The Christian Doctrine of Marriage
BY TOM DEPEW
The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary defines marriage as, “The sacred, covenantal union of one man and one woman formed when the two swear before God an oath of lifelong loyalty and love to one another” . Those who are a part of Western culture today can understand how this definition of marriage does not line up with society’s concept of marriage. Today, the idea of a lifelong commitment to one person of the opposite sex would seem too restrictive to a lot of people. A poignant and recent example of this is when famous movie star Will Smith, in an interview, attempted to defend his open marriage by saying, “Marriage for us can’t be a prison.” This is just one instance of the degradation of marriage being on full display. However, this does not take away from the fact that marriage is still an incredibly important gift that God has given to mankind, and the purpose is to ultimately point to Jesus Christ.
Origin of Marriage
In order to understand how marriage points to Jesus Christ, one first needs to consider the origin of marriage, which can be found in Gen. 2:18-25. In this passage after God created Adam, the first human, God said that it was not good for man to be alone. So, God took a rib from Adam that He used to create Adam’s wife, Eve. Some might wonder, what was God’s intended purpose for creating Eve? The answer can be found in Gen. 2:18, “I will make him an help meet for him.” God created Eve to complement Adam. In other words, God’s original plan for marriage was for two distinct and different people to serve each other in a complementary fashion, which ultimately brings Him glory.
God’s original plan for marriage was for two distinct and different people to serve each other in a complementary fashion, which ultimately brings Him glory.
It is important to note here that complementary does not mean one person is more important than the other. Kenneth Matthews in his highly regarded commentary on Genesis proves this by saying, “Genesis’s account of the woman’s creation demonstrates that God intended women to be equally important in the purposes of Providence. This was already found in chapter 1, where both ‘male and female’ are said to be image bearers of God and both are commanded to rule the world” . Mathews sheds some light on the fact that although men and women were created different in function, they are equally significant in the eye’s of God. Ray Ortlund, in his book titled Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel, had this to say about what one should take away from Gen. 2:18-25:
The first claim of the Bible, then, setting the stage for marriage, is that manhood and womanhood are not our own cultural constructs. Human concepts are too small and artificial a context for the glory of our sexuality. Manhood and womanhood find their true meaning in the context of nothing less than the heavens and the earth, the cosmos, the universe, the entire creation. That is the first claim of the biblical love story. 
Ortlund beautifully encapsulates the idea that marriage is not something that mankind created, but instead is a divine institution created by God.
The last thing to note regarding the origin of marriage occurs in Genesis 2:24-25, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” The significance of these two verses can not be overstated. God made it clear that marriage was meant to be a sacred covenant where two distinct individuals come together, and in His eyes become one flesh. Which is to say, when a man and a woman enter into the marriage covenant God expects any prior relationship or commitment to become subordinate; the marriage now becomes the couple’s ultimate priority in comparison to other relationships. Victor Hamilton on Adam and Eve being naked without being ashamed said, “Of course, naked refers primarily to physical nudity, but one may also think that no barrier of any kind drove a wedge between Adam and Eve” . Hamilton is showcasing how incredible God’s original design of marriage was before sin entered the world.
Marriage After the Fall
In Genesis 2, marriage was an incredibly beautiful gift that God gave Adam and Eve to enjoy and use for companionship and procreation. In Genesis 3 everything changed when sin was introduced to the world as a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Sin is contrary to God, and attempts to destroy everything that God created. One of the consequences of sin is how it negatively effects marriage. Gen. 3:16 says, “and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Commenting on this verse, Victor Hamilton argues that one of the reasons why all marriages are prone to strife and disunity is because of the lasting effects of original sin . If there was any confusion about why marriages are so susceptible to conflict, Genesis 3:16 explains why.
Additionally, there are a myriad of other issues that negatively effect marriages because of the fall. One common issue that is mentioned many times in the Bible is sexual sins, which include: adultery, homosexuality, incest, and fornication. Sexual sins are serious because they undermine the foundation of family life, the oneness of the marriage relationship, and one’s covenant commitment made before God. Trent Butler proves this by stating, “Moral purity was stressed for the husband and wife in Israel with severe penalties for either party when sin occurred. God likens idolatry to adultery because of the similarity of the divine-human and husband-wife relationships” .
The last aspect to note regarding marriage after the fall is found in Matthew 19:5-6, “And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” In this passage Jesus was being asked about divorce by the Pharisees, and he chose to respond by reiterating God’s sacred intention for marriage. Most Christians interpret these verses to mean that divorce is contrary to the Biblical teaching of marriage, and was intended to last a lifetime. Leon Morris agrees by stating, “The typical attitude of the people of his day had reduced a God-given unity to a casual union, dissolvable at the whim of the male. This was not what Scripture meant when it spoke of what God did at the creation” . The striking aspect of Jesus’s declaration is that this occurred after the fall. Some might argue that marriage used to be a sacred union before the sin entered the world, but since we live in a broken world, marriage is not as important or as binding anymore. The problem with this assertion is that Jesus upheld and affirmed God’s original intention for marriage after the fall when sin was already a reality. That is to say, God still values marriage today and clearly states that it should be between one man and one woman, and should last until death.
God still values marriage today and clearly states that it should be between one man and one woman, and should last until death.
Marriage Points to Jesus Christ
Ephesians 5:32 says, “This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” What was the mystery that Paul was referring to, and how does it refer to Christ and the church? In order to answer these questions one must go back a few verses and consider vs.22-25, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” Robyn Huck in the Journal of Biblical Counseling addresses this passage by pointing out that the beauty of this instruction is that both parties are commanded to submit, but in different ways . In contrast, it is no secret that many modern people take issue with the seeming misogyny regarding wives being commanded to submit to their husbands. Huck argued that just because God designed marriage to have a head (husband) and a helper (wife) that does not mean that one is less important than the other. She proves this by pointing to the Trinity by explaining how God the Father and God the Son are both equally important and both equally God; however, one willingly submits to the other without forfeiting any value. Huck wonderfully proves that there is nothing wrong with submission; it is a Biblical concept portrayed best by the Lord Jesus Christ.
The next verse to note in Ephesians 5 is vs.25, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” It is very interesting to consider the words that the Apostle Paul chose to use here, “Husbands, love your wives.” Given that Paul just commanded wives in the preceding verses to submit to their husbands, one would naturally assume that Paul would then instruct the husbands to use that authority well. That is a fair expectation, but not one that Paul used here. Instead, Paul through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit saw fit to instruct husbands to love their wives, just as Christ loved the church. Peter O’Brien in his commentary on Ephesians had this to say about vs.25, “Now it furnishes the basis for the exhortation to husbands to sacrifice their own interests for the welfare of their wives. Their love, which is modeled on Christ’s love for the church, means they will be willing to make even the ultimate sacrifice of life itself” [419-420]. O’Brien helps one to see that the Biblical idea of a wife submitting to her husband should be met with sacrificial love and care from her husband: this is God’s design. Husbands who treat their wives in a controlling or domineering fashion is antithetical to what God’s Word is clearly describing here. The idea of marriage that Paul is proposing in Ephesians 5 is one that honors God’s original design as found in Genesis 2 (head and helper), while also serving as a picture that points to Jesus Christ and his bride, the Church.
God’s complementary design of husband and wife in Genesis 2, the effects that sin have on a marriage, and a Biblical understanding of submission all make it clear that the point of marriage is to portray the type of love that Jesus has for the Church. Klyne Snodgrass regarding Ephesians 5:25 agrees by saying, “The marriage relation is seen as an analogy of Christ’s love, his saving work, and his ongoing care for the church” . Marriage is an incredible gift from God, but it should never be viewed as an end to itself, it is a picture that points to the type of relationship that Jesus has with the Church.
The point of marriage is to portray the type of love that Jesus has for the Church.
Butler, Trent. Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003.
English Standard Version, Crossway, 2011. Holy Bible.
Hamilton, Victor. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17: NICOT. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990.
Huck, Robyn. “The dreaded S-word: Submission and our proud hearts.” JBC 29:3 (2015): 21-35.
Mathews, Kenneth. Genesis 1-11:26: New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel according to Matthew: Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992.
O’Brien, Peter. The letter to the Ephesians: Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999.
Ortlund, Ray. Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel. Wheaton: Crossway, 2016.
Singh, Olivia. “Marriage for us can’t be a prison” https://www.insider.com/will-smith-jada-pinkett-smith-marriage-monogamy-2021-9.
Snodgrass, Klyne. Ephesians: NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
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