Marriage, in the words of the marriage service, ‘is an honourable state of life, instituted from the beginning by God himself, signifying to us the spiritual union that is between Christ and his Church’
Is the linking of our marriages to the relationship of Jesus Christ with his people just a nice idea, an interesting likeness, a helpful symbol? Or is there more to it than that? Could the relationship between Christ and his Church be a key to understanding what marriage is really all about, especially in these days of contesting uncertainty as to the true nature and value of marriage?
Might it take us further—even to the heart of the purpose for which all things exist?
Christ and his Church
In the Bible, God’s purpose for his creation culminates in the marriage of Christ with his Church. In the new heaven and new earth, God’s people are depicted as ‘a bride adorned for her husband’, and we hear that ‘the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready’.
Paul the apostle links marriage in this age with that ultimate marriage of Christ with his people in Ephesians 5:31–32. First he quotes God’s institution of marriage in Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”. From the context, we would expect him to say that he is applying this text to the marriage of a man and a woman. But he goes on to say: ‘This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church’.
Paul is saying that when God in the beginning instituted marriage between a man and a woman, what God had in view was the relationship that would come to be in the end between Christ and his people. It’s as if God was thinking: ‘What can I do, to give these human creatures of mine a taste of how much I love them? I’ll make them male and female, and bring them together in a fruitful, devoted and life-long union.’
American theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) came to this conclusion:
The end of the creation of God was to provide a spouse for his Son Jesus Christ, that might enjoy him and on whom he might pour forth his love. . . . heaven and earth were created that the Son of God might be complete in a spouse . . . There was, [as] it were, an eternal society or family in the Godhead, in the Trinity of persons. It seems to be God’s design to admit the church into the divine family as his son’s wife.
Geoffrey Bromiley sees this union with Christ as ‘the prototype of the marital union’, not the other way round, since God ‘made marriage in the image of his own eternal marriage with his people’:
In creating man—male and female—in his own image, and joining them together so that they become one flesh, God makes us copies both of himself in his trinitarian unity and distinction as one God and three persons and of himself in relation to the people of his gracious election.
Hence ‘We know the true reality of marriage from God’s way of dealing with us and the inward and eternal fellowship that he establishes’. Every marriage is intended to be a reflection of, and can be a participation in, this great reality that will culminate in the union, in Christ, of God with his people.
What are the implications of this for marriage as it has taken shape in Christian understanding and practice?
Marriage is ‘the legal union of a man with a woman for life’. The word is also used for ‘the legal or religious ceremony that sanctions or formalises the decision of a man and a woman to live as husband and wife’. Elements that make it a marriage, as distinct from other forms of union or relationship, are that it is between a man and a woman, by the consent and decision of both parties; it is recognised and affirmed by the wider community according to the law of the land, and it is witnessed to in a formal ceremony. These elements are common to humanity across most cultures.
Marriage, according to law in Australia, is ‘the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life’. This understanding of marriage largely accords with Christian belief and practice. Since the New Testament trains husbands to love their wives, and wives to love their husbands, a Christian definition could be expanded to be ‘the union in mutual love of a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life’.
Pressure from expressions of marriage as practiced or desired by diverse cultural and interest groups raises questions as to why marriage should be this way. Can same-sex unions be regarded as marriage? Why not polygamy (a number of wives—as found in the Old Testament), or polyandry (a number of husbands), or a mixture of both? What about arranged, or under-age marriages? Does marriage need to be permanent? Why bother to get married at all—why not just cohabitation?
In this context, Christians who want to support and commend the Christian understanding and experience of marriage need to be clear as to its basis. Is it all about the sexual relationship? Is it just a private arrangement for mutual convenience? Is it mainly for reproduction and the raising of offspring? Is it a communal construct for the better ordering of society? Is it primarily a legal contract regarding the sharing of property? Is companionship its main emphasis? Marriage based solely on any or each of these views will take on a particular character, and will have its own cut-off points. But what if marriage, more deeply than all of these, is grounded in the intentional purpose of our Creator for humanity? In particular, if the basis of marriage is the relationship between Christ and his Church, what is it about this relationship that makes marriage what Christians now know it to be?
Christ became one flesh with us, and in our flesh took the condemnation due to our sin, in his suffering and death—you can’t get closer to anyone than that. So marriage is the honouring of the other person ‘with all that I am and all that I have’.
in mutual love
God’s saving action in relationship with us comes about entirely by God’s love—‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . . he nourishes and tenderly cares for it’ as his own body. In turn, we are to ‘have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ’. Hence a husband and wife are ‘to love and to cherish’ one another.
of a man and a woman
The creation of human persons as male and female, differentiated and yet of the same substance, is linked in the Scriptures with us being in the image of God, and with the differentiation-in-unity within God between the Father and the Son. The coming-together of man and woman in marriage is also linked with the relationship of God in Christ with his people—markedly distinct, yet with an amazing affinity. In reflection of this, marriage, in scripture, is between a man and a woman, not between a woman and a woman, or a man and a man.
to the exclusion of all others
Christ, the ‘Faithful and True’, is single-hearted and undistracted in his saving love for his people. By the same token, we are to have ‘a sincere and pure devotion to Christ’. So marriage has the character of ‘close your heart to every love but mine’, and ‘forsaking all others’.
voluntarily entered into
God is not obliged to relate with human beings, ‘as though he needed anything’—he chooses to do so out of love. In that, God has made us to ‘feel after him and find him’. Christ of his own freewill engaged in carrying out God’s purpose, and we come into true freedom as we relate with him. Before the vows are made in a marriage service, the couple are asked the preliminary question, ‘will you [are you willing to] take this woman/this man . . . ?’—of your own freewill, without compulsion.
Jesus, ‘having loved his own . . . loved them to the end’. So marriage is ‘till death us do part’, for ‘as long as we both shall live’.
We see then that marriage as Christians have come to understand and practice it derives from and is shaped by our knowledge and experience of Christ’s relationship with us. And God’s relationship with us in Christ lies at the heart of God’s purpose for this world.
Marriage and the Purpose of God
God purpose for the world is perhaps best expressed in Ephesians 1:3–6:
the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
- Note three particular elements here:
- ‘adoption as his children’—the forming of a family.
- ‘holy and blameless before him’—positive moral purity.
- ‘in love’—issuing from God’s love, resulting in us loving.
Interestingly, these correspond to the purposes given in Christian marriage services for which God instituted marriage—having families and bringing them up, sexual purity and faithfulness, and loving companionship:
- ‘it was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name’. As expressed in a more recent form of the marriage service: ‘In marriage a new family is established in accordance with God’s purpose, so that children may be born and nurtured in secure and loving care, for their well-being and instruction, and for the good order of society, to the glory of God’.
- ‘it was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication’. Modern marriage services say it less directly, yet positively, as ‘the proper expression of natural instincts and affections’ with which God has endowed us, or living ‘a chaste and holy life, as befits members of Christ’s body’.
- ‘it was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity’. ‘In the joys and sorrows of life, in prosperity and adversity, they share their companionship, faithfulness and strength’.
These three ‘purposes’, derived from the New Testament Scriptures, were commonplaces of mediaeval scholastic theology, and were expounded at length in early Calvinistic services. They were introduced into the English prayer book in 1549, and so were included in the Book of Common Prayer of 1662. From there they have made their way, in various forms, into later marriage services. Here they are given in the original order: family, sexual purity, and loving companionship. More recent services have reversed this order, giving priority to loving companionship and the sexual relationship, with family issuing from that. Either way, they clearly correspond to the greater purpose of God for humanity, as expressed in Ephesians 1:3–6.
The Struggle for Marriage
Given this correspondence, it is not difficult to see why marriage should come under attack, consciously or unconsciously, from those who at present are not aligned with the purpose of God, since it represents in practice that from which they are alienated, or against which they are opposed. A friend who works in human services heard a colleague once say, ‘I hate Jesus, and I hate marriage!’ Interesting that she put those two together. She went on to ask my friend, ‘You’re not one of those Jesus freaks, are you?’ and my friend replied, ‘Well, yes, as a matter of fact I am’.
How should we engage in this struggle? In favour of retaining marriage as it is, it can be well argued that ‘a kid should have a mum and a dad’, and that marriage is a ‘central structure of human nature . . . which has underpinned the wellbeing of society’. There is a place for participating in the public discourse at that level. But there is much more that we can say—and are we not called upon to do so? Why are we hesitant to speak of God in this context? Can we not say that marriage is a sacred bond, instituted by our Creator in making us male and female in the first place; that it is a living sign in our midst of our intended union with God, now and into eternity; and that to change or extend marriage to include other relationships is ultimately to undermine and discard true marriage, and all that it stands for, to our great harm?
Even better, should we not be doing all we can to bring more people through faith and repentance into that relationship with Christ, so that marriage in our community may continue to take its shape from him, and from his relationship with us?
The Secret of the Universe
Is all this just fanciful, out of touch, and irrelevant to where people are in their lives today? A story to finish:
A number of years ago in January we were staying at Victor Harbor, a seaside resort on South Australia’s southern coast. One afternoon we went for a walk to Granite Island across the causeway. At that time there was a chairlift from the end of the causeway to the highest point on the island. Our youngest son wanted a ride on the chairlift, so we put him and his mate on the chairlift, to go up to the top of the hill and down again, and we stayed chatting with the chairlift operator, who seemed to want to talk with us. A very interesting fellow. He was sitting there, getting rather bored, but watching the people come across the causeway, and thinking deeply. Called himself quite a spiritual person, and told us of one or two experiences that made him think this was so. Told us how he had been in and out of churches, but how he believed in God. I had not identified myself as a Christian or a minister—he just came out with all this. He ended up telling us about his marriage. How, when he met his wife, this was one relationship that did not chill off after a while, like all the others had, but remained and grew, and drew him out of himself into the life of another person. And he said, ‘Do you know why I think we get married? It’s not just to have children and raise a family. It is to discover the secret of the universe. I really mean, of God.’
We need to trust that the Holy Spirit is out there, bringing God’s truth to bear in the lives of people—including this chairlift operator!
Martin Bleby, ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church, has served in country, outback and metropolitan South Australia, in the cross-denominational New Creation Teaching Ministry, and as a Chairman of CMS Australia. Now ‘retired’, he remains active in preaching and teaching. He has authored a number of books, including ‘Marriage and the Good News of God’, now out of print but able to be downloaded in pdf format for free from: