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13. On the Nature of the Marriage Union

The following is a summary. Each of the statements and explanations has been previously argued in detail in the body of the book, and this summery is no substitute for what is found there.

Marriage Is Not Essentially A Sexual Union

The act of sexual intercourse never, in itself, constituted marriage.538 In the Bible, premarital sex, if discovered, led to a forced marriage unless the father of the woman insisted otherwise (Exod. 22:16 f.; Deut. 22:28 f.). The legal bond gave the only proper moral context for sexual union (Gen. 2:24). The woman in such cases of premarital sex was considered to have been “defiled.” At least one word (halal) used in the Old Testament to describe sexual defilement implies a controversion of God’s planned order.539 And the more common term (tame) implies “uncleanness,” an interruption of the wholeness or wholesomeness of life.540 Marriage is never typified simply by the sexual act, or even by the idea of “one flesh.”541

It might be argued that a marriage is not final until sexual relations have taken place. Deuteronomy 20:7 speaks of a man who has become engaged to a woman but has not “taken” her yet. The woman is an “unclaimed blessing.” The text reveals that the covenant with her has not been consummated. But the term used (laqah) is not the most common Hebrew word for marriage, and in the Deuteronomic text it may simply be referring to consummation rather than to marriage per se. Beyond this, there are a number of other passages that understand the engaged couple to enjoy the same status before law as those persons in a fully consummated union, though they have not had sexual union.

In the New Testament, we note that, in spite of the strong marital connotations of “one flesh,” Paul is willing to apply the term to the non-marital sexual relationship between a man and a prostitute (1 Cor. 6). So it seems more correct to say that marriage is the proper content of becoming “one flesh” than to say that marriage is becoming “one flesh.” Marriage grants the right to have a “one-flesh” union. Insofar as unity is the goal of marriage people should avoid focusing upon separation themes when discussing marriage, and, when possible, problem marriages should be directed back toward that primary goal. The teaching of Jesus, that the two have become “one flesh,” would seem logically to require nothing more than this.

Sexual union entails a strong bonding between two persons. But the actual and moral degree of that bonding or influence is at least partly to be determined by the covenantal factors present or absent surrounding the particular sexual union. The absence of such factors directs the persons either to get married (as with premarital sex) or to cease and desist from further relations (extramarital or promiscuous sex, i.e., with a prostitute).

With regard to this question, it is interesting to compare three different sorts of relationships in which a “one-flesh” union occurs, and observe the differences:






1 Cor. 6:16

Exodus 21:10

Gen. 2:24


“One body”

Slave contract


God’s Law:





“Flee from”

Treat justly

Do not sunder

It would seem by consideration of this that the existence of a “one-flesh” relation does not determine the existence of marriage. It may call for it (marriage) in the case of “premarital sex,” but it is not the marriage itself. It is a “right of marriage.” The most we could say is that it is necessary, but not sufficient to make a marriage.

Marriage Is Not a Mysterious Relationship

There seems to be no scriptural evidence for saying that marriage is a mysterious union. On occasion some will cite Ephesians 5:32, but this “support” really rests upon a mistaken idea that the Greek word translated “mystery” means “beyond human knowledge.” That may be the most common element of an English definition of the word, but the Greek definition entails “information knowable only by revelation from God.” Understood in its proper light, the antecedent of “this mystery is great” is not the husband/wife relationship, which union has been revealed from the days of the Garden of Eden, but the relation of Christ to the Church. The text itself makes this clear when it immediately adds, “but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the Church” (v. 32), and adds further discontinuity by returning to the husband-wife discussion (v. 33) with “Nevertheless, let each individual among you also love his own wife … ” Another verse that is suggested to express a mystical element in marriage is Malachi 2:14. Steele mentions that the wife (then divorced) is called a “companion.” About this word he quotes Brown, Driver, and Briggs as suggesting the meaning of the root is “to unite, tie a magic knot.”542 But I know of no scholar who would argue for magic knots as the meaning of the inspired text. God does not use magic. The knots He ties have already been shown to be like a yoke. It is safer to define the term without mentioning such heathen uses. The resulting definition simply speaks of a companion as one who is closely woven together with the partner in a common enterprise, joined by contract and mutual commitment. It functions in the literature in a similar manner to the word cleave that we have dealt with. There really is no textual support for the idea that Biblical marriage is either mystical or magical.

It might be argued that sexual union entails some mystical element. Since the sexual act is not itself a melding of the two persons back into one person, what is the meaning of “one flesh”? Perhaps there is some element of mystery in what appears to be a simple conjunction of bodies. But even were this true, it misses the point. For we have seen already that marriage is not essentially a sexual or “one-flesh” union anyway. Therefore, it is a non sequitur to show that the “one-flesh” relationship has a mysterious element.

Marriage is Not a Union of Souls or Spirits

The initial problem with discussion of spiritual union is definitional. What exactly does it mean? Are we talking about association, to whatever degree of intimacy, or about some more ontological union (union of being)? Often people who refer to marriage as a spiritual union or a union of souls begin talking this way when they attempt to describe the completeness of the marriage union. Steele and Ryrie (quoting Ross) conclude their discussion of marriage “intimacy” by saying: ‘To become one flesh means becoming a spiritual, moral, intellectual, and physical unity.”543 Obviously this does not mean mixing brain cells or sharing a common nervous system, so what does it mean? Perhaps it means nothing more than that the intimacy of marriage involves the couple “seeing things the same way.” They share a common moral standard, think alike, have sexual union. But, still, please, what does common “spirit” mean? Could that be a way of referring to a similar disposition? I believe this puts the best face on the matter. But note that all such elements of intimacy only occur if the couple makes the effort to integrate their individual concerns. An estranged couple clearly does not share any of these things. Thus, it would be more proper to say that marriage only involves such intimacy, but not that this is what it means to be married.

If, on the other hand, it be argued that some more ontological union of spirits or souls is intended, then several other problems present themselves for our consideration. The first of these concerns is the point of origin of this sort of union and, indeed, the way in which the union is achieved. If union is said to begin when the vows are said, then I rejoin, “How does the speaking of vows achieve an ontic bonding of spirits?” If it is said to take place in the sex act, one may ask, “How does mere physical union achieves spiritual bonding?” When and how does this bonding occur?

A second reason for doubting that marriage involves a unity of spirits is that such a unity would seem to go beyond the grave. Thus, someone who had more than one marriage partner would have confusing spiritual relationships eternally. This is the very matter dealt with in the confrontation between Jesus and the Sadducees in Mark 12:18-27 (Matt. 22:23-33/Luke 20:27-40). The Sadducees’ argument turns on two points: the marriage union remains after death (therefore being a union of the souls of the resurrected) and there is a resurrection of the married persons. The Sadducees slyly knew that if both these propositions were affirmed at the same time, there would be ideological confusion.

Jesus affirms the second proposition but denies the first. Marriages, he says, do not go beyond the grave. ‘They are neither marrying [i.e., in a marriage state] nor are being given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” Note that these words do not mean simply that no new marriages will be contracted, but that the marriage state as such does not exist in heaven. In other words, marriage is designed for this world. It is temporal. But how can this be so if marriage entails a union of being/spirits?

The third problem with an ontic (related to being) union of spirits involves intermarriage. In our study of the use of cleave and one-flesh in 1 Corinthians 6 we noted that marriage unions have spiritual ramifications. Choosing a partner of another faith, against the wishes of God, reveals much about one’s spiritual state and will undoubtedly effect further negative changes in one’s spiritual life. But to say that marriage has these spiritual ramifications is not to say that marriage effects a union of spirits or souls. Insofar as at least one kind of interfaith marriage (i.e., that caused by the conversion of one of the previously bonded partners) was permitted by the Apostle Paul, we may safely conclude that marriage does not entail spiritual union.

Finally, we note again that Scripture stresses the intimacy of the union in marriage, especially the physical union. The text says that in sexual union the man “knows” his wife. This implies a deeply intimate awareness of how it is with her. Without lessening the biblical understanding of that intimacy, I wish clearly to state that this intimacy is in the marriage—not that this intimacy is essential to the marriage. It is those who leave and cleave who have the right to become “one flesh.”

Marriage is Not a Permanent or Indissoluble Union

Though God intended marriage to last until the death of one of the partners, the entrance of sin into the world at the beginning of time changed that. Jesus taught that God oversees the marriage and functions as the Witness to the speaking of the vows. In Matthew 19, Jesus said, “Those whom God has joined together.” Some have seen in this reference to God’s action an implication that marriage is permanent. But using a paired term, Jesus adds, “Let no man separate.” Thus it is clear that while marriages should be permanent in the sense of lasting till one of the partners dies, the facts of a fallen world is that sin can sunder the relationship. As presented in this book, that sin might have occurred while the marriage was legally active, or it could have occurred in the act of an unjust divorce. Jesus’ own comment on the end of marriage is also seen in His comment that a marriage may be ended if porneia has taken place (Matthew 5 and 19). In the older testament, the ending of the union is spoken of in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, where a marriage is clearly ended by an unjust divorce followed by a remarriage by the innocent party.

Marriage is Social Covenant Insured by God

Marriage is presented in Scripture as a reuniting of the divided image of God (Gen. 2). The “parts” are “male” and “female”. Together they form a social unit which has the right to become physically united (“one flesh”). They are yoked together as a team, and the original plan of God for marriage was for the two to serve Him as such. Not only is it presented as such in Genesis 2, where God gave Adam Eve because it was not good for him to be alone, working the Garden for Him, but also in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul suggests marriage over singleness only when it is necessary so that the partners can serve God better by such union. The Bible presents marriage as a covenant involving the fulfillment of basic needs. The man is pictured as needing companionship, while the woman is seen as needing provision of daily needs. This is to be understood by considering the requirements placed upon each by the text of the Law of Moses (Gen. 2 & Ex. 21). The fact that God oversees the union is clear by Jesus’ words, “Them that God has joined together … ” Paul speaks of marriage as a kind of slavery or bondage. Each partner has ownership rights over the other … rights related to the responsibility of each to keep the vows spoken to the other at the time of commitment.

538   This is in disagreement with such as the early position of Norman L. Geisler in his Ethics: Alternatives and Issues (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), pp. 199-200.

539 TWOT, s.v. halal

540 TWOT, .s.v. tame.

541   Geisler suggested that in Heb. 13:4 “marriage” and “marriage bed” are in parallel. It would seem, however, that the text of Hebrews is simply affirming long-standing biblical teaching that the place for bed-relations is marriage. Fornication and adultery are defiled beddings. Such argument goes well beyond the text to argue that “bed” and “marriage” are coterminous. In fact, if they are the same, it would seem that people could not commit fornication, but only marriage! Never adultery, but only bigamy. This is, of course, absurd. I understand that Geisler no longer holds this view. (Cf. Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 228, n. 35.)

542   F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (London: Clarendon, 1972).

543   Steele and Ryrie, Meant, p 27.

Related Topics: Christian Home, Marriage

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