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Faithlife Corporation

What is “Marriage”?

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Introductory remarks

For centuries, the essential meaning of marriage was universally understood (and taken for granted) in Western civilization, and, with very few modifications, in the pagan world as well. Because a marriage was always seen as the defining core of a family, providing a context for bearing and rearing children, its purpose and nature were taken to be self-evident, and seldom was thought to require defining. Among those societies informed by Scripture, marriage was also understood to be necessarily heterosexual, monogamous and life-long.

With the coming of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, many of these assumptions began to be eroded in the formerly “Christian” West. The idea that all things, including sex, exist solely for the unrestrained enjoyment of hedonistic man spawned new attitudes toward the ancient institution. The ideal of monogamy was undermined by the development of the new ethic of “free sex.” The idea that marriage was primarily designed for the rearing of children was thought to be rendered obsolete by the assumption that sex is primarily for the purpose of hedonistic pleasure, by the realization that children sometimes interfere with a couple’s pursuit of such pleasure, and by the development of a variety of conception-blocking drugs and technologies. The life-long nature of the marriage union was discarded in favor of the pursuit of unbridled “happiness,” of an intolerance for boredom, and the assumption that new life circumstances are the cure for the lack of personal fulfillment. Thus divorce and remarriage became, if not the norm, at least an option that was viewed as having no moral stigma attached to it, and the breaking of vows as less heinous a crime than the maintaining of an unfulfilling integrity. With the reduction of sex to merely a source of pleasure to which all people ought to be entitled, and the growing realization that some people find sex more pleasurable with same-sex partners (or with children, or even with animals), the case for tolerance toward sexual deviance became unanswerable. Not only did it become essential that an enlightened society embrace the diversity of others’ sexual preferences, but, with the meaning of marriage already lost through earlier developments, it became unclear why homosexuals (as the first class of sexual deviants…the others will certainly follow) should be discriminated against in society’s willingness to sanctify and solemnize their sexual unions. How can anyone deny such people legal marital status? Nor is it enough merely to grant homosexuals equivalent rights as those already enjoyed by traditional couples. The very definition of “marriage” must be altered in order that such deviants do not feel that they are in any sense different than are “mainstream” married couples.

This is the brave new world in which the too-often cowardly and spineless Christian now finds himself. He that would stand with Christ for the sacred institution of marriage must now stand, more than ever, against the floodtide of popular and legal sentiment. To remain unmoved in this matter is to court social marginalization, and eventually, lawsuits and possibly the loss of the custody of children as well (“intolerant” parents cannot be trusted to raise the tolerant children that the state has decided must govern in the next generation). Discipleship is not for cowards, and Christians, in order to be faithful to Him who called them, must be prepared to take an unpopular stand, to lose everything…even to be martyred, if it were to come to that.

The following paragraphs contain the essential definitions of the concepts of “marriage,” “husband,” and “wife,” as decreed in the Scriptures (and as society always agreed to through most of Christian history). These definitions are increasingly sounding “archaic” in the milieu of our modern culture, but we must remember the following propositions that lie at the core of Christian thinking:

  • God, not popular sentiment, is sovereign;
  • The Bible is the Word of God, in which He has revealed His mind to man;
  • Cultural opinions change with time, but God’s Word remains valid forever;
  • As products of our culture, we must be prepared to find that God’s Word contradicts even views and attitudes that we may have uncritically adopted merely as part of our upbringing;
  • Marriage was not created by man, but by God, and thus its definition and regulation are the prerogatives of God and not of man;
  • Rejection of God’s norms concerning such a fundamental institution must inevitably destroy that society that is guilty of this rejection;
  • Even as the popular culture around them crumbles, Christians are called as salt and light to stand on the solid foundation of God’s revelation in order to not go down with the sinking ship, and so that the their alternative society may provide a beacon and a refuge for those seeking to escape the inevitable downfall;
  • Christians must never be embarrassed to stand against all of society in proclaiming God’s norms…in fact, the possession of these norms in the midst of an unprincipled age is our glory. “This is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples” (Deut.4:6).

With such considerations in mind, let us consider afresh what the unerring Word of the living God has to say about the nature of these divinely-appointed institutions.

Marriage: A divinely created, [1] covenantal [2] bond between a man and a woman, which God designed for the purpose of (1) the propagation of the human race, [3] and (2) the visible demonstration of the relationship between Christ and His church. [4] The marriage also is described as God’s joining of a heterosexual couple into “one flesh,” [5] which the Bible defines primarily in terms of a sexual union. [6] This sexual union serves both purposes of marriage, in that it makes possible the propagation of the race and also depicts the mystical communion of Christ and the church.

Marriage is ideally monogamous [7] and life-long, having as its only righteous termination the death of one spouse. [8] Not only dissolution, but even sexual separation that is not mutually agreed upon for prayer and fasting is forbidden. [9] The only exceptions, whereby a marriage may be regarded as terminated in God’s sight prior to the death of either spouse, are when one party commits sexual sin [10] or else when an unbelieving spouse deserts a Christian spouse [11] (or, perhaps, practices behavior that is tantamount to a renunciation of marital responsibilities, e.g. criminal neglect or violence). This latter category may possibly include the husband’s refusal to support his family or the denial of sexual access of one spouse to the other. [12] A third exception may be in the case of a spouse who commits a capital crime, even if he or she is never executed by the state. [13] However, God’s concern for the sacredness of the institution of marriage, [14] and the general obligation of Christians to forgive all offenses, [15] should make us reluctant, even where biblical warrant exists, to seek dissolution of the marriage. A decree of dissolution from a court of law, where no biblical grounds for divorce exist, cannot change the divinely-decreed marital status of a married couple, so that those who are divorced without biblical grounds are still married in the sight of God. [16] The remarriage of either party, in such cases, constitutes adultery, not legitimate marriage, because it violates a prior marriage covenant that has never been legitimately voided. [17]

Husband: The male partner of the marriage relationship, corresponding to Christ in terms of the heavenly prototype. [18] According to God’s ordinance, the husband must love his wife, providing nourishment, protection, and spiritual nurture to her, in the same manner as Christ does for the church. [19] He is also obligated to meet any needs his wife has for sexual intimacy, so as to rescue her from temptations outside the marriage. [20] He must honor his wife, [21] not contingent upon her being honorable, but because by honoring her, he honors God, who has commanded him to do so. The husband, like Christ, is the head, or authority, over the wife, [22] and is obligated to provide loving leadership and correction to his wife, according to his knowledge [23] of God’s plan, as Christ does for the church. The husband must not be harsh or bitter toward his wife, [24] but must live a sacrificial life, even dying, if necessary, for the salvation of his wife, [25] as Christ did for the church.

Wife: The female member of the marriage relationship, corresponding to the church in the heavenly prototype. [26] According to God’s ordinance, the wife surrenders her former name [27] and her independence in order to become joined as one flesh with her husband, [28] having her identity fundamentally defined by his, as a body is to a head, [29] and as the church is with Christ. [30] The wife provides loving companionship [31] to her husband, as the church does for Christ. She is required to treat her husband with reverence. [32] She is also obligated to meet any needs her husband has for sexual intimacy, so as to rescue him from temptations outside the marriage. [33] Her principal calling is in the area of domestic management and the rearing of children, [34] but might well be extended to include any number of activities that contribute to the well-being of her family. [35] She is to submit to her husband, as the church does to Christ, in all things. [36] This, by definition, includes things in which she may disagree with the wisdom of his decisions, [37] though not in cases where obedience to his commands would require her to disobey some command of God that is at least as clear as the command for her to submit to her husband. [38] Except in such rare cases, her very submission to God is expressed in obeying His command to submit to her husband, since her submission to her husband is to be carried out “as unto the Lord.” [39] Thus, as the church submits to Christ, not merely in the letter, but also in the spirit of His wishes, and delights to do His will, in the same manner is the wife instructed to submit to her husband. These commands apply even where the husband is not a Christian, [40] and therefore are not even contingent upon the husband’s obedience to God.

Both husband and wife: As Christians, both parties must deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow Christ. [41] Both should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath. [42] Each should esteem the other better than himherself, looking out not for hisher own interests, but for the interests of the other. [43] They should not seek to please themselves, but should seek to please one another for their good, leading to edification. [44] They should be kindly affectionate to one another, in honor giving preference to one another. [45] They should not repay one another evil for evil, [46] but should patiently bear with one another, [47] being kind and tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven them. [48]


[1] Genesis 2:22

[2] Mal.2:14

[3] Gen.1:28; Mal.2:15

[4] Eph.5:31-32

[5] Gen.2:24, etc

[6] 1 Cor.6:15-16

[7]A number of godly men in the Old Testament had multiple wives and there is no direct command forbidding polygamy in the Bible. This means that polygamous marriages which have already been contracted before the conversion of the parties (e.g., among Muslim or tribal peoples) need not be dissolved nor regarded as necessarily sinful. However, this does not give warrant for viewing polygamy as an alternative “norm” for Christian marriage, since the latter is expected to model the relationship of Christ and the church, and is thus necessarily monogamous (Eph. 5:31-32). That there were men in the church who had more than one wife seems to be implied by Paul’s eliminating such from consideration for the position of “overseer”, since the latter, being ideally a model of normative Christianity, must be monogamous (1 Tim.3:2).

[8] Rom.7:1-4; 1 Cor.7:39

[9] 1 Cor.7:5,10; 1 Pet.3:1,7

[10] Matt.5:32; 19:9

[11] 1 Cor.7:15

[12] Ex. 21:10-11

[13] Because God has decreed such a person to be worthy of execution, which, if carried out, would have left the innocent spouse free from the marriage.

[14] Matt. 19:6

[15] Matt. 6:14-15; 18:21-35

[16] Mal.2:14

[17] Matt.5:32; 19:9; Mark 6:18; 10:11-12; Luke 16:18 (in each of these cases, “legal” and “socially acceptable” divorces are in view, but God does not recognize the legitimacy of either the divorces or the second marriages)

[18] Eph.5:23-25

[19] Eph.5:25-29; cf. Exodus 21:10-11

[20] 1 Cor.7:5; cf. Exodus 21:10-11

[21] 1 Pet.3:7

[22] 1 Cor.11:3; Eph.5:23

[23] 1 Pet.3:7

[24] Col.3:19

[25] Eph.5:23-27

[26] Eph.5:23-24

[27] Gen.5:2

[28] Gen.2:24

[29] Eph.5:28-30

[30] Matt.16:24; Gal.2:20

[31] Gen.2:18; Tit.2:4

[32] Eph.5:33

[33] 1 Cor.7:5; Prov.5:18-20

[34] Tit.2:4-5; 1 Tim.2:15; 5:14

[35] Prov.31:10ff

[36] Eph.5:22,24

[37] 1 Pet.3:5-6

[38] Acts 5:29

[39] Eph.5:22

[40] 1 Pet.3:1

[41] Matt.16:24

[42] James 1:19

[43] Phil.2:3-4

[44] Rom.15:1-2

[45] Rom.12:10

[46] Rom.12:17

[47] Col.3:13

[48] Eph.4:32

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