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:
- Marriage is ordained and ordered by God.
- Marriage is a contract and a covenant.
- Marriage is both religious and civil.
- Marriage is both private and public.
- Marriage requires mutual consent.
- Marriage is for all types of people.
- Marriage is heterosexual and monogamous.
- Marriage cannot be between close family relations.
- Marriage is for life.
- Marriage is a sexual union.
- Marriage is sacred but not a sacrament.
A definition of biblical 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).
This article is excerpted from David J. Ayers’ Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction (Lexham Press: 2019).
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