Husbands, Wives, Parents, Children by Ralph Martin Revised Third Edition, Flame Ministries, Inc. Manila, Philippines, 1997
Unity TALK IS CHEAP, the saying goes, and that seems particularly true when it comes to talk about unity. These days, every politician and popular singer apparently has to give at least an occasional plea for love and community and people getting together. If you listened to all the talk, you might well be convinced that some wonderful new age of harmony and peace is dawning for our whole society, only to be disappointed by the next day's headlines.
For behind the rhetoric, the real trend in today's society is not toward greater unity, but toward more and more individualism. That is, after all, the era that proclaims "do your own thing" that tells each individual to pursue an independent happiness without much concern for others. Some social commentators see so much preoccupation with self in our society that they call us "the new narcissists."
In the face of a society that encourages everyone to pursue a separate course, Jesus calls his people to unity, even to perfect unity. It was for Christians of today as much as of any time that he prayed: "May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; I pray that they may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me" (John 17:21).
The unity that Jesus desires for his disciples is not the insubstantial stuff of casual talk; it is as real and complete as the unity that Jesus himself shares with his Father and the Holy Spirit. It is a unity that welds separate individuals together into one body, able to move together under the direction of one head. Jesus calls us to be in perfect unity with one another and with him. He wants us to reflect in our relationships as sisters and brothers the same unity that exists in the life of the Trinity.
The call to unity is addressed even more directly to those Christians who are married. God intends the union of husband and wife to embody in a special way the total unity that he desires for all his people. He has designed man and woman to fit together in marriage, to pass from living as two separate individuals to a life as one body, one flesh. Even our reproductive design reflects this purpose: man and woman must unite to produce new life.
The book of Genesis emphasizes this fundamental intention when it describes the creation of man and woman. The account begins with the creation of man alone: "the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life" (2:7). But Genesis tells us that God was not satisfied with this solitary male: "It is not good that the man should be alone" (2:18). Note the contrast here with the phrase that describes God's satisfaction when his creation is completed: "And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (1:31). Something about man by himself was not good; he was incomplete, unfinished.
"So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh, and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman" (2:21-22).
Taken superficially, this passage might seem to belittle women: "What do you mean, we got made out of someone's rib!" But Arab friends have told me that in their culture a person often calls his closest friend his "rib". "Joe down the block is my good friend, my rib." The word indicates that two people are very close and share a genuine bond of unity.
In the same way, Genesis uses the image of the rib to show how closely man and woman are bound together. They are made of the same substance; they share the same life. Adam recognized this at once when he awoke and saw the woman: “This at last is "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (2:23).
That fundamental unity, we are told, is the reason why "a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh" (2:24). In the Lord's plan, a husband and wife do not just live together on friendly terms. They cleave to one another — one of the strongest possible words to apply to a human relationship — and become one flesh. While "one flesh" obviously refers to the physical union of sexual intercourse, it also means that husband and wife become a new social entity, a unit that works as one.
"The man and his wife were both naked and were ashamed" (2:25). God's original plan for the union of and woman included no shame or guilt or disorder, there was peace and freedom.
We know that this original unity, and the harmony that marked it, did not last. When men and women disrupted their relationship with God, they also disrupted the harmony between themselves. Genesis tells us that after the fall God said to the woman: "I will greatly, multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" (Gen. 3:16). To the man he said, "Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field" (3:17-18).
What a change in the relationship of husband and wife! Where once unity and peace characterized their life together, now frustration and anxiety fill it. Even the new life that springs from their union causes the woman pain. The man, meanwhile, is caught in an endless, painful struggle to make a living.
As a sign of this change, the man and woman now have clothing. The freedom and rightness that once marked their relationship has vanished. In its place has entered a sense of shame.
Fallen humanity never fully recovered the ideal of married unity that God offered the first man and woman. Even among God's chosen people, divorce — the mark of a final breaking of unity — was a common occurrence. As long as men and women were unable to restore their original union with God, they could not live up to God's design for their life together.
That is why Jesus' teaching is so important for our understanding of Christian marriage. According to the gospel of Matthew, some Pharisees tried to test Jesus by asking him: "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" (19:3). At the time, Jewish authorities were divided into two camps on this question: some allowed divorce only on very strict grounds, others advocated more leniency. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to come down on one side or the other of the question so that he would antagonize half the people.
But Jesus' answer went beyond what the Pharisees probably expected. "Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh*? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder" (19:4-6}-
"The two shall become one flesh." With these words, Jesus reaffirms in the new covenant God's original plan for marriage. He tells us that husband and wife actually do become one unit, one flesh, and that God himself stands behind their union. God wills full union between them as a fundamental part of his plan and creation. Jesus allows no room for compromise on this issue, stating even more bluntly that "whoever divorces his wife... and marries another, commits adultery, and he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (19:9).
The gospel of Matthew, although not the other gospels that record this incident, allows a qualification to this statement: "except for unchastity" (19:9). The interpretation of that passage has caused considerable controversy, and various Christian denominations now take quite different stances on permitting divorce. But for many centuries the church took a very strict position on divorce in keeping with Scripture.
I realize the plight of the many divorced Christians today, and I do not want to imply any judgment on their individual situations. That is up to the Lord and to the responsible authorities in the churches. Today, when so many people who marry in church are only nominally Christian, one can even question whether some partners actually contract a Christian marriage.
But the complexities of the divorce question should not distract us from the clear scriptural teaching that God wants the unity of husband and wife to remain unbroken. The book of Genesis tells us that this was his original intention, and the gospels reaffirm that ideal for the Christian people. Its reaffirmation was anticipated in the Old Testament by the prophet Malachi, who said,"...the Lord is witness between you and the wife of your youth...she is your companion, your betrothed wife. Did he not make one being, with flesh and spirit?...You must then safeguard life that is your own, and not break faith with the wife of your youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel" (Mal. 2:14-16 NAB).
Paul came later to realize the full significance of the unbroken unity of marriage, saying, "This is a great foreshadowing; I mean that it refers to Christ and the church" (Eph. 5:32 NAB). The fidelity of husband and wife is a sign of God's unbroken covenant love for his people. That is one reason why God insists on the unity of Christian marriage; he wants marriage to reflect his love and his life, to set before the world an image of his own relationship to the body of Christ.