Relationships 101

As a pastor, most of my conversations revolve around relationships: having them, not having them, or having them break down. What is becoming clear to me is that most of us have internalised a whole lot of assumptions and expectations around relationships which we think are Biblical. Yet making a claim for a ‘Biblical marriage’ is pretty fraught, for if the Biblical witness teaches us anything about relationships, it is that they are, in fact, culturally bound.

David’s marriage to Bathsheba began with sexual coercion and murder; whereas his marriage to Michal was a reward for a sack of foreskins. Ruth seduced Boaz, who then engaged in a property transaction to secure her hand. Zilpah and Bilhah were sexual slaves who, at their mistresses’ bidding, bore their master’s children. Esther was abducted by a press gang and forced into sexual service; Solomon had many wives.

Not one of these unions would be lawful now, let alone socially acceptable. For we do not live in the ancient Middle East, and we do not expect our marriages to be about male seed, male progeny and male inheritance. Yet for most of human history, this is what marriage was about: keeping bloodlines clear, and making sure that the right people inherited. It had nothing to do with romantic attachment or self-expression, and everything to do with land, family and clan.

We, however, live in an era when we expect marriage to provide love and companionship, with kids as an optional extra: a very different situation. If we are to work out what it means to live in relationship faithfully now, we need to exercise wisdom; and this means not only reading the Bible, but also identifying our cultural blinkers and assumptions, and perhaps developing some new skills.

So to learn more about how the Romantic Movement has completely and disastrously shaped our expectations of marriage, watch this. The lecture summarises much of Alain de Botton’s other work, including his wonderfully liberating claims that we will always marry the wrong person, that choosing a partner is about choosing which form of suffering we are prepared to endure, and that marriage is about two crazy people negotiating their craziness together. It’s funny, painful and good, and helps explain why every marriage goes a bit pear-shaped from time to time.

Our craziness is why all relationships need work. If you are partnered, then in the spirit of mutuality we find in Colossians 3 (and yes, it is a call to mutuality), you might want to work through these seven questions. If, however, you’re called to celibate singleness – the preferred state of existence, according to the Apostle Paul – you might enjoy this. If you’re looking for a partner, why not watch this first. And if you’ve been left for someone else, don’t torture yourself with the most common illusions; watch this instead.

Of course, relationships aren’t all about marriage or singleness. Jesus tells us to to love one another: and we all need friends. You can learn more about how to be a good friend here, and, crucially, about befriending yourself here. As for how each of these little clips relate to your relationship with Jesus: well, that’s something for you to think about.

The highly influential theologian Karl Barth once said, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers through your Bible.” I’d suggest that you watch The School of Life videos in this same spirit. They are not Christian, but people seeking to follow Jesus’ call to faithful sacrificial loving relationships, whether through marriage or friendship, can learn a great deal from them. However, in the interests of full disclosure, I must also tell you that Barth lived in a longterm ménage-a-trois with his wife and his personal assistant, so I wouldn’t be taking his relationship advice; perhaps he needed to watch a few School of Life videos, too. Or was his arrangement culturally appropriate? I wonder.


Emailed to Sanctuary 21 August 2019 © Sanctuary, 2019. Image credit: Joseph Pearson on Unsplash.

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