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The Purpose of marriage

Marriage is a relationship between "one man and one woman for life". But why is that the case?

The Purpose of marriage primary image

It is vitally important that Christians understand the nature and importance of marriage. The heads of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales recently wrote a pastoral letter to their congregations explaining the Catholic view that heterosexual marriage is a natural institution and a sacrament. Sadly Protestants have no such clarity regarding the nature and purpose of marriage, and there is evident confusion amongst many professing evangelicals on such issues as…

  • what is marriage for?
  • why is sex only appropriate for marriage?
  • why are husbands the heads of their wives in marriage?

Confusion over such questions leads many to find it difficult to understand why same-sex marriage is wrong in God’s eyes, and to feel sympathy for the gay rights argument that all loving committed relationships are equally valid and should be equally honoured as “marriage”. The recent Evangelical Alliance booklet 21st Century Evangelicals, reporting the opinions of self-identifying evangelicals at a sample of Christian festivals and churches, reveals the extent of the problem. Only 59% of those surveyed “agree a lot” with the statement “Homosexual actions are always wrong”.

Although a biblical argument is unlikely to a carry any weight with the secular state in this debate, it is vital that Christians understand for themselves what the Bible says about sex and marriage, and why God says that marriage must be this way. These are a few biblical reflections on the nature of marriage, why God insists that sex is only appropriate for marriage, and why a husband is called to be head of his wife and a wife to submit to her husband.

1. Marriage is not primarily intended to provide emotional fulfilment

We live in an age in which the purpose of marriage is thought to be mutual emotional and romantic fulfilment. This assumes that marriage is intended to meet the emotional needs of the partners, and that therefore any relationship which meets the perceived emotional needs of a couple ought to be equivalent (and indeed that any relationship which fails to meet these needs ought to be ended - hence the high divorce rate). Many Christians hold this view of marriage, and therefore assume that a person needs to be married in order to be truly “complete” and “happy.” For this reason single Christians often long for marriage, and some Christian cultures pressure people to get married as if it is the ultimate goal of their lives.

However for most of human history, and in many parts of the world today, marriages have not been entered on the basis of romantic love so as to secure emotional fulfilment. A couple of months ago I read Stephanie Coontz fascinating book Marriage, a History which shows how the concept of romantic marriage is a relatively recent phenomena of Western culture. For most of history marriage has been about survival, inheritance (i.e. children) and social alliances. The majority of marriages have been arranged by parents rather than chosen by couples. In most marriages husbands would be significantly older than their wives, as women would marry as soon as they became sexually mature whereas men would marry when they were able to provide for a family. 

The Bible similarly seems to place relatively little emphasis on romantic and emotional fulfilment as the purpose of marriage. According to Genesis 2 God created a wife for Adam because he saw that “it is not good for man to be alone”. It is all too easy to read this as if Adam’s problem was loneliness. However before the Fall Adam enjoyed a relationship of perfect communion with his creator, so it seems hardly likely that Adam was suffering from loneliness in the garden, any more than God the Trinity was lonely within himself before the creation of man. The emphasis is rather that Adam needed a “helper” to enable him to fulfil God’s purpose for him, which is that he, together with the woman, were to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1v28).

The purpose of marriage was to enable mankind to fill and rule the earth. Without Eve it would have been impossible for Adam to fulfil this mission. This perspective liberates marriage from the burden that it must provide couples with complete emotional satisfaction. Such satisfaction can ultimately only be found in relationship with God, but in our human lives it may be enjoyed with others, not necessarily our spouses. It is for this reason that David is able to say of his covenant relationship with Jonathan “your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful that that of women” (2 Samuel 1v26) without their being even the faintest hint of homosexuality. The language of “one-flesh” union in Genesis 2v24 does not speak of emotional connection. The language of “one flesh” emphasises how the wife becomes the “blood relative” of the husband, the equivalent of a brother. Against the background of a world in which wives were generally regarded as inferior to relatives, as incomers who had married into the family group, this biblical view of marriage elevates the wife to a high status in her husband’s family.

The New Testament similarly suggests that marriage is not essential for emotional fulfilment. Jesus was single yet was perfectly fulfilled in his relationship with God. He taught that there would be no marriage in the new creation. Paul urged that believers seriously consider the option of singleness (1 Corinthians 7v8-9), clearly anticipating that marriage was not necessary for emotional fulfilment. Paul’s positive motivation for choosing marriage was not that it would cure loneliness, but that it would provide an outlet for otherwise uncontrollable sexual desire (1 Corinthians 7v9). Jesus taught that those who had been forced to leave their wife for the gospel would receive a hundred times as much through their relationships in the Christian community (Matthew 19v29).

None of these comments are meant to denigrate the emotional support and fulfilment that often are the blessings of marriage, but these are not the primary purpose of marriage. Christians ought therefore to reject any argument which asserts that marriage is necessary to achieve emotional fulfilment and wholeness, or that anyone who wants to express love and commitment should be entitled to be “married”. 

2. Marriage is intended for the nurture of children

God’s purpose for marriage is rather the birth and nurture of children. God created marriage so that Adam could fulfil his mission to fill (and subdue) the earth. For this reason childlessness in marriage is always regarded in the Bible as a tragic consequence of the Fall. We live in a world where God’s good purpose has become subject to frustration, futility and decay. Even where a couple are beyond child-bearing age the Bible would suggest that the purpose of marriage is still the care of children. In 1 Timothy 5v3-16 Paul addresses the issue of church support for widows in the church. Paul commands the church not to provide support to “younger widows”, by which he means widows under the age of 60. He counsels these younger widows “to marry, to have children, to manage their homes”. Many of these younger widows would be beyond child-bearing age (say between 40 and 60), but they are to be busy and active in managing the households of their husbands, most likely caring for the extended family which might include older relatives and the husband’s children by a previous wife who has died.

We need to rediscover the theological connection between marriage and children, which has been lost in the modern emphasis on emotional and romantic self-fulfilment. We also need to recover the equal dignity and value of motherhood, child-care and home-making (e.g. Titus 2v4-5). One of the reason why marriage is no longer held up as a necessary state for Christians in the New Testament is that the work of filling and subduing the earth is now accomplished by the second Adam (Christ) through the work of new birth, with the help of his bride (the Church). Paul’s teaching about singleness would have been incomprehensible to a Jew living under the old covenant, because having children to preserve the family name and keep the family inheritance was paramount and equivalent to salvation. This is no longer the case.

It follows from this that homosexual relationships, which do not have the natural potential to procreate children, cannot constitute marriages in the view of God,  irrespective of the fact that some heterosexual couples will marry in circumstances where there is no longer a possibility that they will have children of their own.       

3. Marriage reveals the relationship between Christ and his Church

However, even the nurture of children was also not God’s primary purpose for marriage. According to Paul, in Ephesians 5v32, God established human marriage between a man and a woman as part of the natural order he created (note the reference back to Genesis 2v24) in order to reveal his ultimate purpose of uniting Christ with his people, the church. Paul describes marriage as “a profound mystery”. In the context of Ephesians this means that marriage revealed a hidden truth that has now, through the coming of Christ, been brought fully into the open.

The “one-flesh union” between a man and a woman in marriage is intended to be a picture which points to the greater reality of the “one-flesh union” between Christ and his people. Marriage is thus a living visual aid of the purpose of God to unite his elect people with his divine Son. Marriage pictures difference (male and female) being brought together in unity. It also pictures the fact of a dynamic of loving leadership and submission. The husband is the head of the wife, loving and leading her to achieve her greatest good, and the wife is to willingly submit to her husband. This points ahead to the respective roles of Christ and the Church, in which Christ is the ultimate loving head who lays down his life for the greatest good of his people, and his people willingly submit themselves to him and obey him. No single human marriage is a perfect revelation of the relationship between Christ and the Church, but every human marriage pictures to some degree, albeit imperfectly, this relationship. 

Now that Christ has come there is a sense in which this revelatory purpose of marriage has been accomplished, as the greater reality has now been made known. However, Christian marriages are still called to reflect as fully as they can the relationship between Christ and his people. Paul thus commands wives to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ (Ephesians 5v24) and husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5v25). This is the ideal they are to aspire to emulate as they live out their marriage as a witness to the purposes of God for his people. 

Since marriage is intended to reflect and reveal the relationship between Christ and his church, including the key elements of difference, union, procreative potential (even a past procreative potential), headship (by husbands) and submission (by wives), it follows that all relationships which fail to include these elements fall short of the glory God intended for marriage, and are sinful and displeasing in his eyes. This includes homosexual relationships where there is no difference of male and female or procreative potential, polygamy where there is no exclusive union, heterosexual cohabitation relationships where there is no union, abusive relationships where headship is exercised selfishly rather than to serve, and also egalitarian relationships where there is no submission between wife and husband. Since God established marriage as a part of his creation order to serve this revelatory purpose it is unsurprising that relationships which fall short of this are characterised as “unnatural”, and the further they fall from the ideal the more this “unnaturalness” is evident. Thus a heterosexual cohabitation relationship falls short of the idea, but is not as clearly unnatural as a homosexual relationship (cf. Romans 1v26-27).   

4. Marriage must be expressed sexually

Marriage is also intended to be a sexual relationship. Paul regards sex as an essential aspect of marriage and commands married couples not to abstain from sexual intimacy with each other (1 Corinthians 7v2 & v5). He regards both husbands and wives as having the right to enjoy the sexual expression of their relationship (1 Corinthians 7v3-4).

Sex is intended by God only for marriage, and the reason for this is that the sexual act is a physical manifestation of everything that marriage is meant to be. Sex highlights the difference between the husband and wife, which is obvious from their different but beautifully compatible genitalia. Sex also enacts the union between the husband and the wife, as their bodies are quite literally united into one body in the deepest and most personal way. Sex is inherently procreative as the husband releases his “seed” into his wife. Sex also enacts the headship and submission which are to characterise marriage as it reflects the relationship between Christ and the church. The reality, as some feminists have long recognised, is that from a woman’s perspective sex involves either willing submission or rape. Sex is the “body language” of marriage, and therefore sex outside marriage is essentially a distortion of God’s good purpose.

In contrast homosexual sex fails to express difference and often involves (from God’s perspective) either inappropriate submission (e.g. of a man sexually to a man) or an absence of appropriate submission. Sex outside of marriage involves inappropriate union (cf. 1 Corinthians 6v12-20) where none exists. Many forms of “kinky” sex (bondage, sadomasochism, cross-dressing, fantasy role play, anal sex, etc.) involve distortions of the dynamic of loving headship and submission between husband and wife. Sex outside of marriage, of any kind, and “kinky” sex within marriage, speaks lies about God’s purpose for his people, and about the character and work of his Son. In this sense it is ultimately blasphemous.   

Only when we understand marriage properly can we understand why God says that sex is only appropriate for marriage, and hence why sex outside marriage or between people of the same sex is sinful, even though they love each other and are committed to each other. Sex is more than an expression of “love”. It is a revelatory enactment of the union of Christ and the Church.     


Christians are under massive pressure to overthrow traditional understandings of sex and marriage, and they live in a culture which has already rejected traditional morality wholesale. Christians today usually know homosexual and co-habiting couples whose love, commitment and quality of relationship is far better than that of some heterosexual married couples, and often of that of Christians heterosexual married couples. The church has too often failed to teach the full biblical understanding of marriage, why homosexual relationships and sex outside of marriage are sinful, and why male headship in marriage is not merely a cultural hangover from a patriarchal past but of the very essence of the marriage relationship. We need to rediscover the full biblical teaching about marriage, even if it is rejected as foolish by unbelievers, and to teach the glorious vision of marriages which reflect the supreme relationship between Christ and his church.

Previous generations of Christians understood the nature and purpose of marriage far more clearly than we do. Here is the explanation of the purpose of marriage from the Book of Common Prayer:

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained. First, 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. Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body. Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.”

The Book of Common prayer goes on to require a wife to vow to “obey” her husband. Here, in contrast, is the equivalent explanation taken from the more recent Common Worship liturgy:

“Marriage is a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God. It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church. The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together in the delight and tenderness of sexual union and joyful commitment to the end of their lives. It is given as the foundation of family life in which children are [born and] nurtured and in which each member of the family, in good times and in bad, may find strength, companionship and comfort, and grow to maturity in love. Marriage is a way of life made holy by God, and blessed by the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ with those celebrating a wedding at Cana in Galilee. Marriage is a sign of unity and loyalty which all should uphold and honour. It enriches society and strengthens community. No one should enter into it lightly or selfishly but reverently and responsibly in the sight of almighty God.”

Although much of the content remains similar, there is great significance in the change in the ordering of the purposes for which marriage was instituted by God. Mutual emotional fulfilment and sexual enjoyment come first, ahead of the procreation of children, and there is no mention of marriage as a remedy against sexual sin. Needless to say the wife’s vows do not contain a promise to “obey” or “submit”.

I suspect that Cranmer was closer to the biblical understanding of marriage, and that Christians in our generation urgently need to recapture it and practice it.


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