What Is Biblical Marriage? 11 Essential Principles.

What is marriage?

It’s a question the Bible holds the keys to because God created marriage and revealed it in Scripture.

Given the confusion in our culture and in our churches, agreeing upon the basic meaning of marriage is no longer a “given.” The very definition of marriage is of utmost concern. A clear definition of terms is needed. As David J. Ayers begins in Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction, “If you try to talk about something but you cannot clearly define it, you literally ‘don’t know what you are talking about’!”

To elaborate on a robust Christian understanding of marriage, Ayers first begins with some biblical foundations from which he derives essential principles to build a definition.

Biblical foundations of marriage

Genesis 2:18–24 is the foundational passage in Scripture about marriage. God created and officiated marriage for his unfallen creation, and “the root of our understanding of marriage is that, in it, the husband and wife become one flesh” (p. 18). This passage is considered foundational for the scriptural authors, such as Jesus (Matt 19:4–6) and Paul (Eph 5:28–32).

Marriages in which God himself is both matchmaker and minister bookend the Bible (Gen 2:18–24; Rev 19:9; 21:2–3). Jesus used a Jewish wedding as the occasion to perform his first miracle (John 2:1–11). The simple vessel of covenant marriage, created before Adam’s fall that led to our need for redemption, reveals and symbolizes to us the mysteries of the gospel and of Christ’s relationship with his covenant people (Eph 5:32). Both Isaiah (54:5–6) and Hosea (2:16–20) described the redemptive relationship of God to his people as like a husband to his wife, pointing forward to Christ. Clearly marriage, especially Christian marriage, is a “canvas upon which the Holy Spirit of God paints the gospel.” Like a geode—on the outside nothing more than a potato-like stone—inside God has filled marriage with mystery and wonder.

Moreover, Scripture tells us that the simple blessings of godly marriage are among the richest gifts we can receive from God, more than money, fame, or power. David describes God’s reward for the man who fears the Lord: “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table” (Ps 128:3). In one of the most gorgeous passages in Ecclesiastes (9:9), we find this heartfelt recommendation: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.” (p. 2)

Essential principles of marriage

Drawing from Scripture and tradition, Ayers makes these assertions about marriage:

  1. Marriage is ordained and ordered by God.
  2. Marriage is a contract and a covenant.
  3. Marriage is both religious and civil.
  4. Marriage is both private and public.
  5. Marriage requires mutual consent.
  6. Marriage is for all types of people.
  7. Marriage is heterosexual and monogamous.
  8. Marriage cannot be between close family relations.
  9. Marriage is for life.
  10. Marriage is a sexual union.
  11. Marriage is sacred but not a sacrament.

A definition of marriage

After providing the foundations and elaborating on essential principles, Ayers concludes with his working definition for marriage:

“Marriage is an irreplaceable and core institution of human society, created by God before the fall of Adam and Eve, which communicates deep spiritual truth, including speaking to the human race about the relationship of God to his people, pointing to the marriage between Christ and his Church at the end of history. In it, one man and one woman, who are not restrained by conditions that would invalidate their union, and who are fully informed in all relevant matters, freely and publicly enter into the marital covenant, through solemn vows, to accept and fulfill all the obligations of marriage, including an exclusive sexual relationship, for all the days in which both live. They consummate these vows through sexual intercourse.” (p. 37).

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What do you think of these foundations, principles, and definition of marriage? Discuss in the comments below.

These points are taken from David J. Ayers’ Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction (Lexham Press: 2019).

Comments

  1. To say marriage is a covenant and not a sacrament is to miss the point that it points to a greater reality and why marriage is for life.

    • The reason for this is because from a Reformed perspective the following is a definition of a sacrament. “A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ, in which by sensible signs the grace of God in Christ, and the benefits of the covenant of grace, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers, and these, in turn, give expression to their faith and allegiance to God.”
      — Berkhof, L. (1938). Systematic theology (p. 617). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co.

      Marriage was not instituted by Christ, thus it is not a sacrament but it is a covenant. I know many will disagree with this definition but this explains what was said.

      • Russ Davis says:

        One can wonder why God ordained both
        1. the enlightened spiritual vision of the Reformed to see the profound nature of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and simultaneously
        2. the spiritual blindness to fail to see the preincarnate Christ instituted
        a) marriage in the Garden, making it a sacrament even on their own terms were they to understand said terms and Christ according to Scripture (e.g. Ephesians 5) and not limit them to fallen human understanding. The same is true of
        b) the divine office of the Christian ministry by which God condescends to put his powerful word of Christ’s Spirit in man’s mouth (an aspect of both the first and last Adam’s headship) no matter how many proudly disdain that sacrament, ironically even claiming humility in doing so.
        At least part of that is the reflexive tendency of many if not most of Reformed folk to reject virtually any aspect or manifestation of the Holy Spirit, allegedly for the sake of having “all things done decently and in order” but were the secret truth to be told, really a matter of sin: of pride and control arrogantly failing to let God be God while ironically pretending humility, like Adam did when he ceded his divinely ordained headship to Eve/Satan.
        Dr. Sam Storms, former cessationist professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and now a continuationist pastor in Oklahoma was a former pastor of mine in Grandview, Missouri and related from the platform this aspect of God supernaturally freeing him from cessationism. I wish I could recall the exact dates of my supernatural journey from synergism to monergism and various other manifestations of the work of Christ and his Spirit. If labels have any meaning (mine, not tradition’s) I’m at least partly
        1. a Charismatic (as in the charismata and pneumatica of God’s Word)
        2. Reformation (broader than merely Reformed and taking both Luther and Calvin vastly more seriously than so-called followers all too often traitors both to founder and Scripture for the sake of the love of fallen man’s notions and traditions)
        3. Catholic (unlike the manifestly weirdly alternately sectarian and universalist and even pagan and satanist Vatican), far more mysterious* than merely “universal.”
        Christian (=little Christ).
        *=many professing Christians misunderstand “mystery” in an unBiblical sense as something unknown whereas Scripture rather informs us that God withholds Christian mystery from the world but REVEALS it to his elect Bride of Christ. Sadly those who blindly reject definite atonement for indefinite atonement (a more accurate depiction than the regrettably incoherent delusion of limited vs unlimited confusion) absurdly and hypocritically fail to consider the FATHER’S right to CHOOSE his Son’s Bride that in a humbler day of a greater fear of the Lord before the present misotheist misandrist misogyny was also understood to be even a human father’s prerogative.

  2. Gregorio Billikopf says:

    Thank you for reaffirming that marriage is between a man and a woman.

  3. Chuck Sigler says:

    Marriage in Genesis 2:18-24 is a redemptive-historical promise by God of what He planned to accomplish in Christ (Ephesians 5:28-32), which suggests that the Genesis 2 promise is really the “protoevangellium”—the first hint of the gospel.

  4. Marc Brule says:

    That final statement should be used in our statements of faith!

  5. Please explain what is meant by “and who are not fully informed in all relevant matters”.

    • The actual text in the book doesn’t have the word “not” there. It should read “and are fully informed…” This is a typo.

  6. if marriage is a sexual union then people like Joni Erickson Tada are not married. You made absolutes out of some things that are not absolutes. That includes “it can’t be among close family members.”

  7. Mike Chu says:

    “Marriage is sacred but not a sacrament.”

    What does he mean by this?

  8. Luke Harmon says:

    I appreciate the definition of marriage you provide. An implication of that definition is that “divorce” doesn’t truly dissolve the marriage bond and that remarriage to someone other than one’s original spouse is adultery? I think Jesus said something similar! But sadly, no one thinks of marriage like that anymore. People want to do what they want to do. Even if it means destroying the lives of their children and the well-being of the broader society.

  9. It’s interesting to me that people view this passage about monogamous marriage when it is so clearly about God not wanting us to be alone. God brought all of the animals to Adam in hopes that one of them might be a companion for Adam. But these were not enough. Adam needed an ally, an equal, someone to help him. And so God created a help-meet for Adam in a very intimate way. There’s nothing here to suggest that God was creating a wife for Adam. Adam could have accepted any one of the animals as a companion. There’s nothing sexual about this initial origin story.

    Most commentators view v. 24 as an addition by a later writer. It disrupts the narrative of the story, and it really contradicts v. 25 that states they were both naked but not ashamed (i.e., not conscious of sex). The only reference to marriage in this chapter is a translation in verse 25. The Hebrew word אִשָּׁה is used throughout this passage and translated as “woman” but at the end here, it becomes “wife.” An equally valid translation could read “Adam and this woman were both naked and not ashamed.

    Monogamous marriage is not practiced that often in the Old Testament and it doesn’t receive any preferential treatment. Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine. Does that mean that we are supposed to value wine very highly above other beverages? If so, then my Southern Baptist upbringing was very misguided.

    Interpret Genesis to say what you want but realize you’re straining the text to the limits to prove your point.

    • Terry Neumayer says:

      Brian, I think you also miss a point in the narrative. It states in v. 20 “no suitable helper was found”. The key is “suitable”. I think a part of the narrative is to show Adam that the creatures were different than himself. He needed to see the need that God had already seen. There had to be one like himself (Adam).
      I’ve not come across any commentators who say v. 24 was an addition from a later time.

  10. mark henzler says:

    For further discussion, we should probably use impersonal references, like, ‘people who are physically unable to have sexual relationships.’ Now who’s to say the do not have some way to express themselves sexually in the privacy of their own marriage? – which would actually be a beautiful thing.
    I notice you say, “You made absolutes out of some things that are not absolutes.” To be fair, you made a rule out of an exception. i.e., ‘If [people who can’t have sexual relations] are in fact married, marriage therefore is a not sexual union.’
    The sexual relationship is an important feature of marriage, but not the only one. It’s God’s special wedding present to the couple, a present not to be ‘opened’ before or without marriage since it is intimately tied to the covenant. Some people may not be able to enjoy the gift in ways that most people can, but that doesn’t mean they are not married.
    I recommend you do a little study on how to identify and apply theological principles, for example, ‘Grasping God’s Word’ by Duvall and Hayes.
    https://www.logos.com/product/9374/grasping-gods-word-a-hands-on-approach-to-reading-interpreting-and-applying-the-bible

  11. Russ Davis says:

    “Most commentators view v. 24 as an addition by a later writer”
    The silly, tired, old, incompetent documentary hypothesis, the logical fallacy of argumentum ad baculum: argument from authority of those who hate Biblical truth and reality and ultimately God. Murderous misotheist Pharisees likewise clueless about Biblical marriage loved that fallacy and constantly employed it as their progeny do today.

  12. Anonomous says:

    Marriage is a beautiful union between a complete man and a complete woman while here on earth. Some will last, and some will not. Some will end in death and some in divorce. Either way one is not greater than the other. What takes place within that marriage is their personal matters, unless they choose to divulge such matters. Also, marriage do not make one ‘holy.’ I used the word ‘complete,’ to lay the foundation for being rooted and grounded in the Lord. Nevertheless, most importantly, in heaven there is no marriage except to the Lamb of God. Proverbs 8:35-36 — For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favor of the Lord. But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death. Marriage is to be entered into seriously because it is a covenant between both parties with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

  13. Anonomous says:

    Marriage is considered a sacrament for those performing the services. However, for those entering into such union it would be considered a covenant and/or vow. There are approximately six to seven sacraments that normally clergies and others may be allowed to perform such as baptisms, ordinations, etc. Some denominations may differ in calling them sacraments. Nevertheless, all should be taken seriously.

  14. “9. Marriage is for life.”
    No its not – Mat 19:9