Jesus famously instructed the Sadducees that in the age to come we will be as the angels, who are neither married nor given in marriage (Matt 22:30). Marriage is one of the most difficult undertakings in the life of a human being. If we are now Kingdom citizens, anticipating the age to come with our way of life, why should someone go through the trouble? Why get married at all? The following is Part 1 of a two part study of this issue. I have posted this before under a different title, but with my own marriage on the brain so much recently, I wanted to share it again. Perhaps I will receive some new insights from my readers.
What is the purpose of marriage? What are we, the married persons, going to receive from it that makes the marriage covenant worth adopting and upholding for life? Or, perhaps even more pertinent, what is God, the author of marriage, receiving from the marriage relationship of two persons that makes it worth entering?
There are many ways one could answer this question, for the Bible offers significant wisdom about marriage and our Creator’s intention for it. Yet, I will argue that in the Kingdom of God, inaugurated and established by Jesus Christ, there is really only one primary purpose for marriage. Before getting into that, however, let’s consider the other options available to us.
One might suggest that we should derive the purpose for marriage from Gen 1-2. Certainly, it is wise to start at the beginning of the story. In Genesis 1, the order and rhythm of creation is displayed for the reader and the “crown jewel” of creation is saved for last. God creates human beings in his image, according to his likeness, for the purpose of “ruling” the fish, birds, animals, all the earth, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth (Gen 1:26). After creating human beings “male and female,” God blesses them and commands them to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it” (1:28). These commands are similar to those given to the birds and sea creatures in 1:22, where he tells them to “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the waters of the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.” The major difference, of course, is that human beings alone are given the command to “subdue” the earth.
Those who use Genesis as the basis for the purpose of marriage usually suggest that 1:28, with the command to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it,” is the underlying reason for the marriage relationship. In this point of view, bearing children and ruling over the earth is the primary reason for marriage. (One can understand, therefore, why the matter of birth control can be so contentious when the primary purpose of the marriage relationship is seen as bearing and raising children. Yet, this is not the time or the place to get into this tertiary issue.)
Without denying the importance of these commands to the marriage relationship, I would like to point out that a close reading of Gen 1 reveals that the institution of marriage is not mentioned at all. Instead, the focus is upon the order of creation, with human beings coming last. There is continuity between animals and humans as created beings (both are to “be fruitful, multiply,” and “fill the earth”), but also discontinuity between them (humans are to “subdue” the earth). Moreover, God makes a point to instruct human beings in what things are given to them and every animal for food: “every green plant.”
Yet, one must admit, marriage as an institution is not considered in a recognizable way at all. Instead, the focus is upon the human race as a whole and the purpose of the human race upon the earth in God’s good created order. I would like to suggest that Gen 1:28, although not irrelevant or unimportant to the matter, is not an appropriate basis for the purpose of marriage. (And with something like 6.6 billion humans walking around on the planet today, I think we've probably fulfilled God's instruction to "multiply," don't you?)
What about Gen 2? Here we get a little closer to our topic, for the author provides details of God’s interactions with the first man and the woman God formed for him. We are told that God understood that it is not good for the man to be alone and that he needed a helper who corresponded to him in the way that all the other animals have corresponding mates. So, God formed a woman from the man’s body and presented her to the man. The poetic exclamation of the man at the sight of the woman is beautiful: “This one, at last, is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh; this one will be called woman, for she was taken from man” (Gen 2:23). This statement is modified by the narrator, who informs the reader, “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh” (2:24).
From this description of woman’s creation for man, what would the purpose of marriage seem to be? Perhaps the intention is that the two would have intimate relationship, not simply in the sexual sense, but in the emotional closeness of two beings in perfect harmony. This coincides with our belief about the Godhead, which exists in perfect Triune relationship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The emphasis on intimate relationship is supported by the commentary of the narrator that begins, “This is why…” as if to say, “This is why men and women marry, for God created woman to be with man in intimate partnership.”
With this in mind, it is even more tragic that after sin enters God’s good world, the perfect couple is expelled from Eden following the reception of their respective judgments, and from that point forward marriages are a mess in the story of Israel. (Say what you want about the patriarchs, certainly they were not the models of loving relationship, fidelity, and loyalty to their spouses.)
Again, I do not deny the truths of Gen 2:23-24, for there is much here to recommend. I think it is clear that Gen 2 provides more insight for the purpose of marriage as an institution than Gen 1, where the purpose of human beings as a whole is in the spotlight. Even so, I am not satisfied with building our foundation for marriage chiefly on Gen 2:23-24. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most important is that as Christians, we should read and interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Covenant and the teachings of Jesus.
Since we proclaim and live under a New Covenant, I think it is important to ask whether Jesus reaffirmed Gen 2 as the primary purpose of marriage or did he revolutionize this institution as he did so many other aspects of the Old Testament (“You have heard it said…but I tell you…”). As we consider marriage through the lens of the New Covenant and the coming Kingdom of God, what do we find?
A New Testament option for deriving the purpose of marriage is increasingly popular in American Christianity: Ephesians 5. Here, following his instructions on being “filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18), which concludes with the description of “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ” (5:21), Paul provides corollary exhortation to wives and husbands.
In the instructions for husbands, Paul uses the Christ’s love for the Church, as the illustration for the kind of love husbands should exercise for their wives. This kind of love is self-sacrificing, cleansing, honoring, and sanctifying, for that is how Christ loved his Church. Many teachers and preachers adopt this profound imagery as the main purpose of marriage: to model and reflect the love of Christ for the Church to the watching world.
This sounds very good and, indeed, I do not deny the significance of Paul’s illustration in Eph 5. Yet, I am wary of elevating a metaphor—one that Paul himself calls “a profound mystery” (5:32)—to the status of rule. That is to say, while it is legitimate to use Paul’s illustration to describe the marriage relationship, I’m not sure it is appropriate to conclude that it is also the purpose of the marriage relationship.
I know that I am stepping on toes with this line of reasoning, but please stay with me. Notice what Paul does NOT say in this passage: “You should get married because it is a mysterious picture of the love of Christ for the Church.” He doesn’t say anything like this. Instead, Paul is addressing those already married and instructing them on how they can live within their marriage bonds as ones “filled with the Spirit” and “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.” So, while the image of Christ and the Church is to be a source of inspiration and a model for married persons, it is not an appropriate foundation for the overall purpose of marriage.
Before I go any further, let me reiterate that I do not believe the above options to be completely off the mark. It is not my intention to disqualify the viewpoints discussed above, for they contain relevant instruction for Christians on the purpose and outworking of marriage. Instead, I have come to the conclusion that, in light of the New Covenant and the Kingdom of God, there is a higher purpose for marriage that both Paul and Jesus understood and advocated. Before you jump out of your seats and holler, “Heretic!” please follow my thinking very closely in Part 2 of this series.