This is the third and final article of a three-part communications series for the State of the Family 2020. Through this series, we hope to raise awareness about the issue of relational poverty, and explore some of the possible implications this has for the Church, Families, and Marriages. For clarity of discussion, we will define relational poverty as “a lack of deep, genuine and healthy connectedness with others.”
This article will highlight the issue of relational poverty in Christian marriages. It will explore how God’s original design for marriage has been marred, and what we can do as the Church to strengthen marriages among Christians. We will also be sharing insights from the following leaders in their respective spheres of influence:
- Monica Wong – working mother and a civil servant in the legal industry
- Pastor Ian Toh – Senior Pastor at 3:16 Church, married with four children
- Timothy Weerasekera – Full-time ministry staff at Cornerstone Community Church, single young adult
The state of Christian marriages
Christian marriages provide a powerful picture of the love between Christ and the Church, as well as point forward to that long-anticipated day when Jesus the Bridegroom and His Bride will come together as one (Ephesians 5:31-32; Revelation 19:6-10).
When Christian marriages do well, it builds up the Body of Christ and draws the world to God.
The way married Christians are to love each other is for the husband to love his wife self-sacrificially, nourishing and cherishing her just as Christ loves and cares for His Church (Ephesians 5:25-31), and for the wife to love her husband by submitting to him with respect in the same way that the Church is to obey Christ out of her love for Him (Ephesians 5:22-24, 33).
When Christian marriages do well, it builds up the Body of Christ and draws the world to God.
Why Christian marriages break down
Monica explains, “Christian marriages break down for the same reasons that non-Christian marriages do, such as, family violence, infidelity, financial problems, and addictions. My personal experience is that Christian marriages are not spared the same issues that non-Christian marriages face, only that the church community has been able to offer more robust support.”
Sexual struggles and addictions
Timothy concurs and believes that one of the challenges facing Christian marriages is “secret, persistent porn use”.
This appears to be backed up by data from the Whole Life Inventory:
- 61.6% of male married respondents indicated that they had viewed pornography to varying extents in the past 12 months; 17.0% of female married respondents indicated the same.
- 5.6% of male married respondents indicated that they had sexual encounters outside of marriage to varying extents in the past 12 months; 1.7% of female married respondents indicated the same.
It is important for churches to develop expertise and devote resources to cultivate sexual wholeness among their members as well as to journey with those who are facing sexual brokenness.
At a more fundamental level, the church environment must be a safe space for people to pursue and experience authenticity and intimacy in relationship, so that they are more likely to confess their sins, shame and struggles with church leaders and trusted church members. Repentance is the first step towards receiving grace and restoration – not judgement and condemnation – that leads to healing.
Christian marriages are not spared the same issues that non-Christian marriages face, only that the church community has been able to offer more robust support.
Lack of personal relationship with God
Pastor Ian attributes “the key reason for the breakdown of Christian marriages to the lack of personal growth in our walk with God”.
He bemoans, “Sadly, too often, we have no time for God and His Word. When we have no time to cultivate our relationship with God, we will hardly have time to cultivate our relationship with our spouse. Isn’t marriage a picture of the relationship between Christ and the Church?”
Indeed, if we can only love others because we have first experienced God’s love (1 John 4:19), then married Christians would only be able to love their spouse in a way that embodies the love between Jesus and His Church when they are themselves first filled with His love.
As spouses grow in their intimacy with God, their walk with God would naturally be a positive influence in their marriage. The Whole Life Inventory found that 2 in 5 married Christians indicated that they and their spouse have a high or very high impact on each other’s spiritual development, another 2 in 5 indicated moderate impact, and the remaining 20% indicated no or low impact.
False notions of marriage
Another strain on marriages comes from a married individual’s own expectations of portraying a flawless marital relationship to others. Pastor Ian notes, “For Christians, sometimes we fall into the trap of the pressure of maintaining a perfect marriage.”
Instead, we need to bring Christian marrieds to a place where they can be more honest in their assessment of the state of their marriage, and more open to share vulnerably with others in church if they are facing marital challenges.
For Christians, sometimes we fall into the trap of the pressure of maintaining a perfect marriage.
According to Timothy, “The myth of ‘Christian invulnerability’ can lull Christian couples into a false sense of security. When married Christians assume that their baseline common values in Christ will somehow passively make up for the actual work of communication, relationship building and problem-solving as a married couple, this leads to the fatal error of de-prioritising marriage and spousal communication because of church ministry work, or worse, entertainment.”
Lack of time for real connection
Indeed, what can fuel relational poverty in marriages can boil down to a poverty of time that spouses spend with each other. Our Seasons of Marriage Survey 2020, which garnered 596 married respondents as of July, found that:
- Regarding their daily interactions with their spouse: 36.9% said they were not really talking or doing things together with their spouse, and 6.0% said they and their spouse are leading completely separate lives.
- When it comes to the conversations they have with their spouse: 35.1% described them as lacking and 6.7% described them as cold.
- On the state of their “love tank” with their spouse: 26.7% characterised it as being constantly depleted and 9.9% characterised it as (almost) always empty.
- When it comes to conflict with their spouse: 14.9% indicated that they were uncomfortable talking about conflict with their spouse, and 21.6% indicated they were having harsh arguments or “cold wars” with their spouse most of the time.
When spouses do not spend enough time to have quality conversations with each other on a daily or regular basis, it will unavoidably compromise how loved they feel by their spouse. This, in turn, adversely affects their ability to manage conflict well in their marriage. Over time, a lack of loving connection and a build-up of unresolved issues will fracture the marriage relationship.
what can fuel relational poverty in marriages can boil down to a poverty of time that spouses spend with each other
The role of the Church in building Christian marriages
How, then, can churches strengthen and support the Christian marriages in their congregations?
Key areas of support
Monica points to the importance of the church community in supporting Christian spouses: “Christian marriages are marriages where both husband and wife are not only believers, but plugged into a local church.”
According to the Whole Life Inventory, 69% of respondents said it is very true or somewhat true that their church helps them to grow in faith with their spouse. This is encouraging, but more can be done to ensure that every married Christian is supported by the church in this area.
Churches can devote resources to the top three areas in which Christian spouses indicated they needed support:
- Marriage mentoring by a more mature couple (24%)
- Conflict resolution or couple mediation (22%)
- Romance and sexual intimacy (15%)
Good foundation for singles and dating couples
The important work starts with preparing single and dating Christians for marriage. Pastor Ian says, “Churches can start to pay more attention to the spiritual formation and health of singles and dating couples. Laying a good foundation is helpful and can be built through frequent, regular small group conversations, forums and dialogues.”
Timothy agrees and adds that “rigorous marriage preparation and early-marriage support” are important means of support for dating couples and newlyweds.
Pastor Ian has found the Alpha Marriage Course and Pre-Marriage Course to be good resources that churches can continue to harness in the discipleship of dating couples and married couples in the church. He adds, “Churches also need to step up ministering to the men in the church. This is an area that I have much difficulties in, but nevertheless, it is very much needed.”
Intimacy and obedience to God
Pastor Ian stresses again the importance of a married Christian’s walk with God in his or her marriage life: “In my experience, intimacy and obedience to God is the key to a healthy marriage.”
He has personally learnt that the practices that enable him to foster a closer relationship with the Lord have also allowed him to build a stronger bond with his wife. “There are 3 phases that I use a lot in my prayers with God that has translated and helped in the relationship with my wife. They are: ‘I thank you’, ‘I love you’ and ‘I am sorry’. I have found these to be great starting points for meaningful conversations to take place for couples.”
Churches can therefore not only help Christian spouses to deepen their walk with God, but also help them to understand that the principles which build intimacy with God also apply to their relationship with their spouse.
Constant reminders to invest in marriage
God often calls His people to remember His promises and His laws in Scripture, because we are prone to forget them, resulting in us choosing our own ways and landing up in undesirable situations.
So, too, churches need to remind Christian couples that their family and marriage should take priority as foundational ministries God has called His people to, and thus to work on their marriage intentionally.
The principles which build intimacy with God also apply to their relationship with their spouse.
Timothy sees “sporadic ‘marriage renewal’ offerings from churches” as part of these ongoing efforts to exhort couples to invest in their marriage.
For Monica, “Supporting marriages takes more than a programme or a weekend away. People forget and consistent messaging is important, whether the marriage is new or mature. Messages of generosity, forbearance and forgiveness are universal subjects in Christianity, but yet critical in marriage. What has been effective in building Christian marriages would be constant reminders to married Christians—even in sermons or Bible study—to treasure the marriage relationship and make consistent effort to make it work.”
She has also found “kind and loving counselling that is regular and non-judgmental” to be important in restoring Christian marriages.
A better word, a better way
As the churches in Singapore put in the work to strengthen Christian marriages, the glorious images of Jesus’ love for His Church will be fruitfully multiplied to fill our culture with a better word made flesh. This will exemplify a beautiful hope that marriage can be lived out well in God and extend a provocative invitation for others to know the God of marriage.
It is a task that cannot be over-emphasised in a time such as ours, when clear, consistent and compelling living examples of godly marriages are urgently needed to show the world a better way to marital relationships.
Exemplify a beautiful hope that marriage can be lived out well in God and extend a provocative invitation for others to know the God of marriage.
© 2020 Whole Life. All rights reserved.