Sex and Marriage – Article Series
1. The Bride and the Bridegroom
2. Sexual sin and purity
3. Purpose of marriage
4. Shape of marriage
5. Futility of marriage
6. Marriage or undivided devotion?
7. Dating for marriage
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
~ Genesis 1:26-28
What is the purpose of marriage? Why bother with it? Put another way, what is the point of getting married? Marriage as a socially recognised institution has been present for centuries. Its existence (in whatever form it finds itself) throughout cultures that have never interacted is itself evidence of God’s gift of marriage to all humanity. In most modern nations, marriage is a state-recognised institution that tie families together and allow legal benefits and protections to be applied to the members. However, the modern millennials don’t have the same drive and desire to get married as previous generations have.1 Many are quite happy to be in committed relationships without the need to get married. Marriage has been said to be “just a piece of paper if it’s not a happy one.”2 There’s much that could be said about the reasons why these trends have arisen but I don’t want to craft a story to explain them.
Instead, let’s look at what God’s purpose for marriage is as originally designed and intended. It goes without saying that most people in the world would not share the opening premise that God even has a purpose for marriage. But Christians can prayerfully explore the Christian Bible to see what He gave the world and why He gave it. Keep in mind that the exact way that this will play itself out in our modern times and contexts can’t possibly be detailed in a short article like this. But it is my prayer that you will be encouraged and enlightened as we see exactly what marriage is meant to be. So let’s begin.
In Genesis 1:26-28 we see God’s creation of all mankind, made as male and female. Both are made in God’s image and are called to be His representative rulers over the creation under God. Humanity is to perform activities that subdue the Earth, fill the Earth, and exercise nurturing authority over it. This is the task that was set for all humankind. We are to work in the creation under God, for God, and as God’s representatives. This brings God glory because it magnifies His rule and might in creation, which is another aspect of what it means for us to be made in His image.
God takes the man in Genesis 2:15 and places him in the garden of Eden to begin this work. But in Genesis 2:18 God says this:
‘It is not good that man should be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’
It is in this context that God then brings about the existence of the first woman, and then we see the first marriage. This doesn’t mean that the first man was lonely and so God created a woman to satisfy his relational needs. Absolutely not! The man was in fellowship with God in the garden and could speak with Him. He was not lonely. But he was alone, specifically in the task of work. It is in the context of service to God that it is said that man should not be alone. It is in the realm of filling, subduing, and exercising nurturing authority over the creation that God says that the man cannot do it alone. So, just as the Holy Spirit of God is later called the helper of all Christians, the first woman is called the helper of the first man. Here, we see the original purpose of marriage; namely,
the purpose of marriage is to glorify God by serving Him.
Ponder that for a moment. Instead of being inward looking, marriage is meant to be upward and outward looking. It is meant to be a joining of a man and a woman for the purpose of fulfilling the work that God has called us to do as humans. It is a partnership between two humans for the benefit of the creation that God has given us. This is not to say that you cannot glorify God unless you are married; what it does mean is that marriage is a kind of relationship that God gave us in order for humanity to glorify Him in specific ways. We’ll see in a later post what the path of remaining unmarried looks like for the Christian. But for now let me stress that all Christians are called to glorify God by serving Him – marriage is a way in which this service can be achieved, though it is not the only way.
But how is this purpose to be achieved? What does it look like to serve God through marriage?
Firstly, a man and woman can serve God through serving each other in sexual intercourse. Sex is a gift of God and is the proper place for intimate passion to flow out in physical service and affection for one another. In 1 Corinthians 7:4-5 we see Paul instructing men and women to give themselves to each other. He even says that within the relationship of marriage these is a mutual ownership of each other’s bodies that demonstrates itself in sexual intimacy. Marriage is the right context for which sexual desire is to be expressed in a way that is selfless, sacrificial, and sensual.
It might be strange to think that by serving your spouse you are serving God, but what it means is that sexual intercourse between married couples is approved and honouring to God. It’s the way in which we can take God’s gift of sex to us and use it to serve, and be served by, another. And by enjoying sex in the right context and with the right conduct, a married couple can glorify God as they delight in the physical and emotional intimacy that is beautifully present in the act. As a side point, sex is designed to be pleasurable but it is also meant to point beyond itself because the pleasure that it provides is only temporary. But whereas both sexual pleasure and human marriage are temporary, the joy and delight of being with Jesus forever in the marriage of the church and Christ will never end and will far surpass any pleasure we might experience now.
Secondly, marriage serves God by the creation and nurturing of a new family unit. Back in Genesis 2:24, we read that marriage is where a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. The idea is that though he will always be the son of his parents, by marrying his wife he has begun a new family begun by their union.
The love and service of a husband and wife of each other can also bring about the raising of children which are a blessing and not a burden (Psalm 127:3-5). Back in Genesis 1:28, God commanded humanity to be fruitful, increase in number, and fill the earth. Conceiving and raising biological children is a gift that is properly situated within the context of marriage. However, adoption is also a biblical theme that is present particularly within the New Testament and should be considered as well. The point is that marriage creates a place where a family can be raised and led in the Lord (Ephesians 6:4, Titus 1:6).
Note that this means that serving your family is not separate from serving God but is a matter of faithfulness to God. Husbands and wives should be concerned about how to please and serve each other (1 Corinthians 7:32-34) and families need to be able to serve and provide for their members (1 Timothy 5:8). We should also note that in our New Testament context, the primary way in which we should understand the command to fill the earth and increase in number is through the making of disciples of Jesus Christ – not by the raising of children. In a real sense, Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:16-20 is the New Testament outworking of Genesis 1:28. However, that does not mean that raising children is of no value anymore, as is evidenced by how often children are mentioned in the New Testament.
Thirdly, marriage serves God by joining two people together who can serve in God’s world as co-workers. Recall that it was in the context of service that God said it was not good that man should be alone. Marriage is given so that the man and the woman can serve together.3 In other words, marriage is a way in which two people can partner in ministry.
More specifically, marriage is where two people can serve in God’s world as an overflow of their love and faithfulness to each other. We see this in the pattern of God’s love for His bride Israel. God calls Israel His bride (e.g. Isaiah 54:5) and directs His love and faithfulness to His people. This love and faithfulness drew Israel close to God (even when Israel rebelled and went after other Gods) in the hope that Israel could be a blessing to the world. In the New Testament, we see Jesus’ love and faithfulness for His bride, the church, which washes and cleanses a people who are then called to walk in the way of love they have seen and serve God (Ephesians 5:8-33). God’s pattern of using marriage imagery can be seen as the picture of how service can be our marriage reality.
Christopher Ash puts it this way when pondering how marriage can overflow in loving service:
Consider how your faithful love for one another, fed and nourished through the delights of bodily intimacy, can overflow outwards to bring love and faithfulness to a needy world. Think about how, in partnership with one another, helping one another, your love can provide a centre of stable security; so that this safe home will become a refuge into which others can be welcomed. Think practically how in your marriage relationship your private intimacy can be at the heart of a relationship which overflows in love to others outside.
So, summarising how the purpose of marriage is to glorify God by serving Him, we have seen three ways that this is achieved:
- Marriage is where one man and one woman can selflessly, sacrificially, and sensually serve each other sexually.
- Marriage is the creation of a family unit that can serve and nurture each other in the Lord.
- Marriage is designed for love and faithful intimacy to overflow in service to others in God’s world.
Let me give some concluding remarks as we draw this post to a close.
Marriage is not designed to be a solution to our loneliness or our feelings of inadequacy. Only Jesus Christ, and our identity found in Him, can bring satisfaction to those desires. If you try and make the hope of marriage, or your existing marriage, the bedrock of your identity then it will crush you and your partner because you’ll be trying to make this relationship do something it was never designed to do.
Furthermore, Christians believe that this is the purpose God has given for marriage but it is not one that everyone seeks to fulfill. That does not nullify the intent of the relationship or mean that it is somehow out of date. The gift to creation is relevant as long as this creation awaits the return of Jesus. Indeed, though marriage is a temporary relationship that will not last in the resurrection (Matthew 22:23-33) it will persist until then and so Christians must seek God’s word as guidance as to how we can faithfully follow. Marriage is far more than just a social institution (though it is certainly one of civic value and virtue) or a cultural antiquity; it is a gift that is given to all humanity, though not everyone can, should, or will enter into it.
Also, given the Christian understanding of the purpose of marriage as a relationship in order to glorify God by serving Him, it is only proper to recognise that Christians are to marry Christians. How can a Christian serve God in partnership with their spouse if their spouse has no devotion to the Lord?
Finally, marriage is such a high calling that it can seem crushing and daunting to even entertain the thought of entering into it. But remember that there is abundant grace in Christ Jesus, to help us by His Holy Spirit and to forgive us where we fall short. In Christ, marriage never needs to be seen as a burden but can be seen as a joyful adventure. What a calling! What a purpose! May Christian marriages glorify God and magnify His rule and might in creation.
- http://conference.scipy.org/proceedings/scipy2015/allen_downey.html ↩
- An example of someone who has publicly said this is Phil Lester. ↩
- This section draws heavily from Christopher Ash’s ‘Married for God’. ↩