This article is part of the What Does the Bible Say? series.
Included in This Article
- Definitions and Summary
- Why Marriage Matters for Everyday Life
- Key Passages about Marriage
- FAQ about Marriage
- For Personal Reflection
Definitions and Summary
In a Nutshell — Marriage is the public family unit formed by one man and one woman in which sexual intimacy is to be enjoyed.
Summary — Marriage is an ordinance given to human beings in creation. It is therefore not negotiable, but is entrusted to us both as a “given” and as a gracious gift. It is a covenant relationship between one man and one woman who promise before witnesses to be faithful until one of them dies. It is God’s only context for sexual intimacy. The man and the woman must be from different families, to protect against incest. Neither of them are to be already married, to protect against the distortion of marriage when one man marries more than one woman (or one woman more than one man). They must be above the age of consent and therefore able voluntarily to enter into marriage.
A sexual relationship which is not entered into voluntarily is not marriage, so “forced marriage” is not a true marriage (while an arranged marriage may be a true marriage so long as both the man and the woman freely consent to it). A sexual relationship without public promises of faithfulness (i.e. unmarried cohabitation) is not marriage. A sexual relationship between two people of the same gender is not marriage. Marriage exists as a visible image of the relationship between Christ and his church; it is the only context in which children ought to be conceived and born; it is given as a safeguard to protect society against the destructive jealousies and miseries of sexual chaos. God is the witness of all marriages, whether or not the promises are made in church, or made by Christians. That is to say, a secular marriage, or a marriage entered into by members of another religion, is still a true marriage.
Why Marriage Matters for Everyday Life
Christian believers ought to care passionately about marriage because God is our Creator and has given us marriage as a non-negotiable good gift in Creation. It is the basic building block of the family, which is itself the foundation of all social order. When marriage is honored in a society, the powerful sexual urges we experience are channeled into serving God as we build stable relationships within which children are born and nurtured. Children need this stability. When marriage is dishonored, sexual chaos leaves casualties strewn all over our societies, from abused women to miserable children and disillusioned men. While God, in his kindness and common grace, can and does help children who are not nurtured in this context and adults who become victims of sexual abuse, it is God’s purpose that marriage shall be his kind bulwark and protection against the abuse of the weak.
Societies may choose to redefine marriage, but marriage—because it was given in creation—is not ours to redefine. A changed definition of marriage is not true marriage. When we misunderstand the nature of love within marriage and think it is about our feelings, disaster follows and pain multiplies. If we try to change the definition of marriage, it always leads in the end to disillusion. But if we understand that marriage is given that we may learn to serve God with joy in his rich and wonderful world, that outward-looking focus will help us build marriages that last, marriages that have God-given purpose and–yes!–marriages in which there is more long-lasting joy.
Key Passages about Marriage
Genesis 1:26–28 teaches that the blessing of children is given by God in order that the children may learn to be good stewards of God’s world. It sets marriage in the wide context of humankind’s privilege of care for God’s world.
Genesis 2:15–25 is the Bible’s foundational teaching about marriage. It shows that marriage is given that a wife may serve alongside her husband as his helper in the great work of caring for God’s world, and that, in marriage, husband and wife form a new family unit.
Ephesians 5:22–32 gives us a glimpse of the wonderful truth that the marriage of a man and a woman in this age is a sign pointing to the eternal marriage of Jesus Christ with his church. The way in which a husband loves his wife, and the dignified and honorable Christian submission of his wife, together point to the relationship between Jesus and his church.
Hebrews 13:4 (together with 1 Thessalonians 4:3–6) teach that marriage ought to be honored as the only context for sexual intimacy and that God cares deeply about this safe place being guarded and kept safe, for our own good.
Revelation 19:6–8 looks forward to what can be a wonderful wedding day for any human being who belongs to Jesus and becomes a member of his church, his bride. On that day those who have struggled with sadness in this life, whether through divorce, bereavement, same-sex desires, or simply never being married, will enjoy pleasures that dwarf the deepest delights of marriage in this age.
FAQ About Marriage
Q: Why does marriage have to be between a man and a woman?
A: God created humankind male and female (Gen. 1:26) and established in creation that sexual intimacy should be between a man and a woman, as the whole bible teaches. This is both because we are complementary to one another (we “fit” with one another both physically and as whole persons) and because this is God’s context in which children are to be conceived.
Q: How important is having (or trying to have) children to a marriage?
A: God declares children to be a blessing (Gen. 1:28), and therefore we ought to regard children as a blessing to be sought. Couples who cannot have children, whether because of infertility or because of age or sickness, rightly grieve the loss of this blessing, although there are many other ways in which they can serve and honor God together. The Bible says nothing about how many children a couple ought to have or try to have.
Q: Is sex outside marriage the unforgivable sin?
A: Emphatically not! After a list of sins—many of them sexual—Paul writes that “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). The words and such were some of you ought to be written in letters of gold. We are all sexual sinners and the blood of Christ is enough to wash us clean, whatever our sexual sin. Sexual sin leaves scars (as does all sin), but is completely forgiven in Christ.
Q: Is singleness more spiritual than marriage?
A: In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul writes pastorally of the advantages of being unmarried, especially in times of trial. But his headline is that, in general, each man should have a wife and each wife a husband (1 Cor. 7:2). Our status (married or unmarried) has no effect on our relationship with God, although there are different advantages and disadvantages of each condition. Singleness is no better—and no worse—than marriage in the sight of God. Each of us is to serve God, in whatever state we are, with all our mind, heart, soul, and strength.
Q: Why ought a Christian to marry only a Christian?
A: Since the purpose of marriage is to serve God together in his “garden” (in the language of Genesis 2:15, 18), we will desire a marriage partner who shares our longing to love Christ and serve God. The more Christ means to us, the more obvious this will be to us. Those who come to Christ after marriage, and whose marriage partner is not (yet) a believer, will be given grace to serve Christ in that difficult condition.
For Personal Reflection
- Reread Genesis 1 and 2. How do these foundational chapters help me to understand marriage in the grand context of God’s purposes for his world?
- Meditate on Ephesians 5:22–33. What light does this passage shed on a healthy dynamic within marriage, and how does it help me pray for my own marriage (if I am married) and for the marriages of others?
- One of our problems is that we do not naturally hate sexual immorality, but find it desperately attractive. How can a careful reading of 2 Samuel 11–13 help us feel the misery caused by a moment’s lustful passion? Alternatively, read Proverbs 6:20–7:27 for the same purpose.
- Use Proverbs 31:10–31 to fill your mind with an inspiring vision of a wife who is truly a helper to her husband.
- How can Psalm 45 (the wedding song of Jesus) thrill you with the gospel as the truth to which marriage points?
- How does Matthew 19:12 help us appreciate that the work of the kingdom of heaven is even more important than whether or not we are married?
Christopher Ash is the author of Married for God: Making Your Marriage the Best It Can Be.