A Christian View of Marriage

“Marriage is like a three ring circus; engagement ring, wedding ring, and suffer-ring.” Anon.

“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. Irina Dunn, Australian feminist, 1970

“The nuclear family must be destroyed… Whatever its ultimate meaning, the break-up of families now is an objectively revolutionary process.” — Linda Gordon, American feminist historian

“We can’t destroy the inequities between men and women until we destroy marriage.” — Robin Morgan, MS Magazine Editor
Most consider Saint Valentine’s Day a time to celebrate romance. In the past, romance was associated with love and marriage. Adults in the Western World today still associate the romance of Valentine’s Day with emotional love but often do not associate it with marriage. With fewer people getting married, divorce rates high, and the media continually disparaging the bonds of holy matrimony, marriage seems passé, or even dangerous. Certain laws, such as the marriage penalty in the tax code, discourage marriage. The US Supreme Court recently ruled that homosexual marriages are legal in the United States. A man in Montana applied for marriage licenses with his two wives, and based on recent events, there is no reasonable legal basis to forbid him. Marriage seems to have become whatever someone, anyone, says it is.

Christians are influenced heavily by the world around them. Inundated with a flood of messages attacking the God-ordained institution of marriage, believers begin to wonder what marriage really is, and if there isn’t a better alternative. Christians can be complicit in undermining wedlock; droning on about how hard marriage is and how often marriages fail. God, not man, invented marriage. God, not man, gets to define it.

Have we forgotten that the God who created us and saved us also loves us? His gift of marriage is good; it is a blessing, not a curse. The intimacy between a husband and wife directly reflects the intimacy between the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and between God and Man. Christian men and women have been deceived about marriage. It can be hard and many do fail, but the blessings and joys far outweigh the obstacles. Many people complain that only half of marriages last for life. Even if that misleading statistic were true, half of marriages still remain “till death do us part.” My only regret about marrying my wife is that I didn’t marry her sooner; we were 25.

This article is written to remind us all about what God has made marriage to be.

The Old Testament View of Marriage

Men and women are different physically, but also different emotionally and socially as well. God said “it is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Adam, while still sinless, reflected the divine view when he said “this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23). God created woman to be a helper (עזר `ezer – help, succour) to man (Genesis 2:18), using the same word that is often used to describe God as a helper to man (Exodus 18:4, Psalm 33:20, Hosea 13:9). Man cleaves (προσκολλάω proskollaō – to adhere closely, to glue to) to his wife and they become one flesh (σάρξ sarx – body). The purpose of the union of man and woman is to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and subdue it… (Genesis 1:28).” This purpose is further explained as “cultivate and keep” the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15). Pleasure is a reason for sex in marriage (Proverbs 5:19). The Song of Solomon adds physical affection and companionship as purposes for marriage. Hosea emphasizes the covenant aspects of marriage. Notice that the purposes of marriage as given in the Old Testament are:

  1. Produce children.
  2. Work together to cultivate the earth.
  3. Provide companionship and affection.
  4. Provide pleasure.

The Old Testament is an intensely practical book. Children helped hold families together, provided a workforce for the next generation, cared for their parents in their later years, and provided soldiers to defend the nation. In the earliest days, marriage partners were commonly family members, such as half-sisters (Genesis 20:12), cousins (Isaac and Rebekah), and sisters (Jacob married to Rachel and Leah). Israelites were forbidden to marry Canaanites (Exodus 34:14-16) and others who did not share their religion (Ezra 10:3, 16-17). This was not a racial restriction, as women of other races such as Ruth, Rahab and Tamar were accepted in the Jewish community when they changed their religion. Incest was forbidden, same-sex marriages and even conduct was forbidden, but polygamy was allowed.

The Bible’s references to “wife of your youth” (Proverbs 5:18, Malachi 2:14) and “husband of her youth” (Joel 1:8) suggested that people should (or at least did) marry young. Men who avoided or even delayed marrying a wife and raising children were considered lazy and even sinful. This is because youth was the only time in life that one could accomplish everything that marriage was intended to do, including having and raising children. Boys were eligible to marry at age 13 and girls at age 12, and by early Christian times boys married between 14 and 18 and girls between 12 and 17.

The New Testament View of Marriage

In Mark 10, the Pharisees approached Jesus to trap Him in a teaching about divorce. In verse 8, Jesus repeated that “God created male and female”, “a man shall leave his parents and cling to his wife”, and “they are no longer two, but one.” In Mark 10:9, He expanded on Genesis. Since God has joined man and woman together in marriage, only God, not man, can destroy a marriage. Marriage is a sacrament and therefore a channel of the grace of God. Notice that marriage is between one man and one woman, and it is created by God, not by the whim of man.

When, exactly, does God recognize two people as married? The Bible doesn’t answer directly, but implies that He recognizes the relationship at the moment of sexual union (1 Corinthians 6:16). If this is accurate, the words of C.S. Lewis ring hauntingly true:

“The truth is that whenever a man lies with a woman, there, whether they like it or not, a transcendental relationship is set up between them which must be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured.”

What about men and women with the gift of celibacy (1 Corinthians 7:1-9)? Paul makes it clear that God gives some people the ability to serve Him fully alone. God Himself makes up what is lacking in that person (consider again Genesis 2:18). The context of Paul’s discussion on celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7 was that the church was in a time of great peril (1 Corinthians 7:29-31). Historically the exaltation of permanent celibacy is found in Greek dualism; not in Jewish or Christian scriptures.

In the new heaven and new earth, marriage as we know it will not exist (Matthew 22:30). For now, however, Biblical teaching, human history, physiologic necessity, and the need for the procreation of the race make clear that the standard human condition is in a marriage relationship. Marriage was expected, it was the norm, and it was the duty of the vast majority of followers of the Lord. Singleness was rare by design.

Christian View of Marriage in the Past

In Of the Good of Marriage, Augustine (354-430) wrote that the first natural bond in any human society is between husband and wife. The second natural bond, growing out of the first, is that between parents and children. He opined that “what food is to the conservation of the man, sexual intercourse is unto the conservation of the race.” There can be no more fundamental bonds on earth than these, just as there can be no more fundamental bond in heaven than that between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

John Calvin (1509-1564) saw marriage as a covenant in which God brought together a man and a woman. It involved all aspects of society, including the couple’s parents to teach them about marriage, their peers to witness their commitment, the minister to give the consecration of God, and a magistrate to give the sanction of the State. In Calvin’s Geneva, marriage was the standard, not the exception. He wrote that “a married man is only half a person, and he can no more separate himself from his wife than cut himself into two pieces”. – Consilium, CO 10/1:242-244.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) valued marriage more highly than any other institution on earth. He wrote:

“God has done marriage the honor of putting it into the Fourth Commandment, immediately after the honor due to Him, and com­mands, “Thou shalt honor father and mother.” Show me an honor in heaven or on earth apart from the honor of God, that can equal this honor! Neither the secular nor the spiritual estate has been so highly honored. And if God had given utterance to nothing more than this Fourth Commandment with reference to married life, men ought to have learned quite well from this Commandment that in God’s sight there is no higher office, estate, condition and work (next to the Gospel which concerns God Himself) than the estate of marriage.” To the Knights of the Teutonic Order, Works of Martin Luther, VIII, pp. 423f.

The Westminster Larger Catechism (1647), a central list of beliefs among Calvinists, had much to say about marriage:

Question 137: Which is the seventh commandment? Answer: The seventh commandment is, Thou shalt not commit adultery.

Question 138: What are the duties required in the seventh commandment?

Answer: The duties required in the seventh commandment are, chastity in body, mind, affections, words, and behavior; and the preservation of it in ourselves and others; watchfulness over the eyes and all the senses; temperance, keeping of chaste company, modesty in apparel; marriage by those that have not the gift of continency, conjugal love, and cohabitation; diligent labor in our callings; shunning all occasions of uncleanness, and resisting temptations thereunto.

Question 139: What are the sins forbidden in the seventh commandment?

Answer: The sins forbidden in the seventh commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, adultery, fornication, rape, incest, sodomy, and all unnatural lusts; all unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections; all corrupt or filthy communications, or listening thereunto; wanton looks, impudent or light behavior, immodest apparel; prohibiting of lawful, and dispensing with unlawful marriages; allowing, tolerating, keeping of stews (prostitutes), and resorting to them; entangling vows of single life, undue delay of marriage; having more wives or husbands than one at the same time; unjust divorce, or desertion; idleness, gluttony, drunkenness, unchaste company; lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays; and all other provocations to, or acts of uncleanness, either in ourselves or others.

Christians in the past saw their duty as marriage, not singleness. They also saw marriage as a source of joy, of children to provide for the future, and as a reflection of the Lord that they loved.

Men were the initiators and leaders in marriage, in the Church and in society. Arranged marriages, courtship, premarital chastity and powerful social pressures protected women from wasting their most fertile childbearing years. Success, not love, was a primary motivator in choosing a marriage partner. The goal was to find someone with whom a young person could make a successful family; love would follow. A man would not have access to a woman without showing her family some evidence of his worthiness. In Puritan America, men were not even allowed to live alone. Single men had to live with a family where they could be restrained. John Littleale was found living by himself and “subject to many sins, which are ordinarily the companions of a solitary life”. Therefore he was forced to move in with a family or be placed in a house of correction if no family would take him.

For their part, women who did not marry and subsequently bear children were also considered morally questionable. With death rates high, lands to be settled, and battles to be fought, nations needed people. Further, society was not able to support every unmarried woman in her old age. Whether Christian or secular, people expected men and women to marry and have children. As Theodore Roosevelt, hardly a follower of Jesus, said:

“Willful sterility is, from the standpoint of the nation, from the standpoint of the human race, the one sin for which the penalty is national death, race death; a sin for which there is no atonement. No man, no woman, can shirk the primary duties of life, whether for love of ease and pleasure, or for any other cause, and retain his or her self-respect.” Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), U.S. Republican (later Progressive) politician, president. Sixth Annual Message to Congress, 3 Dec. 1906.

Modern liberals may argue that in addition to being a nuisance, children have become a threat because of global overpopulation. Those arguments were weak 50 years ago, but are non-sensical now. Worldwide population growth has tapered and in many developed countries dying is more common than birthing. Birth rates are plummeting even in most of the developing world. Economies in Europe, Asia, and North America are stagnating because of too few producers and consumers.

Christian View of Marriage in the Present

If the statisticians and pollsters are right, marriage has lost its importance in modern America. The New York Times, while not known for objectivity, reported that 78% of households were occupied by married couples in 1950 but only 48% in 2010 (26 May 2011). The Christian Post reported that the percentage of women 15-24 years of age who were married fell from 42% in 1950 to 16% in 2000. The percentage of women 25-34 years of age who were married fell from 82% in 1950 to 58% in 2000 (19 Jan 2007). Insofar as these statistics are accurate, there are many factors at play.

  1. More couples are living together, acting as married without receiving a marriage license.
  2. More widows are living longer after their husband’s demise, thus increasing the percentage of single person households and skewing the numbers.
  3. Trying to get established in their careers, men and women are marrying later.
  4. Technology has allowed greater fertility later in life, so marriage and births in women 35 and over are increasing.
  5. With the advent of safe and effective birth control (1961), abortion on demand (1973), and infanticide, reproduction has become dissociated from sexual intercourse in ways impossible in the past.
  6. Men can now get sex without commitment, and many feel that they have no reason to marry. Mothers used to tell their daughters “if a man can get milk whenever he wants, why should he buy the cow?” According to the book Premarital Sex in America, mothers now tell their daughters either to have “safe sex” or they tell them nothing at all (Regnerus, Uecker, 2011).

Christians sometimes argue that they have chosen to remain single because Paul preferred singleness, because they want to focus exclusively on ministry opportunities, or because “Jesus is all they need.” This argument founders for most people. Despite the fact that Adam had perfect communion with God in the Garden, it was still “not good” that he was alone (Genesis 2:18-25). Sex outside of marriage is simply not an option for Christians; Scripture forbids it. Neither men nor women are free to “sow their wild oats”, and when we do we must all live with the consequences.

Debbie Maken wrote an excellent article entitled “Rethinking the Gift of Singleness” in which she argued that marriage is the biblical model for the vast majority of Christians. Singleness is the result of several societal dysfunctions. She believes that the church has changed its teachings on marriage as a result, falsely exalting “Christian singleness” as a gift of God. The dysfunctions include:

  • a male-friendly mating structure that is not geared toward marriage, but toward low-commitment, short term, shallow cyclical relationships
  • a low view of marriage, with the process to achieve it reflecting its value: the casual nature of dating ultimately reflects the casual nature with which we treat our marriages
  • lack of male leadership in the home, with parents bringing up boys to remain boys
  • a protracted education system that doesn’t really educate
  • the removal of shame for indulging in the Indian Summer of one’s adolescence or for being a perennial bachelor
  • a privatized version of the meaning of marriage
  • a diminished expectation of marriage from the divorce culture, and
  • a redefinition or a defining downward of healthy biblical adulthood

Her arguments are in line with both the Biblical and the historical testimony.

Danielle Crittenden authored a thoughtful and controversial article on “The Cost of Delaying Marriage.” It is difficult to prohibit sex outside of marriage and then expect immature people in the sexual prime of life to wait to marry until after 30. Her thesis is that there are real pressures on women to delay marriage and real dangers, though downplayed by society, in giving in to those pressures.

Conclusion

Christians must compare our thoughts, our words and our actions to the teachings of God in the Bible. We should judge ourselves against the words and works of the great saints that have gone before us. If we did, we would discover that we have been deceived by the siren song of the World. Marriage is not bad; it is good. For the vast majority of Christians marriage is not an option; it is required. “Tying the knot” is not giving up our independence, for the real definition of independence is not doing what we want but doing what we were created for. Rather we “tie the knot” to experience the freedom of another stage of obedience to our beloved Lord. Finally, since life is not about any individual and since marriage forces us to live outside of ourselves in a unique way, marriage helps us become more like Him who gave Himself for us. This Valentine’s Day let’s celebrate romance, love…and marriage.

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