I think it goes with saying, these days, that the definition, position, and purpose of marriage are matters of great controversy in our society, and indeed, among many Christians today as well. Of course, there are a great many Christians around who are ardently fighting to “protect” the Christian vision of marriage, too. But what I’m beginning to notice is that they’re not doing a very good job, neither in influencing the culture around us nor in restoring godly order within the Church.
The reason for this trouble, I believe, is not for lack of right teaching so much as lack of right emphasis and focus. The “one man, one woman” arguments are often made from a simplistic appeal to certain verses in the Bible, and the “no pre-marital sex” arguments are thrown in as the “God-honoring” thing to do with oddly minimal biblical explanation.
The Foundation in Genesis
The way I see many people defining marriage is the appeal to Genesis chapter 2, which says:
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.
This is then shored up with Jesus’ citation of these verses when he taught on marriage in the Gospel books. It seems like the perfect theological move: pick up a clear command and instruction from God identifying what marriage is about, take note of its direct affirmation from the Lord Jesus himself, and you’ve got yourself a sure and certain immutable truth! Well, it seems perfect at first. There’s something missing.
All we’ve got at this point is an argument of Law. Essentially, we’ve made a Jewish theological assertion with the Jesus Stamp Of Approval. Now, of course, as Christians, we do not discard the Old Covenant Law; it still teaches us about holiness and right and wrong. But the Old Covenant and its Law are not the binding force over us as God’s New Covenant people, the Church. At this juncture, the liberal perspective concludes that Christians are now free to redefine marriage into whatever model seems appropriate, including same-sex marriage, thus accommodating the trends of the culture around us.
The Gospel of Marriage
Instead, the appropriately Christian thing to do is look to the Gospel – the good news of Christ – especially at its focal point: the Cross. What does marriage have to do with the Gospel? What do we learn about marriage at the Cross of Calvary?
This is the point where I’d point us to Ephesians 5:21-33.
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
At first glance this seems like a bunch of rules – more Law being doled out – and this time it’s looking rather demeaning to women compared to the original stuff in Genesis which suggests a less cluttered sense of equality between the husband and the wife. But if we read more than just the first phrase of each line, we quickly find that St. Paul is working on a much larger scope than the husband-wife marital realm. “This mystery [of marriage] is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.” Here, I believe, we find the Gospel crux of the subject of marriage. It’s not just a set of rules – who gets married to whom and what one is allowed to do in marriage versus outside of marriage – but it’s also a picture of the Gospel. In the union of husband and wife we see a picture of the union of Christ and his Church (which is His bride).
Now we’ve got what I would consider a properly Christian approach to defining marriage. It’s not just about rules and laws, it’s about portraying God and his great love for us. The Law and the Gospel work together in Christian theology and practice, and a reduction to just one or the other always falls short of the full truth and beauty of the faith and religion known as Christianity.