September 4, 2014

God’s design for marriage

by Jesse Johnson

Should same-sex couples be allowed to marry? Or, more particularly, in states (or countries) that have followed the democratic process to define marriage as exclusively between a man and woman, should judges intervene and nullify those laws? Where new elections are held, should Christians vote to allow LGBT couples to legally marry? I say: in as much as it depends on voters, Christians should be opposed to the redefinition of marriage to allow for same-sex unions. Now, there are three steps to this argument:  

  1. You have to be persuaded that the government should in fact regulate marriage. It is common for Christians to say, “The government should just stay out of it all together, and then it doesn’t matter what judges do.” While I see why that argument may be alluring—and it may ultimately be the path our government is on anyway—that approach runs contrary to the way God designed government to work (I argue that point on this post here).
  2. Once you understand that the role of government is to suppress sin, then you have to be persuaded that homosexual marriage is indeed sinful. God designed marriage, and the gender distinctions inside of marriage are inextricable from the institution itself. This is that post.
  3. And finally, because this side of the millennial kingdom there is no such thing as a Christian country, the third step is to demonstrate that it is in fact in our society’s best interest for government to promote the heterosexual concept of marriage. In other words, there are two sets of arguments against same-sex marriage: the religious reasoning and the secular rationale. If any view is biblical, it will also be beneficial to society. That will be a post for next week.

For Christians, the foundation of our understanding of marriage is the biblical concept of the institution. While I hinted at this above, I want to be clear here: these arguments are not going to be compelling for someone who rejects the truth of scripture. My point here is to succinctly make the obvious point:

God designed marriage to be heterosexual

The creation narrative in Genesis 1-4 is bracketed by the fact that God made two genders (1:27, 5:2). While both are in the image of God, both have different functions and roles. They were designed to be different from each other, so that in marriage they would complement each other (2:22-25).

In fact, the entire premise of marriage is that it is not good for man to be alone, and that he needs a helper made suitable for him, but different from him (2:18). God made genders for the purpose of procreation in marriage, and he made them different from each other for the purpose of suitability through marriage.

This is why the two tasks given humans (subdue the earth and multiply) are best achieved in a marriage relationship (1:28). Outside of that relationship a male is without a helper, and children are without parents. And this is all before sin entered the world.

After sin did enter creation, God cursed both men and women. The way he worded his rebuke makes the point obvious: humanity’s two tasks (subdue/multiply) will cause pain inside of marriage to the two genders differently. Husbands will have pain in work, while wives will have pain in childbirth (3:16-19). Together in marriage they will share both the pain and blessings of marriage in a fallen world.

Understand that any attempt to redefine marriage away from the complementary nature of the genders is an attack on the creation narrative itself. But it is not only Genesis 1-11 that displays the exclusively heterosexual nature of marriage. In Genesis 12 God calls Abraham away from his family to start a new family, and it will be through that marriage and covenant which God will fulfill his promise to start a new nation.

When that nation receives its laws, marriage is the means by which children are provided and land is inherited. It is the means by which the census is made, families are accountable to the government’s structure, and ultimately how they worship. While the laws themselves were specific to OT Israel, their foundation on marriage began before Sinai. It is clear that Leviticus-Deuteronomy builds upon the Adamic design for marriage.

There is no more foundational component of society than husband/wife relationship. This is why the NT has much to say about it. Jesus taught on it, as did Paul and Peter. In some cases the teaching on marriage is gender-neutral. For example, Jesus’ teaching on adultery in Luke 16:18 applies to both husbands and wives, without gender distinction. Paul’s point that a marriage vow only endures until death of one partner is likewise irrespective of gender (Rom 7:2-3).

Notwithstanding those examples, much of the NT’s teaching on marriage is gender specific. Not only does the instruction presuppose heterosexual marriage, but the teaching itself only makes sense through the lens of gender differences in marriage. For example, the differences between a husband and a wife are the basis for seeing the relationship of Jesus and the church somehow represented in marriage (Eph 5:23-32). In fact, Paul ends that section by giving a command to counter gender specific temptations inside of marriage (Eph 5:23).

The childbearing ability of the wife (in contrast to adoption) serves as the background for Paul’s analogy for salvation in Christ serving as freedom from the law (Gal 4:27). In 2 Cor 11:2, Paul contrasts the jealousy of a future husband with the chastity of future wife. In 1 Tim 2-3, Paul expressly connects the ability to bear children (2:15) to the role of a wife, and uses that as a set up for the qualification that an elder must be the “husband of one wife” (3:2). The description of a godly wife is expressly tied to the child rearing role (Titus 2:4-5). Paul also teaches that the gender distinctions in marriage have to be regarded in the congregational worship, and that these distinctions must be “recognized” in every church (1 Cor 14:35-38). This is not confined to only Paul. In 1 Peter 3:5-7, Peter uses the gender differences in marriage as the foundation for his instruction on matrimony.

Now, many of these passages have various interpretations, but note that all of them can only be interpreted in light of gender differences in marriage. Taken together, this shows that marriage was designed by God to be between a male and a female (in fact, he created the genders for precisely that reason), these gender differences are the foundation for the implementation of the two tasks God gives people, and they serve as the bedrock of society. Inside of Christ, the gender differences in marriage serve as the launching point for how Jesus loves the church, how marriage works, and how churches should be led.

Serious people can make the case that same-sex couples should be able to share in the commitments of marriage, the love of marriage, and other marriage-like attributes. But in so doing, they would have to grant that their version of marriage is divorced from the institution designed by God and mirrored in the world. The Bible’s teaching on marriage is only comprehensible when the husband and wife are male and female.

What arguments am I missing? Do you have any questions on this? Where is it weak? Leave a comment below:

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Andrew

    There is much helpful material here. Thx for posting. An issue I have been wrestling with, that I consider to be at the very core of this discussion (among those who say they are trying to read the bible), regards the *status* of same-sex physical intimacy. When you say “government is to suppress sin”, you seem to think that the sinful acts of same-sex physical intimacy differ from sins of, say, internal lust or of breaking a promise to be somewhere by 6pm – which I assume you think are not within the government’s suppressive remit. So what is the taxonomy of sin that you are working with, and which categories are to be of concern to the government?

    • Check out this post, and let me know if you find it helpful on that question:

      • Vincent

        On a similar note, what is the distinction between the government legalizing same-sex marriage and the government enforcing freedom of religion (thus legalizing someone to be a Satanist)?

        It seems to me that both are against Scripture, but somehow we affirm religious freedom while opposing marital freedom.

        (I post this in the humblest sense possible, for me to be corrected.)

        • Vincent: did you read the post I linked to Andrew? That’s where I tried to answer that question. If you did, and still have that question,let me know.

  • Vincent

    Good points! I pretty much agree with the steps to this argument, but I am wondering, how would you view the argument that same-sex couples are already cohabiting, regardless of the government’s stance on marriage?

    Some argue (and I find it convincing) that the reason for legalizing same-sex marriage is that it would provide an incentive and reward lifelong commitment.

    True, this is commitment between same-sex partners, which we know as sinful, but not altogether worthless, because there is still genuine love and care among them, stemming from God’s common grace.

    I know the ultimate ideal case would be to have same-sex attracted people and single people be fully supported by their spiritual brothers and sisters in the local church, but I’m wavering on viewing same-sex “marriage” (civil union) as a concession that is not good nor holy but helpful in some cases (eg. providing stability for a secular society).

    • That’s my post for next week. I’ll answer this question there (and its a very good question). Thanks Vincent.

  • T Howard

    God’s design for marriage starts with spelling it right in the title of the article…

    • Thanks for saving me! Nice catch! Is your name really Tim Howard?

  • Alex

    One quick note, while husbands and wives certainly should be complimentary, they were designed to be complementary.

  • Mark

    Not sure of your argument ref. Gal.4:27. The verse could be interpreted to mean the woman without a husband will have more children than one with a husband. Also, I always thought that the fact we were called Adopted son of God was significant in that according to Roman law, adopted sons could never be disinherited.

    • Thanks Mark. The point I was making is that in marriage there are gender distinctions, such as a female (barren though she might be) and a husband. I grant that it is a complicated passage, but I used it in an attempt to illusrate that no matter how you work through it, the interpretation hinges on seeing a husband/wife role in marriage.

  • tovlogos

    Good review of the subject, Jesse.
    And, no engagement with the Spirit leaves one in disagreement with you. They say, “love” is enough. However, storge, eros, philia, etc., do not open the eyes in the way Jesus wanted us to see.
    The conversation between Jesus and Peter in John 21:15, which took place after He was resurrected — on His way home, showed the vital necessity of “Agape.”


  • Johnny

    I believe in the permanence view of marriage in Scripture. Should the government require that as well?

    • Not sure what you mean by “permanence view.” As in “no divorce” at all, for any reason? If so, then you would be asking the government to have a more strict standard than even OT Israel. So, no, the government should not require that as well.

      • Johnny

        So why do couples in churches still make a vow that says “til death do us part”, when functionally that’s not really the case, since we apparently have clever exception clauses? Why not require the vow to say “til death, or abandonment, or unfaithfulness do us part” (or any other so-called exceptions we like?) If a pastor is going to hold to the idea that there are divorce exceptions then its disingenuine/dishonest to use a vow that DEATH is the only thing to part a man and woman. We’ve been using this Anglican vow for centuries now but rarely consider the words because we play fast and loose with divorce and the words are rapidly becoming meaningless.

        • Well, you jumped from “government” to “pastors.” Those are two really different questions. I assume you are not saying the government should police pastor’s vows, because that would be an even more severe violation of religious freedom.

  • Barbara Forbes

    Troubling subject to tackle so I appreciate the thoughts. On another note, Gen 3 states God cursed the servant, and then the ground. Did you really mean to say man was cursed?

    • Thanks Barbara. Yeah, I meant that. The curse on the ground affects all of creation, but it particularly affects the men who are called to work. It suddenly makes work HARD. The key is 3:17, where he cursed the ground but addressed the curse “to Adam.”