Biblical Marriage

This was originally written as a response to specific questions, and is a bit ‘rough’. The questions asked were: what constitutes ‘marriage’ according to God. What is the difference between ‘marriage’ and ‘living together’, and why is the latter not acceptable to God? They are valid questions, which many folk have asked as they see the inconsistencies between what God said, what Scripture shows happened, and what the time & culture offer.

Learn to recognize your presuppositions, and learn how to weed out premises that have nothing to do with the conclusion (straw men) when trying to analyse an argument.

1. The Bible presents what God said in the past, how He interacted with His creation, and how His creation acted & interacted with Him. Just because something is recorded in the Bible doesn’t mean it has any relationship to “ought”. The fact that God did not immediately destroy everyone who was guilty of any particular sin doesn’t mean He condones or ignores it.

2. The fact that we do not directly see God executing judgement in a physical way on someone for their sin does not mean that He approves or excuses their sin, or that He has not exercised judgement. Jesus said, “now is the judgement of this world; now is the prince of this world cast out.” (Jn 12:31)  Clearly, when He spoke these words, the world had not received the punishment for sin in the way we tend to envision it.

3. God has very clearly stated His standards for moral or righteous behaviour. What He does not accept is the adherence to those standards in the absence of faith in Him as the point of reference. In other words, He is not pleased with a God-rejecting person who lives an otherwise upright life. This is the “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” principle (Is 64:6). The first sin was rejection of God, rather than disobedience. (the Genesis account shows Eve’s accepting of Satan’s contradiction of God’s specific statements about the consequences of eating from the one particular tree. Subsequent to choosing to disbelieve what God had said, Eve took action consistent with her disbelief  see Gen 3). Our only justification before God is faithful submission to God as God. We are not saved by our works but by our faith, through Jesus Christ. BUT, His command is to obey, and obedience refers to “rules” or standards. We are told to do what He says. (2Pet 1:5-7; John 14:21 etc;  Eph 2:8-10 – saved by grace through faith, created in Christ unto good works.)

4. SO, the fact that we see all kinds of aberrations of anything in the Bible does not negate what God’s own intention/purpose/meaning is.

Then:

1. We know that having sex does not “join” the couple in the context of marriage. Consider: the man “having his father’s wife”; the woman at the well, who “had 5 husbands and the one she has now is not her husband”; and the Law pertaining to a young man sleeping with an unmarried and unbetrothed woman, who is obliged to marry her (except if her father refuses permission.) In each case there is sex, but specifically not marriage. (1Cor 5:1-;  Jn 4:18; Ex 22:16-17)

2. Having an “attitude of lifelong commitment” does not constitute marriage. Joseph & Mary were “espoused” to be married, but they were not married. There is clear distinction in several narratives about being “betrothed” contrasted to “married”, and you can be assured that, regardless of where the decision began, in that culture throughout their history, betrothal was an “intention to lifelong commitment”.

3. Fornication is condemned in the New Testament. The word means to have sex with someone you are not married to, which was, until fairly recently, against the law.

The next question to resolve is whether the “becoming one flesh” is the marriage, or a characteristic/consequence of the marriage. What exactly can/does the phrase mean? As a side-bar, it is helpful to remember that the same one word is translated from the Greek into each of “woman/wife” and man/husband”. There is no special or specific word for the spousal form; it is literally “his ‘woman’” “her ‘man’”. So even though the English version uses each of generic and spousal in accordance with contextual implication, there is no grammar distinction in the original languages. It is understood that “his woman” is his wife, or his fiancée in the case of “espoused woman”.

It is clear from the Genesis teaching, Jesus’ answers to the hypocritical Pharisees, and Paul’s teachings on marriage, as well as the consistent condemnation of divorce in both Old and New Testaments, that the characteristics of marriage are unity, permanence, and a “coming together” in a specific type of relationship. This is necessarily affected by the setting up of a household in that unity and permanence. Isaac married Rebecca; she became his wife as soon as she showed up at his home. There was no party, no paperwork, no fanfare. She came for the purpose of becoming his wife, and as soon as she arrived, that is what she became. It was understood by everyone that they would be a “unit” in their own household under Isaac’s leadership & Rebecca’s care. That arrangement was consummated in the sexual relationship.

It is also noteworthy that most of God’s own references to marriage in the Old Testament and the teachings about it in the New Testament, also include the quality of affectionate love. Usually when God spoke about marriage in the OT, He was using it as an illustration of His desired relationship with Israel as a people, and how they had violated it. But His descriptions were full of adoring, sacrificial feelings & actions that either were directed towards them by Him as the “loving Husband” in the illustration, or that were lacking from them as the neglectful wife. All the teachings of the NT command sacrificial, loving behaviour between the spouses. From this we can reasonably conclude that another of the correct and intended characteristics of Biblical marriage is true Biblical love, although the many references to various marriages in which that was lacking are still references to marriages, so it is not a characteristic which, when lacking, negates the status of being married.

Note in 1Cor 6:15-18, Paul admonishes them that “joining” themselves with an harlot makes them one flesh with her. The joining to an harlot is sexual only, so the “one flesh” definition comes from a sexual context. Whether it relates expressly to the mechanics of sexual activity, or to the potential of procreation, where the man’s “flesh” and woman’s “flesh” literally join to literally result in one, unique flesh, is unanswered. But regardless of which it is, “one flesh” relates to the physical union in either affect or effect.

Since we see illustrated a distinction between having a sexual relationship as contrasted to a marriage, and having a ‘living together” relationship contrasted to a marriage, with both of those conditions being expressly stated by God to not be marriage, marriage is greater than the sexual, and greater than the sharing of space.

A relationship that is “trial” is therefore not a marriage. Where there is no present effect of having created a unit (household) of one each of man & woman together, there is no marriage. Where there is not the specific understanding and pursuit of permanence, there is no marriage. Where the two are not specifically pursuing a conjoined unity it is not marriage. Neither is the situation I have heard of several times of couples who claim in one breath to be committed, and in the next breath say that, if things go badly then of course they would not stay together, because that would be a travesty, and why torture each other indefinitely, etc. (the “God wants us to be happy” line is a Biblically insupportable comment) – this is also not a Biblical marriage, because they have redefined God’s terms to provide an escape clause.

It is unfortunate that the culture has done to “marriage’ what it has, because the whole “piece of paper” and “wedding” thing have become a distraction and burden. It is the responsibility and obligation of society to recognize a marriage, and that means a mechanism for communicating it is necessary. But once upon a time, that mechanism was that two people came together with the intention to be spouses, and began to do so, with everyone understanding what was happening. When strangers were met, they were introduced as husband & wife. Now the more formal, state-directed signing of pieces of paper before witnesses thing tends to confuse the issue; it shouldn’t be necessary, although I can see where civil law would need some enduring testimony of the fact in certain situations.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with celebrating good & important things. A marriage between people setting out to be a unit before God in love is worthy of celebration, but in many cases it has become a show more than anything else, that stresses the people involved, costs indecent amounts of money and time on everyone’s part, and usually starts people off angry with each other & the world. Incidentally, weddings were never parties given by the couple. They were given by the parents in honour of their children’s marriage. The parents made the decisions, arrangements, invitations, and paid for the party. It was not “the bride’s” party, or “the couple’s” party; it was the parents’ party and the couple was grateful for the gift of a celebration of their new life together.

The solution to the question of what constitutes Biblical Marriage is to follow the teaching of the Scripture, rather than the account of the Scripture. And the teaching is clear, regardless of how individuals lived through history.

Until one man and one woman have joined together in a household unit in permanence and unity, they are not married. And no one is justified in having sex before marriage regardless of future “intentions”. Fornication is declared to be wrong, and God’s word does not change. Marriages have fallen through on the day of the wedding, so consider that they will have stolen what belonged to any future spouse. It is something that, once stolen cannot be restituted. While you can abstain in the future, you cannot restore the purity of the body. There is only one first.