In just a few months, my husband and I will celebrate five years of marriage. As is typical with milestones, I've found myself looking back on the last half decade and reflecting on how we've grown: I've learned to be more patient; I've learned to trust my husband's instincts about people; I've learned to stop asking questions that I already know the answer to ("Honey, have you taken the trash out today?"); and I've learned that marriage takes work, but it is the most gratifying, enjoyable work I've ever done.
When my husband and I got married, we laid down guardrails to help us honor our commitment to one another. Some of those guardrails include going to a marriage counselor once a month, making time for weekly date nights, and never lying to one another. We do all this and much more because we take our marriage commitment seriously, and we believe it matters.
In that sense, my husband and I are not unique. A lot of Christians are serious about marriage. Between the books, the articles, and the conferences devoted to upholding marriage, Christians are giving it a lot of time and thought.
However, there is a second commitment that the two of us honor, one that is just as important as our commitment to marriage. It's our commitment to our church.
Lessons from marriage
This might sound weird, but our commitment to a local church is almost as important as our commitment to each other. Yes, the comparison has limits—for instance, you can't take your church with you when you move—but it's not something we take lightly. To us, leaving a church is almost as serious a thing as leaving a marriage.
This level of commitment might sound extreme, but the marriage/church analogy is not original to us. In Ephesians 5, Paul draws an extended comparison between marriage and the church. As he conceives of it, both marriage and the church are two God-given institutions that shed light on one another.
Paul's metaphor has given my husband and me a framework for thinking about our relationship with the church. In fact, many of the biblical principles underlying marital commitment have helped us to better understand our commitment to the local church. As we continue to learn what it means to live faithfully in Christian community, here are four guiding principles that remind us why both marriage and the church matter so much to God.
1. They both sanctify us
When I was single, I remember hearing sermons about marriage and feeling frustrated. It seemed like pastors were constantly touting the unique benefits of marriage for the growth of the believer. Unlike any other institution, these pastors declared, marriage is an extra special tool for sanctification.
As a single woman, I sat there wondering, What about me? Will I never be as holy as my married friends?
Now that I'm married I understand what those pastors were getting at. But I also think they overstated their case. Yes, marriage sanctifies. Yes, it can be hard and humbling in the very best way. But to conclude that it is therefore the best or greatest tool for refining the human heart? That's an overreach. When church commitment is taken seriously, it can be just as effective.
Think about it this way: We choose our spouses. We fall in love and marry them, and that love motivates us to forgive, to persevere, and to honor our commitment. But church membership is different. In Matthew 5:46 Jesus reminds us that there is little credit in loving those who love you: "If you only love those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much." When we commit to a church, we bond ourselves to people and leaders that we may not even like. But there, in that call to live faithfully alongside of them, is an opportunity for transformation.
Conversely, when we skip from church to church, or replace the local church with a community of friends that are just like us, we forfeit that growth opportunity in our lives.
2. They both teach us how to live
Before I got married, I read a lot of books about marriage. I heard a lot of sermons about marriage. I talked to friends about marriage. I had a pretty good handle on marriage, or so I thought.
Then I got married, and that was when the real education began. It's not that the principles I learned beforehand were useless; they certainly helped me to establish a strong foundation going in. But, as obvious as it sounds, it wasn't until I got married that I learned how to be married.
The Christian life is very similar. Although God can teach us to be disciples through a variety of means (such as through books, friends, circumstances), he gave us the local church for that specific purpose. That's why Paul's entire ministry consisted of setting up churches. Rather than arrive in a city, preach the gospel, then leave, Paul recognized the importance of a supportive community post-conversion.
In an essay on the local church in Christian Existence Today: Essays from Church World, and Living in Between (2010), theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: "Saints cannot exist without a community, as they require, like all of us, nurturance by a people who, while often unfaithful, preserve the habits necessary to learn the story of God." The local church is a teacher and a disciplinarian that shapes the most basic rhythms of our lives. Rather than abandon us to figure out discipleship on our own, God gave us the church.
3. They both foreshadow a heavenly reality
According to a Pew Research poll conducted in 2010, approximately 40 percent of Americans believe that marriage is becoming obsolete. Among this group are couples who reject the need for "a piece of paper" to affirm their commitment. They know they love each other, and that's enough.
It is here, in our culture of halfway, self-interested commitments, that the deeper reality of marriage is a powerful witness. In Ephesians 5:23, Paul explains that marriage reflects the relationship between Christ and the church. That relationship is not a toe-in-the-water kind of commitment. It's a radical sacrifice, a totally self-giving act of love. In a world increasingly averse to commitment, marriage gives witness to the love and sacrifice of a committed God.
The local church has a similar witness to a spiritual reality. Expounding on the role of the church, Hauerwas also writes, "The church is constituted as a new people who have been gathered from the nations to remind the world that we are in fact one people. Gathering, therefore, is an eschatological act as it is the foretaste of the unity of the communion of the saints." In short, the local church is a taste of heaven.
Granted, the church doesn't always feel like heaven. It can be painful and hard. But by doing life together, we witness to the perfect community that awaits us, and to the in-breaking kingdom of God. When our unbelieving friends observe our congregation's love for one another, our sacrifice for one another, and our mobilization to serve the poor and lost around us, it is a foretaste of who God is and what awaits us in eternity.
4. They both glorify God
Marriage is a good and beautiful gift that God has bestowed on the world, but the chief end of marriage is not personal happiness. Not entirely, anyway. For all the ways that marriage blesses us, God gave us marriage to better serve and glorify him. It is the same with the church. For all its benefits, the local church exists, fundamentally, to bring glory to God. Even when it's hard or uncomfortable, we obediently commit to the people of God, trusting that the one who gave us community will use it for our good and his glory.
So, if you ever wonder why commitment to a local church matters, just ask yourself why marriage matters. Why do we need a "piece of paper" to validate our love? Because the piece of paper isn't just a formality. It's an act of obedience to God, who calls couples to an all-in commitment that reflects the character of his Son.
That's why marital commitment matters. And God desires the same kind of commitment to his own bride.
Sharon Hodde Miller is a regular contributor to Christianity Today's Her.meneutics site and a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Before beginning her PhD in Educational Studies, Sharon earned her Master of Divinity from Duke Divinity School. She currently lives in the Chicago area with her husband and son, and blogs at SheWorships.com. Follow her @SHoddeMiller.