A Review of The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy and Kathy Keller

In The Meaning of Marriage, Timothy and Kathy Keller establish a foundation for marriage based upon cultural trends, biblical insight, and years of counseling and pastoring at a local congregation filled with singles. He cuts through the talk of “soul mate” and “compatibility” with a realistic and biblical approach to the covenant of marriage.

Early in the book, Keller addresses the culture’s view of marriage and the romanticized way in which many view a marriage relationship. He rightly places marriage in the context of a covenant between two broken sinners and a God who forgives and transforms. While some view marriage as simply legal paperwork, Keller shows the power for marriage to bring about change and a humble response to showing a greater love for God and others. He further clarifies that marriage is not the answer to someone’s needs or healing, but he shows the gospel to be the power upon which our needs are met and marriage the workshop in which we practice gospel living.

The common vision and mission or marriage, then, is “for helping each other to become our future glory-selves, the new creations that God will eventually make us.” This transformation is not something that simply happens to us, but it is something to which we must decide to make ourselves available. It’s not about chemistry but about intentionality. Jesus didn’t “feel” love for us on the cross, but He intentionally laid down His life in sacrifice because he chose to love us. He did this to make us – His bride – beautiful, and we ought to be about focusing on how we may build up our spouse. The very heart of the gospel should be the heart of our marriage relationship.

Though collaborating for most of the book, the reigns are turned over to Kathy Keller for addressing the gender issues that are much-talked-about today. In her words, “If our gender is at the heart of our nature, however, we risk losing a key part of ourselves if we abandon our distinctive male and female roles.” In Keller’s view, though, she interprets the narrative of Genesis 2 to show that the man and woman are “incomplete without the other.” This may bring up a picture of Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger in the famous “you complete me” line in Jerry Maguire. Much of Keller’s insights around the “dance” of the relationship, mirroring of the Trinity, and our ability to embrace one another’s uniqueness is very helpful. However, the “you complete me” concept seems difficult to carry on in terms of a biblical understanding of the image of God and a life of singleness.

The issue of singleness is considered specifically, and a healthy marriage model is stated to be an essential element in a single person’s life. Timothy affirms the “complete each other” concept and shows that this is not something that happens only in marriage. Rather this “cross-gender enrichment” should happen quite naturally in the Christian community. The idea of “cross-gender enrichment” is a much-needed understanding in the Church today; however, we must be careful how far we take it. In Keller’s words this is the way “male and female ‘complete’ each other and reflect the image of God together.” If this is true, then is the image of God present in the individual? And if the image of God is only revealed in a man-woman relationship, how can we know it is fully expressed when Keller admits, “It is my experience that it is nearly impossible to come up with a single, detailed and very specific set of ‘manly’ or ‘womanly’ characteristics that fits every temperament and culture”? While these questions linger, Keller does provide a list of very helpful considerations for singles as well as an encouragement to find wisdom in the community of other believers when choosing a covenant partner.

No marriage book would be complete without a biblical view of sex, and Keller provides this at the closing of this work. He appropriately puts sex in the context of community building and discourages sex for personal satisfaction. In keeping with the earlier teaching of “others first,” Keller shares that greater fulfillment in sex comes only through a proper perspective of focusing on God and spouse as opposed to self. The covenant of marriage is also shown to be necessary for healthy sex to take place, and sex is necessary for maintaining the covenant relationship. A biblical and high view of sex is presented here, and it is a welcome perspective in the number of voices speaking into the conversation.

Overall, The Meaning of Marriage is a helpful resource for providing a framework for not only understanding marriage within our cultural context but also for knowing God’s purposes and intent for marriage. It would best be used in conjunction with other resources that would provide a clear understanding of the image of God and gender roles.

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