Toward a Christian Understanding of Marriage

We live in unusual times.  Just 5 years ago the concept and definition of marriage was a settled issue.  Both Republicans and Democrats alike agreed that marriage as defined by the United States government should be defined as it has always been defined—as between a man and a woman.  As we all know, things change very quickly in our modern world and what seemed certain is now uncertain.  As the constitutionality of Defense of Marriage Act is being decided by the Supreme Court, one thing has become increasingly certain: the verdict from the court of cultural appeal has already been decided.

My primary concern is not that world is thinking in a worldly way.  Actually, the world seems to be trying desperately to frame this issue in a pseudo-Christian way.  The arguments put forward to support so called Gay Marriage are being posited using “Christian-ish” arguments.  What concerns me is that the popular Christian response falls generally along two lines.  The first response comes from those who instinctively know that this is wrong and yet don’t know how to answer without saying something like, “homosexuals are just perverts” or “God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.”  The second type of response is equally knee-jerk, but more accommodating.  It is sympathetic to the abuse that homosexuals have received, and thus responds to this guilt by saying something like, “I personally don’t believe in gay marriage, but who am I to say what’s right and wrong.”  My concern is that Christians don’t know what marriage is or why it is important.

Marriage is most definitely a “religious” institution.  While I recognize that most marriages are not Christian, I assert that marriage is a sacred and divinely authored institution.   Even though the deep meaning of marriage has been lost in most cultures, there is the residue of common grace that still benefits cultures where marriage is valued and practiced.  The cultural push to redefine marriage as something other than what it is, is akin to me calling my dog a cat.  She may be furry, have four legs, and a propensity for getting into the trash, but a cat is a cat and no personal redefinition changes that.  My intent is not to persuade non-Christians of something they don’t want to believe.  My concern is to help Christians to understand the depth, mystery and theological beauty of marriage and to encourage them to live this mystery out in a way that is compelling and winsome to a world that is desperate for meaning and significance.

The definition of marriage was decided a long time ago, by the one who invented marriage.  In Genesis chapters 1 and 2 we find the account of God creating the cosmos.  In this account we read of God creating the universe, level by level by speaking powerful words.  Words are important things.  Words are powerful things.  God used words to create, and he used words to define.

God spoke and created light.  The light God named the day, the darkness he named night and then God defined the light as good.  Level by level God spoke and created the universe and after each day God defined what he had created as good—with one exception.

In Genesis 2 we find a detailed account of the creation of man.  You are probably familiar with all the elements there.  God forms man from the dust of the ground, he breathes into him the breath of life, man comes alive, he is placed in a special place that God created for him called the Garden of Eden, and gave him clear instructions as to his work and his life, but I want to draw your attention do something that you may have missed before.

After every day of creation God declares it good, but here we find God saying something quite different.  In chapter 2 verse 18, God looks at man standing in his perfect place with the task that God had given him, and says, “It is not good…”  “Not good?”  “Not good.”

Why not good?  Everything else is good.  Why is man called “not good?”  God said, “It is not good that man should be alone.  I will make a helper fit for him.”

We see that God put Adam to sleep and take from his side a rib (a hunk of his flesh) and created for him and from him a wife—a perfect compliment for him; a partner for him; a completer for him.

Man and woman together—that, God calls good.

“And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” 24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”

Here we see the bedrock foundation for all of marriage.  This is what Jesus pointed back to when talking about marriage (Matthew 19) and this is what the Apostle Paul reference when he wrote to the Ephesians about the picture of marriage.  When a man and a woman join together in the mystical union we call marriage, they demonstrate a unity that is deep and profound and unique and very good.

Unity in Identity

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”  27 So God created man in his own image,in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Christians have a tradition of the wife taking her husbands name.  This is significant.  When a father gives away his daughter she is leaving his house, his care, his protection and joining another man’s house, care, and protection.  This is rooted in our identity.  In Genesis 1 we see God creating man and woman in his likeness and giving them collectively the name man.  When Adam names Eve in Genesis 2:34 he names her woman.  In English man and woman sound alike and in Hebrew it is the same.  They are unified in their identity.  Theirs is not a difference in kind, but a difference in function.  This will become even more important when we look at the Gospel and how marriage pictures something far greater, but for now I just want you to meditate on that.

As a couple make their vows to each other they are making a covenant of becoming one.  Marriage is no 50/50 agreement it takes 100% of each of them.  Each, giving up their life for the other.

Unity in Intimacy

 Secondly we see unity in intimacy.  The Bible is not prudish.  It is wonderfully romantic.  Fathers blush at these verses, but there is beauty in a man leaving his mother and father and holding fast to his wife on becoming one flesh.  In verse 25 we read, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”

The intimacy that comes through self sacrifice and covenant love is the highest form of intimacy this world can know.  That marriage is an intimacy killer, is a lie.  The covenant commitment of marriage is in fact the only place where true intimacy can grow.  In marriage you can completely and freely give yourselves to one another without fear.  They were naked and unashamed.  God says the marriage bed is good.  Traditionally Christians have argued that sex was only for procreation, but we see that view has no Biblical basis.  There is a joy and freedom that comes from within a God ordained sexual union, but it is an intimacy that has its boundaries and those boundaries are within the covenant of marriage.

Unity in Picture

 While marriage is not an analogy of the Godhead, the unity in difference that is a marriage reflects something of the image of God in us.  Both man and woman are made in the image of God.  Man and woman have an essence before God that is at its core the same.  And between man and woman there is also a fundamental and inalterable difference.  There are different roles and yet a singular purpose.  There is love, communication and joy, between a man and a woman in a marriage union that mimics that of the love, communication and mutual enjoyment the Father, Son, and Spirit.

Unity in Purpose

Lastly in marriage there is unity in purpose.  Originally man and woman together were to rule God’s good earth, but we know that mankind sinned instead of ruling God’s earth, became tyrants and enemies of God.  But God made a promise to Adam and Eve—that someday a descendent of Eve would come and break this curse and restore God’s people into God’s place.  Jesus Christ came into this world to fulfill that promise.  He fulfilled God’s law, he took our punishment on the cross and then rose from the grave in a way that every fairytale ever written bears the echo of.  Jesus broke our curse and in doing so created a new people.  He redefined what it means to be human.

In fact, the Bible says that marriage is a picture of just that.

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Marriage is more than just a marriage—it is a living drama that shows the saving relationship that Jesus has with us. This a big deal.  It is also very, very good.

So how should we respond?  I’ll give some suggestions as to how Christians can respond in the days ahead.

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About Scott Dunford

Vice President at ABWE.
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