Marriage is a good gift from God, but it is not the only or ultimate “good” for society. All people are equally loved and valued by God, regardless of whether they are married or not. The Bible affirms the goodness of marriage but the fact that Jesus Christ lived a single life highlights the fact that singleness is also good. Whether married or single, it is important that we understand the God-ordained purposes of marriage.
The opening chapter of Genesis explains God’s intentions for humanity:
“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it’” (Gen 1:27-28).
God created humanity in his image as male and female. He gave them his blessing to fill and subdue the earth. The maleness and femaleness of humanity are necessary for this divine mandate to be carried out, since only a male and a female together can conceive offspring to fill the earth. God’s design is for children to be born and grow in secure and loving care within the context of an enduring union between their mother and father.
Genesis 2 elaborates on the nature of this union between a man and a woman. A marriage is formed when a man and a woman leave their respective parents and unite together as “one flesh” (Gen 2:24). This is a beautiful way of describing the conjugal nature of marriage – it can only occur between the two complementary sexes.
This exclusive and permanent union of a man and a woman in Genesis 1-2 is God’s pattern for all marriages (Ephesians 5:31; cf. Genesis 2:24). It is the only relationship that can properly have the title marriage. It has been this way, as the Lord Jesus said, “from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8).
The teaching of Jesus Christ upholds the biblical understanding of marriage. When asked about marriage, Jesus quoted the Old Testament:
“From the beginning the Creator made them male and female... Therefore a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh... Therefore what God has joined together, let no one tear asunder” (Matthew 19:4-5, quoting from Genesis 1:27 and 2:24).
Here, Jesus affirms and endorses the understanding of marriage that unfolds in the Scriptures “from the beginning”. He upholds this in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4-26) – noting that, after five husbands, “the man you now have” cannot be considered her husband. Again, Jesus neither condemns nor condones the behaviour, but does underscore God’s planned pattern for marriage.
Today, every marriage is marred by the events of Genesis 3. Human sin has fractured the unity between men and women. Consequently, husbands and wives are now prone to struggle against each other.
In the generations that followed the Fall the Bible shows marriages coming under greater pressure, evidenced by broken relationships, polygamy, infidelity and abuse. Even in otherwise “good” marriages the struggle for dominance continued to add strain to the institution of marriage (Genesis 27:5ff).
The spiralling breakdown in human relationships resulted in humanity turning aside from marriage to seek sexual gratification outside it, for example, through adultery, sexual promiscuity and homosexual sex. Each development significantly undermines our ability to live in ways that are pleasing to God. Marriage, which was a cause for unparalleled delight in the beginning, was compromised by multi-generational patterns of selfishness and a turning away from God’s purposes for how we are to relate to each other.
Marriage remains a continuing “good” for human beings (though not the only or highest “good”), for God’s original purposes have not changed. All marriages also continue to be impacted by the ongoing effects of sin. Christian marriages, like all our relationships, need to reflect the grace, forgiveness and love that God has shown to us in saving us through his Son. Specifically, Christian husbands and wives are called upon to model their marriages on the relationship between Jesus and his “bride”, the church.
“‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32).
In practice, this means that husbands and wives must turn away from patterns of selfishness and dominance to love and serve each other in complementary ways, modelled on the relationship between Christ and the church.
For all people – whether Christian or not – marriage continues to be a place where human life can flourish. This is seen, firstly, in the potential for a husband and wife to conceive children and nurture them to adulthood. Secondly, the marriage commitment provides a secure context for meeting a couple’s relational, intellectual, emotional and sexual needs. Third, whether they realise it or not, their relationship serves as a reflection of the relationship between God and his people, Jesus and the church. The union of a man and a woman in marriage is so profound in God’s sight that it shapes his description of the culmination of his saving activity at the end of time (Revelation 19:6-10).
God created marriage for the benefit of all men and women, not just for believers. The God who made us knows what is best for human society and departing from his pattern often brings great damage to people. If we know that’s true, what do we do about it? If God’s plan for marriage is a good thing, do we just keep that in our own community, or do we impose it on the wider community? The answer is neither. We are called to love our neighbours and to be good citizens. That means sharing the good things we have. In a liberal democracy like Australia, we’re actually encouraged to share our point of view, to offer what will lead to everyone’s flourishing. We’re not trying to enforce it. But we are going to do what the New Testament teaches – that we should graciously persuade. This often works at the level of social values. For example, part of God’s plan for marriage is that “you shall not commit adultery”. It is not a crime to commit adultery in Australia but there is a broad social consensus that “cheating” on your spouse is not a good thing. Christians should seek to maintain and support that consensus, because we believe that discouraging infidelity is good for all marriages.
The reason we should participate in the conversation about marriage is out of love for our neighbours. It is not loving to let our society do things which we know will be harmful to the institution of marriage, because marriage between a man a woman is good for people. Wherever you find yourself discussing the meaning of marriage and people know you’re a believer, feel free to explain how God’s pattern for marriage has been proven to be good for society. It makes sense for Australia to follow this pattern – not just because it is God’s idea, but because it is good.
God’s plan for marriage brings positive things for children and society. Even for people who don’t believe marriage is a gift from God, the vast majority of Australians know that marriage brings good. It’s not surprising that, if we abandon God’s good plan for marriage and define it another way, there will be consequences. And many of them may be negative. Christians have been way too silent on this. We can’t be good neighbours and stay silent on the damage that can be done if we change the meaning of marriage.
Because we’ve been largely silent until now, most Australians are simply unaware of the consequences of redefining marriage – the consequences for families and children, the consequences of removing gender difference from our societal structure and the consequences for freedom of speech.
Let’s look at those consequences and how we can talk about them with our neighbours and friends – whether they’re people of faith or not.