grace, with the sign itself possessing a certain efficacy. As a sacrament marriage was viewed as an enduring partnership under God with the primary purpose of procreation. Though they could not hold the sex act to be entirely wrong, most of the church Fathers thought that the passion which accompanies the sex act was sin. But the sacrament of marriage was held to cover the sin associated with sexuality.

Because of this negative understanding of sexuality, marriage was viewed as incompatible with the fully religious life by the fourth century. Although there were those who contended for marriage as companionship, marriage continued to be severely demeaned and disparaged during the Middle Ages. Celibacy and virginity were constantly exalted as an ideal. At the same time the female sex was berated and anti-feminist literature was rife. On the eve of the Reformation marriage appeared to be an institution in disrepute.

Romantic View

However, during the Middle Ages romantic or courtly love emerged and eventually introduced another dimension into the marriage relationship. Here the beloved was viewed as superior to the lover, conveying to him something of her own worth. Continual courtship and courtesy were practised. This kind of love was held to be impossible in marriage because it was thought that marriage love was taken for granted, not freely given; nor were women superior in marriage, but equal at best and usually inferior. In this chivalrous love the necessity of stealth and adventure led to the cult of adultery. Yet its idealization of women, of passion, and of romantic love was something new.

Of course the supreme friendship possible in marriage is not incompatible with romantic love. And this love did become associated with marriage even in the western church. But in Latin lands romanticism was slow in becoming domesticated. Perhaps courtly love had first to be desensualized before attaching itself to the sacrament of marriage. When it did it provided a healthy counter-balance to the one-sided emphasis that the church had for so long given it.

Companionship View

On the eve of the Reformation only marriages sanctioned by the Roman Catholic church were valid, for marriage was a sacrament of the church. However, in their revolt against the abuses that plagued the church, the Reformers reintroduced the concept of civil marriage as a contract blessed by God. According to them, marriage and divorce {5} were to be regulated by the state, not by the church, because for them marriage belonged to the order of nature. Thus civil authorities gradually assumed legal control of marriage and family matters. Even though the Protestant churches retained the marriage ceremony for another generation, the effect of the Reformation was to remove most impediments to marriage which the church had painstakingly established through the Middle Ages. And it contributed to the recent secularization of marriage.

On the other hand, marriage now was exalted above virginity and celibacy, which the Reformers thought to be an evasion of social responsibility. They insisted that the selfishness that perverts sex rather than sex itself, was sin. Stressing the Pauline permission to marry as a cure for immorality, they defined chastity as freedom from the obsession of sex and so the married person could be more chaste than a monk. The status of the family was also enhanced.

This allowed a companionship view of marriage to arise. It arose most fully among the more radical varieties of the Reformation: Anabaptists, Quakers, and English Puritans. Here religious allegiance, which was viewed as the center of marriage, was placed above private affection. Within these groups there existed a strong notion of marriage in the faith, even to the point of questioning the possibility of marriage without it. Among these radicals of the Reformation the sexual side of marriage was very greatly subordinated in order to focus on the common endeavors of rearing children and the work of the Lord. Not surprisingly, there was a note of equality of sexes in ministry and service. However, the radicals of the Reformation were not all as austere in their view of marriage and sex as the Puritans have sometimes been portrayed. Warmth and romance could also be expressed.

Since the seventeenth century the sacramental, the romantic, and the companionship view of marriage have varied according to place and time. In more recent generations there has been an increasing secularization of marriage. The weakening of sacred and sacramental conceptions of marriage plus the growth of the idea of romantic love has made it all too easy to dissolve the marriage union.

It is fair to say that none of these notions of marriage captures the whole meaning of marriage. However, viewed together, they offer a collection of emphases that begin to approximate a holistic Christian perspective on marriage. But before we can address the question of a balanced view we must briefly explore the dilemma of modern marriage. {6}


“Return, O faithless children” (Jer. 3:14).

One way to clarify the current crisis is to show that the family has lost, or almost lost, many of the functions that once gave it power and prestige. Its economic, educational, protective, recreational, status-giving, and religious functions are displaced elsewhere in society.

The loss of these functions has been attributed to industrialization and urbanization. The consequences are new patterns and roles for each member of the family. The conflicts which emerge are compounded by the competition that the family has from other groups for control over its members. Parents lose control over their children to the adolescent subculture. Husbands and wives lose influence with each other as each takes on major roles outside the home. Even right and wrong have to be figured out individually because of the individualism that is the result of the complex forces of urban life.

And so the modern marriage and family has been redefined around the procreative and affectional functions which it retains. It has been called the “nuclear family” because it is residentially and economically isolated, bound together only by its loyalty to spouse and children. It is also known as the “companionship family” because the intimate interpersonal association of its members is its primary function. Its unity is based on affection and comradeship instead of duty and social pressure as in the more traditional, institutional family.

Yet this affectional bond is under great strain because so very much importance has been attached to it. And so, threatened by both internal and external factors, disintegration and divorce come more quickly than ever before.

There is a sense in which each of the distinguishing factors in the three historic conceptions of marriage (sacramental, romantic, companionship) are being threatened simultaneously. The sacramental notion of marriage is being eclipsed by the impact of a secularized culture. Accordingly the romantic conception of marriage continues to be trivialized by a superficial notion of love divorced from commitment. As a result the companionship view of marriage is repeatedly threatened by both external and internal forces. This modern dilemma provides an appropriate context for hearing again the central biblical themes which relate to marriage and the family. {7}


“I will betroth you to me in faithfulness” (Hos. 2:2).


Human marriage and the family ultimately finds its proper place within the primary marriage relationship of God with his people. This is the truth of the sacramental view of marriage.

This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man (Gen. 2:23).

When I passed by you again and looked upon you, behold, you were at the age of love; and I spread my skirt over you, and covered your nakedness: yea, I plighted my troth to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine (Ezek. 16:8).

Surely, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel, says the Lord (Jer. 3:20).

For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church (Eph. 5:31-32).

The union of man and woman represents the completion of all creation and becomes the focal point for reflection on the meaning of God’s relation to creation. Thus love and marriage have their basis in creation. The completion of man by the creation of woman also anticipates God’s covenant relation with his people. Because Israel often despised the covenant, the description of God’s relation to his people often took the form of warnings and threats against adultery. But this is not the whole story. For love and marriage between man and woman became a parable and sign of the link which God as husband for Israel, his wife, was a pattern for the relation between a man and his wife. Marriage is to be a primary area in which covenant faithfulness is exemplified.

Ephesians 5 is a continuing commentary on Genesis 2 and the history of the covenant. In marriage the human relationship of the male and the female has the potential of pointing to the divine relationship of Christ and his church. Here for the first time in Scripture the relation between man and woman is honored as such and not merely in the light of fatherhood and motherhood or posterity—roles which fade into the background in the New Testament. {8}


Human marriage and the family finds its proper source and meaning in the communion of the sexes which is so basic to human nature. This is the truth of the romantic view of marriage.

Then God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. . . . And God saw everything that he made, and behold it was very good (Gen. 1:26, 27, 31).

I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me. Come my beloved, let us go forth into the fields and lodge in the villages; let us go early to my vineyards. . . . There I will give you my love (Song of Sol. 7:10-12).

Sexuality can be identified with the God-like in us. We are God’s image as body-persons who exist as male and female. Despite the Fall, this is the basic make-up of human life. Sexuality is our deeply human drive toward—and our means of discovering—human communion at its intimate peak. This human drive toward intimate communion and mutual dependence applies to all human relationships. We exist for the love of God and of others.

Because God has made every human being to be male and/or female in every relationship, we are to be faithful to our human nature, freely exercising the special gift and the duty of our sexuality. Each should acknowledge his or her own sex instead of trying in some way to deny it. Nor is there such a thing as a self-contained and self-sufficient male or female life. Thus sexuality understood and experienced as mutual relationship and responsibility is freedom in fellowship, freedom within the boundaries of being male and/or female.

Our sexuality belongs to the creation to which God’s response was: “And behold, it was very good.” Genesis 1, 2 is, at its height, a story about a created body that comes alive to God. The gift that comes along with being such persons is the powerful drive to come together and share life. This sharing is everyone’s vocation, even though marriage is not everyone’s vocation. Within marriage the full physical expression of this sharing is permitted, an expression which has its own joy and goal even apart from procreation.

Not only is sexuality good, it is also linked to the Good News of the “Word become flesh.” Not only did Jesus affirm both men and women, He created a community of resurrection hope and invites us to bring our {9} total humanness into it. In Christ sexuality is freed for loving service. Christian love (agape) enriches, stabilizes, and corrects sexual love (eros). It frees each for loving service to others. In its true environment, sexual life is more free than promiscuous sex.


The mystery of the relation between God and his people (covenant) and between man and woman (sexuality) finds its expression in the mutuality which is marriage. This is the truth of the companionship view of marriage.

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh (Gen 2:24; cf. Matt. 19:5).

I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine (Song of Sol. 6:3).

The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does (1 Cor. 7:2-4).

Let each of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (Eph. 5:33).

As a human model of God’s relationship with his covenant people, marriage is a sphere for Christian discipleship and an example of faithfulness. As a life-partnership between a particular man and a particular woman, it is a vocation requiring the grace of God and proving his love. The development of this mutuality over a lifetime is a work of art, for it does not arise automatically. And like a work of art this partnership is not a means to an end but is a relationship to be maintained and developed for its own inherent value.

In such a marriage, complete openness to the other frees each for that complete sharing in which the two become one body. In such a marriage, monogamous exclusiveness leads to genuine liberation and to an openness to other levels of relationship with other men and women—enriching its own and lending grace to others. In such a marriage, life-long permanence will reflect the constancy of God’s love to his covenant people. {10}


“Many waters cannot quench love” (Song of Sol. 8:6).

The union of male and female in marriage finds its fullest expression within the context of God’s covenant relationship with his people. Here marriage becomes a living model of God’s commitment to his people because it draws its strength from its relation to God through the larger community of God’s people. Here it also becomes an important sphere for the exercise of discipleship and witness, extending its warmth and care both to the friendly and the friendless.

But it is also true that the strengthening of marriages and families is the responsibility of the larger family of God. Given the alienation of contemporary culture, it is a myth to say that marriage and the family have the resources to make it alone. The “nuclear family” cannot do all that it takes to survive the realities of modern life. The church as the covenant people of God must exist as the foundation of the family. The church is the place where the marriage covenant is initially made. Its responsibilities do not end there. Indeed, as the church goes, so goes the family. When the covenant commitment of marriage is placed within the larger covenant between God and his people, then its dissolution will be seen as a “boundary” situation, not as an immediately live option with an increasingly normal response. And then the sphere of the family will again be a witness to the meaning of covenant commitment.


This article represents a highly condensed version of materials presented in a summer course at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in 1979. Listed below is some of the literature which I have found helpful in reflecting on the subject of marriage and the family.

  • Achtemeier, Elizabeth, Committed Marriage. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976.
  • Bainton, Roland H., What Christianity Says About Sex, Love, and Marriage. Wilton, CT: Association Press, 1957.
  • Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, vols. III, 1 and III, 4, 1958, 1967.
  • Bontrager, G. Edwin, Divorce and the Faithful Church. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1978.
  • Feucht, Oscar E., Family Relationships and the Church. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1970.
  • Jewett, Paul K., Man as Male and Female. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975.
  • Kysar, Myrna and Robert, The Asundered. Atlanta, GA: John Knox, 1978.
  • Olthius, James H., I Pledge You My Troth. New York: Harper, 1975.
  • Shorter, Edward, The Making of the Modern Family. New York: Basic Books, 1975.
  • Smedes, Lewis B., Sex for Christians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.
  • Thielicke, Helmut, The Ethics of Sex. New York: Harper, 1964.
  • Yorburg, Betty. The Changing Family. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973.
Howard Loewen is a member of the faculty at Fresno Pacific College, Fresno, California. He is also under appointment to teach theology at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno.

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