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by Tim Cole

In an age when the definition of marriage is being questioned throughout Western civilization, even Christians who profess to live according to the teachings and principles of the Bible, are confused as to the nature and purpose of this time-honored institution. Likewise, in many cultures the breakdown of marriage and the family among Christians is almost as pronounced as among those who don't follow the Christian faith. This highlights the need to outline clearly basic biblical teachings on marriage,  in such a manner that Christians can dispel their confusion and bring their beliefs and behavior in line with what the Scriptures actually teach.

But aren't there various interpretations of what the Bible teaches on marriage?

Yes there are. But an interpretation is only valid if it accurately represents the biblical author's intent. And there are clear and objective principles of interpretation which must be applied to any passage in order to determine this validity. Below are just a few such principles:
1. The vocabulary and grammar of the original language must be understood as it was used at the time when that portion of Scripture was written.
2. The passage must be understood in light of the immediate and larger contexts of the book where it was written.
3. The passage must be understood in the light of other passages touching on the same or related subjects.
4. The historical and cultural contexts of the passage must be understood and taken into account.

Even when these kinds of principles are rigorously applied, there are some issues in the Bible which remain difficult to understand, such as teachings about the Sabbath, or the End Times. However, the biblical teachings about marriage do not fall into this category. Although there are details regarding which Bible believing Christians may legitimately differ,  there is solid consistency about the basics, and it is these which this article intends to clarify.

Why is marriage so important?

First and foremost because it was created by God. This means that, although we human beings may try to "re-engineer" it or redefine it according to our preferences or the cultural currents of our time, from God's perspective "marriage" still is and always will be what He created it to be. Throughout the Bible marriage is taught to be the lifelong union of one man and one woman (Matt. 19:3-8).

Second, it's important because it reflects God's triune nature. Gen. 1:26-27 states, "Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, and in our likeness..." Then God created man in His image. In the image of God He created him. Male and female He created them."  God's reference to Himself using the word, "our" is significant because it indicates that the "Our-ness" of God's image is to be reproduced in Man and Woman and in their intimacy together. This is expanded upon in Gen. 2:24, "Therefore shall a man leave his mother and father and be united with his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." Man and Woman united in marriage reflect God's unity and intimacy. Man and Woman in their differing roles and character reflect the diversity of the Persons of the Trinity.

Third, its important because it represents the relationship of Christ and His Body, the Church. Paul's letter to the Ephesians explains "the mystery" of how it was God's plan that the preeminence of Christ, should be manifested through His "Body", the Church. This Church was redeemed by His death on the cross, and is nurtured by His love and purpose. Accordingly God intends that marriage should bear testimony to this "mystery", as the husband portrays the role of Christ and the wife portrays the role of the Church in their relationship to one another.

Finally, the institution of marriage is essential to the stability and happiness of the human race. It is the bond most suited to bearing and nurturing children, as well as providing men and women with the mutual companionship, support, and intimacy needed to sustain and enrich human existence.

So what are the basic components of marriage, as spelled out in the Bible?

1. Submission to God, and to His Will as taught in the Scriptures. While of course this is basic to every aspect of the Christian life, it is especially vital to marriage, for unless a person is fully submitted to God, it is unlikely that he/she will be willing or able to meet the other requirements of marriage. Conversely, when both partners are fully submitted to God, God's Spirit working in both their hearts gives them the ability to work out  conflicts and tensions that would otherwise be irresolvable. God's Spirit resides in every true Believer and Follower of Jesus Christ, and the Spirit residing in the husband will not contradict the Spirit residing in the wife. The witness of the Spirit is always consistent. So when a serious conflict occurs between husband and wife, one or the other or both are not understanding or yielded to the leading of the Spirit with regard to that situation. Neither will the Spirit of God contradict the Word of God. Rather the Spirit illuminates the Word. But if the heart is in rebellion (and often this is subtle), there will be confusion as to the testimony of the Word and the Spirit, and the result will be a contentious or dysfunctional marriage.

2. General submission to one another. This is mentioned in Eph. 5:21, "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." Some take this verse out of context to use as a proof text to nullify the distinct headship of the husband as taught in 5:22-24. But the structure of Ephesians indicates this verse functions as an introduction to the entire section which follows from  Eph. 5:22 to Eph. 6:9. The intent of the verse could be paraphrased like this: "As an outworking of the lordship of Christ in your lives, don't be stubborn and self-willed, but humbly defer to one another. Here are some specific instructions as to how this principle is to expressed in three vital relationships - husband/wife, parent/child, master/servant."  This submission is a loving and respectful deference to each other, for the greater good of the relationship. This principle is spelled out in more detail in Phil. 2:1-8 (esp. vs. 3).

3. Marriage as a sacred covenant. Malachi 2:14-16 says, "... the LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant...Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. "For I hate divorce," says the LORD, the God of Israel..." A man and woman living together does not constitute marriage - it is simply co-habitation. Nor does having a sexual relationship constitute marriage - biblically, that is nothing more than sexual immorality. A marriage is formed when a man and woman promise their exclusive loyalty to each other until death, in the presence of God and human beings, as witnesses.  Having done this, they become husband and wife.

4. Marriage is permanent until death. "And He answered and said, "Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female... So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." (Matt. 19:4-6). "For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband." (Rom. 7:2). The marriage covenant is a lifelong one, the breaking of which God views with strong disfavor. It is this permanence which God intended to result in mutual support, and a safe environment in which children can be nurtured. Marriage is a context well suited to character building, and when couples give up on the relationship, they cheat themselves of this vital chance to grow, as well cause untold pain and damage to themselves, their children, and others.

5. Between those "equally yoked". Both the Old and New Testaments spell out the principle that for followers of God, life's most intimate relationships are to be shared with those of like faith - especially that of marriage. "... you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods..."(Deut.7:3-4),  "Do not be (yoked) together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?..." (II Cor. 6:14). Elsewhere Paul makes it clear that if a Believer has married a non-believer, they are not to separate (I Cor. 7:10-14). However, when a husband and wife do not share what is most important in life - their relationship with God, and salvation through Jesus Christ - this creates a serious obstacle to deep intimacy, and the spiritual bonding that is so vital for a God-centered marriage.

6. Faithfulness and sexual purity. This is the core of the 7th Commandment, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." This teaching is repeated throughout Scripture, including Heb. 13:4, "Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral."  Sexual intimacy and pleasure were created as one of marriage's essential bonds. But what has such potential for wonder and joy within the marriage relationship, is a source of destructive pain and confusion whenever it is engaged in outside of marriage. As an extension of this, married persons need to beware of inappropriate emotional or romantic entanglements with persons other than their spouse, as well.

7. Sexual intimacy within marriage. God intends, for the purposes of procreation, mutual pleasure, and intimate bonding, that husband and wife will unreservedly give their bodies to one another in sexual union. Another vital reason for this imperative is that ongoing sexual intimacy plays an important role in avoiding immorality, and in fighting Satan's temptations (I Cor. 7:1-5). Both experience and research show that men and women typically have greatly differing needs and expectations regarding sexuality, such that this facet of marriage will require all the resources of love, respect, and understanding from by both husband and wife, in order to make it mutually satisfying. But even when conditions are not ideal, the "one body" nature of the marriage relationship requires that to the extent physically possible, the sexual bonds of marriage are not to be discontinued, except temporarily and by mutual agreement.

8. The headship of the husband and the submission of the wife. Eph. 5:22-24 states, "Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything." The husband is to represent the person and role of Christ in the marriage relationship, meaning he is to lead the relationship for the good of the marriage and the family. This includes spiritual leadership, determining the general direction of the family, taking responsibility for providing for the family, and for the upbringing of the children. Meanwhile, the wife, while using her gifts and abilities to the fullest, is to relate to her husband with a spirit of deference and respect. While providing advice and help, ultimately she is to yield to his judgment, in the decision-making process. If a husband is passive and fails to shoulder the responsibility of headship, or if he is self-centered and domineering, the principle of headship will not function as God intended. Likewise, if a wife  is constantly jumping in to "take charge" or if she refuses to follow her husband's leadership, headship cannot operate according to God's design. (*See note on "submission" below. )

9. The husband's Christlike love.  "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her...So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies... for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church" (Eph. 5:25-29). There is no room for self-serving dominance in a biblical marriage. Rather the husband is to consistently nurture and cherish his wife with self-sacrificing love. This principle harks back to the record of Gen. 2, where the woman is taken from the man's rib, then reunited with him in marriage to once again become "one body". Hence it is natural that the husband should want to give his wife all the care and respect he affords his own body. This principle is further spelled out in I Pet. 3:7, "You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered." This love is to be expressed through understanding and honoring. This  responsibility is so great that a man's prayers to God will be hindered if he fails to do this.

10. Devoted parenthood. That is, to the extent to which God permits, married couples are to bear and responsibly nurture offspring. Gen. 1:28 states, "and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth...". Ps. 127:3 affirms this with the words, "Behold, children are a gift of the LORD. The fruit of the womb is a reward..." Meanwhile, Mal. 2:15 also indicates that child bearing and nurturing is an essential component of marriage, "Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are His. And why one? Because He was seeking godly offspring." (NIV) And Eph. 6:4 continues with "...bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord."

In Summary

Marriage began at the time of Creation, as a sacred and beautiful relationship, included among those things which God declared to be "very good", and upon which His blessing rested. However, with the Fall, the trusting transparency of marriage (described in Gen. 2:25) was replaced by distrust, fear, shame, and accusation (Gen. 3:7-13). Although Jesus taught that the institution of marriage would not exist in the Resurrection (Matt. 22:30), today, there is perhaps no facet of human existence needing the transforming work of God's grace and the power of His Spirit, than that of marriage. Nor perhaps is there any aspect more subject to Satan's attacks. Which is all the more reason for Believers in Christ to take God's Truths regarding marriage to heart, to apply them in their own lives without losing hope, and to fight for this unique relationship which bears witness to God's truths and plan in powerful ways.

*Note from point 8:  In today's culture, some Christians and many non-Christians vigorously object to New Testament passages teaching the submission of women to their husbands. However, this principle is consistent with Paul's teaching that men are entrusted with the responsibility of primary leadership in the Church as well as in the family (cf. I Cor. 11:3-12, I Tim. 2:11-15), which is reinforced by Peter (3:1-6) as well.  The word "submit" ("hupotasso" in Greek) had its origins in military contexts - the troops "arranging" ("tasso") themselves for battle, "under" ("hupo") the authority of their commander. It's general meaning came to be "to put one's self under someone's authority", and it is used widely in Scripture.

The "Egalitarian" interpretation of these passages asserts that such gender role distinctions were intended for certain specific situations unique to Paul's day, and do not apply today. However, the fact that in each of these passages, Paul bases his commands on timeless truths* invalidates this interpretation (*in Eph. 5  the relationship of Christ and the Church; in I Cor. 11  the nature of the Trinity and the order of Creation; and in I Tim. 2 again the order of Creation). Some have tried to explain away the thrust of Eph. 5:22-24 by translating the Greek word for "head" ("kephale") as "source", thus depriving the husband's role of the element of authority. However, that this was not a current usage of the word in Paul's day, has been definitively demonstrated. Interestingly, no voices are heard arguing that the husband's role of Christlike sacrificial love (as spelled out in Eph. 5:25ff) is no longer applicable to today, and yet in reality this kind of love is just as challenging (and potentially "demeaning") for men, as submission is for women. However, neither role is demeaning when understood correctly in their context. The submission and love is not based on the worthiness of the spouse, but rather is willingly offered "as unto the Lord."

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