Marriage is a gift

Marriage is a gift. It’s something God has given us — it’s not something we’ve invented ourselves. Therefore, marriage isn’t just a feature of our culture that we can shape however we want; we receive marriage from God ready-made, with in-built parameters and purposes.

That is, God created the world with a ‘physical order’ (our world is governed by laws of physics); in the same way, he also created a ‘moral order’ (our world is governed by moral laws). And this created moral order is good.

It’s tempting to think morality is the ‘bad news’ which follows the ‘good news’ of the forgiveness of sins. But the New Testament consistently describes righteous living as an extra piece of good news: we’re saved from sin for good (for example, Romans 6:10–14; Ephesians 2:8–10; Titus 1:1; 3:3–8).

And God’s gift of marriage is part of this real moral order; its essence doesn’t change from country to country or time to time. It’s:

  • a relationship between one man and one woman,
  • who are from different families (but they create their own new family),
  • who publicly
  • consent to
  • a lifelong,
  • exclusive
  • sexual relationship,
  • patterned after, and a sign of,  Christ’s relationship with the church.[1]

This is a long way from a common cultural perception of marriage — that “love is love”. “Love is love” invites us to imagine marriage as a vacant plot of land where we can design and build whatever we like and call it ‘marriage’. But in the Bible, marriage is more like a house which God has built and given us to live in. We can move some furniture around, but we can’t modify its basic structure. In other words, while there are some things we can choose (like whether to get married, or whom to marry), there’s a lot we can’t choose.

So, we can’t choose the gender of whom we marry: marriage in God’s image is created ‘male and female’ (Genesis 1:27). And a marriage must create a new family, as a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh (Genesis 2:25). If someone doesn’t consent to marry, it’s not a marriage. (An arranged marriage is not the same as a forced marriage.) If we enter a relationship planning for it to be temporary, it’s not a marriage (although God, reluctantly, permits divorce). If we plan to be unfaithful in our marriage, it’s not a marriage (and if we are unfaithful, we will very likely kill the marriage). And if we plan never to have sex, it’s not a marriage. (But this doesn’t mean we can demand or force sex in marriage.)

In the moral order, then, God provides two great pathways to serve him: we can serve him as a celibate single person, or; if he gives us the opportunity, we can be married. Whichever path we’re given, we must be properly single or properly married — not some mix of both. This is not only morally right, but it’s also good.

And when a marriage is good, it can fulfil God’s purposes for marriage. First, a marriage should be a blessing to be in: it’s a relationship of mutual love. Wherever God instructs us in loving relationships (e.g., “Be kind”), it’s applicable to marriage — only more so. There’s perhaps no higher call than to love our spouse as our own body (Ephesians 5:28).

But it’s not enough for a marriage just to be good for the couple: marriage must also be a blessing beyond itself. In Genesis 1, God calls humanity to “fill the earth and subdue it” (verse 28), and he blesses them so they can obey him. There’s good to be done in the world. This includes work, offering hospitality, making disciples, loving the people of God, and all manner of acts of service. If a marriage doesn’t do good outside the home, it may well turn in on itself and not be good to be in, either.

More specifically, a key purpose for marriage is children, who are a blessing both to the parents and to the world at large. In Genesis, God blesses humanity with the call to “be fruitful and increase in number” (1:28). In other words, humanity will need to have children, and the proper place to have those children is in marriage. It’s a constant theme in Scripture that children are a blessing.

So, when we marry, we’re called to welcome the blessing of children. Of course, God may choose not to give us children (and today, we may have some say over the number and timing of children). But when we agree to marry, we also agree to being open to children.[2]

The broader point is: when we agree to marry, we agree to a package; we agree to marriage as created by God and to its purposes as given by God.

The culture has split apart this package of marriage, sex, and children — you can choose which parts you want and when you want them. Our legal structures reinforce the culture, with same-sex marriage, no-fault divorce, and wide parameters for abortion.

This split will mean that as Christians honour God in their marriages, they may look radically different from their neighbours. It will also make it harder for all Christians to be faithful to God, whether they are married or single.

Further, we should expect the difference between the culture’s “love is love” and God’s created order to pose particular difficulties for some, including those:

  • who are single and long to be married;
  • who are married but unable to conceive;
  • whose marriages are no longer a blessing to be in, or have ended;
  • who need to raise children alone;
  • whose experience of sexuality or gender doesn’t neatly fit what has been described here.

There’s much more to say about how the church can “love in action and in truth” in all our diverse circumstances. And in every case, we will need help from the Spirit of God and the people of God to walk faithfully on whichever path God gives us.

And yet we can take comfort. Yes, welcoming marriage as a gift will be complicated and take prayer, careful thought, and sacrificial action. But even if the culture changes, the reality of marriage doesn’t. It remains something real — a gift from God to humanity for our good.

[1] This is adapted from Christopher Ash, Marriage: sex in the service of God (Leicester: IVP, 2003), chapters 11–14.

[2] Cameron, Joined-up life: a Christian account of how ethics works (Nottingham: IVP, 2011), 248.

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