Q & A with Dr. Tim Keller on “The Meaning of Marriage”
Interview Conducted by Karen Swallow Prior/ NOVEMBER 1, 2011
Why the pastor says gender roles are changing and how the church can be more effective in promoting marriage.
What does your book contribute to the conversation about marriage that other books have not?
It’s not simply a how-to manual. Many Christian marriage books are “here’s how to work on your problems.” On the other hand, the book is not just theological or “here’s the biblical view of marriage.” The most recent and the best-selling Christian books on marriage from the last few years were either theological, polemical, or absolutely practical. This is a combination of those. Most books I know on the subject recently have not been written by pastors; they’ve been written by counselors or theologians or people like that. This book was originally a series of sermons. When you preach, the sermon usually goes from the theological to the more polemical and into the practical.
You suggest that the Bible’s teachings come “not only in well-stated propositions, but also through brilliant stories and moving poetry.” Has the contemporary church been less effective in presenting good stories about marriage than in stating propositions?
I don’t know that I would say the church has been great at laying out rules, and I don’t think it’s actually been very practical. The theological tends to be propositions. The polemical tends to be arguments. The practical uses lots of stories to give you the gist of what a good marriage should be like. Somewhere in Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor was asked to put the basic point of her short story in a nutshell. She said, ‘If I could put it in a nutshell, I wouldn’t have had to write the story.’
I believe she says a story can’t be paraphrased.
Yes, that’s right. I think what she means is a story gives you an excess of meaning that no proposition could possibly convey, or even a set of propositions. There’s meaning that comes with a narrative that is certainly somewhat propositional—you can put some of it into propositions—but the impact is greater.
On a practical level, the church doesn’t do a great job of giving people a vision for what God wants marriage to be. I actually think that’s a way that my book is somewhat different in that it’s almost as much for a non-married person as for a married person. I actually think, in the end, what is very practical for both singles and married people is they need to get a breathtaking vision for what marriage should be. I don’t know if the strictly theological, strictly polemical, and strictly practical books do that.
One of the paradoxes you talk about is how the commitment of marriage actually produces freedom: the freedom to be truly ourselves, the freedom to be fully known, the freedom to be there in the future for those we love and who love us. Why do you believe that the commitment of marriage is viewed as largely anything but freeing today?
Our culture pits the two against each other. The culture says you have to be free from any obligation to really be free. The modern view of freedom is freedom from. It’s negative: freedom from any obligation, freedom from anybody telling me how I have to live my life. The biblical view is a richer view of freedom. It’s the freedom of—the freedom of joy, the freedom of realizing what I was designed to be.
If you don’t bind yourself to practice the piano for eight hours a day for ten years, you’ll never know the freedom of being able to sit down and express yourself through playing beautiful music. I don’t have that freedom. It’s very clear that to be able to do so is a freeing thing for people, with the diminishment of choice. And since freedom now is defined as all options, the power of choice, that’s freedom from. I don’t think ancient people saw these things as contradictions, but modern people do.
Your wife Kathy adheres to a complementarian view of gender roles but points out that a subdivision of labor can vary greatly within marriages and across cultures, generations, and societies. You state that cultural gender roles are not necessarily the same as biblical gender roles. Might this view might advance the egalitarian vs. complementarian debate beyond a current stalemate?
I don’t know. I would love that. Let’s just say, I hope so. I don’t have a lot of hopes right now about some of the stalemates we have in our evangelical world.
On the one hand, we say there is such a thing as male headship. It is irreducible in the home and in the church. But then, the details of what it looks like are almost completely un-spelled out. There are hints, but they are not laid out. We think it’s a principle for all times, all places, and all cultures, so if you had any list of specifics, it would make the principle less applicable. Complementarians admit the principle, but they always add a list of specifics that they treat as universal. Egalitarians won’t admit the principle. So, you might say we’re complementarians who endorse the principle that the husband and wife say “yes, the husband is the head,” but then we expect couples to come up with what that’s going to look like in their own marriage. Just don’t punt on the principle.
You describe marriage as a means for each spouse to “become their glorious future-selves through sacrificial service and spiritual friendship” and sex as one of the expressions of that relationship. Such a purpose pre-supposes a belief in a biblical eschatology. What purpose does marriage serve for those who do not share such a belief?
It doesn’t have the vertical dimension. A Christian marriage shows me more of the gospel, shows me more of Christ’s love. But there’s no doubt that marriage has natural benefits, too. First, it creates a stable environment for the rearing of children, who can’t thrive as well anywhere else. It also brings the two genders together to complement one another and knock off the rough edges. Marriage provides the personal growth that comes through cross-gender relationships.
Do you think the question of gay marriage has been settled politically? Would it have been more effectively addressed by the church if the church had more effectively upheld and supported the biblical model of marriage?
Right now it seems as if gay marriage has the upper hand politically, but it’s hard to say whether 50 years from now gay marriage will still have public support. Gay marriage activists say that if you don’t believe in gay marriage, it’s the same as not believing in interracial marriage. They don’t realize that’s not at all the case, because the texts of the major religions do not treat the subjects of race and homosexuality the same.
What advice can you offer families who are devoting more hours to work and less to home and family because of the economy?
It’s a very hard time now economically. In the end, family has to take precedence over making money. As the saying goes, on one’s deathbed, no one says, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”