The other day I re-read one of those dystopian stories written at the height of the “Cold War” when everyone half expected the major powers to annihilate each other by means of a nuclear bombardment. In the story a couple managed to anticipate the destruction of their city and escape to a remote ranch house used as a hunting lodge. They wanted to be married but were afraid to go to town to find a preacher, lest their retreat be discovered. Lacking a preacher, they simply knelt together and repeated the marriage vows. After doing so, they regarded themselves as husband and wife.
In one sense, the story was refreshing in that, unlike in the majority of contemporary yarns which take unmarried sex for granted and normal, the couple didn’t just take “a roll in the hay.” They were unwilling to sleep together without first making a commitment to each other.
But, on the other hand, the story raises an important question: What constitutes a legitimate marriage? Before we can answer that, we have to answer an even more fundamental question: What is marriage? Many in our culture scoff that it is nothing more than a piece of paper. On the other hand, others demand that we not only recognize, but endorse and applaud same-sex marriage. To them, marriage must be far more than a piece of paper or they wouldn’t expend so much energy making sure that everybody and the dog’s uncle accepts it. So, is marriage something trivial or is it something worth fighting for?
To answer to these and similar questions it’s necessary to realize where marriage originated. The short answer is that it originated with God. After creating the first man and woman – Adam and Eve – God brought the two of them together in marriage. Their relationship is the pattern for all subsequent marriages. In reference to it the Bible declares, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24 NIV)
That short sentence contains a world of meaning. For one thing, it tells us that there is a reason and purpose for marriage. In the context, the “reason” the verse mentions is to provide a man with a helper, who is suitable to him (see verse 18). Nor is this idea of help one sided. In his commentary on this verse, the Apostle Paul writes that a husband must provide for and care for his wife (Ephesians 5:29 and context). If a marriage is to fulfill its purpose, the partners will be a mutual help and benefit to each other.
The Genesis account also says that a marriage changes our social relationships. A man no longer identifies himself with his parents. Instead, he and his wife form a new family. That doesn’t mean that a married couple disowns their parents. On the contrary, Scripture makes it abundantly clear that we have a responsibility to care for and to respect our parents. However, a married couple is no longer under the authority of their parents. They are now responsible for their own decisions. They are accountable, not to the families they came from, but to God. In other words, their marriage transforms them into a distinct family unit.
A married couple is also united. They are bound together for good or ill. They are to stick together whatever the circumstances. The word “united” also indicates that a married couple should have the same goals, the same desires and the same purpose. As the prophet Amos said, “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” (Amos 3:3 NIV)
A couple is not only united in marriage, they become “one flesh.” This certainly includes sexual intercourse, but it is much more than that. It implies that the two individual people become a single organism. Their spirits are joined into a new being. This does not mean that marriage partners lose their individual person-hood. They are still recognizable as themselves. However, together they become more than they were apart. The “one” is greater than the single parts from which it was formed. The two are linked on many levels. As the Apostle Paul wrote concerning the church body, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15 NIV) And again, “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Corinthians 11:29 NIV) You can often see this in couples who have been married a long time. Their thoughts are so similar that they will sometimes communicate with a glance or tiny gesture that those around cannot pretend to fathom. They are so “in tune” with each other that a few words are all that are needed. They know what the other is thinking. They are often aware of the other’s presence or absence without a word being spoken.
This “oneness,” by the way, is why divorce is such a serious matter. It is like taking a puppy and ripping it in two.
The other thing which the Genesis account makes clear is that it was God who ordained and instituted marriage. This has huge implications. Marriage is not merely a social construct. It is God, not culture and not the state which determines what marriage is. This is how I put it in one of my novels: “A true marriage is valid whether a government even exists to recognize it. Conversely, if a state recognizes a relationship which falls outside of the covenant established by God, it is not a valid marriage regardless of how loudly the state sanctions it.” (Strangers and Aliens, p. 197)
Though Genesis plainly indicates that it is God who instituted marriage between the man and woman He created, it does not mention the means by which He married them. I deliberately used the word “covenant” in the quote given above. Though not mentioned by that name in the Genesis passage the marriage relationship is a covenant. The prophet Malachi says this explicitly while talking about divorce. “…she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.” (Malachi 2:14-15 NIV) So, according to Malachi, to break faith with your spouse is to violate the covenant of marriage.
The realization that marriage is a covenant relationship clarifies just what is a marriage and when it takes place. A marriage takes place when the parties involved make the covenant vow. Without the vow, there is no valid marriage. If a couple has a license from the state but have not made the covenant vow, in God’s sight they are merely living in state-sanctioned fornication. If a couple has taken the vows, they are married whether the state recognizes it or not. For example, earlier in our history when states denied marriage to slaves it could not thereby invalidate the covenant vows of couples who chose to “jump the broom.” Said couples were married in God’s eyes no matter what the government claimed.
In another of these musings I quoted the definition of covenant provided by Malcolm Smith: “A covenant is a binding, unbreakable obligation between two parties, based on unconditional love sealed by blood and sacred oath, that creates a relationship in which each party is bound by specific undertakings on each other’s behalf. The parties to the covenant place themselves under the penalty of divine retribution should they later attempt to avoid those undertakings. It is a relationship that can only be broken by death.” (Malcolm Smith, The Power of the Blood Covenant, Harrison House, 2002, pp. 12-13) This is why the traditional marriage vows include that phrase, “Till death do us part.” Marriage is intended by God to be an exclusive, unbreakable and life-long relationship between a man and a woman. And, whether people wish to acknowledge it or not, a same sex relationship falls outside of the covenant parameters which God established. Therefore, it can never be a marriage as God defines it – regardless of how any government or court may rule. God set it up; God defines what is valid and what is not.
The idea of marriage as a covenant relationship established by God helps clarify other things in our social relationships. By its very nature a covenant is exclusive. There is no room in it for anyone outside of the covenant. Therefore, since marriage is a covenant, and sexual union is one of the benefits of the marriage covenant it, by its very nature, excludes sexual relationships with anyone outside of marriage. Sexual promiscuity is pervasive in our culture (actually, in most cultures). People think nothing of recreational sex. Many regard the hookup culture as the norm. In reality, casual sex, one night stands, living together and so on are all a cop-out. To indulge is trying to enjoy one of the benefits and joys of the marriage covenant without accepting the responsibility. However, as all too many discover after it is too late, the piper must eventually be paid. God is not mocked. We cannot take what He instituted and pervert it to our own liking without consequences. The emotional and psychological, not to mention the spiritual, toll on those who ignore God’s covenant parameters is staggering. Whatever the short-term pleasures involved may be, the long-term cost is not worth it.
I’m well aware that most of what I’ve written in this essay is not “politically correct.” A great many people would scoff at the idea that God intended for the sexual act to be reserved for marriage and that sex outside of marriage is a parody of the covenant relationship. To many the idea that sex should be exclusive is ludicrous. Someone is sure to bring up polygamy (or polyandry, for that matter). If marriage is an exclusive covenant, then why did God endorse polygamy during the Old Testament period and why did He tell David that if the wives he had weren’t enough He (that is, God) would have given him (that is, David) even more (2 Samuel 12:8)?
I suspect that the answer to this dilemma is the same as why God permitted divorce even though He clearly stated that He hates divorce (Malachi 2:36). Jesus said that the reason God put up with divorce, even though it was no part of His original intent, was because of people’s hard hearts (Matthew 19:8). It was the best that could be done considering man’s fallen nature. Personally, I have never observed a divorce which did not involve at least one hard heart.
However, divorce should never be an option between Christian couples. Instead of becoming harder, our hearts ought to become more tender, both toward God and other people. God is transforming us into the image of Christ and the more Christlike we become the further divorce should be from our thinking. As the Apostle Paul put it: “Wives, submit 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, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” (Ephesians 5:22-28 NIV)
Be that as it may, the truth is that we are fallen and live in a fallen world. Therefore, though God did not design it to be this way, we have to face the reality that people have violated the one man, one woman, for life ideal. The consequences don’t just disappear when someone becomes a Christian. Polygamy and polyandry is a problem – in our culture at least in the sense of serial divorce and remarriage.
It becomes even more complex when we encounter other cultures where polygamy is practiced as a societal norm. In the past, some missionaries taught that a man with several wives had to divorce all but one of them before he could become a Christian. My personal view is that was a mistake; actually worse than a mistake – an abomination. Assuming that the wives had taken a covenant vow when entering the marriage (and whether or not we agree with the form, vows are involved in cultures which allow polygamy) the marriage is valid, even though it is not according to God’s intent or ideal. To arbitrarily break that vow because marriage should be monogamous is to invite the penalties of the covenant. No, the man shouldn’t have married more than one woman. But having done so, to divorce all but one is merely compounding the violation of God’s standards. “When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?” (Ecclesiastes 5:4-6 NIV)
Whether we like it or not, as our culture becomes more and more pagan, and as we have more and more contact with other cultures, the more we are going to have to confront issues regarding marriage. We need to be clear in our own minds what marriage is and what God intended it to be. A marriage is determined by whether marriage vows have been taken. If they have, then they better not be broken – even if multiple spouses are involved. We must also be clear about the consequences for violating God’s standard. For example, a polygamist may make a wonderful teacher or even an evangelist. But he can never become an Elder in the church (that is a Pastor) because a Pastor (that is a Shepherd or Elder) must (not just should!) be a “one woman man” (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:6).
In summary, as the Scriptures admonish us, let’s keep the marriage bed pure! (See Hebrews 13:4.)