Lesson 8a – Marriage Defined


Survey Studies in Reformed Theology

Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies

Nomology: Lesson 8a – Marriage Defined
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2000, 2011, 2013

Lesson Index
Lesson 8a: Marriage Defined,
– The Purposes of Marriage
– Preventing Moral Problems
– Limits Upon Who Should Marry

Marriage defined

Westminster Confession of Faith 24

I. Marriage is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband, at the same time.

In the earliest moments of human history, God established a principle which we have come to call marriage. As a creation ordinance it was introduced before the fall of mankind into sin and is therefore not a redemptive ordinance, and consequently should not be limited to just some parts of humanity or history. From its revelation to Adam, to the final day of judgment, one man and one woman may join together into this special unity.

Marriage is part of the created moral order. Its purpose and definition is given in Genesis 2:18-25.

18. Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.”
19. And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name.
20. And the man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him.
21. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh at that place.
22. And the LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man.
23. And the man said, “This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.”
24. For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.
25. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

The basic defining element of marriage is not a ceremony. It is the solemn agreement between a man and a woman to become one flesh for life. Jesus recognized this same union as described in Genesis as still the foundation of marriage in his era.

Matthew 19:5-6, “and said, ‘For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. Consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.’ ”

In some specific sense God reveals that these two individuals become one. Jesus was very precise in the finality of this union in Mark 10:6-9. The context makes this clear.

Mark 10:6-9, “But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and the two shall become one flesh; consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”

It is clear that monogamy is the only ordained mode of marriage in the eyes of God. Multiple partners would violate this relationship as God ordained it. Any sexual relationship between any other than the one partner is considered a disruption of the principle of two becoming one. This will be addressed further in the lesson covering the issue of divorce.

This means that if married persons are separated for reasons other than those God recognizes, they sin against this bond of unity. They may not marry another, or engage in a sexual relationship with someone other than their original partner as long as that original bond exists.

Polygamy is never sanctioned or approved in the Bible. While it is true that some Old Testament champions of the biblical faith had multiple wives, it is never presented as acceptable in the eyes of God. No comment is made in most of these cases.

Polygamy is first mentioned in Genesis 4:19 as something practiced by Lamech, a descendant of Cain. The sins of the kings and patriarchs were often simply recorded in Scripture as historical facts without moral commentary. That they engaged in having multiple spouses is not sufficient grounds to eliminate the clear formulation given by God directly in the establishment of the marriage bond.

This formulation in Genesis 2 makes it clear that marriage is the normal state for man. Remaining unmarried is not immoral, but it should be considered a special circumstance as the New Testament later describes it. Some are specially called to remain single. Jesus explained this exception to the rule to his disciples in Matthew 19:9-12

“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.”

Paul was single yet he clearly wrote that marriage is the only answer for the single person who is unable to remain sexually pure both inwardly as well as outwardly. That person should not resist marriage which is God’s ordained means for satisfying these kinds of bodily and emotional desires.

1 Corinthians 7:8-9, “But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn.”

This marriage principle as stated in Genesis 2 clearly rules out same-sex marriages. Homosexuality is directly forbidden in Scripture in various places. It is not recognized as an alternative life-style or mere genetic configuration. Societies often adopt different standards, but it is beyond dispute that in the Bible marriage is defined as that union of one man and one woman.

The Purpose of Marriage

WCF 24, II. Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with legitimate issue, and of the church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness.

The confession summarizes the biblical purposes of marriage under three basic headings. One is the principle of mutual help between spouses. The second is procreation which increases mankind and the family of God. The third is sexual morality by which our human sexual desires are satisfied in a way agreeable with how our Creator made us to live.

Spouses are to be helpers of one another.
The creation of woman from Adam was to provide help for him in a way that nothing else in all of creation could. God said in Genesis 2:18, “I will make him a helper suitable for him”

The word “helper” is not a degrading term. It does not make the person helping into a person of lesser importance. In the Bible, God is often called our helper. In Psalm 121:2 the Bible says, “My help comes from the LORD who made heaven and earth”

Woman as helper to her husband is no more a slave to man than God is to us. Genesis calls her a helper suitable for (corresponding to) him (similar to him), yet she is different than him in certain ways.

There is a mutual need that is expressed in Scripture. Both the man and the woman need one another. 1 Corinthians 11:11 says that neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. Though the basic responsibility of mutual help extends to both spouses there are specific ways by which each partner is to provide that help. God makes a gender distinction in our domestic duties. These distinctions will be covered extensively in the next lessons.

Preventing Moral Problems
Another purpose for marriage is the satisfaction of our sexual drives and desires. The Bible is surprisingly open about sex. God made us and knows the strength of that drive which he put within us. He provided marriage as the proper way for that desire to be satisfied.

1 Corinthians 7:1-5, “Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”

There is no question that all sexual activity outside of a biblical marriage is forbidden. There are many regulations in Scripture showing how this principle applies. It would take us far beyond the limited scope of these lessons to address specific applications to all the complexities introduced by cultural differences. There has been interesting discussion about how these principles apply to couples who plan to be married but are not yet joined, sex between those who make commitments of fidelity but have not chosen to be married, and other such variations of the principle of “one man and one woman joined by covenant for life.” It can be simply stated that it is immoral for any sexual activity to take place between people who are not married to one another.

Single people face special challenges in our present era. Sexual intimacy outside of marriage is promoted in advertising, movies, music, magazines and television programs. In contrast with this, God advises singles to be married in the Lord if they find it difficult to control their sexual desires.

1 Corinthians 7:9, “if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn”

The burning mentioned in this verse is that of burning desires. Those who interpret it as a threat of the eternal fires of hell take the passage far beyond its intended purpose and the actual meaning of the language.

Our modern era presents pressures which make limiting sexual satisfaction to marriage alone a difficult challenge.

Often, people no longer marry when they reach physical maturity. Prior to our modern era people married in their early teens reducing the time they need to refrain from satisfying those urges as singles. The pressures of economics and the demands of continuing education on into the third decade of life cause marriage to be put off far beyond the body’s attainment of sexual maturity.

There are expectations imposed upon marriage beyond what God requires. Prior to the modern era parents arranged marriages or were closely involved in approving them and overseeing a courting process. Modern views of romance have supplanted the original process of finding a life partner.

Because of the influence of secular values, marriage is often based purely upon emotional feelings, sexual desires, romantic expectations, economic aspirations, and physical beauty. The expectations of partners becomes unrealistic and does not consider how time can change those original improper reasons for entering a marriage. Partners demand more from one another than can reasonably be provided over the long time-span of life. When imperfections are later discovered and struggles are encountered, they find that the reasons and feelings that brought them together are not strong enough to overcome the temptation to abandon their marriage vows.

The ease with which a marriage can be legally terminated has increased. This not only discourages working out problems together, it also produces many formerly married people who are now without partners. Some of those divorced individuals would be forbidden to re-marry according to biblical principles. The increase of unbiblical advice in a pluralistic society encourages ending marriages instead of going through the hard process of learning to love one another as God commands. Young people are indoctrinated in these ungodly attitudes in school, in the media, by counselors, and by friends.

The role models and examples presented in our society promote various perversions instead of satisfying sexual desires as our Creator intended and commands. Pornography has become easily available and hard to avoid on the Internet. It also abounds on Cable Television and on easy to obtain DVDs. Homosexuality is promoted as a life style demanding to be respected and protected by law. Such aberrations create confusion and temptations which undermine godly and healthy sexual attitudes.

As God’s people we need to take the lead by word and example in lovingly and patiently promoting godly marriages as the only way to find fulfillment for our desires while also pleasing the God who made us.

Limitations upon lawful unions

III. It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgment to give their consent. Yet it is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord. And therefore such as profess the true reformed religion should not marry with infidels, papists, or other idolaters: neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked, by marrying with such as are notoriously wicked in their life, or maintain damnable heresies.
IV. Marriage ought not to be within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity forbidden by the Word. Nor can such incestuous marriages ever be made lawful by any law of man or consent of parties, so as those persons may live together as man and wife. [The man may not marry any of his wife’s kindred, nearer in blood then he may of his own: nor the woman of her husband’s kindred, nearer in blood than of her own.]

marriage is for all people
God instituted marriage for all general categories of people. It is not limited to those who are redeemed or to those who submit outwardly to the covenant community of God’s people. It is a creation ordinance (Genesis 2:24) that was established in Eden before the fall of mankind into sin. It was given to all of humanity as represented in Adam and Eve. The commitment of one man and one woman to become united as husband and wife for life is the only moral setting for sexual intimacy and the bearing of children.

the ability to give consent
Since marriage is a pledge between the parties before the Lord, it is both a vow to God and an oath made before men. It is necessary that the parties should be able to give consent with understanding regarding that to which they commit themselves. As with all oaths and vows, there is a solemn obligation upon those who enter a marriage relationship. This basic principle is clearly expressed in Numbers 30:2 “If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”

Christians should marry only in the Lord
While all people ought to be married before they enter into sexual relationships or have children, those who are part of God’s covenant people have an additional obligation. They ought not to marry partners who are not part of the family of God by a credible profession of faith. Both ought to place themselves under the care of rightful church authority.

The foundation of a godly home is trust in and love for the promises and principles of God as expressed in his word. If this is not agreed upon by both partners, the home will lack the most basic element for peace and blessing. For this reason the ancient Patriarchs looked to find wives for their sons from their own people rather than from the pagans among whom they often lived.

In Exodus 34:16, as the Covenant people were about to enter the promised land, they were warned not to marry the pagan inhabitants so that unbelief would not be brought into their homes and lives. A similar warning was given in Deuteronomy 7:3-4, “you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you.”

The issue was never racial, but spiritual. Many times Israelites married other races with God’s blessing. But it was always forbidden to marry outside of the covenant faith.

2 Corinthians 6:14-18 shows the incompatibility of Christians with unbelievers. The failure of both parties to be in subjection to the principles God has made known would make a truly God-honoring home a hard struggle for the one believing spouse acting alone.

“Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord. “And do not touch what is unclean; And I will welcome you. And I will be a father to you, And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,” Says the Lord Almighty.”

This principle goes beyond just marriage. It should be considered in social situations with singles of the opposite sex. Those relationships are often where people meet their marriage partners. It is never wise to date or to court those you are forbidden by God’s law to marry. Once emotional attachments to a person develop judgment may become easily confused regarding God’s commandments.

Some justify dating unbelievers as if it was a valid form of evangelism. It is not one of the means of evangelism in Scripture. Though God does sometimes sovereignly and mercifully bless even our most unwise efforts, it is contrary to the guidelines he has given us in his word. I have joyfully seen some situations where social contacts of this sort brought the unbeliever to a wonderful relationship with Jesus Christ, but more often such attempts become tragedies for the believers involved. When Christians play at the edge of God’s warnings, they ought not be surprised when they face grievous consequences.

The terminology we often use is taken from 1 Corinthians 7:39 where the issues is directly stated regarding widows who re-marry. They are to marry “only in the Lord”. This means they are to marry only those who are also in Christ.

1 Corinthians 7:39, “A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.”

Sometimes one partner in a marriage becomes a believer after they are married, and the other does not. Or a Christian might intentionally violate God’s law and become married to an unbeliever. In such cases the marriage is still binding and all the obligations between the partners apply.

Marriage is a covenant bond. As such God sees the two as one flesh because of the oath and vow the partners have taken according to his creation ordinance. Though they may have entered into the union foolishly, or they might struggle to get along with one another, their duty remains.

1 Corinthians 7:12-16, “But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, let her not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such {cases,} but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?”

If you have an unbelieving spouse, you must not send him or her away. There is great benefit to an unbeliever by union with a member of the covenant community. They are said to be holy and sanctified, which means they are set apart as special. It does not mean they are redeemed by Christ.

Israel was chosen from among all of mankind to be the special people of God. This did not mean that all individual Israelites were redeemed and believed God’s promises. However, they were all called a “holy people”, set aside for a special purpose and therefore they were held to a higher set of obligations than those who remained outside of the covenant community.

Deuteronomy 7:6, “you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.”

Similarly God’s word says that an unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the believing partner. They are called holy. They are privileged by God’s providence to enjoy the blessings of having a godly spouse. These blessings do not include redemption of the spouse from his sins. Salvation in this sense only comes by the work of Christ, applied by the Holy Spirit and evidenced by repentance from sin and faith in the gospel.

the laws of incest
In the earliest days of human history it was acceptable to God that people would marry and have children with their close relatives. In the case of the children of Adam and Eve that was unavoidable. God commanded them to marry and fill the earth with children. For several generations there was no other choice in selecting a partner than to select among those who were closely related by blood.

A similar situation took place after the great flood. Noah’s three sons and their wives repopulated the world. Obviously their children would have married their closest cousins, or perhaps their own siblings. There is no commandment of God recorded in Scripture which prohibited that in those early days.

There came a time, in the greater expression of God’s law through Moses, when God restricted marriages to those who were not related closely with one another by either blood or marriages.

The Westminster Confession explains that marriage ought not be within the degree of consanguinity or affinity forbidden by God’s word. The term “consanguinity” means a relationship by blood or kinship. “Affinity” means a relationship by association or by marriage.

The only place where this is addressed in God’s word is in the book of Leviticus, sections 18:6-23 and 20:10-21. An extensive list is given there showing the relationships that are too close to allow marriage. No sexual relationship is to be permitted with a person’s own parents, his parents’ other children, his own children, grand-children, uncles, and aunts.

This same section of the law also forbids polygamy, bestiality, homosexuality and other sexual acts which it says are serious crimes and abominations in the eyes of God.

There are some areas of controversy in the churches regarding how this law is to apply to us today. It is often argued that these restrictions upon marriage are not among the creation ordinances which identify immutable and necessary moral principles derived from the nature of the Creator. Rather than appearing in every era of human history, God did not impose these restrictions until the time of Moses.

As part of the civil regulations of the law they show us how to apply basic revealed moral principles. They act as important guides in subsequent eras to provide a general application of the marriage relationship that should be considered in all marriages.

Some more recently adopted editions of the Westminster Confession, including the version currently recognized by the PCA and OPC, eliminate the phrase specifying the scope of forbidden affinity. The eliminated portion reads:

[The man may not marry any of his wife’s kindred, nearer in blood then he may of his own: nor the woman of her husband’s kindred, nearer in blood than of her own.]

There are some interesting reasons offered in an attempt to explain why God imposed these regulations when he did, once the human race had diversified from the time of creation and the flood. Obviously it is not an absolute immorality to marry close relatives since it was not only condoned but commanded by God at specific times, and therefore clearly not contrary to his own nature as Creator. But something in the unfolding of God’s plan brought about conditions that triggered the prohibition, and placed such serious warnings upon it which included serious punishments.

Marriage is neither an invention of mankind nor an evolved phenomenon of human society. It is part of God’s creation, instituted before the fall into sin and perpetuated throughout all of revealed history. Therefore no human government, church, or individual has the authority to modify what God has commanded and forbidden in his law.

[Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.]

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