An intimate and complementing union between a man and a woman in which the two become one physically, in the whole of life. The purpose of marriage is to reflect the relationship of the Godhead and to serve him. Although the fall has marred the divine purpose and function of marriage, this definition reflects the God-ordained ideal for marriage from the beginning.
The Image of God. Genesis 1:26-27 declares that mankind (adam [אָדֵם]) was created in God's image with a plural composition of male and female, each separately in God's image (cf. Gen 5:1-3; 9:6; 1 Cor 11:7; Col 3:10; James 3:9). Although the image of God is never defined in Scripture, contexts in which God's image are discussed must define the concept (cf. 2 Cor 3:18; and Col 3:10). God's image in Genesis 1 includes ruling, creativity (procreation), reasoning power, decision-making, and relationship.
The relational aspect of God's image is reflected in the bringing together of male and female in "one flesh" (Gen 1:27; 2:21-24). This oneness with sexual differences portrays various aspects of God's image: same nature and essence, equal members, intimate relationship, common purpose, and distinct personalities with different roles, including authority and submission. In the Trinity the Father leads, the Son submits to the Father, and the Holy Spirit submits to both the Father and the Son. However, all three are fully and equally deity. Likewise, male and female in the marriage relationship are of the same nature and essence, equal as persons (cf. Gal 3:28), intimate in relationship, common in purpose, but distinct personalities with different roles: the husband leads and the wife submits to his leadership (cf. Eph 5:31). Marriage appears designed to reflect the same relational unity-in-plurality as the Godhead. Marriage, the most intimate human relationship, was appropriately chosen to reflect this relational aspect of the divine image. Each sex alone incompletely exhibits this part of the divine image. This open intimate relational aspect of God's image, reflected in marriage, was marred by the fall (cf. Gen 3:7, 10), causing each mate to hide (cover oneself) from each other and from God.
Marriage is the most basic and significant social relationship to humankind. This relationship must be nurtured and maintained for the welfare of all. Without marriage, society will fail.
God's design for marital relationship is heterosexual, not homosexual, and monogamous, not polygamous. This relational aspect of God's image in marriage has analogues portrayed in Yahweh's relation with Israel (Isa 54:5; Jer 31:32; Ezek 16:8-14; Hosea 2:14-20) as well as in Christ's relation with the church (Eph 5:21-33; cf. 1 Cor 11:1-3; 2 Cor 11:2; Rev 19:7-9). Israel is portrayed as Yahweh's wife (Isa 54:5; Jer 31:32; Ezek 16:8-14; Hosea 2:14-20). Her idolatrous unfaithfulness and disobedience to Yahweh are frequently depicted as spiritual "adultery" (Num 25:1-4; Judges 2:17; Jer 3:20; Ezek 16:15-59; 23:1-48; Hosea 1:2; 2:2-13; 3:3) for which she was punished by captivity. Yahweh "divorced" his "unfaithful wife" (Isa 50:1; Jer 3:8; Hosea 2:2), but ultimately will have compassion and delightfully restore her to faithfulness and holiness (Isa 54; 62:4-5; Ezek 16:53-63; Hosea 2:14-3:1).
New Testament marriage imagery describes the relationship between Christ and his church (cf. 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:21-33; Rev 19:7-9). The church, Christ's bride, is sacrificially loved by Christ, just as a husband should love his wife (Eph 5:25,28-30,33). The husband's responsibility is leadership, even as Christ is the head of the church, his body (Eph 5:23). The wife responds submissively to her husband's sacrificial love like the church submits to Christ's (Eph 5:22,24,33). The husband's love assists her in becoming holy and blameless before God, even as Christ presents the church without blemish to the Father (Eph 5:26-28). Christ's relationship with the church becomes the functional model for a marriage relationship.
God commanded the male and female to perform two specific functions: procreation ("fruitful and multiply") and ruling over the earth ("subdue" and "rule") (Gen 1:28). These are functions that reflect God's image. Humankind (male and female) receive God-ordained authority to rule over the rest of creation, but not over each other.
Human reproduction comes through intimate sexual union designed only for the marriage relationship. Cohabitation abuses the procreative nature of the marriage relationship. While reproduction is a divine purpose of marriage, some couples are unable to have children for various physical reasons. This does not make their marriage second-rate or inferior. However, a married couple should desire to obey the divine injunction of procreation if possible. Children are one manifestation of the "one flesh" of marriage. The procreative injunction obviously precludes homosexual "marriages."
The Marriage Union as God's Work. God brings a man and a woman together in marriage (Matt 19:6; cf. Eve to Adam, Rebecca to Isaac ). It is not humankind's prerogative to separate what God has chosen to put together (Matt 19:6).
As creator of the marriage relationship, God becomes the essential supporting party to a marriage, giving wisdom, discretion, understanding, and love to protect the union and to enable it to honor God (Prov 2:6-16; 1 Cor 13). A marriage can glorify God and function properly only when both partners are believers in the Messiah, Jesus. Then the Holy Spirit guides and enables them in their roles and functions. Continued reliance upon God is imperative for believing spouses.
Marriage as God's Norm for Humankind. God made man a relational being in his own image. Therefore, there is the need for intimate relationship within humankind (Gen 2:18). Such a relationship is also necessary for the reproduction and multiplication of humankind. Without the fall, probably no one would have ever been single. Perfect people would have yielded perfect marriages. Sin brought flaws in humans that sometimes make it difficult to find or sustain a suitable marriage relationship. Being single for life is an exception and, therefore, is declared to be a gift from God (1 Cor 7:7). The single person is normally less encumbered in God's work. So, although marriage appears to be God's norm, singleness is neither more nor less spiritual than marriage (1 Cor 7:32-36).
The Nature of Marriage. Complementarity. The woman was created as "a helper suitable" for the man (ezer kenegdo) (Gen 2:18). The English "complement" best conveys the meaning of neged. A wife is a "helper" who "complements" her husband in every way. A helper always subordinates self-interests when helping another, just as Paul reminds us in Philippians 2:1-11. A helping role is a worthy one, not implying inferiority. The wife, therefore, helps the husband to lead their family to serve and glorify God. The husband also complements his wife so that together they become a new balanced entity that God uses in an enhanced way.
A new permanent union (Gen 2:24). "Cleaving" in Genesis 2:24 pictures a strong bond between the members of this union. The marriage bond was to be permanent. Separation or termination of the marriage union was not an option before sin entered the world and death with it (Gen 3). All later revelation shows that separation/divorce was because of sin (Deut 24:1-4; Ezra 9-10; Mal 2:14; Matt 5:31-32; 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor 7:1-16, 39). God's ideal was for marriage to be permanent and exclusive.
One flesh (Gen 2:24). "One flesh" involves the unity of the whole person: purpose, physical, and lifea unity whereby the two become a new, God-designed, balanced life. They counterbalance each other's strengths and weaknesses. Sexually the two become "one flesh" physically as reflected in their offspring. God's ideal exclusiveness of the "one flesh" relationship disallows any other relationship: homosexuality, polygamy, adultery, premarital sex, concubinage, incest, bestiality, cultic prostitution. These and other sexual perversions violate the "oneness" of the marriage relationship and were often punishable by death (Lev 20:1-19; Deut 22:13-27; cf. Rom 1:26-32). Becoming "one flesh" is used in Scripture for the consummating sexual act of marriage.
These aspects of "one flesh" argue against premarital sex, promiscuity, and perversion of the sexual act. The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), so believers should be holy in their sexual conduct (Lev 19:2; 1 Thess 4:3-6; 1 Peter 1:15-16), keeping marriage pure.
Intimacy. Commitment to exclusive sexual intimacy is treated with dignity, considered honorable and undefiled (Heb 13:4). Mutual consent is required for any temporal abstinence from sexual relations (1 Cor 7:1-5). Neither spouse is to exploit the other sexually nor use sex to gratify passionate lust (1 Thess 4:3-7). One is to delight always in the wife of his youth (cf. Prov 5:15-19; Eccl 9:9). This intimate relationship is encouraged by God's portrayal of its beauty and dignity in the Song of Songs.
Covenant commitment. The covenant analogy attests the commitment between two married partners (Prov 2:17; Mal 2:14). Emphasis is upon an agreement, a commitment, not upon an analogy of conditionality and unconditionality of some biblical covenants that would extend the marriage covenant analogy beyond its expected scope. This marriage commitment, and faithfulness to it, preclude sexual relations with anyone except one's spouse (Exod 20:14; Lev. 18,20; Rom 1:24-27). Although kings frequently employed marriages to seal foreign treaties in the ancient Near East, such commitments were spiritual as well as physical adultery.
Roles. Although male and female are equal in relationship to Christ, the Scriptures give specific roles to each in marriage. Paul, in continually emphasizing the terms "head" and "submit, " summarizes the basic role of husbands and wives respectively.
The husband is to assume headship/leadership (1 Cor 11:3; Eph 5:23). The normal meaning of biblical headship is leadership with authority, as exemplified in Christ (cf. 1 Cor 11:1-10; Eph 1:22; 4:15; 5:23). Headship is a benevolent responsibility without disdaining condescension and patronizing of the woman (cf. Matt 7:12; Luke 22:26; 1 Peter 3:7). Although the husband leads as Christ leads the church, the husband does not have all the rights and authority of Christ. He leads his wife toward dependence upon Christ, not upon himself, for all human leaders are fallible. The husband leads like Christ, being considerate of his wife with respect and knowledge. He considers the ideas of those he leads, because they may be better than his own. Leadership's goal is not to show the leader's superiority, but to elicit all the strengths of people for the desired objective. Headship is not male domination, harshness, oppression, and reactionary negativism (cf. 2 Cor 1:24; Eph 5:29; Col 3:19), for "no one ever hated his own body."
Leadership assumes the responsibility to initiate and implement spiritual and moral planning for a family. Others, however, should also think, plan, initiate, and give input. The husband, however, must accept the burden of making the final choice in times of disagreement, although seldom should this be needed.
The husband's leadership and its authority is a God-given responsibility to be carried out in humility. Inappropriate use of leadership should be curbed by the unique intimacy and union implied in the phrases "one flesh, " "no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, " and "joint heirs of the grace of life" (Eph 5:29-31; 1 Peter 3:7).
The husband leads with an attitude of love. Christ's love for the church provides the model (Eph 5:25-33; Col 3:19). The husband loves his wife as he would his own body (Eph 5:25), nourishing and cherishing her (v. 29). He gives himself sacrificially for her benefit as Christ sacrificially loved the church. Such love rules out treating his wife like a child or servant; rather he assists her to be a "fellow-heir."
Biblical love thinks first of the other person (cf. 1 Cor 13). It is a mental decision and commitment. God also gave emotions of love that should follow the mental act of love else the emotional aspect becomes infatuation or lust. Love protects, cares, trusts, and delights in the best for the other. The husband initiates love (Eph 5:25; 1 Peter 3:7). He who loves his wife surely loves himself.
The husband is to treat his wife with respect and considerateness (1 Peter 3:7). The husband bestows honor upon his wife. He always shows respect for her privately and in public.
The husband appropriately provides for and protects his wife. This does not mean that the wife cannot assist in supporting the family, for Proverbs 31 demonstrates that a godly wife may surely do so. The husband should always be willing to suffer for her safety.
The wife submits to her husband's headship (Eph 5:21-24; Col 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1-6). Submission's basic meaning is "to submit or subordinate to a higher authority." It is a predisposition to yield to the husband's leadership and a willingness to follow his authority. The husband does not command the wife to do this. The verb implies that she does this voluntarily. Submission does not imply that the wife is inferior, less intelligent, or less competent. Christ submitted to the Father but was not inferior or less God than the Father (1 Cor 11:3; 15:28). Submission does not indicate that the wife puts her husband in the place of Christ. Christ is supreme in all things! The submissive wife does not give up independent thought. Believing wives with unbelieving husbands think independently, while still submitting to their husbands (1 Cor 7:13-14). She might seek to influence her husband for right and to guide him in righteousness (1 Peter 3:1-2). Submission never signifies that a wife gives in to her husband's every demand. If demands are unrighteous, she submits to her higher authority, Jesus.
A wife submits to her own husband. Relationships with other men are different in areas of submission and leadership.
Some feel that Ephesians 5:21 argues that the husband and wife are equally submissive. In its context the best understanding sees this verse as an introduction to three particular areas where people are submissive to one another: wives to husbands (vv. 22-33); children to parents (6:1-4); and servants to masters (6:5-9). Mutual submissiveness does not fit the latter two categories.
A wife should submit with an attitude of honor, reverence, and respect (Psalm 45:11; Eph 5:33). A wife affirms and nurtures her husband's leadership. She submits in the same manner that she and the church submit to Christ (1 Peter 3:6). This analogy provides a good gauge. The wife demonstrates a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:4), not demanding her own way or insisting on her rights. A wife's respect is primarily for the role of leadership that her husband occupies, not necessarily for his merits, though that would be the ideal. She recognizes the God-given leadership with regard and deference.
Effect of the Fall on Marriage. The fall made human hearts hard toward God and toward each other. The relational aspect of God's image became marred. Rebellion against submission to male leadership was Satan's initial temptation (Gen 3:1-6, 17; contra. Eph 5:33; 1 Peter 3:1). Male domination and harshness crept into leadership (cf. Col 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7). Sin caused polygamy, concubinage, incest, adultery, rape, prostitution, and all kinds of immorality (cf. Lev. 18, 20; Rom 1:26-32) to damage or destroy the marriage relationship. Marriage commitments are violated. Divorce, premarital sex, and couples living together out of wedlock would never have occurred had not sin entered the world. The fall severely damaged the marriage relationship.
For marriage to function now according to God's ideal, believers in Christ need to marry only believers. Whenever God directly brought a man and woman together in marriage, both were believers. Although pagan customs encouraged marriage with anyone (cf. Gen 16), Israel was given explicit commands not to marry foreigners who would lead them to worship foreign deities (Deut 7:1-4; 13:6-11; 17:1-7; 20:17; 23:2). New Testament believers are also not to be "unequally yoked" with unbelievers (2 Cor 6:14), meaning any action causing the union of believer with nonbeliever, or nonbelieving ways, must be avoided.
Ralph H. Alexander
See also Divorce; Family Life and Relations; Sexuality, Human
Bibliography. G. W. Bromily, God and Marriage; L. J. Crabb, The Marriage Builder: A Blueprint for Couples and Counselors; J. Piper and W. Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism; E. Wheat and G. Perkins, Love Life for Every Married Couple.