Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh (Genesis 2:24).
For the Christian of any time and place, marriage must go back to the beginning, the first man and the first woman.
God made both the man and the woman in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). In this way neither men nor women are inherently superior or inferior to each other; they are equally created in God’s image, and in Christ maintain equal ability to stand before God, equal worth in the sight of God, and are joint-heirs of the grace of life (Galatians 3:28, 1 Peter 3:7). A husband is not inherently better or worse than his wife, and vice versa; cultural attitudes to the contrary are wrong, sinful, a cause of great distress and grief (especially to women), and ought to have no place among Christians.
While God made both man and woman in His image, He created the man first, and then the woman out of man and for man (Genesis 2:1-23). On this ground Paul set forth roles for men and women in Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1-16, 1 Timothy 2:11-15). Men and women have equal worth and standing, and yet men and women are different. In the beginning their differences did not lead to conflict or disharmony, but proved complementary, and it can be so to this day. While no doubt certain aspects of what people think it means to be a man or woman come from cultural expectations, “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics do reflect actual differences between the genders. Men lack things which women supply; women lack things which men supply. It was not good for man to be alone; woman was made for him, and so men and women continue to have the desire to join together to become husband and wife.
A man clings to his wife, and the two become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). From the beginning the impulse toward sexual intercourse was designed to be directed and confined to the marriage covenant between a man and a woman. The sexual drive is powerful in humans, a yearning not only for physical but also mental and spiritual connection; divorcing physical pleasure from the mental and spiritual connection anesthetizes the latter and leads to a debased, dehumanized sexuality (1 Corinthians 6:18). Paul quoted Genesis 2:24 and then related it to Christ and the church in Ephesians 5:31-32; Jesus declared the man and woman are no longer two, but one flesh in Matthew 19:4-5. God is one in relational unity, and desires for people to be one with Him as He is one in Himself (John 17:20-23); those of old spoke of this unity as perichoresis, mutual interpenetration without the loss of individuality. We can perceive perichoretic relational unity in a musical performance, yet it is especially manifest in the marital relationship. The man and the woman become one flesh; they remain two people, but one flesh. A man and a man cannot become one flesh, neither can a woman and a woman; no substantive intimate union is present.
Paul made much of the association between Christ and the church and husband and wife in Ephesians 5:22-33. Mutual submission in reverence to Christ proves necessary to make any relationship function, including between husband and wife (Ephesians 5:21). The church submits to Christ because Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her (Ephesians 5:23-25); in a similar way, the wife is to submit to her husband, and the husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:22-25). The husband is to treat his wife as his own flesh, just as Christ takes care of His body, the church (Ephesians 5:26-30). In interpersonal terms, the husband must love his wife, and the wife must respect her husband; ideally, according to the example of their Lord, unconditionally (Ephesians 5:33). Such exhortation is widely derided and ridiculed in the modern world and caricatured in its worst possible light. We do well to note how Paul provided no justification for spousal abuse or coercion: husbands are not authorized to demand or compel submission from their wives, and one does not show love to one’s one flesh by beating or otherwise abusing it. The husband will be held accountable to God for his household as its head (Ephesians 5:23); as the one accountable, he ultimately bears the responsibility, and to that end is granted a measure of authority, and, as Christ the church, love his wife, sacrifice, and suffer for her. The wife will be held accountable for how she submitted to her husband and his leadership (Ephesians 5:22-23, 1 Peter 3:1-6); she should give it freely, without compulsion, and maintain trust and respect in her husband. Women need love; men need respect; women communicate in terms of love; men communicate in terms of respect. For this reason women must respect their husbands, something not intuitive once the husband proves disappointing or insufficient in some respect; likewise, husbands must love their wives and live with them in an understanding way, not intuitive once the wife proves disappointing or insufficient in some respect (cf. 1 Peter 3:7). The marriage relationship is not held together by perfect performance, but the willingness to display love, respect, grace, and compassion despite performance, just as it is with God and mankind, Christ and the church.
Having quoted Genesis 2:24, Jesus set forth that a husband and wife are no longer two, but one flesh, and drew the appropriate conclusion: what God has joined man is not to separate (Matthew 19:4-6). God designed the marriage covenant to remain for life (Romans 7:1-4), not unlike the covenants made between Himself and mankind. Man ought not separate what God joined by becoming one with other flesh, committing sexually deviant behavior in adultery, homosexuality, and such like (1 Corinthians 6:13-20, Galatians 5:19). Man ought not separate what God joined in divorce (Matthew 19:9); an exception is granted for those who divorce their spouse for sexually deviant behavior, yet this is an exception, not the rule. Marriage relationships go through trial; it is far harder to endure the trial if one imagines there is a way of escape. A commitment as intimate and holy as marriage ought not be trifled or dispensed with freely or offhandedly.
God’s exalted view of marriage is under continual cultural and social pressure. It does not sit well with our highly individualistic ethos and the elevation of personal happiness as the ultimate goal of life. And yet marriage remains good and holy (Hebrews 13:4); there is a beautiful picture of love, devotion, grace, and mercy in a long lasting marriage which has endured the difficulties of life and has overcome its trials. Weddings manifest superficial beauty; a marriage maintained in sickness as well as in health, for poorer as much as for richer, and in distress and trial as much as success and victory is beautiful through and through.
It is not good for man to be alone; marriage is good, and honorable, but there will be difficulties, and it does require diligent effort. Marriage can lead to the greatest distress and pain, and yet it can also provide some of the greatest love and comfort that mankind can know. May we honor marriage and uphold God’s purposes for it, and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry