It was the slap heard round the world. This past Sunday night during the Oscars (which I wasn’t watching) Will Smith strode up onto the stage and rocked Chris Rock’s dome with a high-five to the face. If you missed it, I’m almost certain you haven’t missed the countless postmortems or the endless memes that it generated over the last week.
The apparent reason for the slap, assuming it wasn’t staged, was a joke that Chris Rock made about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Now, the joke was told during the bit of the show when comedians like Chris Rock usually make such jokes (or so I’m told, as again, I wasn’t watching). Apparently, Rock’s joke at Jada’s expense, which was related to her baldness, went from raucously funny in one moment to so egregiously offensive in the next that Smith felt compelled to take action. And action he took, in all its open-handed glory.
I don’t intend to analyze all the troubling tributaries that converged in the actual slap itself, beyond pointing out that it’s quite a grab bag of any number of things, and hardly any of them good. It’s not entirely wrong for Christians to find some humor in the event outside of the slap, given the absurdity of the Oscars — this annual, self-satisfied award show where the Hollywood elite use their 60-second acceptance speeches to proclaim their commitment to the “current thing” and preach social justice activism at blue collar Americans, all while clutching golden idols and receiving gift-baskets worth triple the average annual salary of those being hit hardest by the real-world outcomes of their luxury beliefs as currently embodied in the person of President Joe Biden. Deep breath.
But as soon as the shot of the chuckles fade, some chasing measure of sorrow for all parties involved should certainly follow. These grandstanding people are pitiable and lost, in all senses of the word. It just so happened that, this time around, a tad bit more of the lostness leaked out for all to see.
Leaving that aside, what I want to consider is the Monday-morning quarterbacking of the shenanigans. I want to help ensure that, as we discuss what precipitated the physical violence, we don’t commit some unintentional verbal violence ourselves. Let’s think about how we can avoid slapping an innocent word across the face with the hand of another word that has no right to make contact with it.
The word in question that needs said protection, better at least than what is apparently provided at the Academy Awards, is marriage. And the open-handed adjective that keeps trying to crash the stage and assault it in the aftermath is the word open.
Many are suggesting that at the root of the incident is the ruin of Will and Jada’s relationship — the wreck that is their marriage. And their issues are indeed public, well-known, and well-documented. Both Jada and Will have admitted, in multiple interviews, to being in what they have referred to as an “open relationship” or “open marriage.” In light of this sad reality, much of the analysis on why Will slapped Chris has been centered on the fact that his wife has slept with other men, something that has left Will as a “broken” and “confused” man. However, Will has admitted to his own infidelity as well. So, the far more appropriate term to apply to their marriage isn’t “open” but “shattered.”
When we as Christians talk about their marriage, our word selection matters. It matters more than you probably think. Because according to the Author of marriage, if the relationship between a man and a woman is “open” then it’s not really a “marriage” — no matter what the world says. Marriage, in the eyes of God, is actually best understand as a covenant. And “covenant” is not the kind of word, or thing in reality, to which you can affix the adjective “open” as a descriptor.
We can talk about a broken marriage (covenant). We can talk about a ruined marriage (covenant). We can talk about an abandoned marriage (covenant). We can even talk about a redeemed marriage (covenant). But we dare not speak of an open marriage (covenant) lest we empty the word of all its inherent and glorious meaning — a meaning fixed by the Creator God Himself.
Taking our eyes off the spectacle of the slap, let’s instead fix them on Scripture, by whose “light we see light,” to paraphrase Psalm 36:9. It’s ultimately God’s Word, far more than TMZ readouts, which will enable us to better understand how we should — and shouldn’t — speak about marriage whenever it is at the forefront of our cultural conversation.
In Genesis 2 God presides over the very first marriage ceremony in human history. After God states that Adam should not be alone and thus needs a “suitable helper,” we read that,
“the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man’” (Genesis 2:21-23).
Next, in verse 24, we get an inspired editorial comment by Moses (the human author of Genesis). And this is a key piece of revelation from God, a foundational cornerstone for a biblical view of marriage, which should be channeled into all of our conversations. Reflecting on the first marriage, the union of Adam and Eve, Moses explains, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
A “one flesh” union. This is no mere business contract, to be dissolved at will by either party. This is no flexible relationship, to be opened or closed, entered or exited, upon a whim. This is a covenant — a solemn, binding commitment, instituted by God. Marriage, rightly understood, is the monogamous, permanent, exclusive, covenantal union of one man and one woman who intend to obey God’s dominion mandate of procreation, should He grant them children, and commit to care for any offspring their union may produce. Not exactly how our society, or Will and Jada, define marriage, is it?
As we move through the Old Testament, the idea of “marriage as a closed covenant” is brought front and center in the context of the special relationship between God and His chosen people, Israel. Sadly, the occasion for invoking the covenant language is often in reference to Israel breaking it. As one scholar has put it:
“Yahweh’s covenantal relationship with Israel is frequently analogized to the special relationship between husband and wife. Israel’s disobedience to Yahweh, in turn, is frequently described as a form of ‘playing the harlot.’ Idolatry, like adultery, can lead to divorce, and Yahweh threatens this many times, even while calling his chosen people to reconciliation.”
Skipping ahead a few hundred years, in Matthew 19, when challenged by the Pharisees on divorce, Jesus reaffirms this central teaching on the nature of marriage. When pressed on the concession of divorce, Jesus responds:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’[? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).
Christ, the Word made flesh, echoes the creation order that He worked within the Trinity to establish: one man, one woman, for life. Marriages are by definition “closed.” They are meant to last until death — not discontentment — do us part.
The closed nature of marriage is not just the creation order design, though it is. It is also, explicitly, meant to point to a greater reality: The relationship between Christ and His church. This is unpacked in Ephesians 5:22-33. Writing on “The Mystery of Christian Marriage” for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Nathan Hoff explains that, “Christian marriage is intended to serve as a picture that proclaims the relationship between Christ and His church. It was an institution designed to make the unseen seen.”
What exactly is unseen? It is nothing less than Christ’s total, exclusive, uncompromising, eternal commitment to His bride — the church. Marriage between a man and a woman in our embodied, physical realm is meant to point to something far greater that is now in the spiritual realm until Christ returns. This is the committed love which compels Paul in Romans to exult that nothing can sever, that nothing “shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).
Rest assured, Christ does not have an open marriage with His bride, the church. And as Christians, we are commanded to follow in the footsteps of our savior, and model that same love and commitment in our own marriages and how we speak about marriage.
An online acquaintance put it well: “We so often err in that we so easily capitulate and use the language of our pagan culture. I was explaining this story to someone and referred to their relationship as an open marriage. I shouldn’t even give the term credence by using it, since there is no such thing.”
I agree. And here I am, almost 1,600 words later, hoping that you do too.
Because the sad yet simple truth is this: Will and Jada aren’t in an open marriage — they are in an adulterous one. They have both broken the covenant. They have both allowed man (and woman) to separate what God has joined, in direct contradiction to the clear commands in Scripture. While the slap was shocking, as unexpected acts of violence are, bear in mind that the slap itself was the least violent aspect of the relationships on display that night. A far greater violence has been committed against the marriage than a joke by Chris Rock, and far greater consequences than momentary embarrassment before the gilded elite are unfolding in the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Smith even now.
Their hope, however, is the same simple hope that is held out to all adulterers — both physical and spiritual ones — and that is the redeeming hope of the gospel of Christ. They need to cast themselves on the mercy of our crucified and risen Savior, who is redeeming a bride, the church, for Himself for all eternity (Revelation 19:6-9). Will Smith doesn’t need to storm the stage in manufactured rage at the Oscars, he needs to get down on his hands and knees and pray to God for forgiveness and ask for repentance and faith. Then he needs to lead his wife, and his family, to do the same.
So, as we speak of marriage, remember: If it’s open, it’s not a marriage. Not biblically, anyhow. As we reflect upon the cultural moment, let’s speak rightly and act rightly ourselves. We speak to honor God by using truth-filled words like “adulterous” instead of “open” to describe such wayward relationships. And we act in love towards the Smiths, by praying that they would find repentance and redemption in the forever faithful One, Jesus Christ.
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