In May we pay tribute to moms and in June we honor dads. Implied in those celebrations is the creation of a family. And while society keeps trying to redefine the concepts of marriage and family, their importance in society can’t be overstated. Marriage is not, as some say, just a social construct. It is an institution. But what does that even mean? According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, an institution is:
A significant practice, relationship or organization in a society or culture.
As an example, the dictionary cites “the institution of marriage.” Marriage is a significant practice because it creates a new family unit, which is the basis of any society. It’s not something to enter into lightly, nor is it solely a matter of convenience or viable only as long as one or both partners are happy. These lines of thinking did not enable marriage to become an institution. They do, in fact, contribute to the erosion of it. Marriage became an institution because it was (and still is) a revered and holy practice that binds two people together so tightly that they become a single unit.
And when marital vows are honored with love, commitment and integrity, they create a bedrock foundation for society. Elder L. Tom Perry said,
No single issue causes more concern among the leaders of churches and the leaders of nations than the alarming rate of breakup of marriages today. Statistics show that strong marriages produce strong families. The breakup of the family is causing serious social problems that are destroying our communities—including increases in poverty, crime, and delinquency.
So how do we put priority status on repairing the marriages in our society? We start by studying what makes marriage an institution.
The History of Marriage
It’s difficult to understand the importance of marriage if we don’t know its origins. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are unique in their belief that marriage was instituted by God Himself before the world was even created. It was part of God’s plan for His children on earth. And they also believe that Adam and Eve were not only the first two people on earth but were also the first married couple. Mormons believe that the marriage between Adam and Eve was not merely implied but that a ceremony actually took place. Elder Robert D. Hales taught,
From the earliest beginnings, God established the family and made it eternal. Adam and Eve were sealed in marriage for time and all eternity:
“And thus all things were confirmed unto Adam, by an holy ordinance, and the Gospel preached, and a decree sent forth, that it should be in the world, until the end thereof; and thus it was” (Moses 5:59).
This ceremony is called the sealing ordinance. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ believe that a temple marriage, or sealing, is different from a marriage outside the temple. Elder Theodore M. Burton explained,
… A civil marriage is an arrangement invented by man, which therefore includes man’s imperfections. A temple marriage, on the other hand, is performed under special priesthood authorization and with authority from God. It is therefore a holy ordinance that should be taken very seriously. It is an eternal marriage meant to last forever.
The Covenant of Marriage
The temple sealing is an ordinance, which is a sacred, formal act performed by the power and authority of the priesthood. When Adam and Eve were married, they covenanted with each other. James M. Harper, at the time associate professor of Family Sciences at Brigham Young University, explained,
The covenant between Adam and Eve is summarized in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” Referring to this scripture, President Spencer W. Kimball commented, “Do you note that? She, the woman, occupies the first place. She is preeminent, even above the parents who are so dear to all of us. Even the children must take their proper but significant place (Ensign, March 1976, p. 72).”
The marriage covenant also embraces a partnership with God. Professor Harper continued,
Marriage is not just a social contract between man and woman; it involves God as well. God is a witness to all marriage agreements and insists that couples should be devoted and completely faithful to each other.
The temple covenant helps us to focus our efforts in marriage. Elder David A. Bednar taught,
The Lord Jesus Christ is the focal point in a covenant marriage relationship. … [Imagine that] the Savior is positioned at the apex of [a] triangle, with a woman at the base of one corner and a man at the base of the other corner. Not consider what happens in the relationship between the man and the woman as they individually and steadily “come unto Christ” and strive to be “perfected in Him” (Moroni 10:32). Because of and through the Redeemer, the man and the woman come closer together (“Marriage is Essential to His Eternal Plan,” Ensign, June 2006, 86).
Husbands and wives who honor their marriage covenants qualify themselves for eternal blessings.
Marriage and the Family
Marriage, then, is the foundation for the family. President James E. Faust said,
The family relationship of father, mother, and child is the oldest and most enduring institution in the world. It has survived vast differences of geography and culture. This is because marriage between man and woman is a natural state and is ordained of God. It is a moral imperative.
Thus, a moral imperative is something that is so important it compels a person to action. Latter-day Saints believe that we have a moral imperative to cultivate, nurture and sustain healthy marriage and family relationships because they are such an essential part of God’s plan for us. Elder Perry taught,
We … believe that strong traditional families are not only the basic units of a stable society, a stable economy, and a stable culture of values—but that they are also the basic units of eternity and of the kingdom and government of God.
The Nuclear Family
The nuclear family is a very powerful asset in society. Both the husband and wife play a vital role. President Faust said,
It is useless to debate which parent is most important. No one would doubt that a mother’s influence is paramount with newborns and in the first years of a child’s life. The father’s influence increases as the child grows older. However, each parent is necessary at various times in a child’s development. … Mothers seem to take a dominant role in preparing children to live within their families (present and future). Fathers seem best equipped to prepare children to function in the environment outside the family.
Indeed, parenthood provides depth and a breadth to marriage. President Faust said,
The soul of the marriage is greatly enriched and the spiritual growing process is greatly strengthened when a couple become parents. For couples who can have children, parenthood should bring the greatest of all happiness. Men grow because as fathers they must take care of their families. Women blossom because as mothers they must forget themselves. We understand best the full meaning of love when we become parents. However, if children do not come, couples who are nevertheless prepared to receive them with love will be honored and blessed by the Lord for their faithfulness. Our homes should be among the most hallowed of all earthly sanctuaries.
These family relationships offer children the best chance of success. Elder D. Todd Christofferson taught,
A family built on the marriage of a man and woman supplies the best setting for God’s plan to thrive—the setting for the birth of children, who come in purity and innocence from God, and the environment for the learning and preparation they will need for a successful mortal life and eternal life in the world to come.
Marriage in our Society
We live in a society that mocks marriage at every turn— especially in the media. Sit-coms shows clueless moms and inept dads; reality TV shows treat marriage like a game. And shows that do seek to provide a Christian commitment to marriage and family values are ridiculed and attacked at every opportunity— especially if one (or more) of the family members shows human weakness and falls short of the beliefs he or she professes. With such little respect shown to families, it’s no wonder that many people fail to see their import. But all of us can see the effects of such attitudes. Elder L. Tom Perry said,
With the decay of the family, we see the terrible effects on our society—increased crime, behavior disorders, poverty, drug abuse, and the list continues to grow and grow. …
Surely we have learned by now, from the experience over centuries, that the basic family provides the most stable and secure foundation for society and is fundamental to the preparation of young people for their future responsibilities. We should have learned by now that alternate styles of family formations have not worked and never will work.
Indeed, Elder D. Todd Christofferson explained,
Deseret News opinion editor Hal Boyd cited one example of the disservice inherent in staying silent. He noted that while the idea of marriage is still a matter of “intellectual debate” among elites in American society, marriage itself is not a matter of debate for them in practice. “Elites get married and stay married and make sure their kids enjoy the benefits of stable marriage’ … The problem, however, is that [they] tend not to preach what they practice.” They don’t want to “impose” on those who really could use their moral leadership (The Voice of Warning, April 2017 General Conference).
The Problem with Divorce
Unfortunately today, divorce is a real issue and impacts many people. Divorce is painful, ugly and difficult on all parties involved, no matter what the reason for the split. Sometimes, however, it is necessary. Sometimes it isn’t— it just seems like the best way out. Unfortunately, many people discover too late that there was perhaps a better way. Elder Dallin H. Oaks said,
I strongly urge you and those who advise you to face up to the reality that for most marriage problems, the remedy is not divorce but repentance. Often the cause is not incompatibility but selfishness. The first step is not separation but reformation. Divorce is not an all-purpose solution, and it often creates long-term heartache. A broad-based international study of the levels of happiness before and after “major life events” found that, on average, persons are far more successful in recovering their level of happiness after the death of a spouse than after a divorce. Spouses who hope that divorce will resolve conflicts often find that it aggravates them, since the complexities that follow divorce—especially where there are children—generate new conflicts.
Think first of the children. Because divorce separates the interests of children from the interests of their parents, children are its first victims. Scholars of family life tell us that the most important cause of the current decline in the well-being of children is the current weakening of marriage, because family instability decreases parental investment in children. We know that children raised in a single-parent home after divorce have a much higher risk for drug and alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, poor school performance, and various kinds of victimization.
Building Happy Families
The question, then, is how do we build happy families? The first step is to create strong marriages, where husbands and wives love and respect one another—and teach their children to do the same. The Family: A Proclamation to the World states,
Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.
President Faust taught,
In the enriching of marriage, the big things are the little things. There must be constant appreciation for each other and thoughtful demonstration of gratitude. A couple must encourage and help each other grow. Marriage is a joint quest for the good, the beautiful, and the divine.
Elder Hales said,
… An eternal bond doesn’t just happen as a result of sealing covenants we make in the temple. How we conduct ourselves in this life will determine what we will be in all the eternities to come. To receive the blessings of the sealing that our Heavenly Father has given to us, we have to keep the commandments and conduct ourselves in such a way that our families will want to live with us in the eternities. The family relationships we have here on this earth are important, but they are much more important for their effect on our families for generations in mortality and throughout all eternity.
Thus, the family relationships we create strengthen not only our current families but also the families of our children and their children.
The next step in building happy families is to strengthen the ties that bind parents to their children and siblings to each other. We do this by spending quality time with each other—away from the distractions of iPods, smart phones, tablets and social media. For Latter-day Saints, Monday nights are set aside for families to do just that. Of this, President Gordon B. Hinckley taught,
We have a family home evening program once a week [Monday night] across the Church in which parents sit down with their children. They study the scriptures. They talk about family problems. They plan family activities and things of that kind. I don’t hesitate to say if every family in the world practiced that one thing, you’d see a very great difference in the solidarity of the families of the world’ (interview, Boston Globe, 14 Aug. 2000).
Spending time as a family doesn’t need to be a big, elaborate affair. It can be as simple as family game night. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said,
We build deep and loving family relationships by doing simple things together, like family dinner and family home evening and by just having fun together. In family relationships love is really spelled t-i-m-e, time. Taking time for each other is the key for harmony at home. We talk with, rather than about, each other. We learn from each other, and we appreciate our differences as well as our commonalities. We establish a divine bond with each other as we approach God together through family prayer, gospel study, and Sunday worship.
Families Built to Last
Marriage and family relationships must be built to last—not just for this life but for the eternities. Elder Perry said,
We believe that marriage and family ties can continue beyond the grave—that marriages performed by those who have the proper authority in His temples will continue to be valid in the world to come. Our marriage ceremonies eliminate the words “till death do us part” and instead say, “for time and for all eternity.”
How we treat our spouses and family members here will determine in large part whether we are bound to them in the hereafter. Elder Hales said,
While our individual salvation is based on our individual obedience, it is equally important that we understand that we are each an important and integral part of a family and the highest blessings can be received only within an eternal family. When families are functioning as designed by God, the relationships found therein are the most valued of mortality. The plan of the Father is that family love and companionship will continue into the eternities. Being one in a family carries a great responsibility of caring, loving, lifting, and strengthening each member of the family so that all can righteously endure to the end in mortality and dwell together throughout eternity. It is not enough just to save ourselves. It is equally important that parents, brothers, and sisters are saved in our families. If we return home alone to our Heavenly Father, we will be asked, “Where is the rest of the family?” This is why we teach that families are forever. The eternal nature of an individual becomes the eternal nature of the family.