Matt Chandler has gained acclaim for his speaking, preaching, and writing. As the lead pastor of The Village Church in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and the President of the Acts 29 Network, Matt is known for his ability to speak the truth of the gospel in an authentic way. Matt’s latest book, The Mingling of Souls: God’s Design for Love, Sex & Redemption, examines relationships through the eyes of Solomon. We sat down with Matt to discuss his new book and how the gospel should influence all of our relationships.
The foundation of your book comes from Song of Solomon, which is a part of Scripture that many skip over. What was it about Song of Solomon that you found so intriguing?
Honestly, it was a couple of things colliding. The first seven years of my marriage were really difficult years. We did premarital counseling, we did everything like you should do it, and it was just a really rough seven years. About year four I stumbled across Tommy Nelson’s CDs on Song of Solomon. God really did a profound work in my heart through listening to those CDs.
Also, as I’ve counseled people over the last 12 years, I’ve found that I’ve grown in my own marriage. I am really glad to say the last 7-8 years with my wife have been amazing. When people would ask about the first seven years, and then would ask about what we are doing now, I found that I had gleaned a lot of wisdom from the Song and there were a lot more answers in the [book] than people gave it credit for. It was treated as kind of a sex manual—and there’s definitely a chapter that is extremely explicit—but overall it’s not a manual about sex. I found I was going back to [Song of Solomon] so often and learning great wisdom in regard to what attraction is and how we should think about dating. With all the questions I was receiving and all the counseling I was doing I decided it would be wise to just put it down [on paper], and that’s what led to the book.
You tackle what some might see as a difficult topic by examining the subject of submission. You argue that submission in marriage can actually be a reflection of the gospel. Can you explain how that happens?
I go to Ephesians 5: Christ pursues, He initiates, He loves, He empowers, He strengthens. He does these things to His bride and His bride receives all of that simply by submitting to this type of servant-oriented leadership, authority, and care. Therein lies a secret to human flourishing: men who will lead like Christ loved the church, and women who will submit like the church does to Christ.
On that topic of leadership, you issue a call in the book for men to take active leadership in their relationships. How can men today rise above a passive position and truly lead?
Men have to understand where they’re leading their wives, and that’s ultimately what the issue is. Because we have such a weird view of what relationships are and the role of sex in it all, we have a tendency to let the world disciple us rather than us being a light to the world. A husband must understand that he should lead his wife and walk with her toward fruitful gospel ministry. Then, when he realizes that his wife has been intrinsically gifted by God and that his role is to encourage those gifts, make space for those gifts, and to encourage her in the operation of those gifts, a husband knows where he’s supposed to be leading her. From what I’ve experienced, far too many men just start talking about the way they think they should [lead] and what they think they should be doing, and then they become domineering and crushing to the soul of women. The Bible says that a woman who is well led will look like a well-watered vine that will blossom. To understand a Christian marriage we must acknowledge that God has put us together for a purpose and we are partnering together for the glory of God in the gospel by making disciples together.
One of the most powerful quotes in the book is when you say, “Marriage is not contractual; it is covenantal.” What does it mean for marriage to be covenantal and not contractual?
Covenantal love means I’m not going anywhere and that you don’t have to do certain things to make me be true to my covenant. The covenant I made with my wife was actually a covenant I made with my wife and the Lord. When you do wedding vows you’re not doing contractual vows. You’re not saying, “If everything’s great, I’m staying. If I’m healthy, I’m staying. If we have money, I’m staying. If everything goes our way, I’m staying.” Literally, the center of the Christian marriage ceremony is the exchanging of the vows where we say, “For better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” We’re acknowledging in front of everyone, “One of us could get really sick. We could lose our jobs and run out of money. This could go bad. But we’re acknowledging that [possibility] in front of one another, in front of God, in front of our families, in front of our friends, and we’re saying, regardless, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’” That’s covenantal love. It’s the type of love that God has for His church in Christ. Marriage is a covenant relationship; it’s not contractual.
As a pastor, you’ve done marriage and relationship counseling for thousands of people over the years. What would you say is the biggest issue a couple needs to address in order to have their relationship honor God?
I have thought about this question a lot because most marital counseling usually revolves around sex or money, and that’s just a symptom of a bigger problem revealing itself. I honestly think the ability to apply the gospel to your life makes all the difference in the world. A man must know that a woman is not going to complete him. Even if she did everything he desired his soul would still be restless. Vice versa is true as well. We must be able to preach the gospel to ourselves, rest in our identity in Christ, and walk with one another where we do not exalt sex to the place that culture has, but love it as a good gift from God in which we rejoice and celebrate. Our world says that sex should define the relationship so much that if we’re not swinging from the chandeliers 14 times a week then there’s something wrong with our relationship. However, when we apply the gospel to our hearts the husband says, “I’m going to lead, love, and care for my wife regardless of what she does in return.” The wife says, “I’m going to respect, encourage, and speak life into my husband regardless of what he does in return.” When two people are coming to a marriage with gospel identity and that’s how they operate, then things will be just fine.
You have a tremendous chapter in your book on what it means to fight fair. Plenty of marriage books today will tell couples how to avoid fighting, but you take a different approach and say that fighting and conflict are inevitable. What wisdom would you share with soon-to-be-married or newly married Christian couples about fighting fair?
The reality is you’re going to fight or you’re going to be super passive-aggressive, which is worse than fighting. The chapter is about how we disagree with one another while still valuing each other’s soul and still valuing one another as children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ. There’s a way to disagree that honors the Lord and there’s a way to disagree that’s all about you and vindication, which doesn’t please the Lord. The chapter is there to encourage people to fight fair and to not bury things when there’s misunderstandings, miscommunication, or just legitimate frustration. If you can absorb, then absorb. But my experience in my own heart and marriage, and in the lives of so many others I’ve walked with, is that things just get to the point where you can’t absorb it and you need to say something. You know that in saying something you need to be careful with how you say it because it could lead to an explosion. Therefore, it’s important to handle it in a way that’s God-honoring.
In chapter seven you talk about putting logs on the fire to keep the flame of marriage from going out. This probably isn’t something that a lot of young adults are thinking about in the early years of marriage, but how can young couples start working now to keep that flame burning?
Young people need to keep doing what they’re doing. There’s not this day coming in which they can say, “Okay, I’ve romanced. Now I don’t need to romance anymore.” I’ve been married over 15 years. Before we had children, there were different sets of values and different gifts that I saw in [my wife] Lauren. By paying attention to her, still dating her, still wooing her, still romancing her, still encouraging her, and trying to speak life into her, I see these different things now that I could not see back then, and maybe weren’t even there back then. The reality is you have to keep doing what you’re doing. Otherwise, you’re going to wake up one day and be great roommates, but who wants that? I think a lot of young people want to put in their time and then coast, but relationships just aren’t going to work that way. Marriage certainly isn’t going to work that way.
On a sad but related note, what words of wisdom would you give to those who feel like they’ve fallen out of love with their spouse?
I try to work against this idea in the book repeatedly by talking about what love is and what love is not. The world wants us to believe that love is an emotive feeling, and while I will say that being in love carries a kind of flittery, fluttery feeling, emotion can’t sustain anything. Being a cancer survivor and having gone through 18 months of high-dose chemotherapy, I praise God for covenantal love over the flittery, fluttery, Valentine’s Day nonsense, because there was just nothing sexy about me in that season. I was no help around the house. Anything that made me attractive and emotionally stable for Lauren was gone in that 18 months because I was just trying to survive. My hair was gone and I was always sick and I was too weak to help with anything. People that say they’ve fallen out of love need to re-enter the relationship with renewed vigor to get to know the person again, to grow in their understanding of what love is, and in a very real way choose to stay in the covenant they gave themself to however many years ago that it occurred.
Finally, can you describe how the gospel message is the pattern for how to live our relationships?
The gospel calls us to death to self. When relationships are no longer just about you and what you get out of them but rather a platform to serve and give of yourself, then you will experience happy, joy-filled relationships. The more life is about you the more miserable of a person you are, but the more it’s not about you the freer you become. When your relationship with others becomes a place where you can make much of the name and renown of Jesus Christ and you can give of yourself and you can serve as though you’re serving the Lord, you will be happier and your relationships will work better.