My dictionary says marriage is “the legal union of a man and a woman for life.” But these days, just about every word of this definition is being debated: “Legal”? “For life”? “A man and a woman”? And what does “union” mean? Where It Began Like an onion, marriage has layers within layers. While each layer looks complete, underneath there is another. Let’s start with the first layer, where it all began, in Genesis. “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27 NIV). Now before women readers get upset, I want to explain that the Hebrew language uses the masculine for everyone, unless it is specifically intended for females. Women have their own special pronouns, while men have to suffer from always being “like everyone else.” The “him” just means that the gender is undefined, not necessarily male. What is most interesting is that it is singular. God created a single human, not two. But in the last part of the verse it is plural. Does this mean that Moses wasn’t very good at Hebrew grammar? I don’t think so!
The clue to this is given in Genesis 2. Adam was created, then Eve was divided from him. Mankind started as a single being, and was then divided into two different sexes. The first song in history adds this intriguing twist – it’s a love song. Adam sang that Eve was “bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” The English doesn’t show the detail. In Hebrew, “bone of my bone” literally means “bone away from my bone” and flesh away from my flesh.” The English emphasizes a similarity with “of,” but Adam was emphasizing not a similarity, but a separation with “from.” Adam recognized that women are different – way ahead of today’s muddled thinking. But he was sinless at the time; that explains it.
So men and women started as one, but were made different. The whole of Genesis 1 has the same theme; God separated the light from the dark, the waters above from the waters below, the dry land from the sea. Genesis 1 is all about separating. But then a strange thing happened. God said, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18). This is usually read and preached with reference to God instituting marriage. But in the context there is no talk of being fruitful and multiplying – or even of having fun! The immediate concern is not sexuality nor fertility, but loneliness.
God created Adam and Eve to be companions and co-workers above all else. This passage is not primarily about marriage, but community. Marriage, while part of the equation, is not the whole. Marriage is nothing, unless there is a genuine cooperation between partners from the start. Adam and Eve were brought together, and God said, “they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). What’s the point of all this separating, if God then puts the halves together again? Is He indecisive? No. Instead, there’s a pattern emerging.
Let’s look at the story of Babel. It began with, “Now the whole earth had one language, and a common speech” (Gen 11:1). Then humans started to build the tower of Babel. And what happened? The Lord scattered them over the earth. Mankind, which had been unified in a common culture and task, was now divided. Is that the story’s end?
In the next chapter God said to Abram, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3). God promised that, through Abram, the unity of humanity would be restored. The community of Babel went off course by challenging God, so it was destroyed. But community as it should be, centered on trusting God rather than confronting Him, was promised. Again, we have a pattern of God dividing, but promising a re-uniting.
The covenant at Sinai reinforced this. God pledged Himself to individual, faithful Israelites; but the overall framework was to establish Israel as a nation, a community of faith. The specifics of the covenant also made it plain that Israel was not a closed community, but one that welcomed foreigners to join. Diversity within Israel was not only tolerated, but encouraged. Moses’ wife was a foreigner. Admitting Rahab and condemning Achan (Josh. 2,7) make this point.
Later still, Isaiah said to the exiles: “Foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord, to serve … love … worship Him … keep the Sabbath … hold fast to My covenant – these I will bring to My holy mountain and give them joy in My house … I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered” (Isa. 56:6-8). And God commissioned the new Israel with these words: “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring My salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). God’s plan has always been to divide, so He can unite. The poet John Donne put it well: “So that He may raise up, the Lord throws down.”
But it didn’t stop with the Old Testament. In the New, Paul wrote of God’s plan: “When the times will have reached their fulfillment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph. 1:10). In the next chapter of Ephesians, he wrote: “For He Himself is our peace, who has made the two (Jews and Gentiles) one and has destroyed … the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14). Paul did not come up with this idea all by himself. Jesus said, “That they may be one, as we are one” (Jn. 17:22).
By now, you’ve noticed that I have not yet discussed marriage, except for Genesis 2. Instead I have spoken about God dividing and uniting. But why would God take that which is one, divide it, then re-unite the two halves? Why not just leave it unified as it was at the first? The answer is in Genesis 1, where we started. “In the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”
God is not monolithic. He is a Trinity. He is not a unity, but a community. God is surpassingly full. And He created mankind to be His image here on earth.
Because all creation is meant to display the character of the Creator, and mankind as the head of all, we are called to be more than just a conforming, boring, monochrome unity. We are called to be a community of all possible good things, just as our God Himself includes all possible good things.
This can’t be achieved by everyone being the same, but by each of us being as individual as possible, bonding together in love and mutual service despite our differences – and, most importantly, by rendering total respect to those who display those differences in righteousness.
This is why, for instance, racism is so repugnant, not only to the modern mind, but more importantly to the mind of God. No one was more anti-racist than Paul, except Jesus who spoke freely and unashamedly to hated Samaritans.
This is why sexism is so repugnant. Paul did not tell men to keep their women under control, as males in Greco-Roman society would. Instead, he asked women to honor the Name by not exercising their freedom in Christ in such a way as to make the faith offensive in their social context. He asked no more of them than he was prepared to do himself: “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything else that will cause your brother to fall” (Rom. 14:21). And above all, Jesus talked freely to women, even loose Samaritans (Jn. 4:4-42).
The same could be said for all the differences we see in people today. God has created them so that we can become a community of differences. Only those differences that spring from sin are to be shunned. Every other difference is to be welcomed as another example of the breadth of the community God is creating in Christ, a copy of the surpassing richness that dwells in the Godhead.
I still haven’t spoken about marriage, but by now you should know where I’m going. Ephesians 5:24-33 is the final word on what marriage is meant to be. Men and women are as different as could be. Not just their obvious physical differences, but also their emotional, psychological and behavioral differences are greater than that of any typical members of the same sex. Yet in marriage we are called to become one flesh, in a way prohibited to same-sex friendships.
Speaking personally, my wife and I could not be more different. The points we have in common are the result of living together and submitting to each other for over thirty years. There have been times when one or the other has quietly set aside our personal dream for happiness, because it got in the way of our commitment to each other and the surpassing worth of our marriage.
Showing God’s Character
So what is marriage, really? I believe it is a commitment to show, in our lives as a married couple, the character of our God. Our God is not a monolithic unity, but a community of three persons who desire nothing more than to give joy to each other. Our God is a God who rejoices in reconciliation, and the greater the differences reconciled, the greater the miracle and the greater the joy.
So how do we apply this overview of marriage? Where should the rubber meet the road in our lives? Paul said, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). As men, our main mission in marriage is to love our wives sacrificially. But there’s more! Christ also loved His Church creatively. He not only overcame death, but He gave fullness of life. Christ not only saves us, He re-creates us. If we’ve been Christians for any length of time, we should see in our lives how we’ve been enriched, and are being brought to maturity in Christ as time goes by. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, we are becoming “mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
This is our task as husbands: not only to do all the minimum requirements of feeding, clothing, not abusing, and not deserting our wives. We must also take seriously the creative role we have in the lives of our wives and children. Are we doing everything we can to help our wives become everything they could be? Are we encouraging them in their individuality – to have their own interests, friends and personalities? Are we providing them with private space – and respecting it physically, socially, emotionally, spiritually? When we do this, we’ll find them contributing to the marriage in ways we would not have imagined.
At first, this might sound as though we are risking our marriages by “growing apart.” But this is the risk that God took when He divided Adam from Eve. He created differences, so their coming together would be richer. This should challenge us to become the husbands we see modeled in God’s actions – willing to encourage differences, so that our lives together become richer. Create a community in the family, not merely a hierarchy.
This may appear to be a risk, compared to an authoritarian firm hand; but it is how our God loves us. Christ not only made the sacrifice to save us, but He also took the risk to set us free. He did not want obedient captives, but the love of those who responded freely to His love. We have no right to do less.
Most of all, we should not commit that most subtle of all abuses – demanding as our right that which is our wives’ to freely give. In particular, I speak of those Scriptures such as Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” This is addressed to wives, not husbands. It is a request for wives to submit, not a license for husbands to enforce submission. The corresponding word to husbands is not “enforce,” but “love.” The aim is to make our marriage a scale-model of the relationships within the Godhead itself. If our wives do not respond to our humble, sacrificial, creative acts of service to them as Christ has served us, then we will certainly not achieve this purpose by force. Quite the opposite: to demand is to defeat the whole purpose of marriage.
When I married my wife, I knew none of this. I was 20; enough said. But my Lord, assisted by my wife, taught me what I pledged in ignorance. Now my daughter has pledged herself to marriage. She and her husband are promising to live, in their own lives, the promise of God. They are promising to do in microcosm what God has planned for the whole creation. They are promising to take two opposite personalities – with different needs, hopes, behaviors, and emotional responses – and forge them into a new community. What a task! Even Adam and Eve failed, and we all have friends who’ve also fallen short of this ideal.
Do not blame those whose marriages fail; it’s a task beyond human strength. Although the Lord hates divorce, it’s just one more symptom of the underlying problem of living as sinful creatures in a fallen creation. If our marriages are successful, it’s a miracle, like the raising of Lazarus. But maybe even greater, because it’s a continuing miracle! Rejoice in God’s mercy, and support with love those whose paths are not easy.
Marriage As A Model
To those setting out on, as well as those well into this amazing voyage, I sound a warning. You are pledging to live out in your own lives a model of the life within the Godhead itself! You won’t do it perfectly. But commit yourselves to it without reservation, and forgive your partner when he/she stumbles. Jesus calls us to be His bride, and forgives our constant stumbling. The failings of your partner are not to be seen as disasters, but opportunities to echo Christ’s forgiveness to His marriage partner, the Church. And your failings are not to be seen as disasters, but opportunities to repent, reflect, and re-commit from the heart.
Please, let your marriage be a parable of Christ’s love for His people, and of the love within the Godhead itself. Make it a good picture of the life to come.
By Bob Springett
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org