The biblical view of marriage is of a God-given, voluntary, sexual and public social union of one man and one woman, from different families, for the purpose of serving God.
Marriage was first instituted by God in the order of creation, given by God as an unchangeable foundation for human life. Marriage exists so that through it humanity can serve God through children, through faithful intimacy, and through properly ordered sexual relationships. This union is patterned upon the union of God with his people who are his bride, Christ with his church. Within marriage, husbands are to exercise a role of self-sacrificial headship and wives a posture of godly submission to their husbands. This institution points us to our hope of Christ returning to claim his bride, making marriage a living picture of the gospel of grace.
This study will comprise three main parts. First, we consider what kind of “thing” marriage is. This may seem a strange beginning, but it is foundational to our study. Next, we discuss the point or purpose of marriage. Finally, we ask the definitional question: what is marriage?
The Nature of Marriage
Marriage is an Institution of God’s Creation Order
When cultures debate marriage-related questions and discuss the ethics of sexual relationships, there is a fundamental divide between those who consider marriage to be, in its essence, a thing “given” from God, and those who regard it as a cultural construct. In Matthew 19, when Jesus is asked a question about divorce, he begins by affirming the teaching of Genesis 1 and 2:
“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female [Gen. 1:27] and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’ [Gen. 2:18]” (Matt. 19:4-5).
By taking us back to Creation, Jesus affirms what Genesis teaches, that the two-part sexuality of humankind (created male and female) and the institution of marriage are a “given” from God. This is “given” in the double sense of “given and non-negotiable” and “given as gift.” Professor Oliver O’Donovan writes that created order is “not negotiable within the course of history” and is part of “that which neither the terrors of chance nor the ingenuity of art can overthrow. It defines the scope of our freedom and the limits of our fears” (Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 2nd ed., 61). Marriage is a good and stable institution. Human cultures may seek to reinvent it or reshape it, but under God it stands as an unchangeable foundation for human life.
Marriage has, of course, many culturally variable expressions. People enter marriage through varied ceremonies and engage in marriage in different ways. But, in its essence, the institution is a part of the Created Order. For this reason, we may explore from the Bible its purpose and definition (see G.W. Bromily, God and Marriage).
The Purpose of Marriage
Marriage is created that we may serve God through children, through faithful intimacy, and through properly ordered sexual relationships.
It is both theologically important and pastorally helpful to ask the question, “For what purpose has God created marriage?” We naturally begin by asking what hopes and ambitions a particular couple may have as they enter into marriage. But before we do this, it is foundational to ask why God has created the marriage institution. The Bible teaches three main answers to this question. But before we consider them, we should note one over-arching theme: the service of God in his world.
In Genesis 2:15, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” The man is the gardener; his is the guardian and the farmer in God’s garden. In this context we read in Genesis 2:18, “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.’” A careful study of Scripture establishes what the context here suggests, which is that the problem with the man’s aloneness is not a relational loneliness but rather that there is too great a task to be achieved; the man needs, not so much a companion or a lover (though the woman will be those) but a “helper” to work alongside him in the guarding and farming of the garden (see ch. 7 of Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God).
To acknowledge this transforms the study of marriage from a consideration of what pleases us or what we enjoy into a focus upon what will serve the purposes of God. Paradoxically, the most secure and happiest marriages are those that look outwards beyond their own (often stifling) self-absorption (or introspective “coupledom”) to the service of God and others in God’s world, through love of God and neighbor.
Under this over-arching heading of the service of God we may place the three traditional biblical “goods” (or benefits) of marriage: procreation, intimacy, and social order.
In Genesis 1:27–28, the creation of humankind as male and female is immediately linked with the blessing that we are to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over” it. That is to say, the first way in which marriage leads to the service of God is through the procreation, and then the godly nurture, of children. Children are a blessing from God. Not every married couple is given this blessing. When they are not, it is a cause of sadness. A marriage is still a marriage, and can honor God deeply, without children. But we are to esteem the procreation of children as a costly and sacrificial blessing. Our prayer is that children will grow up in “the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4) and become—in the language of Genesis 2—fellow-gardeners under God to care for his world.
Sexual desire and delight within marriage are wonderfully affirmed within Scripture (e.g. Proverbs 5:18–19; Song of Songs). To deny the goodness of marriage is to side with the snake in the garden of Eden, when he questions the goodness of God (Gen. 3:1; 1 Tim. 4:1–5).
The relationship of the covenant God with his people is portrayed as a marriage in which the Lord is the husband and the people of God are his bride (e.g. Isa. 62:5). In the New Testament this theme moves into a new key as the marriage of Christ the Bridegroom with the church of Christ, his bride (e.g. Eph. 5:22–33).
Sexual intimacy within marriage is designed to serve God by building a relationship of God-honoring delight and faithfulness, an intimacy that portrays the eschatological intimacy that the whole church of Christ will enjoy with Christ her bridegroom. It would be hard to imagine a higher calling for couples embarking upon marriage (see Timothy and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage).
The Bible is realistic about the power of sexual desire, both male and female (with all their differences), and the possibilities of chaos and disorder that arise from those desires when they are not channeled in God’s proper order. The seventh commandment’s prohibition of adultery (Exod. 20:14) functions as the tip of an iceberg of teaching in both Old and New Testaments that forbid sexual immorality of all kinds. All sexual intimacy that lies outside of the covenanted union of one man with one woman in marriage comes under the biblical definition of sexual immorality. The Bible protects “nakedness” (sexual nakedness, in the context of sexual arousal) and thereby prohibits pornography, rape, the abuse of women, sex between a man and a man, between a man and many women, between a woman and a woman, between a woman and many men, and between human beings and animals.
This boundary around sexual expression is a good and necessary protection of sexual order in any society. When it is broken, and especially when it is broken by a whole culture, sexual chaos ensues, and lives are desperately damaged.
The Definition of Marriage
Marriage is the voluntary sexual and public social union of one man and one woman, from different families. This union is patterned upon the union of God with his people who are his bride, Christ with his church. Intrinsic to this union is God’s calling to lifelong exclusive sexual faithfulness (see chs. 11–15 in Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God).
We may summarize the Bible’s definition in terms of the following elements.
Marriage is a voluntary union. The Bible condemns rape and forced marriage (e.g. 2 Sam. 13:14). A man and a woman need to give their consent to be married. With this consent they agree each to give to the other all that they are as sexual beings (1 Cor. 7:2–4). Such consent ought to be given with some understanding of the nature of the institution into which they both enter.
Marriage is a public union. While the intimacy is, and must be, private, the nature of the union is to be public. The man and the woman promise before witnesses that each will be faithful to the other until one of them dies.
Unmarried cohabitations labor under an ambiguity about what exactly the man and the woman have consented to. Often there are different understandings between the two of them. But when a man and a woman marry, there is no such uncertainty. Each has publicly pledged their lifelong faithfulness before the wider society in which they live. In a healthy society, this means that societal support is given for a married couple. There is a social cost to pay by a husband or a wife who breaks a marriage.
One man and one woman: heterosexual
Marriage is between a man and a woman. This is how God has created humankind. A society may call a relationship between two people of the same sex “marriage”; but in the sight of God it can never be so.
One man and one woman: monogamous
Marriage is between one man and one woman. Polygamy in the Old Testament is recorded but never affirmed. Jesus explicitly affirms the Genesis order of one man and one woman (e.g. Matt. 19:5–6 “no longer two, but one flesh”).
From different families
The Bible consistently condemns incest, which is sexual intimacy between those who are too closely related, whether by blood (kinship) or through marriage (affinity). Leviticus 18 is the clearest and most sustained Old Covenant text addressing this question. 1 Corinthians 5 condemns the sexual relationship of a man with his stepmother.
Christians have not always agreed either about the rationale underlying the incest prohibitions or about just where the incest lines ought to be drawn. The most likely answer is that the rationale is to protect the family circle from the destructive confusions arising when someone views a near relative (other than their spouse) as a potential sexual partner. If this rationale is correct, then the precise extent of the incest prohibitions may depend on what counts, in a particular culture, as “close family” (See Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, 266–271).
The pattern of Christ with his church
Three New Testament passages explicitly address husbands and wives: Ephesians 5:22–33; Colossians 3:18–19; 1 Peter 3:1–7. In these we are taught that husbands are to exercise a role of self-sacrificial headship and wives a posture of godly submission to their husbands. Such a pattern is widely derided and dismissed in much contemporary culture and in some of the church.
In considering this question, we ought to begin with the idea of “order” or “arrangement” (Greek taxis) from which the word “submission” is derived. In the New Testament this concept is applied to (a) the submission of all things to God and to Christ (e.g. Eph. 1:22), (b) the submission of Christ to God (1 Cor. 15:24–28), (c) the submission of the believer to God (e.g. James 4:7), (d) the submission of the believer to the civil authorities (e.g. Rom. 13:1–7), (e) the submission of slaves to masters (e.g. Titus 2:9), (f) the submission of church members to their leaders (e.g. Heb. 13:17), (g) the submission of children to parents (e.g. Eph. 6:1), and (h) the submission of wives to husbands (e.g. Eph. 5:24). Submission of slaves to masters is the odd one out in this list, for it has no theological grounding in creation, and in fact the Bible radically undermines the institution of slavery.
The submission of a wife is to be a voluntary submission, an expression of her godly submission to God. The headship of a husband is to be a costly headship, patterned on Christ’s love for his church. At its best this pattern is beautiful and life-giving. It may be subverted (1) by a tyrannical husband, (2) by a wife who fails to be a partner with her husband but is simply passive, (3) by a rebellious wife, and (4) by a husband who abdicates his responsibilities.
Faithfulness, or faithful love, is to lie at the heart of the marriage relationship. Marriage is not at root about our feelings (which come and go) but about keeping a promise. Scripture speaks of marriage as a covenant to which God is witness (e.g. Mal. 2:14). When a man and a woman marry (whether or not they are believers), they are joined together by God (e.g. Mark 10:8,9). Neither one of the couple nor any other person is to break what God has joined.
Conclusion: Marriage and the Grace of God
The gospel of Jesus offers grace for sexual failures. After a list that focuses especially on sexual sins, Paul writes, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). We are all scarred by sexual sins, whether our own, in what we have thought, what we have seen, what we have read, or what we have done. In the gospel we find forgiveness and the joy of being washed clean. Joyfully, we hold out to others the cleansing we ourselves have found in Christ.