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What Is God’s Definition Of Marriage?

It’s not unusual for believers to have questions about marriage: Is a marriage ceremony required, or is it just a human-made tradition? Do people have to be married legally to be married in the eyes of God? How does the Bible define marriage?

It is funny how our perception of things changes over time. For example, as a young child, I thought marriage was about this mysterious thing called “love.” Love was a noun, and whether you had it or not was dependent on whether you checked “yes” or “no.”

As an adolescent, I thought marriage was how you had children — the inevitable next step in adulthood (but come to find out there is more to it than just marriage!). In high school, I thought marriage was about the emotion of love — the poetry, the love songs, the warm, fuzzy feelings.

Then, in college, I thought marriage was about service and action — love was a verb. Now that my wife, Rebecca, and I have been married for 12 years, I have discovered that marriage is all of the above (or even more if we consider what the ancient Greeks had to say about it)!

Many of us have different ideas of what marriage is all about. If you have been married for a while, you have probably discovered that your spouse and you have additional ideas — which has probably led to more than a few “discussions.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.  Genesis 2:24

It is not true that the Bible teaches multiple views of marriage, and therefore the Bible’s clarity is diminished on this question. The Bible does record, for example, that “Lamech took two wives” (Genesis 4:19). But the Bible is not thereby endorsing polygamy, but indeed is casting doubt on polygamy. The role of Lamech in the text is to show “a progressive hardening in sin” (Waltke, Genesis, page 100). We invented polygamy, along with other social evils. But God gave us marriage.

The Bible defines marriage in Genesis 2:24, quoted above. Here is what this significant verse is saying:

Therefore. This word signals that Moses is adding an aside to his narrative. It’s as if we are sitting in Moses’ living room, watching his DVD of the creation of the universe (Genesis 1) and of man and woman (Genesis 2). At this point, he hits the pause button on the remote, the screen freezes, he turns to us post-fall people watching these amazing events, and he says, “Now let me explain how what God did so long ago is normative for us today. Amazingly, we still retain something beautiful from the Garden of Eden.”

A man shall leave his father and his mother. In a culture of strong bonds between the generations, this is striking. A man’s primary human relationship is no longer with his parents or ancestors. He breaks away from them for the sake of a more profound loyalty.

And hold fast to his wife. A man, in marrying, enfolds his wife into his heart. He rejoices to identify with her: “This, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (verse 23). At every level of his being, he becomes wholeheartedly devoted to her, as to no other.

And they shall become one flesh. “One flesh” is essential to the biblical view of marriage. It means one mortal life fully shared. Two selfish me start learning to think like one unified us, sharing one everything: one life, one reputation, one bed, one suffering, one budget, one family, one mission, and so forth. No barriers. No hiding. No aloofness. Now total openness with total sharing and total solidarity, until death parts them.

Moreover, Jesus explained that, behind the word “become,” God is there: “What therefore God has joined together . . .” (Matthew 19:6). He also made it clear that the word “they” in Genesis 2:24 means “the two” (Matthew 19:5), thus establishing one man/one woman as the biblical norm. We see then that marriage is not a product of human social evolution; marriage came down from God. And he defined it for us. He has the right to. It belongs to him.

One mortal life fully shared between a man and a woman — this is marriage, according to the Bible, because Genesis 2:24 is not a throw-away line. Its very purpose is to define.

What’s more, the apostle Paul quotes Genesis 2:24 to take our understanding a step further — an amazing step: “We are members of [Christ’s] body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'” (Ephesians 5:30-31). Notice his logic. “We are members of Christ’s body. He loved us. He chose us. He gave himself up for us. He will present us someday in splendour. We are united with Christ now and forever.  Therefore, our union with Christ is the reason why a man and woman get married and live united as ‘one flesh.’ Human marriages are miniature social platforms on which the gospel is to be displayed.” The final reason men and women fall in love and get married are that the whole human story is most deeply a romance coming down from above.

It’s easy to think that only “other people” get divorced, that your own marriage is somehow immune to heartache. Consequently, you think only others experience infidelity and fights over who gets the house, the car, the dog. After all, how many of us would walk down the aisle if we believed our relationships would end up in divorce court?

The truth is, no relationship comes with a lifetime guarantee. Even men and women who grew up in stable homes are at risk. Further, those who attend church and consider themselves Christians, who promise “until death does us part,” can have it all fall apart.

As Christians, we know that applying biblical principles to marriage will give us a stronger foundation than our unbelieving friends and neighbours. Surely we know this, but what are we doing about it? In other words, what makes a marriage “Christian”?

According to author Gary Thomas, we’re not asking the right questions. What if your relationship isn’t as much about you and your spouse as it is about you and God? 

Marriage is a gospel issue. That is why clarity about its definition matters to Christians. If we depart from or fail to stand up for the biblical view of marriage, we take a step away from the gospel itself.  The whole Bible is the story of God’s marital love, as I demonstrate in this book. Our whole lives are that story if we have eyes to see.

Marriage is more than human romance, wonderful as that is. It is more than close friendship, wonderful as that is. Marriage is the display of Christ and his Bride in love together. A beautiful, tender, thriving marriage makes the gospel visible on earth, bringing hope to people who have given up believing there could be any love anywhere for them. That is why biblical marriage deserves our courageous loyalty and articulate defence today. Its true meaning is understood and embodied, and sustained only by the power of the gospel.

We can’t turn the clock back to the days of the Christian social consensus our nation is throwing away. But we who say we believe the gospel must stand up for the biblical definition of marriage. We must cultivate beautiful marriages ourselves. We must suffer social and legal penalties bravely. We must pray for revival. We must wait for the inevitable collapse of every false view of marriage. We must lovingly serve all who suffer for their attempts at false “marriages.” And we must go to church this Sunday and worship the living God with all our hearts so that we are sustained for faithfulness over the long haul because this isn’t going to be easy.

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3 Positions on Biblical Marriage

There are three commonly held beliefs about what constitutes a marriage in the eyes of God:

  1. The couple is married in the eyes of God when the physical union is consummated through sexual intercourse.
  2. The couple is married in the eyes of God when the couple is legally married.
  3. The couple is married in the eyes of God after they have participated in a formal religious wedding ceremony.

The Meaning and Purpose of Marriage

There is also an increasing amount of confusion in our culture on the meaning and purpose of marriage. For example, here are some lies that the culture around us says about marriage:

  • Marriage is an old social custom created by humans.
  • If I choose the right mate, I will have fewer problems.
  • Choosing not to marry will avoid relationship problems.
  • My marriage or my spouse should make me happy.
  • Divorce is sometimes the only option. 

Sadly, the confusion and misunderstandings about marriage have unravelled the beautiful fabric of what God wove together and have distorted the glad harmony and loving, submissive environment that God designed marriage to be.

But if we are honest, even those who have a more “traditional” view are also trying to wade through the messiness of relationships. Because of these things, many of us well know what marriage is not, but what is it? Or more than that, what is the biblical definition of marriage?

While we could look to many passages throughout Scripture to answer this question, we will go to the Book of Genesis to see this simple understanding: God gave us marriage to enjoy and display the gospel.

In the very beginning, God formed the first man, Adam, out of the dust and set him over the Garden of Eden. But soon enough, God declared that “it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18, ESV). Adam needed Eve, and the nature of humanity required women.

So, to meet his need, God caused Adam to fall asleep so he could perform the first surgery ever recorded by taking a rib from Adam’s side and creating a woman out of it (“woman” meaning “out of the man”). God did not make Eve from Adam’s head to be above him or from his feet to be below him; he made her from Adam’s rib to be beside him and with him.

Then God sets in motion a meaningful event that would eventually become known as “marriage” when he declares: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, ESV).

It must have been a beautiful wedding. God was the matchmaker, the florist, the officiant, and the Best Man. It was the best honeymoon you could imagine: They lived in a garden together (naked), fed each other fruit, and had no distractions. They were each other’s first kiss, hug, handholding, and everything else! They were literally made for each other. They were open, trusting, intimate, unhindered, and unashamed.

Adam and Eve did not create their marriage, and it was God who drew the blueprint in becoming one flesh within marriage. This matters because if God gave it and designed it, then he gets to define it.

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The Bible Defines Marriage as a Covenant

God sketched his original plan for marriage in Genesis 2:24 when one man (Adam) and one woman (Eve) united together to become one flesh:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24, ESV)

In Malachi 2:14, marriage is described as is a holy covenant before God. In the Jewish custom, God’s people signed a written agreement at the marriage time to seal the covenant. Therefore, the marriage ceremony is meant to be a public demonstration of a couple’s commitment to a covenant relationship. It’s not the “ceremony” that’s important; it’s the couple’s covenant commitment before God and men.

It’s interesting to carefully consider the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony and the “Ketubah” or marriage contract, which is read in the original Aramaic language. The husband accepts certain marital responsibilities, such as the provision of food, shelter, and clothing for his wife, and promises to care for her emotional needs.

This contract is so important that the marriage ceremony is not complete until the groom signs it and presents it to the Bride. This demonstrates that both husband and wife see marriage as more than just a physical and emotional union and a moral and legal commitment.

The Ketubah is also signed by two witnesses and considered a legally binding agreement. It is forbidden for Jewish couples to live together without this document. For Jews, the marriage covenant symbolically represents the covenant between God and his people, Israel.

For Christians, marriage goes beyond the earthly covenant also, as a divine picture of the relationship between Christ and his Bride, the Church. It is a spiritual representation of our relationship with God.

The Bible does not give specific directions about a marriage ceremony, but it mentions weddings in several places. Jesus attended a wedding in John 2. Wedding ceremonies were a well-established tradition in Jewish history and in Bible times.

Scripture is clear about marriage being a holy and divinely established covenant. It is equally clear about our obligation to honour and obey our earthly governments’ laws, which are also divinely established authorities.

Christian Marriage Honors God Above All Else

As Christians, it’s important to focus on the purpose of marriage. The biblical example encourages believers to enter into marriage in a way that honours God’s covenant relationship, submits to God’s laws first and then the laws of the land, and gives a public demonstration of the holy commitment that is being made.

God’s Ultimate Design for Marriage

Even though sin would later enter in and distort their relationship (Genesis 3) just as it does ours today, God designed marriage in such a way that offers a couple of enjoyment through having a deep friendship, being sexually intimate, sharing life-long experiences, and having a family.

Think about it: God made men’s and women’s bodies in such unique ways that even the act of sex brings pleasure. Those are all gifts from our Good Father, who designed marriage for us to enjoy.

But marriage is also an allegory that displays the gospel in a significant way. Because of God’s grace, marriage is a “secondary ordinance” that serves as a visual aid and a tangible reminder of the gospel by comparing God’s relationship with us to a husband’s relationship to his wife. The Apostle Paul plainly explains how marriage is more about Christ than us:

“Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32).

Its Definition

So, the right definition of marriage matters a lot! When God, who created us and knew us, created marriage, he created it for our enjoyment and to display the gospel. It is one of the countless ways that God expresses his grace and love to us.

And because of that, a couple that is focused on God will naturally have a more blessed marriage because they are bound together by the strong “three strands” that Solomon talks about in Ecclesiastes 4:12: The husband, the wife, and God.

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