There’s a distinction between love and marriage that is both easy to miss and difficult to understand. On top of that, cultural trends and re-interpretations complicate it. Both love and marriage have different definitions that are independent of each other, and as my post “Is Marriage a Thing of the Past” unvails, both definitions are found in the Bible. What complicates it is that a feelings-based emotional love (eros) is usually what drives you to marry, but you can also love someone without marrying them, or marry someone without loving them, these are all independent of each other. While either type of love cannot be the basis for marriage, it is essential to have both for marriage to flourish.
If love were the basis for marriage, then a lack of love or an unfaithful love could undo the marriage. But God knows that while his love never fails, our love will. So he took our human weakness into account and drove marital commitment into to rock of his eternal covenant. This is why you won’t find a back door to marriage in the Bible. Even in the case of adultery, Jesus, in Matthew 19, doesn’t just say if you screw up you’re out of here. Neither does Jesus command the offended spouse to divorce, but points back to God’s original intention for marriage in the book of Genesis: “what God has joined together let not man separate.” God based marriage on something deeper than love.
The Covenant of Companionship
Dr. Jay Adams, founder of the Christian counseling industry says this, “Love is not the basis for marriage as some think, the basis for marriage is a covenant. It is a covenant made before God in which each promise the other that so long as he/she lives, the other will never lack companionship. That was, of course, the original reason given for marriage—that man might not be alone, which God said was “not good.” Does love have a part? Of course; but rather than the basis for marriage, it is the duty of marriage, We promise to “Love, Honor… etc. Therefore, love is a Covenant of Companionship.”
This illustration shows that the foundation of the marriage relationship is the covenant of companionship as designed by God. The covenant was created to reflect his faithful and abiding relationship with his people. The covenant of companionship is the basis on which we must be devoted to commitment, duty, and honor (Level 1). Foundational understanding will help us know why we need to work through the transitional phase of self-examination (Level 2), to bring our beliefs and actions into alignment with each other. Applying self-control and self-denial leads to a fuller expression in the practical phase of love and faithfulness (Level 3). Christ-centered love and faithfulness facilitate one of the most powerful expressions of love, which is forgiveness. The covenant is a constant that enables all other aspects of relational love.
The Duty of Love
In Tim Keller’s book Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage he unpacks how the covenant aspect of marriage empowers and releases love. “In any relationship, there will be frightening spells in which your feelings of love dry up. And when that happens you must remember that the essence of marriage is that it is a covenant, a commitment, a promise of future love. So what do you do? You do the acts of love, despite your lack of feeling. You may not feel tender, sympathetic, and eager to please, but in your actions, you must BE tender, understanding, forgiving and helpful. And, if you do that, as time goes on you will not only get through the dry spells, but they will become less frequent and deep, and you will become more constant in your feelings. This is what can happen if you decide to love.”
This promise of future love—a forever love, can only be possible in the context of something greater than us—which is why God ordained marriage as a covenant. A covenant wrapped in the arms of companionship is what gives purpose to marriage, defining a husband and wife like the land defines the sea, and the sea defines the land. One would not be realized as relating to the other or seen as distinct without the other. For what is the sea without land or the land without the sea? There would be no balance or completion, no embracing each other where the water’s edge meets the shoreline; that venerated place couples drive hundreds of miles to walk along.
Co-Author of The Music of Marriage