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Issues Facing Missions Today 29: What is Biblical Marriage?

Issues Facing Missions Today 29: What is Biblical Marriage?

Introduction:

Reflection on the creation stories of Genesis 1.1-2.3 and 2.4-25—which are, of course, intended to be read together—helps us to understand a Biblical view of marriage.  Three key aspects of marriage emerge from the stories.  Marriage is between complementary beings of the same human species that form a permanent union: male and female.  Marriage is for the purpose of procreation and flourishing within creation.  And marriage involves the responsibility of exercising authority within the order of creation.  Each of these points can be explored with reference to the understanding of being created in God’s image in Gen. 1.26ff.  Moreover, in light of the cultural confusion regarding marriage in Western countries, that marriage so understood cannot apply to homosexual unions any more than sexual unions between humans and animals is a clear corollary of what is stated in the Biblical account of creation. Yet, to claim that marriage is not a social construction but must be understand in terms of God's purposes in creation has become in the West an opportunity for the Church to make the missional proclamation that God is Creator.

The Image of God and Creation:

In Gen. 1.26ff, being created in the image of God has to do with two things: multiplication for the flourishing of God’s creation and the stewardship of God’s created order by those given responsibility.  As these two functions involve male and female working together, a third aspect of being created in the image of God needs to be appreciated: the necessary unity of male and female.  Multiplication is not possible without the union of male and female.  Neither can produce offspring without the other.  With this understanding of being created in God's image, we have three key parts to any understanding of marriage: (1) the 'one flesh' unity of male and female; (2) multiplication for the flourishing of the species, and (3) oversight of God’s created order.

The first creation story (Gen. 1.1-2.3) emphasizes the binary roles of God’s good creation.  The work of the first three days of creation involves separations of the realms for what will later be created.  Only with these separations will fruitfulness and multiplication be possible and chaos be avoided.  There are the separations of (day 1) the day and night, (day 2) the waters of the sky and the waters of the earth, and (day 3) the dry land and the waters.  The text of Genesis elaborates at this point to emphasize that such binary distinctions permitted the vegetation of the earth to flourish (Gen. 1.11-12).  Vegetation needs daylight, rain, and earth.  Without such separations, the world is chaotic and cannot flourish.

The next three days of creation focus on authority/oversight of certain rulers related to each of the first three days of creation.  Thus, (day 4) lights are made to populate the day and night separation, and a sun is created to rule the day and a moon to rule the night on the fourth day of creation.  Then (day 5), the creatures that dwell in and rule the realm of the waters on the earth are created and commanded to multiply and flourish.  Complementing these fish and sea creatures are the creatures made to rule the realm of the sky--the birds. Finally, (day 6), land creatures are formed to occupy the land realm of the third day of creation.  Then, to rule over all the occupants of the different realms, God created humankind.  These six days of creation, moreover, have their complement in the one day of rest, the Sabbath.

Marriage: Union, Procreation, Authority

Being created in God’s image entails an understanding of the flourishing that derives from marriage.  This flourishing begins with the union of male and female.  It continues with procreation—the multiplication of the species.  And it further entails the right exercise of authority according to God’s purposes.

            Union

First, marriage entails a unity through complementarity of binary authorities, just as in the rest of creation.  Only such an understanding of unity makes multiplication possible, and only multiplication of the species makes dominion of the rest of creation possible.  Any other attempt at unity apart from the coming together of male and female will fail: multiplication is impossible, and the right rule of God’s ordered creation is impossible.  Instead, the species would die out and the order of creation would turn to chaos.

In the microcosm of the family, for God's purpose in creation to be accomplished marriage must first be understood in terms of the complementarity of male and female.  They are both created in God's image.  They both have authority.  Their differences allow for their unity.  This is a point made especially in the second creation story, where it is said that the cleaving of male and female entails becoming one flesh (Gen. 2.24).[1]  For Jesus, this fact argues against divorce (Mt. 19.4-6).[2]  For Paul, this points to the fact that sexual immorality with prostitutes is sin (1 Cor. 6.16.[3]  Both Jesus and Paul insist, on the basis of Gen. 2.24, that marriage is permanent.  And, in Eph. 5.21-33, Paul argues that this passage points to the respect of the wife for the husband and the love of the husband for the wife within marriage.  If a person does not abuse his own body, the one-flesh union of husband and wife should also produce the same love and respect seen between Christ and the Church.  Paul makes this point in a larger context in which he is explaining the reign of Christ’s peace and the unity it brings in various relationships (between God and humanity, 2.1-11; Jews and Gentiles, 2.12-3.10; within the church, 4.1-6.9; and in the face of spiritual warfare, 6.10-18).  Within the church is the family relationship of husband and wife, parents and children, and masters and slaves (5.21-6.9), and these are all places where strife may erupt but where Christ brings peace.  The first two relationships are not social constructions but part of God’s intention in creation: male and female in marriage, parents and children as the fruit of marriage.  Thus, marriage is a result of God’s intention to produce unity through complementarity.[4]

            Procreation

Secondly, marriage allows multiplication through procreation to take place--an essential part of creation.  Again, complementarity is required for there to be sexual union that results in offspring.  This understanding of the purpose of marriage explains why Jesus says that there is to be no marriage in the resurrection (Mt. 22.30): in the life to come, there is no further mandate to multiply.  This does not reduce sex to having children, but it does explain where the emphasis lies: marriage is union between a male and a female.  Thus, a Biblical view of sex makes clear that it is not to be pursued with others outside of marriage.  This also explains why the Old Testament reports sexual union outside of marriage when the wife is barren for the purpose of procreation (as with a handmaid or a deceased brother's widow).  Sex also has the purpose within marriage of being the way to address God-given sexual desire (1 Cor. 7.2-5).

            Authority

Thirdly, coming together in the union of male and female and then multiplying by having offspring leads to consideration of another function of marriage: the exercise of oversight and authority according to God’s order in creation.  The primary focus of the Genesis story of creation in this regard has to do with the authority of human beings created in God’s image over the rest of creation.  Yet it is not a stretch in an essay on marriage to focus on the authority parents exercise over children to raise them up in the way they should go according to God’s purposes.  Children need to be raised, not just left to find their own way, and the ability of a couple to raise their children in the right way is an example of their exercise of right authority in God’s creation.  This function—exercising a role of oversight—reflects being created in the image of God.  In fact, Paul says that someone should not be given the authority or responsibility to exercise oversight in the church if he lacks control over his own household--that is, if the children are not submissive and respectful (1 Tim. 3.4).  Whether in the family itself or in the church as a family, proper oversight is a function of being created in the image of God.

False ‘Marriage’

These three things--(1) unity of male and female; (2) multiplication; and (3) raising children--explain why certain other sexual acts are considered sinful in Scripture.  Bestiality, homosexuality, premarital sexual acts, and adultery are all outside of marriage.  Such acts cannot constitute marriage in the Biblical sense.  First, they represent precisely the chaos God overcame in His act of creation.  Homosexual or bestial sexual acts make as much sense as having no distinction between day and night, sky and water, land and sea.  Homosexual unions make as much sense as having two suns (or two moons) instead of a sun and a moon or no distinction between the creatures of the sea and the birds of the air.  They are simply wrongly ordered unions.  Secondly, homosexual unions cannot result in the mandate to multiply and flourish upon the earth as a species.  Thirdly, since they reject proper ordering, they cannot result in proper oversight and authority, they constitute a failed stewardship of creation.  They are no context in which to raise children in the ways of God precisely because they are a rejection of creation authority itself.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Jews and Christians have a clear teaching on marriage from the creation accounts in Genesis 1.1-2.25.  I have, to some extent, explained how such a view is consistently maintained in the Old Testament, Jewish Scriptures and by the early Church, as reflected in the New Testament.  The Biblical view of marriage is based on an understanding of creation itself and of being created in the image of God.  Jews and Christians who follow the teaching of Scripture insist, therefore, that marriage is not something we can define however we wish but only in terms of what God intended in his creation.  Biblical marriage entails a permanent union between a male and a female, the multiplication through procreation of our species that we might flourish, and an authority or stewardship over the order God established in His creation.  This third point leads to an understanding of marriage that entails an understanding of family that entails the oversight over children that parents give in their role as God’s image-bearers.  For various reasons, others might come under parental rule in the family—what we might consider an ‘extended family’.  Oversight, in fact, extends to all of creation, not just authority in the home.  Yet it is an authority that entails stewardship according to God’s purposes in creation; not an authority to exercise over against or independently from God’s purposes.  The lure of the serpent in Genesis 3 was precisely the lure of exercising divine authority like a god rather than under God’s authority.  The serpent enticed Eve to disobey God’s command and become like God in the exercise of independent authority.  Thus a disordered rule—say, of two men living as though they were husband and wife—is, first, a rule of chaos in the mixing of things that should be separated; second, a sexual perversion that cannot result in offspring; and, third, an abuse of God-given authority by ruling apart from and against God’s order in this world.

Can this argument be made outside the community of faith that understands Scripture as God’s Word?  To some extent, the argument can be put forward without the assumptions of a faith community.  Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher in the 1st c. AD, for example, put forward a similar argument.  He was neither Jewish nor Christian but argued on the grounds of what was ‘according to nature’.  However, Paul, in his day, held out little hope of making such arguments apart from persons first coming to faith.  He states that the minds of persons who have denied God as the creator of this world are sufficiently confused that they will think things obviously unnatural to be natural (Rom. 1.18-28)—as, indeed, we hear argued in our day as well.  The redefinition of ‘marriage’ to include same-sex unions in the West in our day actually goes against the convictions of cultures throughout time.[5]  We are faced with a confusion of the created order that appears to go beyond what the early Christians experienced.  Indeed, the West typically lacks those who might make general arguments such as Epictetus did,[6] it included Jews and Christians who disregard Scripture or who readily twist its meanings for their own ends,[7] and it argues not according to how things are but according to how they wish things to be.[8]  Truth is now thought to be constructed, and tolerance of diversity has become intolerance of the truth.  In such a context, Biblical marriage cannot be mandated, and the laws of the land will not support it.  However, Biblical marriage can now become a counter-cultural witness, and practicing it can now become a part of the Church’s mission.  By it, Christians proclaim, ‘We believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.’



[1] Genesis 2:24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
[2] Matthew 19:4-6 4 He [Jesus] answered, "Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,'  5 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'?  6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
[3] 1 Corinthians 6:16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, "The two shall be one flesh."
[4] Paul—and his audience—assumes complementarity here.  His point is that Christ establishes the unity that God intends in every sphere of creation.  He does not argue that egalitarianism will accomplish unity.  In the case of husband and wife, though, he establishes that God created male and female to be ‘one flesh’ through marriage and that Christ makes this possible.
[5] This is not to say that the pre-Christian world of Greece and Rome did not know of such things.  Same-sex marital unions were, however, unique enough to attract comment.  (One example might be the second satire of Juvenal.)
[6] However, there is an excellent article that explores social and legal arguments in particular and considers a wide range of issues in the public debate on marriage that I can recommend.  See Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan T. Anderson, "What is Marriage?", in Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter, 2010): 247-287.  Online: file:///C:/Users/rgrams/Downloads/SSRN-id1722155.pdf.
[7]  The same day this was written, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury reportedly restated the Church's view on marriage: it is 'between one man and one woman for life and sexual activity should be confined to marriage, that's in the Church of England's laws.'  [See Emma McKinney's 23 February, 2015 article 'Archbishop of Canterbury on gays: 'Who am I to judge them for their sins, if they have sins?' in Birmingham' in the Birmingham mail.  See: http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/.]  Sadly, however, when pressed on what he thought about homosexuality, he stated that he 'struggled' with his views on the matter and was trying to 'listen' to what the 'Spirit of God is trying to tell us.'  Of course, listening to the Spirit is what we all want to do.  But to suggest as much in this context appears to mean that he has so far failed to see what the Spirit has said in Scripture and what the Spirit-led Church has understood throughout its history.  It suggests that the Spirit may be invoked as a theological gambit to engage in endless dialogue over against Scripture and orthodox theology.  This was only confirmed in the same interview when the Archbishop, Justin Welby, further stated the following regarding homosexuality: "I see my own selfishness and weakness and think who am I [to] judge them for their sins, if they have sins."  He then added that we should not demonise, dismiss, and hate one another.  Such a statement appears to be an instance of believing that sin as it is clearly stated in Scripture must now be viewed as a sin of hating others.  This is actually a fairly typical waffling on the issue which is possible in a political and postmodern world.  Yet it is an impossible position to hold for a teacher of Scripture or a representative of the historic Christian faith.
[8] In the case of the current US government, the argument is, predictably, based on the Modernistic, totalizing argument of liberation and natural rights.  Secretary of State, John Kerry, announced on 23 February, 2015 the appointment of Randy Berry as his envoy to promote LGBT ‘rights’.  Intellectual colonialism is the imposition of perspectives by a powerful nation using its resources on weaker nations to force them to submit and acknowledge its superiority.  How ironic that this is done in the name of ‘liberation’ or ‘human rights’.  See the article by Associated Press reporter Josh Lederman, ‘Kerry Names Randy Berry as First Global Envoy for LGBT Rights,’ online: http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/02/23/names-first-envoy-for-lgbt-rights/isqOEsNeUJ1o6NhA4AzTeJ/story.html