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Book Review: Marriage: The Mystery of Christ and His Church


Marriage: The Mystery of Christ and His Church;
the Covenant Bond in Scripture and History
(revised edition) 
by David J. Engelsma
Reformed Free Publishing Association, Michigan, USA, 1998
Hardback, 239 pp.
ISBN 0-916206-59-9
£17.00 + £1.70 P&P = £18.70 (Click here to order from the CPRC Bookstore)

This book, a Christian manual on marriage, is immensely practical because it is deeply theological: practice is based on doctrine; doctrine governs practice. Why is the husband called to rule his wife in love? Why is the wife called to submit to and obey her husband? Why is divorce forbidden except for adultery? Why is remarriage forbidden absolutely while the original spouse lives? If a person believes and understands Christ's loving rule over His Church and the unbreakable covenant He has made with her these questions are readily answered.

David J. Engelsma, Professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament at the Protestant Reformed Seminary, Michigan (USA), defends without compromise the unbreakable bond of marriage. Section One deals with various aspects of the doctrinal and practical outworking of marriage. Section Two deals with the history of the Church's Doctrine of Marriage, covering the early church, the Reformation period and today (aptly termed "Contemporary Lawlessness"). Fastening his colours firmly to the mast of God’s Word, Engelsma sets the standard for the whole work: "It must be God’s word that is proclaimed. We may not bring man’s wisdom on marital matters to the church … for as regards marriage also, the wisdom of men is foolishness with God" (p. 14). Especially practical and challenging are the treatment of the duties of husbands and wives (ch. 3-4).

Concerning husbands, he admonishes them to avoid the sins of masculine independency and male tyranny. Rather the calling for a husband is to "dwell with his wife ... be understanding towards his wife, and ... bless his wife" (p. 39) and "The basic calling is not 'rule your wife' as if you were a dictator, but the calling is 'love her' because you are her husband" (p. 43).

Concerning wives, he emphasizes their need to be submissive, warns against rebellion to the husband's headship, and a over-idealistic romantic notion of marriage (This is a book of realism! Marriage is a blessing, but it also brings cares with it). Feminists in and outside the church may vehemently oppose Engelsma's exhortation to wives: "The wife is under the husband's authority. She is not a ruling head, but an obeying body. She is this whether she likes it or not, whether she lives that way or not. The calling of the Christian woman as wife is ... not so much that you call your husband 'honey' or 'sweetheart' but that you call him 'lord'" (p. 59), and "The young wives must learn this love. This is an arduous spiritual activity, for the husband, although a Christian will soon prove himself to be no 'prince charming' but a very weak and sinful man whom it is not always easy to love" (p. 63) but who can deny that this is indeed the teaching of God’s Word?

Especially interesting is the historical Section Two. Engelsma contrasts the strong opposition of the early Church Fathers to remarriage with the weaker position of the Reformers (Luther’s advice to Phillip of Hesse to commit bigamy rather than divorce, the approval by Calvin of the remarriage of Caracciolo after he left his Roman Catholic wife in Italy to go to Geneva) and their successors. While terming the Reformers' doctrine of divorce as "the scandal of the Reformation" (p. 127), Engelsma commends the early Church which "faced and rejected all the arguments, pleas, charges, evasions and absurdities that are used today to fill the churches with adulterous marriages" (p. 198).

The final chapter is a scathing attack on the miserable doctrine and sinful practice of the church world today. Divorce in evangelicalism is now possible for every cause. However, Engelsma maintains, "in a world of sin and death there are many evils that may trouble marriage: insanity, paralysis, not only husbands who itch for divorce, but also brawling wives who are miserable to live with. But none of these evils is ground for divorce" (p. 106). Some pastors counsel their members to divorce with the advice, "Christ would not want you to suffer in such a difficult marriage." To such pastors Engelsma delivers the following admonition: "Every pastor has had the feeling at some point in his difficult ministry to the married that a marriage should be broken up because of 'irreconcilable differences' between the husband and the wife. But woe to him if he gives such counsel! For the counsel of Christ is, 'Be reconciled with regard to your irreconcilable difference.' The rule of Christ is separation is forbidden" (p. 113). To continue the litany of transgressions against the marriage covenant by today's church, Engelsma exposes the remarriage after divorce approved of in many evangelical and even Reformed churches. It is now possible to "commit adultery with the wife of a fellow member, divorce his own wife, marry the object of his lust, leave the church for a time, and the seek readmission to the church expressing 'repentance'" (p. 219). Engelsma exposes this sham repentance of remarried church members in bold terms: "Note well what this lawlessness means ... after 30 years of marriage, a man may fall in love with an alluring young lady, divorce his wife, abandon his children, marry the beauteous secretary, repent, be forgiven by the church, carry on with his new wife, and sit down at the Lord's Table with orthodox Presbyterians" (p. 216), and he describes their antinomian attitudes thus: "I am sorry now that I stole my brother's wife, and that I left my own poor wife, but I intend to enjoy my brother's wife as long as I live (or until I find someone else I prefer)" (p. 220).

The church needs to heed this. Marriage is being attacked in society like never before.   May the married use this to seek God's blessings in the marriages, may the divorced seek grace from the Lord to live a single life, may the singles seek the Lord for a godly spouse and may all the members of the church earnestly pray for the marriages in the church, than they may indeed reflect the mystery of Christ and His church!

Martyn McGeown