I sat down this afternoon to consider a question of increasing importance in modern life. What is marriage? What exactly is marriage? What follows is a collection of my thoughts on that question.

It is not my goal to outline what a marriage should look like. Or what is Christian marriage per se. But rather, my goal is to get to the very fundamental core of what constitutes a relationship as a marriage. Biblically.

These thoughts are prompted in part by a post titled When Two So-Called “Married” Women (or Men) Repent by John Piper in which he argues that same-sex marriage is not valid marriage. To decide whether I agree with him, I need to understand what marriage is more precisely.

What is marriage?

Is marriage a legal thing? Is marriage an ecclesiastical thing? Is marriage a spiritual thing? I think the answer must be yes, to some extent. Marriage is a human thing primarily. It predates both law and church, and yet to treat it as merely spiritual seems untrue to the biblical expressions of it both in Genesis and throughout Scripture.

I’ll take as a working basis the words found in Genesis 2.

20The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. 21So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”

24Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

From this, I attempt to draw some sine qua non, some essential elements, of marriage. These are:

1) Formality.

I’m not convinced either the church or the state has the right to lay claim to marriage per se. Both have some role today normally I think. But clearly if neither existed at the conception of marriage, neither is essential to the existence of a marriage. Government clearly has a role in the orderly governance of her people and it is therefore appropriate for government to put in place some procedures for the protection of both marriage itself, and the people in marriage. On the other hand, marriage is clearly more than a legal agreement and therefore the church has a role to play in society in nurturing both marriage itself and the people in marriage. If either the church or the state play their role poorly, there may come a time when people feel the need to skip one and go to the other. The essential element, it seems, is that marriage is official. It is public. There is some sort of clear-cut point at which it is solemnly entered into and everyone present knows when that occurs. I found this article helpful in clarifying this point.

2) A change of status.

The “leaving” and then becoming “one flesh” (v. 24) seems to imply a change in status. This seems to naturally imply a changed social/legal status with the various aspects of legal/financial/social enmeshment that this might bring. While the exact details of what this entails might differ over time and space, the point is that to be a marriage, there must be such a state that those around understand that so-and-so has now become “a married man/woman” with all the social/legal changes that implies.

3) Two parties.

This part is explicitly stated. “The two” (see the quotation of v. 24 in Mark 10:8). Marriage involves two people, and only two people.

4) A “one flesh” relationship.

Marriage must be more than a business relationship. While it is possible that for one reason or another, sexual relations may not occur in a marriage, it does seem to be essential that the nature of the relationship is such that it is entered into with romantic/sexual intent.

5) Voluntarily entered into.

This one is not as clear as the others, but the “leave” and “hold fast” as well as the “one flesh” (v. 24) seems to imply that the marriage is voluntarily entered into, even if it is not entirely desired.

6) Involves parties of the opposite gender.

This last one is the key one on which Piper’s argument stands. The passage says “man” and “wife” (v. 24). It could potentially be argued that this is missing the point and the point is really two people in love thereby rendering it just as valid to say “man” and “husband.” Or “woman” and “wife.” I was at first open to this possibility until I read the passage in context and realised that this statement is placed in the context of the creation of woman as “a helper fit for him [i.e. man]” (v. 20). In other words, another man would not have been a fit partner for Adam. A new creature needed to be made: Woman.

Aberrations of marriage

As we might expect in a fallen world, there are a number of aberrations, or perversions, of marriage and these bear careful scrutiny if we are to be consistent and biblical. A quick brainstorm yielded a number of examples:

  • Open marriage
  • Polyamorous marriage
  • Polygamous marriage
  • Child marriage
  • Forced marriage
  • Same-sex marriage
  • Zoophilic (human-animal) marriage
  • Objectophilic (human-object) marriage

It is crucial to realise that an aberration of marriage does not necessarily invalidate the marriage. For instance, polygamy is never condemned in Scripture as sinful. Unwise, yes. But not sin. Indeed many significant Old Testament characters had multiple wives at once (e.g. Jacob, David, Solomon, etc.). So clearly polygamy does not invalidate a marriage. The validity of a marriage, then, must depend on the kind of perversion.

When is a marriage not a marriage?

Sin per se does not invalidate a marriage. For instance, adultery may violate a marriage vow, but it does not invalidate a marriage. The couple was married and is still married. At least for the time being.

We should be very careful about saying quickly or casually that a marriage is illegitimate/invalid. To do so is to fail to honour marriage as we are admonished to do in Hebrews 13:4. On the other hand, there are some perversions which are so aberrant as to undermine the legitimacy of the thing itself. At some point, “marriage” ceases to be marriage.

I won’t take the time to address every aberration on the above list. But I will comment on a few in order to illustrate the process of working out which aberrations are merely sinful and which might actually invalidate the “marriage.”

We’ve noted above that polygamy is an example of a marriage that is biblically valid while still an aberration from God’s intent for marriage. An open marriage is another such example. A polyamorous marriage (more than two parties), on the other hand, fails the “two parties” rule and is therefore not to be viewed as a valid marriage. The difference between the two is that while polygamy is multiple discreet marriages, polyamory is multiple parties in one marriage. The first is, biblically valid. The latter, ostensibly, is not. There is no marriage in such a case. Divorce is a technical, legal matter. There is no actual marriage in God’s eyes. Just immorality.

It gets trickier with child marriages. It depends somewhat on whether one or both parties are children. It also depends on how “child” is defined. Here a clear-cut example of paedophilia (a forty year old man married legally to a thirteen year old child, for example) is a definite matter of oppression. It cannot possibly be voluntarily entered into at that age. Ending the oppression clearly requires ending the “marriage.” The “voluntarily entered into” rule means that there is no marriage to end. Where the state says there is one, ending it is a matter of technicality. Of course in Australia, the state does not allow such “marriages” and correctly classifies such evil as a crime.

Is “same-sex marriage” marriage?

This brings us back to John Piper’s article. Same-sex marriage typically meets all the defining points of a marriage except for the “opposite gender” rule. It also raises difficulties under the “one flesh” rule. Though the intent for romantic/sexual relations would typically exist, it could not be righteously carried out, even within the marriage. The marriage, therefore, could never righteously be what it is supposed to be. These two points suggest that John Piper is correct. Same-sex marriage is not marriage. It is, as Albert Mohler says, a tragic oxymoron.

The elements distilled from Scripture in Genesis 2 seem to provide helpful guidance on what does and does not constitute a marriage in God’s eyes. I would not suggest that this line of thought is exhaustive. Indeed, it is too loose to even be properly called theology. Nevertheless, it is the beginnings of a biblical framework for defining marriage which I hope to develop and refine over time.

This post is unlike my typical posts in that it is less a presentation of my views than it is me welcoming you into my mind for a few minutes to understand how I try to wrestle through difficult questions such as this. I welcome your input as I continue to think this topic through.

Grace to you.


share this article

About Jason Harris

Dr Jason Harris is a writer, pastor, and academic. He has authored multiple books, articles, and papers including his book Theological Meditations on the Gospel. Jason has a PhD from James Cook University as well as degrees in theology, music, accounting, and research. Jason has lived in Cairns, Australia since 2007 and serves as pastor at CrossPoint Church. You can contact Jason at jason@jasonharris.com.au.

One Comment

  1. Jeremy 7 March, 2017 at 2:10 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing your WIP thoughts on this topic.

    I tend to agree that marriage has its origins and definition in the Creation Mandate, more than the dispensational church age or the even more recent concept of the nation state.

Leave A Comment