Shortly after I posted my review of Mark Driscoll’s Real Marriage, which failed as a book on marriage, many sympathetic to Driscoll told me to get the forthcoming The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller. Tim is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church on the island of Manhattan. He’s also a New Calvinist and a co-founder of the Gospel Coalition, which apparently believes you have to be Complementarian to be a real Christian. To say I was nervous to dive in would be an understatement, but dive in I did.
Imagine my (pleasant) surprise to find the marriage book I’ve been waiting for! The Meaning of Marriage succeeds in just about every way Real Marriage failed, and then some.
Summarizing a nine-sermon series on Ephesians 5 that he’s been using for years, Tim puts forth as his thesis that his goal is to,
Put Paul’s discussion into today’s cultural context and lay out two of the most basic teachings by th
e Bible on marriage—that it has been instituted by God and that marriage was designed to be a reflection of the saving love of God for us in Jesus Christ.
He begins with a great critique of Marriage as a Romantic institution, reminiscent of Pamela Haag’s Marriage Confidential. Writing from a Christian perspective, Tim goes further to ground marriage specifically in God’s saving work.
Tim’s first several chapters lay out essential, counter-cultural principles for Marriage.
Contrary to “soul-mate theology,” Marriage involves two whole persons whose individual identities are grounded in Jesus. This lets each person participate in the love of Marriage as an Other-oriented institution that imitates God. As Tim says,
There is an “other-orientation” within the very being of God.
He doesn’t quite get to the heart of Orthodox Trinitarian theology here, though it’s coming. Tim moves on to explore how choosing the Other-orientation in Marriage is part of God’s sanctifying work in us. Marriage becomes a vehicle God uses to save us, to make us holy. And this is key.
If two spouses each say, “I’m going to treat my self-centeredness as the main problem in the marriage,” you have the prospect of a truly great marriage.
The middle of the book focus on the Other person we marry. Tim notes that no matter how much we love someone, when we marry them we don’t know them fully. We’re actually marrying an image of them, and the longer we’re married, the better we get to know the real person. As Tim puts it, we always marry the wrong person.
For Tim, the goal of Marriage is friendship. He makes much of Marriage’s ability to sanctify us here, and challenges singles to “screen first for friendship”. Here’s where a larger picture of the Gospel would’ve benefited Tim’s picture of Marriage. While he paints a great picture of spouses as the person who complements our passions and calling, a Gospel that restores not only us but the larger world would’ve been more compelling.
Overall, this book works on just about every level. Tim mixes theology with sound, practical advice on how to implement his teachings. His own marriage provides ample illustrations that are both hilarious and helpful. Every page evinces a book that’s grown out of many years of teaching the Scriptures to both married and single persons. Oh, and speaking of Singles, Tim dedicates an entire chapter to the beauty, power and necessity of the Single person in the Church.
Tim’s Singleness chapter is a pitch-perfect illustration of why no discussion of Christian marriage is complete without evaluating the importance of singleness.
Finally, I can’t evaluate this book without noting how Tim addresses Gender. First, though he’s staunchly Complementarian, Keller often slips into Egalitarian language. For example, commenting on Paul’s instructions to husbands to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church,” (Ephesians 5:25), Keller applies this advice to both genders, telling us we should,
Do for your spouse what God did for you in Jesus, and the rest will follow.
Tim’s picture of gender isn’t nearly as clear-cut as other Complementarians, at least partially because he recognizes that gender roles are a function of culture, and therefore relative.
Tim’s wife, Kathy, writes the chapter on Gender because, in her words, she has “the most at stake in this discussion”. That sentence alone blew me away (and again is radically more self-aware than anything in Real Marriage). But as Kathy outlines complementarian gender roles, grounded in God’s Triune nature, she too sounded more and more egalitarian:
In the dance of the Trinity, the greatest is the one who is most self-effacing, most sacrificial, most devoted to the good of the Other. Jesus redefined—or, more truly, defined properly—headship and authority… as servant-authority. Any exercise of power can only be done in service to the Other, not to please oneself… Both women and men get to “play the Jesus role” in marriage—Jesus in his sacrificial authority, Jesus in his sacrificial submission.
If men are called to sacrificial authority and women are called to sacrificial submission, we’re essentially playing semantics games. Both persons lived, embodied sacrificial living are going to look indistinguishable from each other. Certainly, the Kellers’ Complementarianism is immeasurably more biblical, more Jesus-like, more Trinitarian than what the Driscolls advocate in Real Marriage. Their pictures are different enough that one of them should stop calling themselves Complementarian.
Call it whatever you want. The Keller’s picture of Marriage is one we should strive for.