The conversation around the topic of marriage came to the forefront of social consciousness a few years back. These debates typically center on the limits of marriage, whether it is only meant for one man and one woman or whether it is open to any loving relationship. Most biblical arguments for the traditional view focus on two aspects; procreation and God’s design for men and women. However, these arguments don’t often speak to what marriage is, only what it does or why it exists. So today let’s ask the more important question: what is biblical marriage?
To state it as succinctly as possible: Biblical marriage is a union of two persons – a man and a woman. This union involves a number of different aspects, like love, commitment, and so on, and it produces certain results, like relationship and offspring. But at its core, marriage is a union. While the Bible has much to say about procreation and the roles of men and women, let’s take some time to see what it says about this concept of union.
There are three significant aspects of this union that we find in Scripture:
- The marriage union is physical
- The marriage union is personal
- The marriage union is relational
The Marriage Union is Physical
After God creates the first man, He says something that He had never said before; He says “It is not good…” Everything He had done before was declared “good.” So, what was not good? God continues, saying “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). What happens next is informative: God shows the man every creature that He had made, but none was fitting for him. They were all good, but they were coming from outside the man, separate from him, and they were not made like him. So, God creates the woman from the flesh of the man. They originate from the same substance, and she was made specifically to fit him. So, as Scripture declares, the man and the woman “shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). To put it plainly, this is talking about sex, but that sex itself is the means of physical unification.
This physical aspect of union is essential to marriage. Like puzzle pieces that fit together just so, the man and woman are physically unified. They are of one substance, like a single object divided in two, that is made whole as it is brought back together. No other piece will complete the puzzle.
This is an important distinction: the one who is fitting for this union is of the same substance, and is complementary to the other. Two different kinds of things won’t unify, and two that are not complimentary will not be fitting.
The Marriage Union is Personal
Now, if bodily unity were the most significant aspect of marriage, then certainly we would not have much reason to consider marriage important. So much of what our culture gets wrong about sex and marriage comes from this point: physical intimacy involves the whole person. It is intimately personal. Sex is the means of procreation, but procreation is not essential to the physical union; rather, it is a result. The marriage union brings a person into intimate connection with another person in a way that nothing else can. Most modern cultures want us to believe that sex is merely a physical act, but Scripture teaches otherwise.
This union is a loving communion of equal and distinct persons. When the two become one, it is more than a physical connection. It involves a connection on the personal level, where the two persons commune in a way that is unique to that relationship. Sex is a means of connection, but the whole of the marriage relationship involves this personal connection. The physical union is merely one level of contact. As we already mentioned, marriage involves the whole person: physical, emotional, spiritual, and so on. The goal of the biblical marriage is for the two to become one as they connect and commune with each other at each of these connecting points.
So, marriage is physical because we are physical beings, and it is personal because we are personal beings, but we also see that marriage is inherently relational.
The Marriage Union is Relational
When God first creates the man and woman, Scripture makes an interesting declaration: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). The first time that the Bible mentions the distinction of the sexes is in relation to the image of God. So, the question becomes, what does this male-female union have to do with God? The answer is essential to Christianity, and to a proper understanding of Scripture: God Himself IS a union of persons. God is the relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit, Three-in-One; that is, three persons with one essence. Marriage is a picture of that union.
The union we find in the Trinity is a loving communion of equal and distinct Persons who are One in essence. This is precisely what marriage is meant to be. While marriage is not the only expression of this divine union, it is perhaps the clearest picture God has given us to explain and even experience the Trinitarian life of God. Now, the question remains: what is this experience? What is the essence of Trinitarian life that is demonstrated in the marriage relationship?
As a loving communion of equal persons, this relationship consists of self-giving love which seeks the good of the other. The Trinitarian relationship is always outward-facing love from one to another. So also, the marriage relationship is meant to consist of this kind of self-giving, other-focused love. Consider what Scripture says about this:
John 15:13 says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” And we know this is precisely what Jesus does on the cross, demonstrating the greatest form of self-giving love. Paul picks up on this idea and connects it with the marriage relationship when he says in Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Every human relationship in some way models this type of self-giving love, but in marriage we see it most clearly. We could spend hours discussing Christ’s relationship with the Church as it relates to marriage, but we will save that for another time.
So, as we close out this discussion, here is a clear definition of biblical marriage to walk away with: biblical marriage is a loving, self-giving communion of equal but distinct and complementary persons. If we approach marriage with this in mind, much of our cultural confusion about the nature of sex and marriage can be resolved, and many of our marital conflicts can be avoided. But remember; to love as God loves requires the help of God, and a relationship that imitates the Trinitarian life requires that our personal relationship with God be intimately connected with our marriage relationship.
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