The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God

Written by Timothy Keller, with Kathy Keller Reviewed By Gavin Ortlund

Christian books on marriage are an abundant genre, and most tend to be either practical or theological (or at least better at one than the other). What makes Tim and Kathy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage the new standard for books of its kind, in my judgment, is its combination of practical/cultural sensitivities with a clear theological foundation in the gospel. The book’s purpose is to present a vision for what marriage is according to the Bible (p. 12), although the Kellers work hard to demonstrate how the book is relevant for those who do not share their respect for the Bible (e.g., pp. 14–15). They also emphasize that the book is not merely for married couples, but also for single people. In fact, I would venture to say that the demographic that may benefit most from this book would be single people who either over-desire or disdain marriage. Chapter 7 addresses those called to be single and single people seeking marriage, and the entire book, having been shaped by the Kellers’ ministry at a largely single urban church (pp. 11–12), contains profound insight into how cultural idols (such as personal autonomy and fulfillment) have warped the way marriage is viewed in our setting.

A key text throughout the book is Eph 5:21–33. Drawing from Paul’s assertion in 5:32, the Kellers articulate the notion that marriage reveals the mystery of the gospel as “the message of the book” (p. 48). Much of the bulk of the book, and especially throughout chapters two through five, applies this gospel vision of marriage to practical issues in marriage such as how married partners can put aside self-centeredness and serve one another (pp. 56–60, 63–67), help one another grow spiritually (pp. 118–19), pray for one another’s sanctification (p. 121), engage in healthy conflict (pp. 155–56), communicate love to one another (pp. 158–61), bring healing into one another’s lives (pp. 147–48), fuel romance in their relationship (pp. 96–100), and grow in friendship (pp. 112–17). A particularly helpful section is “Pseudo-Spouses” on pages 127–30. Here the Kellers argue that, in order to keep a marriage healthy, it must be prioritized over kids, family, and career. Here’s a sample: “if your spouse does not feel that you are putting him or her first, then by definition you aren’t. And when that happens, your marriage is dying” (p. 128).

The single greatest strength of the book, in my opinion, is its cultural insight and application. Throughout the book, the Kellers’ dialogue partners include not only biblical commentaries and C. S. Lewis, but The New York Times and comedian Chris Rock. By my count, there are over 45 references to contemporary sociology and secular thought about marriage in chapter one alone. This means that the Kellers’ book is not simply a recounting of the Bible’s view on marriage, but an examination of how the Bible’s view on marriage confronts our modern Western idols of individual freedom and fulfillment. They especially emphasize the covenantal nature of the marriage relationship and how starkly it contrasts with our society’s consumeristic attitude toward marriage (e.g., 80–82). Many Christian readers may be surprised to discover (as I was) just how much our culture has shaped the way we think about marriage.

An important and helpful section of the book is chapter 6, which is written by Kathy and tackles the controversial issue of gender roles in marriage. The Kellers have already argued that marriage roles should be interpreted within the larger context of the sacrificial love and service that are to characterize all Christian relationships (pp. 52ff.). Now Kathy makes a case for a specifically complementarian understanding of marriage. Two especially significant themes of her chapter are that complementary roles in marriage are to be considered in light of complementary roles within the Godhead and that both headship and submission are to be defined in light of the Son of God’s redemptive work in the gospel. By setting complementarianism within a larger Trinitarian and christological framework, Kathy is able to distinguish complementarianism from traditional patriarchal views that do squelch the value and contribution of women. Kathy shows that both male and female roles require submission, since laying down your life for the good of another (the essence of biblical masculinity) is nothing if not an act of submission (p. 77). This is a vision of complementarianism that is beautiful and life-giving, not threatening or demeaning.

Kathy’s case for complementarianism is courteous and forceful, but it also allows for “wiggle room” in what complementarianism looks like within different couples and across different cultures (pp. 185–87). The principle of male headship does not vary, but the exact expression may. Another significant insight in this chapter is that sexism (along with racism, classism, etc.) is one manifestation of the broader problem of the sinful human drive for self-justification, which causes us to exclude “the Other” (p. 182). Kathy presents the gospel as the antidote to marriage problems based upon differences between the genders, showing that a grace-established identity empties our hearts of disdain or indifference towards those who are different from us (cf. pp. 182–84). This chapter also has an eye toward practical issues such as what to do when one partner within a marriage takes a different view on gender roles (pp. 190–91). An appendix extends some of the discussion into the realm of decision-making in marriage (pp. 241–44).

Chapter 8 addresses sexuality within marriage. It discusses a biblical view of sexuality, how to practice chastity until marriage, and what it means to pursue sex as “whole life self-giving” (p. 220) within the marriage covenant. The emphasis on sex as an apparatus for commitment and unification and self-giving, rather than merely for pleasure or self-expression, highlights an area where many Christians have been influenced by our hedonistic culture. As the Kellers say earlier regarding our culture’s obsession with hook-ups and romantic thrills, “‘the thrill of the hunt’ is not the only kind of thrill or passion available, nor is it the best” (p. 79). The Kellers emphasize the importance of fighting to believe this truth in the moment of temptation (the Jane Eyre illustration on this point on pp. 229–31 is worthy of deep reflection).

One final point: The Kellers explain in the Introduction why they have not chosen to address the issue of gay marriage in this book (p. 16). That is understandable, given the book’s purpose. However, I do not think that I would be alone in hoping for some treatment of how Christians should approach this issue from Keller in subsequent writings or addresses. If there is anything that seems likely to be a “battlefront issue” between polarizing trends of thought in our culture in the decades ahead, it is (to my mind) gay marriage. And if there is any helpful voice among evangelicals on how to engage the culture with truth and grace, it is (to my mind) Tim Keller. Since he has already reflected at such length about how a biblical view of marriage intersects with our cultural trends, perhaps in days ahead he will say more to help the church think about how to bring the gospel to bear on this issue.

Gavin Ortlund

Gavin Ortlund is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California.

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