In the Old Testament God likens his relationship to the House of Israel as that of a bridegroom to his wife. In the New Testament, the Church is described as the bride of Christ. The choice of the image of marriage, it seems to me, is hardly accidental. It provides, I think, the background for the commandments against speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed and by extension — I believe — the Lord’s Church.
Belief and membership — the two ideas that we use most commonly when thinking about our relationship to the Church — are, it strikes me, far too thin to capture what is really at work in it. Belief implies that what is primarily at stake is assent to a set of propositions. Membership is a bit better in that it nods toward the social dimension of the relationship, but membership tells us nothing about the level of reciprocity or commitment involved. I am a member of the Oman family, a member of the Virginia Bar, a member of my HOA. These are very different sorts of membership.
Marriage is a much richer concept. To be a member of a marriage is to have a very thick set of obligations, affections, and relationships. It is also to have a fierce commitment to the maintenance of the relationship with its obligations and affections. We go on dates with our spouses, but not our HOA. We entwine our lives and souls and (no twittering please) bodies with our spouses.
We also hold our tongues.
A marriage in which a wife or husband yammers on continually about the faults of her or his partner is not a healthy marriage. To be sure, there may be deep reserves or affection that allow outbursts of frustration or pique. But constant and consistent fault finding — even if honestly done and accurately documented — is corrosive for a marriage. Indeed, often it is precisely the accuracy of a spouses intimately acquired knowledge that makes his criticisms and attacks particularly biting and corrosive. Anyone who has been married learns enough about his wife or her husband to be able to make the most devastating barbs.
Nor does the fact that one’s beloved does not hear one’s criticisms make them harmless. The man who continually berates his wife in the sanctity of the locker-room or the woman who digs at her husband with her friends is, also undermining their marriage. Affection requires both the recognition and the self-deception that one’s beloved is unique and uniquely desirable. Desire, however, can be immolate itself on our mental and verbal habits.
Faithful Latter-day Saints, it seems to me, are in some sense married to the Church and the Restoration. We have a relationship with it and with one another, a thick satisfying relationship filled with the complexity of affection, commitment, and knowledge. A healthy marriage, however, requires a healthy dose of self-censorship. We do not want to alienate our affections and our commitments to the Gospel, the Church, and the community of the Saints. The Romantics were wrong about love. It is not simply a passion or a mania that assaults one. Affection is also a virtue, that like other virtues requires cultivation, self-discipline, and habit.
The trick, of course, is that healthy marriages can also thrive on an affectionate understanding of our beloveds foibales and deepest flaws. And these things can be profitably discussed, but it is a difficult and dangerous enterprise. Even so, a man who habitually engages in evil speaking of his wife, cannot raise truth as a defense. His marriage will suffer regardless.