From a Christian standpoint, marriage is crucial to the honour and happiness of the genders and the generations. It is the rightful home of sexual love and family life. It is a good gift from God.
To appreciate the gift as God intended, we need to turn to that great marriage instruction manual, the Bible. There we discover basic truths about (1) the origin of marriage; (2) the nature of marriage; (3) the purpose of marriage; (4) government in marriage; (5) sex in marriage; and (6) children in marriage.
I. The origin of marriage
The opening chapters of Genesis reveal that marriage originates from God. He is its author on two counts—by creation and by command.
In the beginning, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Marriage is possible because God made human beings male and female. Had he made us asexual like the angels there would be no marriage. But as it is, he made humanity as a duality—masculine and feminine. Consequently, men and women possess contrasting but complementary bodies and natures, thereby making it possible for one to fulfil the other in marriage.
Furthermore, God made human beings in his own image. Among other things, this means that we possess personality, conscience, intellect, and will. All these spiritual qualities are necessary for the relationship we call marriage. A ram and a ewe, a dog and a bitch, cannot marry because they lack the spiritual dimension that marriage requires. A man and a woman, on the other hand, may marry precisely because their natures are more than biology and instinct. As spiritual beings, we are capable of love and commitment. In short, because he created us in his image, God created us with the ability to enter into a relationship with each other.
God further established the foundations of marriage by the special creation of woman from man. After the Lord had made Eve from Adam’s rib, he brought her to Adam, who 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” (Genesis 2:21-23). Men and women are related by image and by blood. Therefore we yearn for one another.
Having made marriage possible by his creative power, God then made it necessary by his moral decree. He proclaimed that because woman was taken out of man to be his companion, “a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). God mandated marriage at the commencement of human existence. Marriage is morally imperative for any couple who wish to proceed in their relationship beyond a certain level of intimacy.
II. The nature of marriage
The essential characteristics of marriage can be discerned from a statement by the Lord Jesus Christ recorded in Matthew 19:4-6, where he cites and comments on Genesis 2:24. Answering a question put to him by the Pharisees about divorce, Jesus said, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” Six truths concerning the nature of marriage emerge from this statement.
Firstly, marriage is heterosexual. It is for male and female—not male and male or female and female. While this is a truism, such is the moral tenor of our age that some people are confused about it. But there is no confusion in Scripture. It condemns homosexual behaviour as biologically aberrant and morally abhorrent. The advocacy of homosexual marriage is nothing less than an attempt to clothe an unspeakable perversion in the robes of decency. Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female? Marriage involves the union of members of the opposite sex.
Secondly, marriage is sexual. The first thing a man and a woman do when they are alone after their wedding is “become one flesh”. Marriage involves intimate physical and spiritual union between a man and a woman.
Thirdly, marriage is monogamous. It permits one man to unite with one woman for life. Christ clarifies this by the way he cites Genesis 2:24. While the use of the singular for “man” and “wife” in Genesis 2 ought to be enough to indicate the monogamous nature of marriage, Christ leaves no room for doubt or dispute by inserting the word “two”: the man and his wife, “the two shall become one flesh.” Marriage involves an intimate union of two people to the exclusion of all others.
Fourthly, marriage is solitary. A husband and wife must stand together, and this means that to a certain extent they must stand apart. The Lord declares that the first step in the marriage process is to leave mother and father. This is necessary so that the marriage partners may truly cling to each other. There must be no staying home with, or running home to, the parents. Old relationships must be broken so that the new may be embraced. Marriage involves two people setting out in life together, relying primarily upon each other for their desires and needs.
Fifthly, marriage is permanent. It is a union for life. Once a man and a woman become one flesh, they can never entirely separate themselves again. Their physical union establishes a spiritual union that affects their whole lives. They are spliced together, and cannot be separated without ongoing emotional and metal violence. In addition to this, the Lord Jesus reveals that it is God himself who actually unites a man and a woman in marriage; and he does so with a view to a life-long relationship. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder! Marriage involves a commitment from each partner to the other as long as they both live.
Sixthly, marriage is sacred. It is no mere human invention: it is a divine institution. When they marry, a man and a woman enter into a relationship hallowed by God. He is a party to their marriage. He is a witness to their vows and their intimacies, and he binds them to both. He joins them together. Marriage involves the divine as well as the human, the spiritual as well as the physical, the eternal as well as the temporal.
Shifting from Matthew 19 to 1 Corinthians 7, a seventh basic truth about the nature of marriage emerges: marriage is restricted. Christians are not free to marry just anyone. They must either marry another Christian or not marry at all. The Holy Spirit declares through the apostle Paul, “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” This passage reveals both the liberty and the limit of Christians’ choices concerning their marriage partners. Christians are free to marry whoever they wish, so long as the partners they choose are in the Lord. This restriction is reiterated in 2 Corinthians 6:14-15: “Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?” Marriage ought to involve the union of a man and a woman who stand in like relationship to God.
While a mixed marriage should not be deliberately entered, neither should it be deliberately broken. A Christian who is already married to a non-Christian should remain in the marriage, love and honour the unbelieving partner, and look to God for his or her salvation (cf 1 Corinthians 7:12-16; 1 Peter 3:1-2).
III. The purpose of marriage
The opening chapters of Genesis reveal four reasons why God instituted marriage.
Two reasons are evident from Genesis 2:18, where the Lord God discloses his motive for creating woman. He said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” From this statement it can be seen that God made human beings male and female for mutual companionship and support. Sharing a common humanity and God-likeness, men and women are fit companions and helpers for each other, and marriage is the fit environment for their partnership to flourish.
Another reason God instituted marriage is evident from the marriage formula in Genesis 2:24, where it is stated that husband and wife “become one flesh.” Marriage is the proper means for the regulation and the liberation of sexual expression.
The fourth reason God instituted marriage is evident from Genesis 1:28, where God commands Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply”. Marriage is the proper place for procreation. God intended children to be conceived, born and raised in the context of a loving, life-long marriage relationship. Anything less than this is less than ideal.
A fifth reason God instituted marriage is revealed in Ephesians 5:31-32, where Paul says of the husband-wife relationship, “This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church”. Marriage is an illustration of Christ’s relationship with his bride, the church.
There is a time in most marriages (it should never end, but sadly it often does because of our selfishness and self-assertiveness) when the husband and the wife are in love. During that time, physically and emotionally and spiritually the wife’s deepest desire is to yield to her husband’s desire, and in yielding she experiences a pleasure and a joy and a worth impossible to be had in any other way. This is how it should be, and one day will be, with the church and her Husband. Nothing short of husband-wife love can convey the intimate, passionate, thrilling love that Christ has for his people, and they for him. He is the lover of our souls; and every redeemed soul is feminine to him, experiencing delight and expressing adoration to the degree that it surrenders to him. Marriage is a portrait of a reality deeper and more enduring than itself.
IV. Government in marriage
There must be government in all human affairs, and this is as true of marriage as it is of any other human association. According to Scripture, there is a hierarchy of authority in marriage. Ideally, the husband should be subject to Christ, the wife should be subject to the husband, and the children should be subject to the parents.
“I want you to understand,” Paul writes, “that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3). Elsewhere he states: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church … As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands” (Ephesians 5:22-24). Writing under the guidance of the same Spirit, Peter concurs with Paul, urging: “wives, be submissive to your husbands” (1 Peter 3:1).
Hostility to such teaching is widespread. However, it arises in part from a misunderstanding of what the Bible means by masculine authority and feminine submission.
Masculine authority in marriage is not arbitrary or absolute. Husbands are not at liberty to act like autocrats because they themselves are under authority—Christ’s authority. Therefore they must act towards their wives as Christ requires them to act.
How does Christ require husbands to act? Paul commands: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:25, 28). Likewise Peter states: “you husbands, live considerately with your wives, bestowing honour on the woman as the weaker sex, since you are joint heirs of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7). From these instructions it is clear that a husband’s authority must be exercised kindly, considerately, fairly, sacrificially, and lovingly. It is therefore an authority that should be neither imperious for the man nor onerous for the woman. Under this regime, a wife should never have to stand up for her rights, because her husband should never disregard them.
A husband’s headship involves not privilege but responsibility, and for this reason many men reject it. The feminist denial of male leadership is in fact welcomed by many men, for far from wanting to dominate, as feminists assert, they simply wish to escape. They wish to escape the responsibility of providing for their families’ financial and emotional and spiritual needs. Nothing suits them better than to believe that they have no special role of leadership in the home. The problem in many marriages today is not that men abuse their authority but that they refuse it.
Scripture does not specifically define the nature of feminine submission in marriage. Passages such as Proverbs 31 portray the wife’s role as one of dignity, wisdom, strength, initiative and responsibility, so it is plain that submission has nothing to do with being passive and servile. A statement in Ephesians 5:33 touches the heart of the matter: “let the wife see that she respects her husband.” A wife should be supportive of her husband, ready to follow his lead, and disposed to defer to him when mutual agreement proves difficult. In short, she should not be resentful or rebellious, but respectful and compliant.
Wives should appreciate that the Lord Jesus himself is the ultimate object of their obedience: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.” In yielding to their husbands, wives are in the first instance showing reverence to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Wives should also appreciate that submissiveness is a necessary part of their witness. In Titus 2:3-5 the apostle Paul instructs older women to “train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited.” The reason women should, among other things, be submissive to their husbands is so that the word of God may not be discredited. For the Christian wife who rejects her husband’s leadership demonstrates to those about her that she doubts the truthfulness and the authority of Scripture. She calls into question the teaching that woman was made from and for man (1 Corinthians 11:8-9). She spurns the example of the holy women like Sarah who willingly obeyed their husbands (1 Peter 3:1-6). She scorns the explicit teaching concerning the roles of men and women in marriage. She even reverses the spiritual blue-print for marriage, which is the headship of Christ over his bride, the church (Ephesians 5:23-24). These are some of the ways in which wives who disregard or dominate their husbands discredit the word of God, and thereby ruin their witness.
Concerning Christian wives with non-Christian husbands, 1 Peter 3:1-2 declares: “Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behaviour of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behaviour.” Willing and glad acceptance of God’s order for marriage is a believing wife’s most powerful witness to her unbelieving husband. Without proper deference and reverence, her witness will be at best ineffective and at worst destructive.
Notwithstanding all we have considered about the role of headship and submission between husband and wife, it is important to emphasise that marriage is a partnership. Paul prefaces his teaching about the husband-wife relationship in Ephesians 5 with these words: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Be subject to one another! Wifely submission should occur in the context of mutual submission. This means that, without forfeiting his authority, a husband must be considerate of his wife and graciously accommodating to her needs and desires. He must do this both out of love for his wife and out of reverence for Christ.
The essence and the balance of the husband-wife relationship is expressed in Colossians 3:18-19: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.”
V. Sex in marriage
The Bible teaches that marriage is the place for sex. After leaving their parents and cleaving only to each other, a man and a woman become “one flesh”. This is the consummation of their marriage.
Marriage is the place for sex, and it is the exclusive place. Scripture repeatedly and roundly condemns any form of sexual behaviour outside of marriage.
God requires absolute fidelity between husband and wife, as the seventh commandment indicates. “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) is merely the negative of “You shall be faithful.” The commandment against adultery covers our thoughts as well as our acts, as the Lord Jesus makes plain in Matthew 5:27-28: “every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” God requires purity and fidelity in mind as well as body. Among other things, this is a decisive argument against pornography. Further, the commandment against adultery covers pre-marital as well as extra-marital activity. For pre-marital sex is simply infidelity in advance of marriage. Men and women should keep themselves pure for their marriage partners before as well as after their wedding.
Sex is for marriage; and in the context of marriage, sex is good. It is God’s wedding gift to the bride and the groom, and it is for their pleasure, comfort and communion. Proverbs 5:18-19 exhorts husbands, “rejoice in the wife of your youth. As a loving hind and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; be exhilarated always with her love.”
There is a notion abroad that the Bible disapproves of sex, especially sex for pleasure. This is utter nonsense. Let her breasts satisfy you, Scripture says. But it must be her breasts, your own wife’s, and not another’s. Far from viewing sex as corrupt, Scripture views it as sacred, and therefore as worthy of the strongest possible protection.
While the Bible unreservedly condemns sex outside marriage, it unreservedly commends sex within marriage. Indeed, it commands husbands and wives to satisfy each other’s sexual needs, and expressly forbids them to abstain from sexual intimacy, except by mutual agreement for a short time for a religious purpose. 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 states: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband … Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again …”
Paul offers two reasons why husband and wife should be attentive to each other’s sexual needs.
Firstly, having insisted that the husband should give his wife her conjugal rights, and vice versa, Paul goes on (v.4): “For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does.” In other words, each spouse has right of access to the other’s body, and each has a responsibility to respect the other’s right. On their wedding day, a bride and a groom freely give their bodies to each other; and this exchange is ongoing.
Secondly, having made provision for husband and wife to abstain from sexual intimacy for a limited and mutually agreed period, Paul instructs (v.5b), “but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control.” Sexual desire cannot be satisfied once, then forgotten. It keeps on asserting itself. Consequently, prolonged abstinence can make a person more susceptible to seduction. A husband and wife have a responsibility to help each other resist sexual temptation by giving each other sexual satisfaction.
Acknowledging each other’s rights and helping each other to resist temptation are important but negative reasons for sexual union in marriage. Positive reasons include devotion, adoration and desire. Scripture exalts these in the Song of Songs where, for example, the bridegroom declares (7:6-9):
How fair and pleasant you are,
O loved one, delectable maiden!
You are stately as a palm tree,
and your breasts are like its clusters.
I say I will climb the palm tree
and lay hold of its branches.
Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
and the scent of your breath like apples,
and your kisses like the best wine …
In response the bride declares (7:11-13):
Come, my beloved …
let us go out early to the vineyards …
There I will give you my love.
The mandrakes give forth fragrance,
and over our doors are all choice fruits,
new as well as old,
which I have laid up for you, O my beloved.
Here is a celebration of sex full of sensuality and free of sin, full of gladness and free of guilt, full of pleasure and free of pain, full of delight and free of disease. Here is a holy gift from God, our almighty Creator and Redeemer from whom all blessings flow.
VI. Children in marriage
One of the functions of sex is procreation. Sex may not be only for children, but it is also for children. And as sex belongs in marriage, so logically children belong in marriage. Scripture simply takes this for granted: marriage is the ideal place for the nurture and upbringing of children.
The Bible reminds us that children are God’s gift. The sexual union of husband and wife is merely the means by which the gift of a new life is bestowed. The Creator is behind the procreative act; and it is he, as Psalm 139 points out, who forms the inward parts of the child and knits him together in his mother’s womb. Ecclesiastes 11:5 rightly declares that we “do not know how the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child”. But we do know this much: it is “the work of God who makes everything.” Therefore, no child is ever a mistake; and no child should ever be murdered in the womb as unwanted.
Psalm 127 states: “Behold, children are a gift of the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them”. Body and soul, children are God’s good and gracious gift. They are given for a blessing and a reward.
With this blessing God gives responsibility. Parents must love and care for their children. This involves, of course, clothing, feeding, comforting and protecting them. However, there are two aspects of parental care that Scripture particularly emphasises. One is discipline, the other education.
Concerning discipline, the book of Proverbs contains much wise advice. It teaches that discipline is an essential part of love. Proverbs 13:24 states, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” Children who are not restrained from doing wrong cause harm even to themselves. As no loving parents want their children to be harmed, all loving parents should discipline their children. A failure to do so is a failure of love. Proverbs 19:18 states, “Discipline your son while there is hope; do not set your heart on his destruction.” Discipline must sometimes involve corporal punishment; and while this is regrettable, it is not as terrible as some sensitive souls try to make out. Proverbs 23:13-14 declares, “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. If you beat him with the rod you will save his life from Sheol.” Proverbs 29:15 states, “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.” Firm, consistent, loving discipline benefits not only the child but also the whole family. For a rude, selfish, rebellious child causes great stress to all around him. Proverbs 29:17 states, “Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart.”
Concerning education, Scripture allocates a special role to parents in the area of values and faith. Parents should diligently seize every opportunity to teach their children about spiritual realities, as is evident from Deuteronomy 6:4-7: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
Religious education is an important duty of parents. Fathers have a special responsibility in this regard, as indicated by the exhortation of Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” However, mothers are equally influential, as the example of Eunice demonstrates. She passed on her faith to her son, Timothy; and she did this by ensuring that “from childhood” he was “acquainted with the sacred writings which [were] able to instruct [him] for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). Proverbs 6:20-22 reveals the role of both parents concerning the education of their children: “My son, keep your father’s commandment, and forsake not your mother’s teaching. Bind them upon your heart always; tie them about your neck. When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you.” Both parents have a responsibility to share their faith by word and by example, so that their children might see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
Having made us male and female, God instituted marriage for the proper expression and exploration of our masculinity and femininity. To enjoy marriage as God intended we must live it as he instructed. This is the way to bring gladness to our hearts and glory to our God.
Cover photo on pamphlet – Max and Gladys Randall, 3 September 1938.
First published by Life Ministries in 1994. Revised & reprinted in 2007.
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown, 2007
Additional copies of this pamphlet are available from Life Ministries, Suite 4, 334 Wanneroo Road, Nollamara, Western Australia, 6061. Phone/fax (08) 9344 7396 . Website: lifeministries.org.au