The Meaning of Marriage: A Return to God’s Original Design

November 3, 2015

The word “marriage” in contemporary society carries with it a great deal of controversy as well as a complicated history. Nightly news programs inform their audiences of the most updated developments in the ever-evolving debate. It is safe to say that there is no longer a monolithic consensus about the definition of marriage. In recent days, the discussion has centered around the “right to marriage” and the “rights of people to get married.” While everyone would probably agree that marriage should be entered into voluntarily, is the “right to marriage” the real crux of the controversy? At one end, Liberals advocate for the “equality” and “dignity” that has been denied to underrepresented minorities throughout America’s history, whether the disenfranchisement is along lines of race, creed, or sexual orientation. Conservatives reply by arguing that children have a “right” to a mother and a father. This is why we ought to maintain marriage, they contend; for the sake of the children. In debating what rights people have when it comes to marriage, there must be an understanding about what marriage is in its nature, its irreducible truths.

The Highest Good of Marriage

Marriage is a means by which the greatest good is accomplished, namely the glory of God.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with the question and answer: “What is the chief end of Man? Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”[1]Whether we speak about marriage or any other part of the human experience, we must understand how it glorifies God. Marriage is part of a larger goal for all creation which ultimately brings God glory. But marriage is more than a doxological principle. It is a symbol, a model, and a plan put forward by God for his own glory and for the good of all mankind. Symbolically, marriage serves as the icon of God’s love for his people. “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”[2] Moreover, Marriage plays a central role in the flourishing of society by creating microcosms of God’s economy of love.[3] By saying “yes” to marriage, each partner commits to represent what God has already done in Scripture, albeit imperfectly. When two individuals seek to forge their lives together in a sacred bond of unity, they take on different identities altogether. They are “one flesh.”

The Author of Marriage

What if marriage was more than just the next step in the progression of a relationship? What if marriage meant something far greater than tax benefits, combined incomes, and sexual advantages?

As the debate over the meaning of marriage continues to divide society into “progressive” and “traditional”, “apathetic” and “aggressive”, it is easy to see how understanding the intent of marriage should shape the discussion. What is everyone really fighting about? Some argue that economic benefits should drive public policy in the area of marriage. Others argue that marriage is an inherently religious institution that no government ought to re-define. While both sides seek different outcomes, they are ultimately arguing over the nature and purpose of marriage.

For the progressive movement, marriage is about two people (maybe more) loving one another and having the same access to all of the social benefits (tax benefits, legal status) that have been granted to opposite-sex couples. The rhetoric centers on the need for “equality” and the idea that love is the same no matter who is showing it.

For the conservative movement, marriage is more than just two people sharing mutual affection. In the scheme of society, marriage is about creating families and raising children in an environment that leads to the flourishing of the entire culture. The argument here focuses on the desire to “retain” the traditional definition of marriage practiced by every society until the twenty-first century.

Both sides make claims about the nature of marriage. Is it about love? Is it about society? The answer to both questions is “yes”. However, we first need to go back to the premises that make up the argument for what marriage “is” before we talk about what it “does”. To reach the correct conclusion, we must understand marriage not just by what we see today, but its original design. The first book of the Old Testament unveils God’s design for marriage:

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him…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. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 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.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.[4] (emphasis added)

God gives the good gift of a wife to Adam, a helper fit for him. Here we see the ontology (nature or being) of marriage in Genesis 2. Marriage is a gift from God for the flourishing of man and woman. Marriage cannot and should not be separated from its original design. If we accept the bible’s claim that Marriage comes from God and serves God’s purpose, then we must conclude that God defines marriage and assigns its goals. In this same vein, accepting the bible’s premises and conclusions about marriage means that the bible must be the final authority to resolve the questions surrounding marriage.

In a modern liberal society, it is easy to acquiesce to the idea of pluralism and relative truth when we discuss important (and controversial) issues like the meaning and value of marriage in society. Even though there will always be diversity of opinion and the need for democratic process, it would be unhealthy to disconnect marriage from its origin and design. Yet the nature of marriage is not the only question being asked by both sides. Also important to many is the role of marriage in society.

The Role of Marriage

Marriage is the institution by which we create family. Family is the institution by which we cultivate virtue and display love. Society is made up of families and marriages that bond husband and wife, parents and children. At the most fundamental level, Marriage is the glue that holds society together.

Given the nature and origin of marriage, should we not simply relegate the institution to its respective religious institutions? Certainly not. Marriage cannot be confined to a status held within religious bodies, though it certainly finds affirmation there. Marriage must go out into society and create new bonds that strengthen the relationships already present. To understand the role of marriage in society, we must again return to the opening chapter of Genesis. “And God blessed them [Adam and Eve]. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”[5]

So what is marriage for?

Marriage is about being fruitful in multiplication and exercising dominion over God’s creation.

In both cases, marriage is about promoting and expanding God’s kingdom (and therefore his economy of all things) across the earth. Marriage serves a specific role in civil society by creating the family units which serve as incubators of life for the entire civilization. When we say “yes” to marriage we begin the process of healing society at the most fundamental level; we strengthen the fabric that holds society together.

Why Understanding Marriage Matters For All People

It seems that everyone has an opinion on what marriage is and what it is for. From the Libertarian to the Liberal, marriage is not an issue that is going away anytime soon. The marketplace of ideas is packed to the brim with an innumerable variety of experiences and good intentions. Centralizing the debate on “rights” may muddy the waters when the actual meaning of “marriage” is not agreed upon by the parties in conflict. Moreover, using the child as the primary argument to retain the traditional definition of marriage makes the goal of multiplication seem far more important than all the other goods marriage serves. While it is true that the government should be interested in citizens that are born and how they are raised, marriage should not only be defended because children are a product of that union. Neither one of these elements of the discussion is wrong, but it lends itself more to mental frustration than resolution. Marriage is not only about the husband and wife, but also about children and families. As each partner in marriage fulfills their roles, they create an environment where children are secure and families are strengthened. Marriage leads us to change our priorities and consider others even as we attempt to pursue good efforts in our communities and countries. Marriage is the local economy of God’s plan for human flourishing. Moreover, marriage is about helping society grow at the smallest level which in turn produces a healthy and vibrant community.

When marriage is pursued as it was intended, it accomplishes these goods for the individual and the society. But this is not the terminus. Societal goods bring about flourishing, but marriage serves an even greater mission than this. When two people choose to experience and commit to marriage as God intended, they not only begin the process of flourishing as individuals, but they enter into that holy relationship which blesses the world and brings the greatest glory to God. Indeed, this is “very good.”[6]

[1] The Westminster Shorter Catechism: Question & Answer 1

[2] The Holy Bible. Ephesians 5:25. English Standard Version, Crossway Publishing, 2015

[3] For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles. The Acton Institute. This phrase “economy of love” was drawn from the video series put out by the Acton Institute entitled “For the Life of the World, Letters to the Exiles, Episode 2: Love”.

[4] The Holy Bible. Genesis 2:18, 21-25. English Standard Version, Crossway Publishing, 2015

[5] The Holy Bible. Genesis 1:28. English Standard Version, Crossway Publishing, 2015

[6] The Holy Bible. Genesis 1:31. English Standard Version, Crossway Publishing, 2015

Taylor LaJoie
Taylor LaJoie is a recent graduate of Texas A&M University and currently interns at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Taylor LaJoie

Taylor LaJoie is a Research Fellow at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Read More by this Author