The biblical standard for marriage is a monogamous relationship in which a man and a woman share a lifetime commitment to each other, second only to their commitment to God. It is an unconditional, lifetime commitment. Jesus emphasized God's intention that marriage be a lifetime commitment (Mark 10:5-9;
Matthew 19:4-9). He affirmed this as the principle of marriage inherent in divine creation (Genesis 2:24). Paul cited this key principle to show the sinfulness of sexual relations outside marriage (1 Corinthians 6:12-20) and to emphasize the importance of self-giving love in marriage (Ephesians 5:28).
Genesis 2:24 emphasizes the oneness of the marriage relationship and the priority of the relationship over all others, including the relationship of the couple to their parents. Marriage is also for companionship (Genesis 2:18-23). Paul described the kind of mutual submission that should characterize the marriage relationship (Ephesians 5:21-33). Although the husband is head of the home, his role is modeled after the role of Christ as Head of the church, who “loved the church and gave Himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25).
Sex is one of God's good Gifts God's intention is for sexual union to be expressed exclusively within the unique monogamous relationship of marriage. Human sexuality (Genesis 1:27) and sexual union within marriage (Genesis 2:24) were part of God's good creation. Sexual union is for procreation (Genesis 1:28) and also for expressing love within the oneness of marriage (Genesis 2:24;
1 Corinthians 7:2-5). Although polygamy was practiced by some Old Testament personalities, monogamy was always God's ideal for humanity (Matthew 19:4-5). The New Testament clearly teaches monogamy (1 Corinthians 7:2). Adultery is a violation of the commitment inherent in marriage (Exodus 20:14;
1 Thessalonians 4:2-3;
Hebrews 13:4). So is any sexual intercourse that does not express the oneness of marriage (1 Corinthians 6:12-20). The biblical condemnation of adultery covers such things as communal marriage, mate swapping, and the so-called open marriage. Likewise, homosexuality violates the intended purpose of sex (Leviticus 18:22;
Romans 1:26-27). Incest also is a violation of the biblical view of sex (1 Corinthians 5:1-5).
Marriage and singleness are valid options for Christians. Jesus taught that marriage demands faithfulness within a relationship based on a lifetime commitment (Matthew 19:3-9). When the disciples said that this concept made marriage too demanding, Jesus replied that singleness—whether involuntary or voluntary—has its own demand, abstinence from sexual union (Matthew 19:10-12). Paul acknowledged that marriage is best for many; but, based on his own experience, he recommended singleness to those who wanted to devote all of their energies to Christian work and could forego sexual relationships (1 Corinthians 7:7-9,1 Corinthians 7:32-35). Neither Jesus nor Paul presented marriage or singleness as a second-class or less holy state than the other.
Christians condemn sexual immorality in all its forms. Sexual sins are serious because they undermine the foundation of family life, the oneness of the marriage relationship; however, such sins are not unforgivable. Jesus sought out and offered forgiveness to persons guilty of sexual sins (Matthew 21:31-32;
John 8:2-11). Forgiveness does not condone such sins, but does offer a new start with God's help. David's experience shows that even when sexual sins are forgiven, the destructive consequences continue (2 Samuel 12-19). Love demands that followers of Christ seek to help persons caught in the grip of sin, being careful not to become involved in the sin themselves (Galatians 6:1). Persistent immorality is unacceptable behavior for Christians (1 Corinthians 5:1-13;
1 Corinthians 6:12-20).
Christians should marry Christians, but Christians are to strive for a godly home even when this is not the case. The expectation for a Christian to marry another Christian is implicit in Paul's instructions about marrying “only in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39), and in his words about not being mismated with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14). As important as family relations are, a person's commitment to God takes precedence in those unfortunate situations when the two commitments are in conflict (Matthew 10:37;
Luke 9:59-62). A Christian who is married to a non-Christian should seek to maintain the relationship, to raise any children as believers, and to win the unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:12-16;
1 Peter 3:1-12). There is no evidence that Timothy's father was a believer (Acts 16:1), but his mother passed her faith along to her son (2 Timothy 1:5;
2 Timothy 3:14-15).
The biblical ideal is marriage that lasts a lifetime. Christians sometimes must cope with the breakup of a marriage. Because humans do not live up to the high ideals and standards of God, marriages do fail. With the strong biblical emphasis on marriage as a lifetime commitment, divorce poses a real dilemma for Christians. The dilemma of their proper attitude and response is most real for the persons directly involved and for those closest to them, but the dilemma also exists for the larger circle of friends and fellow church members. The Mosaic law allowed a man to divorce his wife but required a bill of divorce for her (Deuteronomy 24:1). This was an advance over a time when a man simply sent his wife away. The writ of divorce was evidence of her release from the marriage and thus her freedom to be married to someone else (Deuteronomy 24:2). Jesus explained
Deuteronomy 24:1 as a concession to the hardness of human hearts; but He emphasized God's original intention as reflected in
Genesis 1:27 and
Genesis 2:24 (Mark 10:2-9;
Matthew 19:3-9). Two verses in Matthew (Matthew 5:32;
Matthew 19:9) state that fornication can be grounds for divorce. Some interpreters believe that these and other relevant passages in the Gospels (Mark 10:11-12;
Luke 16:18) suggest that Jesus especially had in mind persons who divorce a spouse and marry someone else in an attempt to legitimize an adulterous relationship. The case of Herod and Herodias, who had divorced their spouses to satisfy their lust for each other, was notorious in that day. John the Baptist had been in prison for daring to rebuke Herod, and spiteful Herodias successfully plotted John's execution because of this (Mark 6:14-29;
Matthew 14:1-12). Paul followed Jesus in emphasizing the permanence of marriage (1 Corinthians 7:10-11), but he taught that a Christian was not bound to an unbelieving spouse if the unbeliever insisted on a separation (1 Corinthians 7:12-16). Clearly, therefore, the Bible teaches permanence as the ideal; but unfortunately, human hearts are still hard; and divorce for various reasons still happens. The Gospels are filled with examples of how Jesus delt with persons who were struggling with guilt and failure (Luke 19:1-10;
John 8:2-11), including one woman who had been married five times and who was living with a man who was not her husband (John 4:1-42). Where guilt was involved, Jesus did not minimize it; but in every case He acted redemptively. That is, His goal was not to condemn people but to help them begin anew with God's grace and strength.
Marriage after the death of a spouse usually is not questioned; marriage again after a divorce is a difficult issue. Marriage after widowhood is clearly permissible in the New Testament (Romans 7:2-3). Paul advised single persons and widows to remain unmarried if they could, but he counseled marriage for others (1 Corinthians 7:8-9). For example, he advised younger widows to remarry (1 Timothy 5:10-14). Widows are free to remarry, but “only in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39). Those who oppose marriage again of divorced persons cite
Romans 7:3; and
1 Corinthians 7:10-11. They interpret the statement by Jesus as teaching that divorced persons who marry again are living in adultery. They cite Paul as evidence that the apostle interpreted Jesus in this way. Based on these verses, some pastors refuse to perform a wedding involving a divorced person. Another group emphasizes Jesus' exception clause in
Matthew 5:31-32 and
Matthew 19:9. This clause, “Except it be for fornication,” implies that when a married person commits fornication, the spouse is free to secure divorce and to marry another person. Others believe principles inherent in the gospel make marriage again a valid option for divorced persons. They cite the biblical principles of forgiveness and renewal. Those who advocate this position do not believe Jesus intended to establish a legalistic approach to marriage that would condemn every specific remarriage as an adulterous relationship.
Jesus was not a legalist. His interpretation of adultery in
Matthew 5:27-28 should warn against being too heavy-handed about similar idealistic sayings. His hard sayings on divorce were intended to emphasize the biblical ideal of marriage as a lifetime commitment and to rebuke those men whose casual attitude towards divorce make a mockery of this ideal. The emphasis in
Matthew 19:9; and
Luke 16:18 is on the husband who divorces his wife and remarries again. This strongly implies that Jesus was talking about a man who divorces his wife to marry someone else. According to this point of view, Paul affirmed Jesus' ideal and cited Jesus as his authority (1 Corinthians 7:10-11); however, he acknowledged certain exceptions in trying to apply this ideal (1 Corinthians 7:12-16): “But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart, a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases” (1 Corinthians 7:15).
Persons who hold this view believe Paul's words imply the possibility of divorce and remarriage. This approach also would leave to each divorced person the choice about marriage again. Such a decision would be based on the same biblical principles that apply to any persons considering marriage, plus the biblical principles of forgiveness and renewal. The former principles include these: companionship (Genesis 2:18), sexual fulfillment (Genesis 2:24;
1 Corinthians 7:8-9), distinctive expectations of marriage or singleness (Matthew 19:3-12), parenting goals (Genesis 1:27-28;
1 Timothy 5:14), finding the right kind of person (1 Corinthians 7:39).
Difference of interpretation exists about authority and submission in marriage. On the one hand are those who believe that the husband as head of the house has a delegated authority from God over his wife. In this view, the wife's response is submission. On the other side are those whose model is the modern democratic marriage in which the partners are equals in all things. In between are many Christians who advocate a mutual submission in love as the ideal (Ephesians 5:21), but also believe the husband has special leadership responsibilities. The key biblical passages in this debate are
1 Peter 3:1-7. Advocates of strong male authority interpret these passages in light of the various biblical passages reflecting the husband's authority (1 Corinthians 14:34-35;
1 Timothy 2:11-14). Those who take a more moderate view make the following points: Jesus' actions gave women higher status than was accorded by the society of His day (Luke 8:1-3;
John 4:7-30). Paul's more idealistic statements (Galatians 3:28) and actual practice (Acts 16:14-15;
Acts 18:2-3,Acts 18:18,Acts 18:26;
Romans 16:3-6) indicate that his harder teachings may have been conditioned by specific situations in some first century churches. The admonition to mutual submission in
Ephesians 5:21 applies to all the relationships within the church (Ephesians 5:25-6:10) and in a Christian marriage (Ephesians 5:21-33). Both Paul and Peter's use of submission refers to voluntary submission in a loving relationship, not the forced subjection to authority in a military organization. The biblical references say submit yourself to one another, not subject the other person to yourself (Ephesians 5:21-22,Ephesians 5:24;
1 Peter 3:1). In such a relationship, the husband's role as head is modeled after the self-giving of Christ (Ephesians 5:23,Ephesians 5:25,Ephesians 5:28-30);
1 Peter 3:7).
Differences of interpretation exist about the role of husbands and wives in marriage. The Bible presents a tension between two truths: the primacy of persons as persons whether they are male or female (Galatians 3:28) and human sexuality (maleness or femaleness) as an important aspect of human personality (Genesis 1:27). The Bible provides considerable support for traditional roles of husbands and wives; however, the Bible provides examples of a variety of masculine-feminine roles. Martha performed the traditional role of preparing a meal for guests, but Mary played the non-traditional role of learner (Luke 10:38-42). Esau was a hunter, but Jacob liked to cook (Genesis 25:27-29). In the Bible the leaders in home and in society were generally men; but there were exceptions: Deborah was a judge (Judges 4-5); Lydia was a merchant (Acts 16:14); Priscilla and Aquila seemed to have acted as a team in teaching Apollos (Acts 18:26) and in providing a meeting place for the church (Romans 16:3-5;
1 Corinthians 16:19). Even the ideal wife of
Proverbs 31:1 exercised considerable creativity and initiative in far-ranging projects (Proverbs 31:16-20).