At the recent PCANZ General Assembly we discussed marriage and matters of sexual orientation—the latter in regards to the ordination of practising homosexuals, the former in relation to current legislation before Parliament and the church’s theology and role in marriage. As I prepared for the discussion I realised afresh how integral marriage is to the whole Christian story and ongoing Christian life. I spoke on this in the debate, somewhat nervously (such an intimidating place), and want to unpack what I said.
1. Marriage is Integral to Creation and Image Bearing
Marriage is implied in Gen 1:26-28 which is critical to understanding God’s plan for humankind (I see this at the heart of what I call the Great Cosmission, God’s plan to build a world). Humans are made in God’s image, in some senses we are like God. This has a range of ideas in it including relationality and dominion. In Gen 1:27, both male and female are created in God’s image. In Gen 1:28 they are told to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” There is nothing at this point specifically about marriage, but it implies the sexual union of male and female to produce children—heterosexual sexual relationship. In a world before In Vitro fertilization, which is of course a very recent phenomenon, the creation of a new image bearer requires heterosexual sexual relationships. Even in the case of In Vitro fertilization, conception requires combining male and female elements to produce children and fill the earth. Image bearing depends on the created complementarity of male and female. Indeed, no one can live without this—we are all born of it. God’s purposes to form a people is based at its most fundamental level on heterosexual sexual relations. For the writer of Genesis, God sees this as “very good” (Gen 1:31).
In Gen 2 the story of humanities creation is told again and further clarification is given. Of Adam it is said, “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18) and so a partner is made for him (helper is not a subordinate role, the Hebrew is used of God, e.g. Exod 18:4). The partner made is the female, Eve, made of the same stuff and perfectly complementary to Adam. Marriage itself is instituted in Gen 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Marriage is mentioned twice in this text. First a man will leave his “father and mother,” implying a family heterosexual unit (the first being Adam and Eve). The man will join a women, his wife, and they become one—a new marriage unit who form a family. This clarifies the basis on which image bearers will fill the earth—through marriages and families. Human society, in terms of the pre-fall world, is formed on the basis of the heterosexual marriage relationship.
In Gen 3, at the heart of the Fall is the failure of Adam and Eve to unite around God’s command and live it out in partnership (Gen 3:1–7), and the first impact is contention in the family unit with Adam blaming Eve (Gen 3:12) and God telling the first couple that the result of their failure would be ongoing contention and male dominance (Gen 3:16). This has played out ever since and needs restoration—this is the work of Jesus and now that he has come, his followers.
2. Marriage and the LawWhile Christians do not live under law and are free from law, the Christian ethic is not antinomian, and the law inscribed on our heart and the life of the Spirit is consistent with the heart of the law. Three of the Ten Commandments, which are the heart of the law, relate directly to marriage. First, the fifth commandment specifically tells a child to obey his or her “father and mother” (Exod 20:12). This implies a family unit and expects children to live obediently to build strong families which will fill the earth. Paul quotes this text in Eph 5–6 (cf. Col 3) and adds that fathers should love their wives, treat slaves well and not embitter their children. “You shall not commit adultery” implies fidelity within the family unit (Exod 20:17). This is endorsed in the NT (e.g. Matt 15:19; Mark 7:21; 10:19). Sexual relationships are to be limited to marriage units. “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife” does the same (Exod 20:17). The notion of family is also found in two of the other ten commandments including Exod 20:5, 10, where members of the family will not continue the sins of their “fathers” (implying forebears in inclusive terms), nor work on the Sabbath. Family is implied in both. When the Shema, the central confession of Israel, is given in Deut 6:5, this is followed by a command to pass this onto the children—marriage and family are all over the Law. The rest of the law affirms marriage, rejects adultery and a range of sexual practises which vary from the marriage relationship (esp. Lev 18, 20). Jesus softened the consequences of these practices, renouncing capital punishment, but did not soften Israel’s rejection of sex outside of marriage. If anything he raised the stakes, challenging it at an attitudinal level (Matt 5:31–32).
3. Marriage and JesusMark’s Jesus affirms Gen 2:24 in Mark 10:6–8: “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Matthew’s Jesus says this, but adds the caveat, “except for sexual immorality” (Matt 19:9).
Jesus then affirms that marriage is instituted at creation (above), is related to creation of gender and image-bearing, reaffirms marriage of both parents and new marriage units and that this relationship should be permanent. It is also in the singular, speaking of monogamy. Jesus’ teaching on love would also indicate that these should be relationships of love (e.g. Mark 12:29–31). While Jesus did not get into detail over a range of sexual practices he challenged disciples not to even contemplate alternatives (Matt 5:27–30), rejected divorce except in the case of unfaithfulness (Matt 5:31–32; 19:9) and sees sexual immorality (porneia) as an evil (pornēros) thing (Mark 7:19-21). This Greek word at the time was a summary term for sex outside of marriage, and should include the full range. While polygamy existed in Israel’s history, Jesus gives no vindication to it. Jesus appeared to state that marriage is a part of this age and would not feature in the age to come, likely because humanity will have completed its commission to fill the earth (Mark 12:25). Jesus himself was not married of course, and so marriage is not obligatory for all humanity. One does not have to be married to be a complete. However, marriage remains central to ongoing human existence. He also redefines family seeing those who obey the word as family (Mark 3:31–35) and knew he would divide them (Luke 12:49–53). However, Jesus’ mission to form a new humanity is not about individualism, but the redemption of people, marriages and families. It lies at the heart of God’s vision for a renewed world.
4. Paul and MarriagePaul endorses Gen 2:24, using it twice. In 1 Cor 6:16 Paul quotes “the two will become one flesh” in his polemic against the Corinthians having sexual relationships with prostitutes. More directly in Eph 5:31 in his instructions to husbands and wives in his household code he quotes it. In 1 Cor 7 Paul gives a range of instructions on marriage, endorsing it, and unpacking Jesus’ teaching on marriage for his context. He gives room for a marriage to end when an unbelieving spouse wishes to end the marriage. Otherwise, he confirms Jesus’ teaching on marriage in Mark 10/Matt 19. He expects elders to be “the husband of one wife” confirming his preference for monogamy rather than polygamy for Christian leaders (1 Tim 3:2). All over his letters, writing into a world rampant with sexual immorality, he repudiates sexual immorality (e.g. Rom 1:24–27; 1 Cor 6:9–10; Gal 5:19). Romans 1 is most interesting in this regard in that Paul refers to the Genesis narrative consistently as the basis for his argument against homosexuality. It is a manifestation of human idolatry, a rejection of the creator and goes against nature—heterosexuality which is essential to the created order.
5. Other FactorsIsrael is a family become nation, the family of Abraham (Gen 12:1f). The nations of the world have their origin in families (Gen 10). Marriage is used to define the relationship of God and Israel, with God as a faithful husband and Israel and unfaithful wife (e.g. Isa 54:6; Jer 3:1; Ezek 16:32; Hos 1–2). The church is the bride of Christ (Rev 19:7; 21:2). Paul’s favourite metaphor for church is family, seen in his wide ranging use of kinship metaphor (God as father, brother, sister). The church is the family of God, into which all humanity is adopted as God’s children with full rights (Gal 4:4–7). The church began in family units (oikos), such as that of Lydia or the Roman jailor in Acts 16. The vision of a renewed earth in Rev 21 has no hint of sexual immorality (Rev 21:8; 22:15). Marriage is simply implied.
Across the Biblical narrative which is the genesis and foundation of our story, marriage is endorsed and is central. It is the building block of God’s commission to humanity to fill his earth. Humans are created through it. The coming of Christ was to restore the original creation intention. God’s dream is of a renewed humanity—not merely individual salvation, but men and women finding salvation and forming families built on worship and love. We are called to live out Gen 1:26-31; 2:24 faithfully as God’s people.
When a theological notion is etched into the whole Biblical Narrative including creation, the heart of the law, Jesus' teaching and Paul's teaching, both positively (affirming marriage), and negatively (repudiating alternatives), it should be seen as fundamental to the faith. Indeed, it is hard to find anything that is more fundamental than marriage and family when one considers that God in Christ is forming a new humanity. With all this in mind, it is inconceivable that authentic followers of Jesus who live out of the biblical narrative would contemplate alternative marital constructs and variations of what is central to being human in a Christian worldview. To do so is to live a different story and faith and, in my humble opinion, should be opposed.