Marriage and Sexual Morality
Yusufu Turaki | Nigeria
The union of one man and one woman in marriage is one of the most basic and also most profound aspects of being created in the image of God. Yet there is much confusion around the world today regarding what marriage is and what sexual morality ought to look like. The Bible has much to say about these things. It is crucial for Christians to continue to cultivate solid biblical foundations for marriage and sexual morality in the face of a cultural tide that elevates individual authority, human reason, and unrestrained pursuit of pleasure over what God has revealed in the Bible.
This essay will review the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexual morality. It also seeks to bring biblical teaching to bear on related global issues such as divorce and remarriage, polygamy, and homosexuality.
The Christian concept of marriage and sexual morality is rooted in God’s creation of the world in Genesis 1 and 2, and specifically God’s creation of man and woman, in his image, as the pinnacle of his creative acts. In Genesis 1:26–28 we learn that God created both man and woman to bear his image, which included multiplying and spreading across the earth and having dominion over it. Genesis 2:18–25 elaborates on God’s creation of man and woman, explaining that woman was created as a suitable helper and companion to man. God created woman out of the man’s body, and in marriage the man and woman are reunited, as the text explains: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Jesus cites this text when the Pharisees ask him about divorce, and he concludes, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6).
Much brokenness exists today around the world when it comes to marriage and relationships between men and women. The account of creation in Genesis 1–2, however, indicates that God’s original design was wonderfully good and beautiful. The misery and brokenness that infects so much of marriage today is not what God intended. When God created men and women, “it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).
With the fall into sin recorded in Genesis 3, humans declared their independence from God, and sin and death entered the world. This sin affects marriage and sexual morality no less than the rest of life. When God pronounces on Adam and Eve the tragic result of their sin, each receives a specific pronouncement, just as each had been created in their own unique way. Adam will no longer enjoy the easy abundance of food from the ground out of which he himself had been formed, but rather he will now have to work hard, in pain and futility, for his livelihood (3:17–19). Another implication of the cursing of the ground is the disruption that took place between man and nature (see Rom. 8:19–22). Eve, likewise, received an appropriate punishment in her role as childbearer, which will now include pain. She will also have “desire” contrary to her husband—that is, desire to assert a perverse leadership over him (the same word for “desire” is used in Gen. 4:7 for sin’s desire to rule over Cain). In short, God’s mandate for Adam and Eve—to multiply and to have dominion—is deeply wounded.
A Whole-Bible Trajectory
Genesis 1–3 is not, however, the only word from the Bible on marriage and sexual morality. Rather, these first three chapters of the Bible set a trajectory that is carried through the entire Bible. Not only do we see various examples of healthy and unhealthy marriage and sexual integrity, but Scripture even gives us an entire book that is devoted to this topic—the Song of Solomon, which exults in the goodness of sexual relations when enjoyed as God intended, between one man and one woman.
Even more profound than the marital relationship that exists horizontally, between a man and a woman, is the relationship that exists vertically, between God and his people. The vertical relationship, too, is described in the Bible in terms of a marriage. Throughout the prophets, for example, the Lord speaks of Israel as his bride (Isa. 54:5; Jer. 2:1–2; 3:20; Hos. 2:16). And even more frequently, faithless Israel is referred to in terms of adultery (Jer. 3:6–8; Ezekiel 16; 23; 43:7–9; Hos. 1:2; Mal. 2:10–11). In the New Testament, Jesus refers to himself as “the bridegroom” (Matt. 9:15; John 3:29) and Paul refers to the church as the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:25, 32). One day, when Jesus returns a second time, there will be a great wedding feast as Christ and his bride, the church, are openly united for good (Rev. 21:9).
Implications for Marriage and Sexual Morality
Several implications arise from the Bible’s teaching on marriage:
1. Marriage and sexuality are good gifts from God.
The fall distorted what marriage should be, but the institution itself was already in place. Marriage is good.
2. Marriage is between one man and one woman.
The reason for this is rooted in the very creation of man and woman. God created man and woman to bear his image together, each uniquely and in a complementary way representing God here on earth.
3. Sexual relations are sacred and are designed to take place only within marriage.
Once more, this is rooted in the creation account. The man and the woman are to be utterly faithful to one another, because they have “become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). To break this bond through adultery or other kinds of sexual immorality is therefore not only a breach of faith with one’s spouse but also, more deeply, a breach of faith with one’s Creator.
4. Marriage reflects Christ’s relationship with the church.
Ephesians 5 makes it clear that Christ’s love for the church is the pattern for a husband’s love for his wife. Likewise, the church’s glad submission to Christ is the pattern for the wife’s glad submission to her husband. The husband as head of the wife gladly sanctifies her, loves her, and gives his life for her; the wife in turn gladly submits to and honors her husband.
These biblical principles for marriage raise some thorny ethical questions. Three of these are divorce and remarriage, polygamy, and homosexuality:
1. Divorce and remarriage.
One situation is when one spouse is sexually unfaithful. Jesus taught that while divorce is a grievous violation of a sacred, covenant relationship, it is permissible if one spouse is guilty of “sexual immorality” (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). Jesus is not recorded as mentioning the allowance of sexual immorality in his parallel teaching on divorce in Mark 10:11–12 and Luke 16:18; this is probably because both evangelists assumed that adultery was universally agreed already to be a legitimate cause for divorce, so the point could be taken for granted. The second situation in which divorce is apparently legitimized is if one spouse deserts the marriage. In such an instance, the non-deserting spouse is unable to fulfill his or her marital responsibilities (1 Cor. 7:12–15).
While divorce may be permissible in such tragic circumstances, it must always be viewed only as a last resort, on account of the sacred nature of marriage. All efforts at reconciliation must be exhausted before divorce is pursued. If such efforts are unfruitful, however, divorce is evidently permissible, and the one who has been betrayed, either sexually or by desertion, may freely remarry with God’s approval. Some faithful Christians, however, do not see any warrant for remarriage in Scripture, and disagreement about this is likely to continue.
God does not explicitly prohibit polygamy in the Old Testament. Yet it is clearly not God’s ideal for marriage. Polygamy devalues women, who are equally created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). When God placed Adam in Eden, moreover, Adam was given one wife, not many (Gen. 2:18, 22). In addition, while God appears to have allowed polygamy, there is a clearly discernible pattern of family strife that emerges from polygamous marriages in the Bible (e.g., Genesis 16; 29–31; 1 Samuel 1; 1 Kings 11). In the New Testament, Paul says that an elder must be a “husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2).
In places around the world where polygamy is socially acceptable, it must still be understood that from the Bible’s perspective, polygamy is not God’s original design for marriage. Yet while a husband in a polygamous marriage should not be required to divorce any of his wives—who would then be left without protection and support—such a man should not be allowed to rule in the church as an elder.
As we have seen, God created man and woman to bear his image in a complementary way (Gen. 1:27). Thus the image of God itself is at stake in healthy heterosexuality. God instituted marriage as taking place between one man and one woman, who come together as “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Jesus clearly teaches that marriage is to be between one man and one woman (Matt. 19:4–6), and Paul explicitly prohibits homosexual behavior (Rom. 1:24–27; 1 Cor. 6:9). This is not to say that homosexual desires are uniquely sinful, though they do represent an aberration from the urges God has designed us to feel. But homosexual desires are disordered, and to be resisted in the same way that heterosexual desires, outside the context of monogamous marriage, are disordered, and to be resisted.
As with all sinful behavior, patterns, and desires, even those that are deeply embedded within us—such as in the realm of sexuality—are within the reach of God’s forgiveness in Christ as well as of God’s transforming power through the Holy Spirit. While the church must not condone homosexuality as legitimate, we are called to faithfully extend grace and love to those struggling with homosexuality, remembering how much we ourselves have been forgiven (Matt. 18:21–35).
Human sexuality is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. Its greatest and most beautiful expression, in marriage between one man and one woman, is a profound manifestation of what it means to be made in the image of God. Yet, as with every dimension of life in this fallen world, our sexuality has been marred by the fall. This is seen in such deviations from the biblical ideal as divorce, polygamy, and homosexuality. Yet these and every other manifestation of brokenness in human sexuality can be completely redeemed by our great God on account of the saving work of Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. In our sexuality, therefore, as in all of life, to God be the glory!