Perspectives on Messianic Marriage
A world-class concert pianist was approached by an admirer after a stunning performance. “I would give my life to play the way you played this evening,” declared the adoring fan.
“I have given my life,” responded the virtuoso.
Stop and think for a moment: why do we respect individuals who have achieved superexcellence? Certainly we admire their accomplishments, but the discipline and the sacrifices these people undertook to make their mark—whether in the arts, science, business or athletics—are just as remarkable.
Nothing of great value is achieved without cost. And it is the cost which underscores the value of any great personal achievement. “Wait a minute,” you say, “I thought this was an article about messianic marriage! What does this have to do with messianic marriage?” It has everything to do with messianic marriage, because choices regarding relationships always cost something.
One of the greatest hazards to any relationship, particularly marriage, is failure to count that cost. That failure devalues our choices and allows us to treat our commitments too lightly. Too often we come to the table of marriage eager to satisfy ourselves, looking for the most appetizing selection to feed our hungry hearts. If we are disappointed we conclude that there must be something wrong with the food, when our own appetites and attitudes are to blame.
Relationships fail and marriages fail because people relate and marry for what they can get instead of what they can give. At the table of marriage, satisfaction comes only through the costly choice of service and self-sacrifice. This principle of service is the key, not only to marriage but to messianic lifestyle:
“Just as the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
If service is the key principle, the first choice affirmed by that principle is to remain single! No one has more freedom to focus, more flexibility to serve God. Single people can do it without shirking their responsibilities to spouses or children. Anyone who chooses to remain single in order to exercise that freedom should be respected and affirmed by all who love the Savior.
As mishpochah, we need to carefully consider the issue of singleness. Then we should learn how to encourage those who make that kind of sacrifice to the glory of God. We shy away from thinking about this issue because it seems foreign to our Jewish culture. So, celibacy is only for priests and nuns?
The Hebrew scriptures ascribe sacred significance to the marriage relationship. The rabbis understood this and have referred to marriage as kiddushin (sanctification). Yet in sanctifying marriage, they went far beyond what the Scriptures say and wrongly condemned celibacy or singleness through such pronunciations as:
“The unmarried person lives without joy, without blessing and without good.”
“Every man is obliged to marry in order to fulfill the duty of procreation, and whoever is not engaged in propagating the race is as if he shed blood, diminishing the divine image and causing His presence to depart from Israel.”
Shul. Ar. E.H. 1:1
And yet as is often the case in the Talmud there is a contradictory or mitigating opinion, from a “patron saint of celibacy,” Simeon ben Azzai, who commenting on his own singleness declared, “My soul is fond of the Law; the world will be perpetuated by others” (Yeb 63:b). This perspective is actually closer to what we find in the New Testament.
Y’shua sanctified and even encouraged the choice to remain single by his own example and by declaring that there are some who remain single “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matthew 19:12b). We need not presume that our glandular or emotional impulses make demands that, left unmet, leave us miserable and unfulfilled.
The Apostle Paul affirms the choice of singleness in the seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians, even preferring it to the choice of marriage. Some critics have charged that Paul was influenced by a Hellenistic dualism—Greek philosophy that taught that spirit is good and flesh is evil; therefore marriage and physical relationships are bad while singleness and celibacy are good. This is a flagrant twisting of the text. Paul never condemned marriage but clearly explained that his preference for singleness was based upon the principle of service to God.
“But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided.”
1 Corinthians 7:32-33
Paul never said that those who marry cannot serve the Lord. He advised that some people may choose not to marry so that they may give their undistracted attention in service to God. A choice like that costs something. As mishpochah we must learn to value and affirm those who make that choice and recognize it as a gift from God.
We may not be in danger of openly demeaning singleness as the Talmud does. Yet there are other subtle and not-so-subtle ways of undermining single brothers and sisters. There are unsolicited attempts at “match-making” and attitudes that suggest a person does not really grow to maturity, understand the meaning of commitment or experience fulfillment until married. Let’s refrain from discouraging the godly choice of singleness. Let’s affirm the principle of service and those who make costly choices to the glory of God.
While the principle of service leads only a few to make an actual commitment to be single, it nevertheless causes many more to remain single by limiting their scope of possible marriage partners. These are people who might have chosen to be married, but instead remained single because none of the potential partners they met were building the kind of lives where service to God would remain central for both parties. This is true for both genders, but one can easily see the point illustrated: A woman is established in ministry. She knows that a husband who is not equally committed to ministry could decide on a move that would isolate her from the work she is called to do.
Still others might have been so preoccupied with their service to God in their younger years that one day they wake up to find that years have passed and they are alone—without the kind of marriage prospects they once had. They don’t regret how they spent their younger years, but they never made an official commitment to remaining single, either. They don’t complain or consider themselves cheated; yet there is a certain ache—a wistfulness and admission to close friends that they sometimes miss having their own family.
While these people may not have consciously committed to staying single, their priorities in serving God cost them the same as if they had come right out and decided never to marry. These also deserve our affirmation and respect—the recognition that they paid a high price in order to serve God in the particular way to which they were called.
Therefore, my first and strongest affirmation is to those who have remained single for the sake of their service to God.
My second affirmation is to Jewish believers who commit themselves to marry only other Jewish believers because they believe that God has called them to do so. The cost is a considerably smaller “marriage pool.”
The result is that sometimes these Jewish believers must wait longer than they would like to marry; sometimes they might close their eyes to possibilities which would be very attractive had they not made this commitment. It is easier to find loving and accepting mates who are Gentile believers on the basis of sheer numbers. The more difficult choice is for the Jewish believer to find another messianic Jew.
You can tell those who have counted the cost of that choice, because they do not constantly complain that there are not enough “eligible” Jewish believers. If a commitment is to the Lord, there is no bitterness or resentment over the high price of that commitment. Those who pay the price for that kind of commitment should be affirmed and not judged.
Some have questioned the motives of these people while others have gone so far as to pronounce that such a commitment is wrong, prejudiced, and insulting to our Gentile brothers and sisters. I would not want to be in the position of making such a pronouncement!
I can’t help but wonder if those who do pass judgment might not be a little defensive. Some view other people’s commitments through a lens labeled, “What does this say about me?” That is a short-sighted and insensitive lens. The result is that not only do these people fail to give the support others need, but they also fail to receive support because they wrongly suppose that people are slighting them. My wife Patti is not Jewish, yet I admire and respect my friends who have limited their choices of possible mates to Jewish believers. Their commitment to “marry Jewish” is not an indictment of my marriage nor anyone else’s. And while I am grateful to be blessed with a wonderful family, our personal happiness does not change my opinion that marriages between two Jewish believers are desirable for a number of reasons.
First, such marriages contribute to the continuity of the Jewish people as a whole and, more specifically, to the believing Jewish remnant. In the messianic community we encounter a growing number of people who lay claim to a Jewish heritage that doesn’t appear valid upon any kind of inquiry. You all know what I mean. There is the individual who tells you he is Jewish and upon further explanation you discover that he found out through doing “research” that one of his great-grandparents was Jewish. By what standard can we consider this person a Jew?
Or think of this scenario which may be closer to home: the children of a Jewish/Gentile believing couple are raised with a sense of their Jewishness. Perhaps there is even a nearby messianic congregation they attend while growing up. What happens if and when one of the children marries a Gentile believer? What will be their children’s claim to Jewish identity? This is a particularly touchy issue, and I know because I may be facing it myself someday. Patti and I work hard to provide our children with a strong Jewish identity. Yet, if our children marry Gentiles how much of a claim to Jewishness will our grandchildren have, given that I am the only Jewish grandparent?
We may have the conviction to raise our children Jewish with the full participation of a Gentile spouse. Yet we cannot guarantee the conviction of our children if they marry Gentiles, nor of their children, if the Lord tarries.
I am saddened whenever I meet a person with any Jewish background who has walked away from any involvement in things Jewish. I feel it is a great loss when Jewish believers fail to identify with the remnant.
Is it not appropriate for us as Jewish believers to be concerned about the survival of the Jewish community, in particular that of the remnant of Jewish believers in Jesus? “If it is legitimate for Jews to be concerned about the survival of the whooping crane and the blue whale, then it is certainly no less legitimate for Jews to be worried about their own group’s future. The world will not be richer if any of them vanish, though my own value system would put the Jews ahead of the cranes and the whales.”1
Now the fact is that it is God who will ultimately preserve us as a people, but that does not mean that we have no responsibility to preserve our own heritage and unique witness. God invites us to participate in the preservation of our people and our heritage, not abandon it (1 Corinthians 7:17-18). We ought to encourage and affirm Jewish believers who feel that God has called them to reinforce and preserve their heritage in a way which requires them to marry only a Jewish believer.
Another consideration toward Jewish believers marrying other Jewish believers is more mundane, but in some cases it can cause significant trouble in a marriage: cultural differences. There is tremendous pressure mitigating against marriage these days; we live in a world that is constantly undermining the idea of absolute commitment to anything. With all the given difficulties inherent in any marriage, partners of Jewish-Gentile marriages might encounter further difficulties that are not so easily resolved.
The Jewish partner needs to realize that at some point he or she may have to deal with feelings of guilt for “marrying out.” That is not to say that such guilt is justified! Yet, inherent in most Jewish upbringing is the idea that Jews should marry Jews. Anyone contemplating intermarriage should take an honest look at themselves and evaluate whether they are prepared to deal with cultural differences in a godly way. Precious little good it will do your spouse if you quote all the Scripture verses to say that Jews and Gentiles are one in Messiah, and then make disparaging remarks about “Gentile food” or “pagan traditions” that were a cherished part of your mate’s childhood.
Obviously the right and godly thing for us to do is to not disparage one another at all! But let’s be honest and admit that we are still merely in the process of becoming more like the Messiah. None of us is as sensitive to people’s feelings as Y’shua. Don’t saddle a spouse with having to live with you while you work on becoming more accepting of their background.
The same can be true of a prospective Gentile spouse who doesn’t really have much appreciation for Jewish culture. When the honeymoon is over, you don’t want to find yourself married to someone who complains to his or her friends about “having to put up with pushy Jewish in-laws.”
Such things ought not to be among believers…but sanctification is a process. Ethnic pride can creep into a relationship in very subtle ways and can be very hurtful. It is not that we should condone or make room for these wrong attitudes. But we should consider the possibility that they might exist, and not put others in a position to be hurt by them.
In the same vein, it is important to remember that when people marry, it is not merely a knitting together of two individuals; it is also a joining of families. Though God’s approval should always be first and foremost in any marriage, the parents of the bride and groom are not out of the picture. When dealing with unbelieving Jewish parents, we cannot order our lives to please them, for if that were the case most would settle for nothing less than a renunciation of our faith. And yet, there are matters where we can take their feelings and sensitivities into account without violating our calling. Marriage to a godly Gentile partner is certainly acceptable in God’s sight, but if your family sees it as a rejection of everything Jewish, you may choose not to exercise your liberty for the sake of your parents. I know one Gentile believer who has been married to a Jewish believer for nearly twenty years. She is a very strong advocate of Jewish believers marrying one another, in large part, for the sake of the in-laws. This means thinking things through, taking others into consideration and making decisions before emotional attachments occur.
A reason for affirming Jewish-Jewish marriages which is similar to the issue of family consideration is that of maintaining a testimony to the Jewish community. Marrying a Jewish believer can be one way of telling the Jewish community, “what matters to you matters to me, too.”
Whether or not we feel the pros and cons of intermarriage apply to us, we should recognize that many people consider intermarriage one of the Jewish community’s most pressing problems. According to Richard J. Israel, Director of B’nai B’rith in Boston, Massachusetts, “there are few phenomena of Jewish life today that cause as much angry debate and pain and bewilderment as intermarriage.”2
According to a 1990 study done at Brandeis University, the national intermarriage rate WAS at 29% with some areas of the country showing as high as 40% intermarriage rate. A national population study commissioned by the Council of Jewish Federations gives an even more dramatic statistic. According to their report, 49% of all Jews who married since 1985 have non-Jewish spouses. The plethora of articles and studies demonstrates the level of concern the Jewish community feels over the intermarriage issue and specifically, the fear of assimilation.
When a Jewish believer makes the effort to find another Jewish believer as a spouse, that makes a statement.
But let’s remember that we are dealing with the principle of service—and it is God whom we serve in maintaining a testimony, not ourselves or the Jewish community. We must be very careful to distinguish between maintaining a testimony and seeking acceptance. A testimony is a statement. That statement does not make us acceptable in the eyes of those to whom we are testifying! For example, we may identify ourselves as Jewish believers and march for Soviet Jewry or in public support of Israel. We are telling the Jewish community that we share these concerns. We will say it whether or not they believe it, knowing that often they do not receive our testimony. It is their responsibility to deal with our testimony or not. But if any of us think that by joining in these demonstrations we will somehow win the respect or approval of the Jewish community, we are in for disappointment.
Similarly, I would caution those who choose to marry other Jewish believers as a testimony to examine their hearts and their hopes very carefully. The commitment to marry a Jewish believer is indeed a valid statement and might be the right one for you to make, but if by making that statement you think that either you or the gospel will gain approval in the Jewish community, think again.
Recently, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform Judaism) dealt with the question of whether a Reform rabbi is allowed to marry a messianic Jew to an unbelieving Jew. Though the Reform Jewish movement is perhaps the most liberal of all, the answer was still no, “…unless the messianic Jew renounces his belief in Jesus of Nazareth and becomes a Jew rather than a messianic Jew, we must consider him a Christian and cannot officiate at his marriage…we should be much stricter in our relationship with ‘messianic Jews’ than with Christians…we should do everything in our power…to maintain a strict separation of anyone connected with this group.”3
When the official response of the most liberal body within Judaism declares that a marriage of a Jew to a messianic Jew is worse than intermarriage, what kind of acceptance can we possibly hope for? But stop and think about it. If the rabbis were right and we had to choose between being Jewish or being for Jesus I would hope that each and every one of us would choose Jesus!
Returning to the commitment of some who choose to marry only Jewish believers—we should encourage and foster a community that upholds people who have made difficult choices. That means supporting Jewish believers who commit to marrying other Jewish believers on the basis of what they feel God has asked of them. Some in the mishpochah need to turn away from a “reverse prejudice” which demands that a Jewish believer be willing to marry a Gentile believer in order to prove they are not a bigot or a spiritually insensitive person.
Do not misinterpret my first two affirmations as a condemnation of those who have chosen a third option. Because finally, we should affirm the sanctity of any marriage between two believers in Jesus who are seeking to please him, and that means affirming marriages between Jewish and Gentile believers as well. In God’s grace, such marriages can be a reflection of the diversity found in the body of Christ.
What is a messianic marriage? It is a marriage where each partner is determined to serve the Messiah. Now if Jews were the only servants of the Messiah, then it would only be right for Jews to marry other Jews. But the fact is, because of Y’shua we can affirm all believing marriages, whether Jewish, Gentile or mixed marriage. Let no one then discourage or undermine a marriage between Jewish and Gentile believers.
Wherefore remember that ye being in times past Gentiles in the flesh that at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, without God in the world; but now in Christ Jesus ye who sometime were far off were made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace who hath made both one, and have broken down the middle wall of partition between us;…therefore you are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens of the saints of the household of God.
Ephesians 2:11-14, 19
In both testaments the prohibition regarding intermarriage is for religious, not racial purposes. The Jewish people were to remain separate because as Scriptures show, whenever we mixed in with the nations, we strayed from faith in the God of Israel. The Scriptures also show exceptions to the rule in such notable examples as Moses’ wives and of course, Ruth the Moabitess. Furthermore, the New Testament describes a breaking down of barriers between Jews and Gentiles which was only dimly foreshadowed in the story of Ruth.
The best marriages are those in which both people think things through and consider their service to Y’shua as being the first item of business in their relationships. That is why God commanded us to contemplate marriage only with those who are also followers of the Savior: “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:4).
The marriages which present problems are those that are patterned after society’s bent ideals and expectations instead of what the Bible says. It is a tragedy in the messianic community when people marry for the wrong reasons or with the wrong expectations. Those marriages tend to disintegrate and dissolve in the same way that those outside the messianic community do, because the spouses failed to realize that God never intended marriage to be a self-serving relationship. They failed to follow the principle of service.
Whether married or single, Jewish or Gentile, if our first consideration is how we can best serve God, then surely our lives and our marriages will be pleasing to God, a testimony to the Jewish community and to the whole world. Our leadership (and in fact the messianic community as a whole) is responsible to foster the kind of teaching and pastoral care that promotes biblical standards and godly relationships. These matters are not solely private concerns, inasmuch as they greatly reflect the character and conduct of our movement. We dare not wring our hands over assimilation, bad marriages or unhealthy relations between singles if we have failed to provide the proper education, guidance and care.
We also should learn to challenge one another to count the cost and make the hard decisions concerning marriage. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 took on a particular urgency because of the time and the situation in which believers were then living.
But this I say, brethren, the time has been short, so that from now on both those who have wives should be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy as though they did not possess; and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.
We live in times that are not altogether unlike the time in which Paul was writing. The eschatological urgency which Paul conveyed in that passage should help to provide perspective for those of us who have not yet made marital commitments. The apostle was not trying to be a spoilsport, but rather he explains his advice:
And this I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is seemly, and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.
1 Corinthians 7:35
There again is the principle of undistracted devotion to the Lord.
For many, the choice to remain single is too great a burden to bear. No one should feel guilty for marrying or desiring to marry a suitable believer! But whether you are married, plan to be married, would like to be married but don’t know if you ever will be, or have decided to remain single, there is one hope we hold in common. We all await the greatest messianic marriage of all. Through faith in the Messiah of Israel, Jews and Gentiles—married and single alike—have been arrayed in the robes of Y’shua’s righteousness. We await him as his bride adorned for his coming. We look forward to the great marriage supper of the Lamb, where we will rejoice in the unity he has given us with each other and the eternal life that we will share together with him. Let’s wait with undistracted devotion.
- Third Jewish Catalog, The Jewish Catalog, compiled and edited by Michael Strassfeld and Sharon Strassfeld, the Jewish Publications Society of America, Philadelphia, 1980, p. 255.
- Ibid, p 254.
- Collected Response of the Conference of American Rabbis, edited by Walter Jacob, Central Conference of American Rabbis Publication, New York, 1983, pp. 471-74 passim.