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ETHICS: Christian Marriage’s Freedom in Limitation

The Living Church is delighted to initiate a new department, Ethics, aimed at creative renewal in Anglican moral theology through focused teaching on contemporary issues and practical discipleship. This essay first appeared in the February 23, 2020 print edition.

By Deonna D. Neal

Research has shown that if children are playing in an open field, they will only play in the center of it. However, if you take that same field and put a fence around it, the children will move out from the center and use the whole field as their playground. Only when boundaries are put around the field do children feel free and safe to venture out and use the whole space.

This may seem counterintuitive. We usually assume that fewer boundaries means more freedom and that boundaries unnecessarily hem us in or restrict us. But we can only really experience true and positive freedom within appropriate boundaries. Imagine trying to play football if there are no sidelines or end zones.

Likewise, every parent knows that setting boundaries for their children is one of the most important aspects of their child’s development, a way they demonstrate love. Parents tell children, “You can do this, but you can’t do that. If you do that, you will get hurt or you will hurt others, and that is not good.” One of the goals of parenting is to raise children so that when they grow up, they know what boundaries are important for living a healthy and flourishing human life. In other words, limitation is the necessary condition for freedom. Without boundaries we might experience liberty, but that is not the same as freedom.

It is this feature of our creaturely existence, i.e. we can only experience freedom within limitation, that grounds the Christian insistence that marriage should be a permanent relationship between two people. It is by committing myself to live the rest of my life married to only this other person that sets the boundaries around the relationship so that the true freedoms of marriage can be experienced. The Declaration of Consent in “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage” from the Book of Common Payer articulates this succinctly:

“N. Will you have this man to be your husband; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?”

Without the expectation of a life-long, permanent commitment, the couple lives in a permanent state of anxiety about the status of their relationship. Without the condition of permanence, it is difficult to engage in the life-long tasks of learning how to love another person in the way that they have promised. How can one commit to having children, knowing that one’s spouse isn’t fully committed to help raise and support them? How can one plan for the future, and make all of the short-term and long-term decisions that go along with that, if one has no idea what circumstance might suddenly motivate one’s spouse to refuse to uphold the promise of their marriage vows? Why would one commit to purchasing and holding property jointly, knowing that it will most likely have to be divided if one’s spouse finds greener pastures?

The anxieties of marriage, if one is not confident in the permanent commitment of one’s spouse, also manifest themselves in nagging questions: Will she leave me if she meets someone else? Will he leave me if he decides raising children is too hard? Will he leave me when I’m no longer attractive? Will she leave me if I get a disease? Will he leave me if I lose my job? Will she stay with me if I become seriously disabled and need constant medical attention? Will she leave me if I express anger, disappointment, or frustration with her?

Christian marriage, of course, is modelled on the permanent and faithful relationship God has with his people. How can we learn to love and trust God unconditionally, if we are worried that God only loves us conditionally, e.g. based on our having to be perfect and never failing, getting angry, or disappointing God? How could we commit to a life of Christian freedom and service, if we are constantly worried that God would abandon us at any time? How can we understand the mystery of suffering or the purposes of sacrifice, if God, in the person of Jesus, had not shown us that it is not meaningless?

It is easy to romanticize or idealize marriage. But any person who has been married for even a short amount of time realizes very quickly the practical realities of the day-to-day requirements that married life entails. Unfortunately, it is usually when our romantic or idealized views of marriage (or our idealized views of the person we have married) are shattered that one is tempted to leave. People go in search of another ideal person, to shore up their idealized view of marriage and try again. And, sometimes, even again. It is perhaps only when we accept the reality of human sinfulness, finitude and frailty, both our own and that of our spouse, that we may actually be mature enough to enter into a life-long, committed relationship and do the work of love that Christian marriage requires.

There is also a tendency to point to extreme cases, which might legitimately justify a divorce, to justify the normalizing of divorce. It is true that unlike God, who has demonstrated his steadfast faithfulness in the self-giving of Jesus, our fellow human beings will, inevitably, fail us. But we can only learn faithfulness by continuing to love in the face of hurt, failure and disappointment.

How many people quit their marriage too easily because reconciliation seems impossible? What might have happened if they hung in there with each other and really tried to work it out? The point of permanence is to provide the couple with confidence that they have the freedom to undertake the hard work of reconciliation, the paradigmatic example of Christian love, without fear of abandonment. And, in this way, Christian marriage, with its permanent boundaries and limitations, serves as an important form of faithful Christian witness, not only to one’s spouse, but to the wider world.

The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal is priest associate at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and works full-time as a professor of leadership and ethics at Air University (USAF), at Maxwell Air Force Base.


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