It’s rather coincidental that the same day I’m posting another student paper on God’s purpose for marriage Albert Mohler has done the same thing, and with the same focus. His is a good read. And so is Abby’s paper. In our seminary class, Counseling and Law, I thought it would be a good idea get clear on the foundations of God’s design for marriage before we started to look at how mankind has managed to mangle it. After we’re thinking more clearly about what it’s suppose to be, then we can better deal with divorce law, legislation on same-sex marriage, etc. Here’s Abby (Note, the footnotes did not get picked up by my blog formatting):
Currently, with the rate of marriages diminishing and the numbers of couples choosing cohabitation over matrimony increasing, it is vital that the purpose of marriage must be determined. Despite the bad name that marriage has gotten due to the high rate of divorce around the world, and the selfishness of man to seek his own good instead of the good of another, marriage itself stands as an exemplary model of what true sacrifice, love, faithfulness, and service are. Although marriage was created by God in the Garden of Eden it certainly has other roots as well. These other interpretations of Biblical ideals are worthy of consideration to reach a conclusion. This paper will examine scriptural mandates and exhortations regarding the estate of marriage and compare historical and logical arguments for other models of marriage. Ultimately, the purpose of marriage is doxological, just like the purpose of all of creation.
There are two ways that the purpose of marriage can be assessed. First, it can be evaluated in terms of ethics. Benton Kline says, “If it were an ethical reflection [on marriage], then we would have turned to those Biblical passages which deal with rules and principles for marriage. We would have examined those passages critically, located them in their time and place, sought to sort out what was culturally and historically conditioned by Hebrew or first-century society, and to determine what was of permanent value.” However, the second way to evaluate the purpose of marriage, and the method of this paper, is to look theologically at the Bible and its teachings. In order to do theology well a methodology must be established.
Theologically, the purpose of creation is understood to be doxological, meaning that man was created to give glory to God and everything in creation was created for the same purpose. It is by these things, creation, relationships and the like, that we are able to understand more about who God is and what He is like. Therefore, God gave marriage to man, so that man could know God better and give him glory. In order to glorify God, the Bible says that we must be like Him. First Peter chapter one verse sixteen says, “because it is written, ‘you shall be holy, for I am Holy.’” Becoming like God is what the work of sanctification is all about. Sanctification is the process by which we are set apart by God and cooperate with Him to become more like Him.
Let us first examine Biblical evidence concerning the place and purpose of marriage. If God created marriage in the garden of Eden, then surely He has given witness in His Holy Scriptures regarding His designs for it.
First Corinthians 10:31 exhorts Christians to do everything for the glory of God. Although this verse does not directly tie itself to the marriage relationship, Paul is suggesting that all things in life have the possibility to be done well, and thereby to the glory of God, or poorly, in which man seeks his own means. It is the overall message of Holy Scripture that we are to live for Christ in all situations. With that desire Christ appears to plead with the Lord before His deliverance to the religious leaders and subsequent crucifixion in Matthew 26:39. He offers to do the will of the Father so that He would be glorified in Christ’s submission and ultimately death.
Several times the Bible mentions the gift and joys of bringing children into the world. In Genesis 1:28, after God blesses Adam and Eve, giving them to one another, He commands them to be fruitful and multiply. Again, in Genesis 28:3 the command to multiply is given with the blessing to Jacob by his father. It is clear that Children are not only viewed as being an important part of God’s blessings to his children, but also an important part of the marital relationship. Finally in Jeremiah 29:6, it appears that having children is important, because as children of God, we are to grow the kingdom of God, and having children and raising them as Godly individuals does just that. Henry E. White says, “just as God brought life into the world, so He ordained marriage that man and woman might be helpers in His plan of continual creation by having children, brining life into the world.”
Within the pages of Scripture no theme is more consistent that that of unity between husband and wife. The basis for that unity beings with the command in Genesis 2:24 that the husband and wife should leave their fathers and mothers and cleave to one another. Unity cannot be achieved when one or the other is still clinging to someone else. That unity can be compromised in several ways, the first being adultery which is forbidden in Exodus 20:14 and Mark 10:9. Unity can be disrupted or severed when one spouse chooses to leave another. Divorce is forbidden in several places, but Malachi 2:13-16 and 1 Corinthians 7 make this point. Symbolically, God took the flesh from the man and used it to form his wife in Genesis 2:23. This is a picture of the unity that a husband and wife have. They are one.
An important part of this unity is learning to be submissive to one another and learn how to give and take in the relationship. Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3:13-19 cover the idea that the balance of partnership is a delicate one and not to be abused. The partnership between a husband and wife is furthered by a unity that is loving and caring. First Peter 3:7 characterizes the partnership as one filled with respect and Genesis 2:20-25 suggests that the partnership be one of helping. The wife was created to be a helpmate for the husband.
Sexual relations are an important aspect of unity according to the Bible. This sexual relationship is to be between one man and one woman according to 1 Timothy 3:12. Immorality within the sexual aspect of the marriage can lead to a destruction of the unity. It is therefore forbidden in Matthew 5:27-28, 1 Corinthians 6:18, and Hebrews 13:4.
Although clearly hard at times, marriage is described as a gift to man in Proverbs 18:22, which says, “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord. Solomon was a man who found that the pleasures offered by the world were worthless and he boldly proclaimed this in the book of Ecclesiastes. However, in Ecclesiastes 9:9, he states that to enjoy life with a wife that you love is a blessing. Clearly, when modeled after the Biblical model of marriage, a spouse can be a blessing and source of great joy.
Although not a central descriptor of the marriage relationship in the Bible there are two places where Scripture explicitly mentions romantic love. In Song of Songs 8:7 Solomon describes romantic love as strong and lasting, able to withstand many waters. In Genesis 29:20 Jacob is so in love with Rachel that serving an additional seven years for her hand in marriage, after being tricked by her father, was no big deal and passed like a few days. Romantic love is alive and well in the Bible, and led to marriage and lasting commitment.
The Bible clearly has much to say about marriage and its various attributes. Too frequently, the words of the Bible are divorced from the overall message of the Bible. In the course of history the words of the Bible and the original purpose of marriage has been distorted and reinterpreted in light of historical events, interpretations of Scripture, and basic need. From this various historical contributions have been made that add to our to the understanding of what the purpose of marriage is.
Rabbi Aryeh Pamensky suggests that the purpose of marriage is “to constantly provide emotion intimacy to your spouse, thereby uncovering your true self and, ultimately, your unique purpose for being created.” The stated purpose, while appearing to be focused on the spouse, really is centered on the self. It is about personal discovery and fulfillment. The Rabbi says that marriage is meant to last a lifetime and that the key to conflict lies in agreeing that happiness can be found in communication and compromise. While this is not a bad goal, it focuses on the relationship, and Douglas Anderson suggests that marriages focused only on themselves become unhealthy.
Older Protestantism contributions have been equally destructive and can be summed up in four basic patterns. First, The Westminster Confession placed an undue focus on the purpose of marriage as the prevention of sin, namely the sin of sexual immorality. This focus reduces marriage to little more than a place for sex. A Second view of marriage “considered it the place for procreation, the continuation of the human race, the replication of the parents.” Again marriage is relegated to the place where sex is allowed. Third, marriage is viewed as a place for bringing up children. This is a variation on the procreation theme, although a little richer in its application. Fourth, is the idea that the purpose of marriage is mutual support. The biblical support for this view comes from Genesis 2. Benton Kline says, “marriage for help and support is really exposing the character of mutual and self-giving love. This view of the purpose of marriage is much richer, much more satisfying.” This final historical protestant contribution has something to offer, although it is not a complete understanding of marriage’s purpose.
Although secular and cultural views of marriage are incomplete because they do not rely upon the word of God to guide their ideals, they are important to understand since the church lives within the world. Wande Abimbola says, “marriage is an important part of any culture largely because it is a vehicle for the establishment of human relationships which then lead to procreation and the perpetuation of the human species.” Abimbola also stressed that in many African cultures marriage is important because it is a mark of maturity and entrance into adulthood. Keeping the culture and civilization going, by means of propagation, is important and is an aspect of the Christian purpose of marriage. However, propagation it is not a stand alone purpose, nor is it the most important one. Marriage, in some ways, becomes a means of control in a secular environment. Abimbola states, “it is believed that a married person will refrain from anti-social or deviant behavior since through his offspring he has an everlasting stake in the community.” When the community matches a young couple for marriage, what they are doing is forcing them to grow up.
All in all what is gleaned from these contributions is this; the purpose of marriage is to have children, find oneself, and experience sex in a safe environment. These shallow purposes understandably have led to disgust with the idea of marriage and have done little to stop the rise in the incidence of divorce, perhaps it is even creating the epidemic. What is needed is a balanced view on the purpose of marriage.
Marriage was created by God as a way in which we could become more like Him. Although, Gary Thomas is certainly not the first Christian author to suggest that sanctification is the end goal of marriage, he might be the most well known. He says of his own experience, “If the purpose of marriage was simply to enjoy an infatuation and make me ‘happy,’ then I’d have to get a ‘new’ marriage every two or three years. But if I really wanted to see God transform me from the inside out, I’d need to concentrate on changing myself rather than on changing my spouse.” He wrote his book Sacred Marriage as a direct attack against the widely accepted idea that the purpose of marriage is personal happiness and fulfillment. Thomas says, “spiritual growth is the main theme; marriage is just the context.”
While there are several Christian authors that point to sanctification as a purpose of marriage. They lump it together with things like partnership, sex, community, faithfulness, love, procreation, promotion of the kingdom of God, and companionship. Instead of taking a horizontal approach to understanding the purpose of marriage where all parts are equal, a hierarchical approach is proposed here. This would place sanctification at the top of the hierarchy with several sub-purposes. These can be categorized in terms of smaller distinct areas in which the Lord is going to challenge and His people.
It goes without saying that relationships, particularly marriage, have great potential for pain and suffering. However, for the Christian, the outcome of such suffering and pain is personal spiritual growth. In Romans 5:3-4 Paul instructs his audience that suffering builds the character of the believer in Christ. Douglas Anderson says, “Both married partners are engaged in their own “pilgrim’s progress,” and marriage is one avenue of that long and painful pursuit. Lifelong confrontation with their mate forces spouses to face and know themselves and to learn about their own destructiveness as well as creativity, their fundamental weaknesses and strengths, and their relationship to the rest of life and to God.”
Ultimately, the end goal is to become more like Christ. When faced with opportunities to learn more about themselves and grow, the married Christian is essentially doing what Philippians 2:12-13 instructs, “to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” This process can be very painful and hard, but at the same time it can be a great opportunity to experience joy and freedom in Christ.
Under the broad umbrella of sanctification, there are several smaller purposes. They work to further our sanctification and create a strong marital relationship. These additional purposes are threefold; partnership, sex, and ministry. Each of these three things work to not only grow the individual but also to help the married couple understand more about who God is and what He is about. God has given us clues about Himself in what He created and how He designed this world.
Partnership encompasses several concepts. First is the idea that in the Garden of Eden God identified that it was not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Benton Kline says, “marriage becomes the paradigm for the human being in relation. To be with other human beings, to be with God, these are modeled, symbolized in the most intimate human relationship, the relationship of which it is said, ‘they become one flesh.’” This companionship between man and woman not only opens the door for them to feel love, but to also be sharpened and grow in their relationship with God. Rick Warren, in his article The Purpose-Driven Marriage, says, “for God to teach you real love, he’ll put you around some unlovely people. For God to teach you real joy, he’ll allow you to go through times of grief. To learn inner peace and patience, he’ll allow storms of chaos and stressful situations in your life that test your patience and teach you to trust him.”
Secondly, within the partnership, the Bible designates that it be made up of one woman and one man (Genesis 2:24). This union between the two sexes expresses part of who God is. Genesis chapter 1 says that both man and woman were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Thus, gender helps us to understand the image of God, therefore, together as man and woman we are shown a glimpse of what the Lord is like.
Finally, the creation of partnership in marriage challenges the marital partners to exercise faithfulness. Benton Kline points out that faithfulness in “marriage is a paradigm for God’s relationship to Israel; God’s faithfulness to His people is to be understood in terms of a marriage.” This practice allows for personal reflection and growth as each partner experiences setbacks in their desire to be faithful and encounters their own sinfulness. This helps each person to understand something about who God is in relationship to that covenant.
Sex is the second purpose of marriage. Sex was created both to deepen intimacy and to create children. Both intimacy and children are important aspects of marriage. Henry White suggests that, “marriage provides the ideal situation when both man and woman can in a sense of complete trust, love, and surrender, give themselves to the ‘it was good’ expression of sex.” As trust, love, surrender and intimacy grow, each partner has the chance to see the goodness of God and truth of what love is. With regard to children, although they are not necessary for a marriage to be legitimatized, the Bible does seem to suggest that they are an important part of the marital bed (Genesis 1:28, 28:3). Henry White says, “when self and things become more important than children, then that life and that marriage become distorted.” Raising children requires that as parents each grow in grace and understanding. It also fosters knowledge regarding a different facet of God’s love for his children. White stresses that “marriages need children as a child needs a brother or a sister, in order to learn some of the great truths of sacrificial love and self denial.”
The final purpose for marriage is ministry. Douglas Anderson stresses that, “every marriage needs a mission outside itself in order to thrive.” Therefore, God in his infinite wisdom called couples to minister with their marriages. Henry White says, “marriage should be that unity of man and woman that promotes and teaches the precepts of God, both in living example and through every available means.” In addition to ministering through their relationship, there is also an availability for families to minister through their children. Having a family allows them to further the kingdom and view their children as investments.
The central purpose of marriage is thus, sanctification, which ultimately brings glory to God. These smaller purposes contribute to the whole. Marriage is a complicated entity, since it is constantly changing. With positive views of marriage waning, it is important to see marriage as more than just an outlet for sex, children, and personal fulfillment or happiness. Marriage is so much more than that. It is a means that God created so that we could become more like Him, experience His love and goodness, and share with another human being the depths of ourselves. Sure, marriage is dangerous and sharing ourselves deeply could cost a lot, however, the riches to be gained through the relationship should encourage us to approach marriage with trust in the Lord and His methods.
Abimbola, Wande. “The Meaning and Purpose of Marriage in African Traditional Religion.” Dialogue & Alliance 9, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1995): 54-64.
Anderson, Douglas. “Marriage as Sacred Mystery: Some Theological Reflections on the Purposes of Marriage.” Word & World 5 (Fall 1985): 364-369.
Burke, Dale. Different by Design: God’s Master Plan for Harmony Between Men and Women in Marriage. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2000.
Kline, C Benton. “Marriage Today: A Theological Carpet Bag.” Journal of Pastoral Care 33, no. 1 (March 1979): 24-37.
Pamensky, Rabbi Aryeh. “The Purpose of Marriage.” Available from http://www.aish.com/family/marriage/The_Purpose_of_Marriage.asp. Internet: accessed February 15, 2008.
Thomas, Gary. Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy? Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000.
Warren, Rick. “The Purpose-Driven Marriage.” Christianity Today Summer 2004: 26-30.
White, Henry E., Jr. Marriage, The Family and The Bible. Boston, MA: The Christopher Publishing House, 1961.