The ERLC, Marriage, and Ministry: A Conversation with Ray Ortlund, Jr.

On Tuesday, January 17, 2017, I had the opportunity to attend an Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission Leadership luncheon in Nashville, Tennessee. Approximately sixty-five local leaders sat around tables, discussing life, marriage, ministry, politics, and more. Chuy’s catered. The guest of honor was Ray Ortlund, whom ERLC president Russell Moore interviewed on the topic of marriage.

Before the interview began, Moore introduced Congressman Diane Black, who attended the luncheon. Black is a representative from Tennessee who chairs the House Budget Committee. Moore asked if the group could pray for her and her work in government as she works to influence law and policy. She agreed to this, and even asked that whosoever felt led would lay hands on her during the prayer.

Afterward, Moore introduced Ray Ortlund, Jr., the pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville. He has authored, among other books, Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel, Short Studies in Biblical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), and God’s Unfaithful Wife: A Biblical Theology of Spiritual Adultery, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003).[1]

What follows is a summary of the exchange. It is not word for word; thus any mistakes are my own. The interview began with Moore posing questions to Ortlund; partway through, Moore and Ortlund began taking questions from the guests.


Russell Moore (RM): Talk about marriage. You authored When God Comes to Church, originally entitled Whoredom: God’s Unfaithful Wife in Biblical Theology. How is Biblical marriage distinct from cultural marriage?

Ray Ortlund, Jr. (RO): Ephesians 5 tells us about Biblical marriage. It teaches us that marriage is a mystery; it’s a truth revealed, not concealed. That truth is that marriage is a picture of the gospel. It’s a tiny sociological platform of the gospel. We must remember that. When I am being loved by my wife, I am being loved by God, not simply in my wife’s love per se, but from God Himself.


RM: What are some practical ways to love your wife? How can we make our wives feel loved?

RO: Too often, men are just oblivious to the sea of God’s love, mercy, and grace. When we’re in heaven, we won’t be oblivious, and it will be wonderful.

The last two words in the Old Testament are “utter destruction” (ESV). In the New Testament, God renews His covenant with His people through the New Covenant. Although His wife became a whore, He still loved her. Compared to that, we have much to be thankful for. Yet from another perspective, we’re all whores; we’ve made concessions; sin is spiritual adultery—and still we’re loved. God deals with us in grace.

In reference to the question, then, we should remember this in thinking about how we interact with our wives. When we have a right view of God’s grace in the New Covenant, it has vast implications for how we relate to our wives. Making our wives feel loved means asking how we can serve them at this moment, with gentleness and grace.


RM: How do we communicate a glorious view of marriage, and yet be realistic about its difficulties, even when we don’t feel like it’s glorious?

RO: As human beings, we often feel inadequate. God, however, asks us to step into that storm of life. He is there. He is both in His holy place in heaven and in the muck and mire of everyday life (Isa. 57:15). We may be our own greatest disappointments, but our worth and value is in our justification by faith, in our being declared as righteous. This gives us the ability and courage to face reality, knowing that God is with us.


RM: In our culture now, we’re dealing with a lack of marriage generally, as opposed to the subject of divorce, which a previous generation dealt with more. Often, unbelievers think that marrying young, even in one’s twenties, is bizarre. How do we convince people that marriage is good for them?

RO: We can flip our modern fascination of sexuality, using it as an opportunity to talk about God’s gift in human sexuality. God is not embarrassed by sexuality. By getting married and participating in loving, tender sexuality, God is glorified.


Questions from Guests (QG): Does marriage take place when unbelievers marry?

RO: God gave marriage to the human race, not simply to the church. That said, it must be legitimate, between one man and one woman.


QG: Should the church distinguish more between the State’s civil union and the church’s holy union?

RM: Although Christians should show how Christian marriages are distinct from non-Christian marriages, the church should not sever itself from the State in this way. To sever this relationship would result in decreasing much needed accountability.

RO: We should distinguish between the marriage and a wedding. In Christian wedding ceremonies, the most important people are the bridge, the groom, and God. Christians should enter such occasions solemnly and devotionally. Everyone else present is to observe and encourage.

RM: Yes. Christian weddings are holy, and Christian marriages are faithful. When I do pre-marital counseling, one of the questions I ask each party is, “If you were ever to have an affair, how would you do it, how would you hide it, and what would the signs be that I’m hiding something?” This says that we’re all sinners. It also opens communication between the husband the wife. So, if husbands are talking too much to women at the office, we should be able to talk about that with our wives.

RO: I know what you mean. I loved the ministry too much. Patiently, quietly, my wife told me, about seven years into our marriage, that the “the kids and me will always love you, but we don’t know if you’ll always be around to love.” Wow: I was exposed.


QG: How do we help people who are cohabitating?

RO: If it’s a member of the church, then the answer is straightforward church discipline. Yet in shepherding people, we must exhibit gentleness, which is wonderfully exhibited throughout the writings of Jonathan Edwards—no bullying, no roughing people up.

RM: When dealing with unbelievers, we might propose to them another way of thinking about things. For example, the cohabitation culture is a reaction to the divorce culture. People live together to see if they’re compatible before getting married; yet studies show that couples that cohabitate are more likely to get divorced than those that don’t. In addition, we might propose that marriage isn’t so much like a corporate merger, which is often how it’s viewed. Instead, marriage is like a start-up, where two parties build their lives together.


RM: Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Ortlund.


[1] The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ, 9Marks Building Healthy Churches (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), Proverbs: Wisdom That Works, Preaching the Word Series (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, Preaching the Word Series (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), Supernatural Living for Natural People: The Life-giving Message of Romans 8 (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2001), When God Comes to Church: A Biblical Model for Revival Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), and A Passion for God: Prayers and Meditations on the Book of Romans (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994).

Author: Matthew Steven Bracey

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