Fewer lies have ever been spoken than: “one size fits all.” Not only is it not true, but for some the statement is insensitive or insulting. So the idea of offering a one-size-fits-all definition of marriage must seem equally backward and oppressive. So much so that for Masha Gessen—a self-described “gay activist”—marriage shouldn’t exist at all, because family systems have become too complicated to fit into any definition we can come up with:
“It’s a no-brainer that [same-sex couples] should have the right to marry, but I also thing equally that it’s a no-brainer that the institution of marriage should not exist…I have three kids who have five parents, more or less, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t have five parents legally…And really, I would like to live in a legal system that is capable of reflecting that reality, and I don’t think that’s compatible with the institution of marriage.”
It must be hard to talk about a “definition of marriage” when so many people experience this level of relational complexity. But this only assumes that a definition needs to encompass all forms of relationships that human beings can muster. We can be sensitive to the experiences of others, even as we seek to articulate what Christianity says about the meaning and definition of marriage.
MARRIAGE AS A SOCIAL INSTITUTION
As we’ve noted in previous discussions on gender and sexuality, marriage is embedded in the story of creation. In Genesis 1 we’re told that men and women bear the “image of God” (Genesis 1:26), and because we’re created in the image of a divine community (Father, Son, and Spirit) we are likewise created for relationship. So in Genesis 2, we see the way that God creates and sanctions marriage between one man and one woman:
18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” … 21 So 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. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then 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.”
24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:18, 21-24)
The “one flesh” hints at a unity between man and woman at the level of both body and soul. One writer puts it this way:
“Moses reasons that marriage is the re-union of what was originally and literally one flesh…This is why ‘He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man hates his own flesh.’ Becoming ‘one flesh’ as husband and wife is symbolized and sealed by sexual union, it is true. But the ‘one flesh’ relationship entails more than sex. It is the profound fusion of two lives into one, shared life together, by the mutual consent and covenant of marriage. It is the complete and permanent giving of oneself into a new circle of shared existence with one’s partner.”
Andreas Kostenberger therefore defines marriage as “a sacred bond between a man and a woman instituted by and publicly entered into before God (whether or not this is acknowledged by the married couple), normally consummated by sexual intercourse.”
Marriage, first and foremost, serves as a social institution. Marriage was created before the nation of Israel was created, before the giving of any law. Marriage is therefore an institution reserved not just for God’s people, but all humanity. Marriage and its subsequent family systems become the means by which men and women populate the world (cf. Genesis 1:28). We should also note that Moses was dictating these events during an era when yes, there was also a widespread attempt to “redefine” marriage—after all, even the Jewish “heroes” of the faith practiced things like polygamy. This means that if marriage is only a social invention, why didn’t Moses construct a definition of marriage that better reflected the culture of his day? The fact that he didn’t is consistent with the idea that marriage is bigger than culture can define.
The fact that this system is given to all people—and not just Christians—also means we rejoice that the government is involved in sanctioning marriages. But this also means we lament that the government would move away from a Biblical definition of marriage. Even in the Old Testament, alternative approaches to marriage (such as polygamy) had profound, negative effects on both the individuals and their communities. Ryan T. Anderson cautions that if “marriage is whatever consensual relationship you find most emotionally fulfilling, people will…be more receptive to sexually open relationships, or temporary ones, or multiple-partner ones, as their appetites and fancies dictate….The result will be less family stability, which hurts children and women and especially the poor….” We need traditional marriage, for it is within the context of heterosexual marriage that we find stability for families and, by extension, society as a whole.
MARRIAGE AS A SPIRITUAL INSTITUTION
Secondly, we recognize that marriage is a spiritual institution. While marriage may be enjoyed by all people generally, it is within Christianity that marriage may be understood most fully. We find the “one flesh” language of Genesis weaving its way into the first-century world’s understanding of marriage. Paul tells the Church in the city of Ephesus that marriage is a mirror for the love of Christ and his bride, the Church:
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:22-33)
Marriage, we’ll note, is the arena in which we see the application of our earlier point that men and women bear God’s image equally, yet asymmetrically—they have different roles to fill. Here in Paul’s letter, we see two things emphasized: (1) authority and (2) submission. John Piper offers us a helpful definition of each:
- Authority: “refers to the diving calling of spiritual, gifted men to take responsibility as elders for Christlike, servant-leadership and teaching in the church.”
- Submission: “refers to the divine calling of the rest of the church, both men and women, to honor and affirm the leadership and teaching of the elders and to be equipped by them for the hundreds and hundreds of various ministries available to men and women in the service of Christ.”
Note that submission is present in a variety of relationships: yes; even men submit to the authority of church leaders, for example. But Paul says here that in marriage, wives are to submit to their husbands. But what might this mean?
In the broader landscape of the Biblical story, we see the Bible describing these roles as follows:
|Husbands [Authority]||Wives [Submission]|
|Love your wife (Ephesians 5:25)||Supporting husband (Proverbs 31:11-12)|
|Lead your wife (Ephesians 5:26)||Homemaking (Proverbs 31:15, 27)|
|Provide for your wife (Exodus 21:10)||Motherhood (Proverbs 31:28)|
Ok. So let’s be careful, here. During World War II, men went off to fight the war. So who was doing their jobs here at home? Women had to step up. Remember “Rosie the Riveter?” She became a symbol of women taking on tasks in factories and other formerly male-dominated jobs. When the war ended, women were reluctant to leave the workplace. So they stayed. How do we understand this? Should we be bothered by this? Absolutely not. What we should see is that the world of late modernity creates a bit more complexity than the agrarian world of the Bible. There’s far more overlap between women’s professional and domestic tasks. This also means that some women feel forced to enter a career field, out of fear of being looked down upon for being “just a homemaker.” Or, conversely, some women become stay-at-home moms, constantly updating their mommy blogs with Pinterest images of cloth diaper designs, recipes, and Lisa Terkeurst quotes (no hate; Lisa Terkeurst is awesome)—feeling a sense of pride for being truly devoted to their family. We need to recognize that both approaches can be ennobling to women, and that spiritual attitudes run deeper than our professional pride.
That is, true womanhood can’t be reduced to a career choice or the number of items you have on Pinterest. But what do we do with this language of “submission?” At worst, it sounds like a horrible master-slave relationship. At best, it sounds like a way to turn women into June Cleaver. Perhaps it’s better to understand submission based on what it is not. John Piper and Wayne Grudem note:
“Submission refers to a wife’s divine calling to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts. It is not an absolute surrender of her will. Rather, we speak of her disposition to yield to her husband’s guidance and her inclination to follow his leadership….Christ is her absolute authority, not the husband….She should never follow her husband into sin. …She can show by her attitude and behavior that she does not like resisting his will and that she longs for him to forsake sin and lead in righteousness so that her disposition to honor him as head can again produce harmony.”
So submission does not mean:
- That a woman surrenders her brain in favor of her husbands.
- That a woman obeys her husband’s every command (that only works when guys confuse the words “wife” and “golden retriever.”
- That a woman submits to an ungodly husband—this is especially true in cases of domestic abuse. Suffering verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse is not a mark of biblical submission, but enabling an abusive husband and presenting a danger to one’s children.
- That a woman’s will and body are at her husband’s discretion. It was this kind of perverse thinking that led—at least at one point in our nation’s history—to the belief that a husband could not rape his wife: as if marriage was a blanket consent.
No; biblical “submission” means a tendency to trust and honor a Christlike husband. It also means that women can ferociously challenge and support their husbands—to provoke him to be the kind of Godly man he always dreamed he could be.
That’s why, if you recall, researchers at the University of Virginia discovered that contrary to what we might expect, men and women did not flourish in marriages where equality meant a uniform distribution of roles. Rather, men and women flourish in marriages where there is a strong sense of male leadership.  International novelist Anaias Nin once wrote that she longs for a man “with the courage to treat me as a woman.” It’s within marriage that we find men and women exhibiting their true, God-given roles.
 Quoted in Ryan T. Anderson, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, Kindle Edition, loc 672-687.
 Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship—Genesis 1-3,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., p. 101
 Andreas J. Kostenberger, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, p. 73.
 Anderson, Truth Overruled, loc 731.
 John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., p. 53.
 John Piper and Wayne Grudem, “An Overview of Central Concerns: Questions and Answers,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., p. 61.
 W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven L. Nock, “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Equality, Equity, Commitment, and Women’s Marital Quality,” Social Forces 84, no. 3 (March 2006): 1321-45.