A discussion starter from Peter Toon
An ideal is an idea in the mind of what is possible, desirable & attainable with effort and thus what could or should be aimed at as a goal of a life-commitment or as a major pattern of behavior.
That ideal may be the equivalent in terms of definition and realization with a moral duty derived from conscience, natural law or revealed, divine law.
The difference between describing it on the one hand as an ideal and on the other as a commandment/duty/divine ordinance is in the realm of how one assesses one’s relation to it and thus how one assesses failure to achieve it.
In modern society & the modern Church to try hard and to fail to reach the ideal (especially if it is difficult like life-long marriage in a divorce culture) is usually regarded both a cause for congratulations and also the real possibility of general agreement of the opportunity of and the deserving of a second chance.
In contrast, in biblical terms and in the Gospel Church to fail to reach a standard or obey a commandment, however difficult and for whatever reason, is a sin against God and requires penitence and absolution, before even the possibility of a second chance to obey can be considered or properly take place.
There is no doubt that Jesus taught that the divine ordinance of marriage was a one-flesh union of two persons until death parted them. Under the Old Covenant because of the weakness [hardness of heart] of human beings, God allowed divorce under certain conditions; but, this permission did not change the basic order of creation and divine will within the covenant of grace. Jesus republished the original law and ordinance of God for marriage as binding on his disciples – what God has joined together let no man (modern let no-one) put asunder – and offered to them his Spirit and the graces of the new covenant to assist them obey divine Law.
Thus in no way from a biblical standpoint that the Christian doctrine of marriage can be said to be an ideal for baptized believers. It is not only an ordinance of creation but it is also a commandment of the Lord to those who are members of the new covenant and of the Household of God.
Of course in a divorce culture, pastoral care (a) for those who are involved in seeking to obey the commandment faithfully & lovingly and (b) for those who break the commandment of one-flesh union for life, must be available, be gracious and in line with the will of God, making use more of Gospel-based moral and spiritual advice than modern therapeutical norms and methods, which are usually related to ideals not divine ordinances.
Let us be aware that the language of "ideals" effectively moves matrimony from the realm of the real world into the realm of pure ideas, more or less granting in advance that in the mundane realm, where we all are, the ideal will not be possible because even the best marriage will be less "pure" than the idea of marriage.
Under the canon of modern pragmatism whether secular or dressed in God-language, to fail to accomplish that which is impossible cannot truly be a "sin." One merely seeks to learn from one’s mistakes and tries, tries, and tries again. This same pragmatism builds on the common experience of multiple marriages in a divorce culture as a demonstration that lifelong, monogamous marriage is an unrealizable ideal (and thus, in the end, impossible) in order to do away with all commandments, which are in turn transformed into ideals themselves. "All have fallen short" ceases to be a confession of sin and a plea for mercy, becoming instead a sort of "So what!. Everybody does it."
The net result is a type of practical incomprehension of the meaning of the
doctrines of grace. Why should anyone who tries his best to do the
impossible be thought "guilty" or in need of an unmerited redemption? Thus,
we end up telling one another that we're all good chaps after all, which
leaves Jesus hanging on the cross for no particular reason other than as a martyr.
Looking back into the 20th century, we can see that the first generation or two that treated marriage and other commandments as an ideal retained some sense of sin and redemption, however vague. But the generations of children that they raised, who saw their parents and their pastors doing what God forbids and not doing what God commands, began to draw the inference that the whole business of sin and redemption is quaint and out of date. They don't, after all, see any major consequences of sin or failure in this world. If anything, they see a great deal of self-affirmation among those who have departed from God’s will in this or some other particular.
It is most interesting and sad that in the massive “born again” constituency of North America, where the divorce rate is at least as high as among other persons, so often marriage is described as an ideal. If it were not so there would surely be a greater sense of its wrong and a greater determination to heal the wrong.
Beware of the language of ideals, especially where the subject is the clearly revealed will of the Lord!
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.)