The Meaning of Marriage by Tim & Kathy Keller — a review by Avid Reader
What I appreciated most about this book is the author’s deep affection for his wife. Reading through this book, you can tell that they really do cherish each other. It’s refreshing to hear a Pastor honor his wife’s talents while admitting how much he needs her. Timothy Keller writes on page 163, “To my wife, I’m Superman, and it makes me feel like a man in a way nothing else could.”
That’s what you want to hear in a marriage book. I also appreciated Tim’s brutal honesty with himself, admitting where he’s made mistakes in his marriage and how it took the wisdom of his wife to get him back on the right track.
He makes some really good points in this book such as —
“If you never express anger, your truth telling probably won’t sink in.” (p. 184)
Then he gives a lot of reasons to avoid sin — but honestly, we only need a simple love for Christ. That’s it. If you really love Christ — that’s enough to keep you on the straight and narrow without all these other reasons getting in the way.
Later on, Pastor Tim has a real powerful insight on problems with the rising trend of Christian courtship trying to replace Christian dating. He writes,
There are some evangelical Christian communities that have sought to reestablish the kinds of pathways that were prevalent in former times. Some have proposed a very father directed form of courtship in which a young woman’s father chooses mates and directs the process. I believe that by and large these return to courtship movements are beset with many problems. They don’t take into consideration the idols that were inherent in traditional societies and they each institutionalize one particular moment in human social history. (p. 235-236)
That’s a great point. We need to not get stuck on one generation’s methods when the Bible transcends time.
Mercy or Sacrifice?
While Jesus does call us to turn away from the pleasures of the world, take up our cross and follow Him — there’s a huge difference between laying down our lives for Christ, and suffering to meet the endless demands of a narcissist spouse.
Listen to what God says in the Old Testament —
I want your loyalty, not your sacrifices. I want you to know me, not to give me burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6 GW)
Watch your step when you enter God’s house. Enter to learn. That’s far better than mindlessly offering a sacrifice, doing more harm than good. (Ecc 5:1 MSG)
That’s what Keller doesn’t understand. While selflessly giving yourself to your spouse is a basic ingredient of marriage — it can’t solve every marriage problem. Yet this book uses sacrifice to solve every marriage problem instead of teaching how to set boundaries to protect people. Then it goes further and says some things that leave you wondering where he’s coming from. Listen to what he wrote on pages 59-63. I almost fell out of my chair.
There are many reasons that we cannot see our own self-centeredness. One of the main factors that hides it from us is our own history of mistreatment. Many people come to marriage having been seriously hurt by parents, lovers, or former spouses……Then there are the dating relationships or former marriages in which the other party wronged and betrayed you. (p. 59-60)
Woundedness makes us self-absorbed. (p. 60)
Woundedness is compounded self-doubt, guilt, resentment, and disillusionment. (p. 60)
Our hurts and wounds can make our self-centeredness even more intractable. (p. 61)
This is not hard to see in others, of course. When you being to talk to wounded people, it is not long before they begin talking about themselves. They’re so engrossed in their own pain and problems that they don’t realize what they look like to others. They are not sensitive to the needs of others. They don’t pick up the cues of those who are hurting or if they do, they only do in a self-involved way……They get involved with others in an obsessive and controlling way because they are actually meeting their own needs though they deceive themselves about this. (p. 60)
When you point out selfish behavior to a wounded person, he or she will say…….the wounds justify the behavior. (p. 61)
There are two ways to diagnose and treat this condition.….In this (secular) view of things we give wounded people almost nothing but support, encouraging them to stop letting others run their lives, urging them to find out what their dreams are and take steps to fulfill them. That we think is the way to healing. But this approach assumes that self centeredness isn’t natural……only the product of some kind of mistreatment…..That is a very popular view of many people in the West but this view of things simply doesn’t work. (p. 61)
Christian approach…….(is that) we believe that as badly wounded as persons may be, the resulting self-absorption of the human heart was not caused by the mistreatment. It was only magnified and shaped by it. Their mistreatment poured gasoline on the fire and the flame and smoke now choke them but their self-centeredness already existed prior to their woundedness. (p. 61-62)
All people need to be treated gently and respectfully, esp. those who have been wounded…….Nevertheless, all people must be challenged to see that their self-centeredness hasn’t been caused by the people who hurt them its only been aggravated by the abuse. (p. 63)
The woundedness makes us minimize our own selfishness. (p. 63)
Reading that reminded me of something that happened a while back. One time I was driving down the street when several cars ahead of me had stopped because a motorcyclist was hit by a car. Everyone immediately tried to help him. Several people ran over to administer first aid. Others blocked traffic to protect him while he was laying on the pavement. Someone called an ambulance and the paramedics came. To this day, I’ll never forget seeing that poor guy laying broken and bloodied on the pavement — writhing in pain as the paramedics worked on him. Fortunately, they said his injuries weren’t life threatening.
Now picture this for a moment. Imagine that while the motorcyclist is laying in the middle of the street someone comes over to him and says, “Stop being so selfish. Forget about your injuries. Get on your feet and start taking care of everyone else!”
That would be heartless and cruel!
But while Jesus Himself is “touched with the feeling of our infirmity” this book seems to run right over them.
How does that make God feel? Look at Ezekiel where God gets REALLY ANGRY at pastors because they weren’t doing their job. Listen to what God says to the pastors.
You have not taken care of the weak ones, healed the ones that are sick, bandaged the ones that are hurt, brought back the ones that wandered off, or looked for the ones that were lost. Instead, you treated them cruelly. (Ezekiel 34:4 GNT)
Think about that for a moment. That passage is describing the role of the pastor as he is to —
- Strengthen the weak
- Heal the sick
- BANDAGE THE HURT
- Bring back the ones that wandered away
- Look for the ones that were lost
- Feed the sheep (see verses 2-3)
Jesus Himself came to heal the brokenhearted (Luke 4). Not to hurt them even more. Any Christian theology that doesn’t understand that is missing the heart of God.
I’m NOT saying that Pastor Tim is doing that — I’m just saying that what he wrote about wounded people opens the door for the abuser to get all the mercy and forgiveness while the real victim gets the guilt and condemnation. This book is so focused on pointing the finger at wounded people that it misses the dynamics of emotional abuse that are causing the wounds in the first place.
Doctrine of the Trinity
This book teaches a very controversial doctrine of the Trinity that seems to apply marriage roles to the Trinity. That doesn’t work—unless as Michael Bird wrote, “your marriage consists of an older man, a younger man and a eunuch!”
This doctrine is called Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) [ERAS]. We all know that when Jesus walked the Earth — He set the example for us of submitting to God’s will. But does that automatically mean that throughout all eternity, both before and after coming to earth, Jesus was in a subordinate role in the Trinity? Does that mean that Jesus doesn’t have the same authority as the Father does?
Jesus said in Matthew 28:18 (NIV) that “ALL AUTHORITY in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” So how could the Father be withholding some authority from Him? THEN there’s John 5:22 (NLT) which says, “The Father judges no one. Instead, he has given the Son ABSOLUTE AUTHORITY to judge.”
So why would ESS be such a big deal? Why would so many strong complementarians be coming forward with serious concerns about the long-term effects of ESS?
None of that is discussed in this book. Instead this book acts as though ESS is a commonly accepted mainstream Christian doctrine when, in fact, it is being highly disputed by many leading complementarians.
In this book, Pastor Tim’s wife Kathy explains that ESS had a powerful influence in shaping her worldview. She writes, “When I first heard Christians talk about male and female as “different but equal” it sounded a little too much like the “separate but equal” motto of segregation.” (p. 197)
But what finally convinced her to accept the idea of roles was ESS because “If our assigned roles are rooted in the nature of the relationships within the Trinity, tampering with the revelation of that mystery that God intends within marriage is surely not our prerogative.” (p. 215)
Kathy defines these roles as “women have a gift of interdependence, a receiving gift” (p. 203) while men have a “need for independence.” (p. 206) Where is that verse in the Bible? Didn’t God say that it wasn’t good for men to be alone? This suggests that women are to be passive when Jesus told us to be actively “asking, seeking, and knocking.”
On page 216 Kathy also defines women’s role as “A wife accustomed to resenting every Archie Bunker like behavior of her husband may begin offering her submission with graciousness rather than resenting the lack of honor she receives from her husband.” (p. 216)
Hang on a second. What about God’s law of sowing and reaping?
This is sweeping serious problems in the marriage under the rug. Again, trying to fix everything by sacrifice when sometimes the only way to make things change is by setting boundaries. Interfering with people’s ability to set boundaries is literally interfering with the fruit of the Spirit in people’s lives. The Bible says there’s NO LAW OF GOD AGAINST SELF-CONTROL (Gal 5:23). Books that teach people that sacrifice solves everything forget that Jesus gave us the power to decide when to lay our lives down and when to take it up again (John 10:18). Any Christian teaching that goes against that is going against Scripture.
Yet Kathy defends these controversial roles to the point where she writes on page 215 that if your born-again, spirit-filled, Bible-believing CHRISTIAN spouse doesn’t agree with your opinions on theology, you should TREAT THEM AS A NONBELIEVER!!! She literally teaches people to consider themselves as married to a nonbeliever if there’s a difference of opinion in the marriage on Christian theology!
Taking these roles even further, on page 306 Kathy says that these roles should determine how society functions as a whole “including how that affects the relationship of men and women in the church and in the world.”
That sounds familiar. Where have we heard that before? The more Kathy describes these roles the more it sounds like she’s quoting from the book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBMW), where John Piper actually wrote —
- that women are supposed to feel submissive to EVERY man in EVERY situation even down to “the most casual relationship with a STRANGER ON THE STREET.” (p. 44)
- that even the housewife in her backyard must be submissive when giving directions to a complete stranger so that “neither of them feels their mature femininity or masculinity compromised.” (p. 50)
- that women must avoid any jobs that give them too much direct influence over men in a work environment because that would “OFFEND a man’s good, God-given sense of responsibility and leadership and thus controvert God’s created order.” (p. 51)
Wait a minute! He just said that men being “offended” proves that women are disobeying God! Really? Galatians 1:10 says “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Plus, the Proverbs 31 woman didn’t let any of this interfere with her career opportunities!
So where does Piper get these crazy ideas? You guessed it — Piper founded the organization which is the driving force behind ESS. What’s really crazy is that if you read Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood — the Christian theologians who wrote that book can’t even agree among themselves as to the proper role for women. Chapters in RBMW literally disagree with each other!
Think about what’s happening here. Bible verses on marriage are being applied to the Trinity. Then they’re being applied to the workplace. Then society as a whole. No wonder complementarians themselves are coming forward with serious concerns about ESS!
And, who gets to decide exactly what these roles are? There’s such a huge difference of opinion among Christian theologians on these roles that no matter how hard we try, we will never know if we’re following the role properly or not. That’s why the Bible warns us NOT to add anything to the text. The further down the rabbit hole we go in researching this the more you see that there’s many personal opinions being added to Scripture.
My point is that the further you research the more you see that ESS has serious implications that need to be addressed by the church as a whole. The fact that both complementarians and egalitarians are coming out against ESS should make people pay attention. Besides, Jesus said to pray that God would send more laborers to the harvest, why let ESS shut the door on the gifts and talents of half the body of Christ?
Thank you for hanging in there through this long review. It was necessary to address all these issues in this book because we have to get back to the simplicity of Christ.
The bottom line is that ALL Christian theology has to bow its knee to the Lordship of Jesus Christ who came to “destroy the works of the devil,” “set the captives free,” and “heal the broken-hearted.” Any theology that misses that is missing the Heart of God.
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