In the Christian covenant of marriage, there’s always a third party

In light of Bill and Melinda Gates' divorce, Barney Zwartz reflects on the Bible's understanding of marriage.

One of the saddest bits of news this week, for me, was the announcement that Bill and Melinda Gates are separating after 27 years. Obviously I know nothing of their personal circumstances, and make no judgment, but they had established a long shared history, brought up three children and embarked on a hugely ambitious joint project to improve lives through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Marriage is one of the most beautiful and precious of human institutions, and the shared commitment to each other and to children that it symbolises is the foundation for much of how society flourishes.

But it is very rarely simple and easy – nothing in life takes more work than a marriage, as my wife of 40 years can testify. There will always be conflicts, misunderstandings, challenges and often a gradual slipping apart of the ways.

The Christian understanding of marriage as a covenant with each other and also with God has been hugely important to me.

The crucial thing that the Bible brings to a mature understanding of love and marriage, as opposed to much of the messaging of contemporary culture, is that love is not ultimately an emotion, it is an act of will. Husband and wife are to submit to each other out of reverence for Christ, as the Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians – a responsibility neither party will find easy. They are to prefer each other’s benefit and go the extra mile, however little they feel like it.

The Christian understanding of marriage as a covenant with each other and also with God has been hugely important to me. The idea that vows are made not only to the other person but to God is significant. I certainly don’t suggest that only Christians make their marriage vows with full solemnity and conviction – after all, people who profess to be Christian divorce at about the same rate as the wider community – but I do believe that vows made without that solemnity and conviction will struggle to last.

Talking of vows, I cannot pass unmentioned the story of a wedding where a friend sent a telegram to the connubial couple simply saying “1 John 4:18” – a popular verse at weddings that reads “perfect love casts out fear”. The minister missed the 1 (that is, first letter of John) and read out instead the Gospel of John 4:18: “You have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.” The bride was no doubt surprised.

The point is that marriage is always between two imperfect individuals, that the requirements are very high and none of us can entirely live up to them. That’s why patience and forgiveness are vital ingredients in the marriage contract.

Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article was originally published in The Age.