THE CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE OF MARRIAGE
Culture has attempted to redefine marriage. You and I are currently living in a time and space in which marriage is no longer viewed as significant and as purposeful as it once was. The past several decades have witnessed a paradigm shift concerning marriage. The Judaeo-Christian foundations of the west have been replaced by a libertarian ideology that elevates human freedom and self-determination as the supreme principles for human relationships. The once accepted Christian understanding of marriage has given way to the narrative that the Christian doctrine of marriage is harsh and even oppressive. The result of this shift has been catastrophic and could very well be the root issue of our current cultural crisis. As our world departs from God's intended design, more suffering, heartbreak, and misery will deteriorate and depress the human experience. I believe an understanding and a living out of the Christian doctrine of marriage could not only help alleviate some of the current social tensions but could also be the means that point people to Jesus for the answers and healing.
To reflect Jesus, to proclaim the gospel, and to illustrate God's saving love for us in Christ Jesus is the whole point and purpose of marriage. Marriage is an institution that God created for our joy and His purposes and plan. A clear understanding of the gospel will help with the comprehension of marriage. While a Biblical comprehension of marriage will earn a clear understanding of the gospel. In an attempt to establish this understanding of marriage and the gospel, one should look to the words of the one who created marriage, specifically in the book of Genesis and the Apostle Paul's letter to the Ephesians. We will discover the answers to the following questions: What is marriage? What is its point and purpose? Who is allowed to be married? What are the roles of men and women in marriage?
God’s intended design for marriage is established in Genesis 1-3 and begins with God's creation of two distinct genders, male and female. If we are to understand the Christian doctrine of marriage we first have to see gender as the gift it truly is. Culture did not create or invent manhood and womanhood. However, modern society has been quick to promote this false notion that gender is simply a cultural construct. There is an idea that our physical bodies are bad or wrong and that our minds and emotions determine such things as gender. For example, if one feels like they are the gender opposite of what their biology says, they are encouraged to take steps to change to their preferred gender. This is a modern form of Gnosticism. As in, the physical is bad, our minds are trapped and need to be freed. Pastor Ray Ortlund helps correct this false notion by pointing out that our concepts are too small and artificial to invent the glory of gender and sexuality. He also states that gender finds its true meaning within the creation narrative. Within the Creation story, we see that God created two genders, and marriage is only true marriage when it is between a male and a female.
The Christian view that marriage is between one man and one woman is extremely different than the current cultural view of marriage. But Jesus calls his followers to a countercultural lifestyle, allowing His grace to make us into new kinds of people. Consider Genesis 2:24-25 and Genesis 1:28,
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.
“This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh. Both the man and his wife were naked, yet felt no shame.
Every person from the beginning of time is uniquely created in the image of God. Based on that fact alone, all of humanity obtains value and worth. All are deserving of respect and goodness. The gospel reminds us that God seeks and saves the lost, broken, and sinful. He sets them apart to be His people - His children. God created two distinct genders, males and females, yet sin has caused mankind to distort the two from their original intent. Gender, marriage, and sexuality are predominant areas that have been affected by the fall in Genesis 3.
Sex is a gift created by God and is given to us with the intended purpose of procreation as well as pleasure, within the boundaries that have been set by God. God created marriage, and the Bible defines it as the publicly pledged, permanent, exclusive, lifetime covenantal union of one man and one woman. Both the man and the woman are to leave their family ties to form one flesh. Jesus reiterated these truths from Genesis 2 in his teachings in both Matthew 19:5 as well as Mark 10:7 – 8. Marriage includes physical intimacy, but its purpose seems to be working toward something much deeper. Genesis 2:24 established that man and woman, who are two distinct persons, are now one in nature and commitment. God created men and women to be equal in dignity, value, essence, and human nature.
Women and men are both equally made in God's image, and both are given the responsibility to rule over His creation. They were also created to have distinct roles. The wife is to be her husband's helper in the partnership of marriage.
Unfortunately, when sin entered into God's created design, it introduced many displays of disruption. Among them was the disruption in the proper relationship between man and woman. In the New Testament letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul expounds on the meaning of marriage. He compares the nature of marriage to the heavenly union between Jesus and His Church. Gender roles within marriage beautifully reflect the union between Jesus and His church. When the God-ordained gender roles within marriage are lost, they lose any opportunity to reflect the gospel through the marriage. The Apostle Paul begins describing how marriages can reflect the gospel by addressing gender roles within a marriage that mirrors the ultimate marriage between Jesus and His Church. He begins by addressing wives in Ephesians 5:22-24,
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives are to submit to their husbands in everything.
This is one of the most misunderstood verses in scripture. Its misinterpretations are the root of many false assumptions of Christian marriages. The misconceptions are that a complementation marriage is unfair, overbearing, and harsh especially towards women. The word "submit" is one that is looked upon as evil especially in an age of liberation. Also, due to sinful human beings, this text has been distorted and used for self-fulfillment and as an excuse to mistreat and abuse women. However, simply because these verses have been misused does not mean we should discount their wisdom. A correct study of this text can help alleviate many misconceptions and show that nothing is degrading or dehumanizing about how God has ordered gender roles within marriage.
In Ephesians 5:22 wives are told to submit to their husbands. Why? Ephesians 5:23 answers that question when it says that, "because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church". When the word headship is mentioned it's easy to think of the word authority, and that's because that's exactly what Paul means. In fact, he uses the Greek word kephalē which means source or authority. However, the authority that the husband is to have over his wife is not synonymous with a CEO or a boss or master but rather a husband is called to servant leadership. Husbands are called to lead and exercise authority with the kind of love that is willing to die. Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And again he said, “let the greatest among you become as the youngest and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:26). Now when the husband is called “the head of the wife,” and it goes on to say “as Christ is the head of the church” (Ephesians 5:23), something beautiful is reflected in the marriage. Paul writes, Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her (Ephesians 5:25). The way the husband leads and loves his wife should reflect the love, truth, grace, protection, provision, and mercy that Jesus has shown the church. A husband's love should reflect a commitment that is unbreaking, never giving up, and long-suffering. He must love with a love that is willing to die for the one he has committed himself to.
Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives are to submit to their husbands in everything (Ephesians 2:24). To understand this verse, first, it needs to be understood that it is not saying that wifely submission is equal to slavish obedience. Rather, the submission that is spoken of here is a joyful submission. It's the "disposition for the wife to yield to her husband in happy submission, the disposition to recognize and honor the husband’s great responsibility to lead the home. When the husband is giving godly leadership—strong moral, loving headship to his family—the woman will be no more squelched by the leadership of Jesus.” The woman will be elevated and fulfilled in her submission to her husband. When husband and wife are living out these roles within their marriage, the loving husband mirrors Jesus and the submissive, supportive wife mirrors the Church. Together their relationship mirrors the mystery of the gospel to a watching world. The world will see the love of Jesus in how a husband protects, loves, and cares for his wife. They will also see how the church responds with joyful submission to Jesus in how a wife submits to her husband.
Unfortunately, society and culture have rejected the Christian doctrine of marriage either because they have not seen it lived out as it was designed or simply because their hearts are hardened to the understanding of the gospel. The biggest objections are the before mentioned gender roles as well as marriage being limited to one man and one woman both heterosexual and monogamous. It's also common in our current cultural climate for marriage to be seen as something that is simply intended to meet and satisfy the needs of those within the marriage. There are several arguments against a traditional Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality. One of the common arguments made in favor of same-sex marriage is that we should no longer focus on the genders involved in the relationship but that those genders are faithful and committed to each other. There is an agreement that sleeping around with multiple partners is wrong but if same-sex partners are in a committed relationship then there should be nothing stopping them. At first glance, this argument seems captivating and many Christians have agreed with culture and have accepted this idea. However, Paul is clear in his first letter to the Corinthian church as he rebuked them for accepting an inappropriate relationship. Paul was not concerned about how faithful the couple was or how much they loved each other but rather he pointed out that the relationship goes against God's design for marriage and therefore it is wrong. Another common and significant argument against the Christian doctrine of marriage is that it is deeply damaging to individuals. For someone to be denied the opportunity to practice their sexuality in any way they see fit is seen as equal to someone's identity being repressed and as a result, they are unable to live a healthy and happy life. Many blame the traditional Christian view of marriage and sexuality for teenage suicide and kids growing up with overwhelming guilt and shame. This is a serious charge. Christians should be grieved by the reality that young people are hurting. Jesus never taught us that our lives are not worth living if we can not be fulfilled sexually. Your sexual disposition is not foundational to your identity. Rather, sex is created by God for our joy and his good purposes. The boundaries of this gift are that sex is to be enjoyed between a husband and wife. This boundary is set not to harm us but for our good.
The covenant of marriage and the ordained gender roles within marriage is meant to point us to the gospel and ultimately to the final marriage between Jesus and His Bride, the Church. As a result, marriage is for our joy, for God’s glory, and the defeat of the enemy. People far from God will see the gospel lived out in the Christian doctrine of marriage. Despite the cultural pushback against Christian marriage, it is clear that marriages that are built upon Biblical principles and focused on the mission of God will be lasting and fulfilling. A proper understanding of marriage must not ignore the gospel that is revealed through marriage. If there is any departure from this reality it is equal to a departure from the gospel.
Kostenberger, Andreas J., and David W. Jones. God, Marriage, and Family. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2004. 26.
Ortlund, Ray. Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2016. pg19
Victor Hamilton, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: Genesis 1-17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1990), 139.
Hughes, Kent R. Genesis: Preach the Word. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2004.
Dr. Alan Branch Lecture notes on The Christian Doctrine of Marriage. 2018
Johnson, Dale. “Marriage: A Portrait of the Gospel from the Beginning.” JBMW 21.1 (2016)
Hughes, Kent R. Ephesians, Preach the Word. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2004.
Strong, James. The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. 1st ed. (Madison, N.J.)
John Piper. Desiring God. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Multnomah Books, 1986 p. 182.
Allberry, Sam. Is God anti-gay?. UK: The Good Book Company, 2015. 38,75,79.