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. 
Genesis 2:23-25 (ESV)

One of the great privileges of local church ministry is the opportunity to prepare couples for marriage and to conduct their weddings.  Scripture’s teaching on the subject is beautiful, encouraging and challenging.  As they consider God’s vision for marriage in Scripture, couples come to appreciate the importance of seeking God’s help and provision as they make their covenant promises to one another.  

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First Things First

We generally start with the above verses from Genesis.  Jesus quotes these verses when he is asked a question about marriage, indicating that they are foundational for understanding God’s plan for marriage.  Fittingly, the subject is raised at the very beginning of the Bible.  The marriage relationship will be foundational for God’s plan for the world to be filled and ruled by his image bearers.

Genesis gives us at least four markers of the nature of marriage as intended by God—publicity, exclusivity, permanency and complementarity.

A Public Reality

That marriage involves a man “leaving” his father and mother and being united to his wife, does not mean that he ceases to be the son of his father and mother, nor that he ceases to belong to his birth-family.  But marriage creates a new family with its own integrity that is to be acknowledged by the birth families of both parties to the marriage, and by the community at large.  In this sense, marriage is a “public” institution. It is not a merely private arrangement; it has social and legal consequences beyond the parties to it. 

An Exclusive Reality

The man is to “hold fast” (ESV) or is “united” (NIV) to his wife, and they “become one flesh.”  It is a picture of an intimate and exclusive union.  The idea of one flesh includes, but is not limited to, physical intimacy and union.  The physical union of the man and woman will be a token of the comprehensive intimacy and exclusivity that they share personally, emotionally and spiritually.  Christian homes are to be places of hospitality and welcome: to family, neighbours, strangers and those in need.  But Christian marriages have a God-intended exclusivity.  God gifts to married couples an intimacy of shared conversation, understanding and prayer that is exclusive of all others—it is the realm of their one flesh union, not only physical, but psychological, emotional and spiritual. 

A Permanent Reality

Another dimension of the “one flesh” union of a husband and wife is its indissolubility.  It is a permanent union.  Jesus makes this plain when answering a question in Matthew 19: “So they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (v6)  The marriage bond is to endure until death.

A Complementary Reality…?

Until recently, the fourth “marker” seemed unremarkable.  Today, it is highly contested.  Marriage is a complementary union—the union of a man and a woman.  Why is this essential to the biblical understanding of marriage?

First, the “one flesh” union of marriage is more than physical but it is not less than physical.  The man and the woman in the garden are “naked and not ashamed,” because their physical complementarity is a gift from God to be enjoyed and experienced in the marriage relationship. Emotional and personal intimacy is expressed in joyful physical intimacy that is exclusive of all others.  They are “made” for one flesh union. 

Second, the complementarity of the man and the woman is essential to their ability to fulfil the Lord’s command to “fill the earth.”  Children are to be born into a context of the preexisting public, permanent and exclusive one flesh, covenant relationship of one man and one woman—their parents.  The complementarity of the sexes is designed to serve the divine commission.

Third, the complementarity of the marriage relationship requires that the man and the woman practise love for an “other.”[1]  The woman is the “fit helper” for the man because she is neither like the animals nor the same as the man.  She is both “like” and “unlike” the man; she is “bone of my bone” but also ishah (woman) taken out of ish (man)In the unfolding revelation of Scripture, love for one’s own family is extended by the call to love one’s neighbour.  The call  to love a neighbour is extended by the call to love a stranger. The call to love the stranger is extended by the call to love an enemy.  The marriage relationship, as the basic unit of human community,  draws the man and the woman out from themselves to the love of one who is both like and unlike themselves.

Last, the complementarity of the marriage union prefigures the “mystery” of Christ’s union with his bride, the church (Ephesians 5:31-32). Human marriage cannot serve as a picture the union of Christ and the church unless the parties to the marriage are complementary.  They must belong to each other but cannot be interchangeable.[2] 

Not the Only Reality

The Bible illustrates a vast array of deep, enriching and godly relationships.  We can think of the deep friendships of Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, Paul and Barnabas.  The Scriptures delight in human friendship and community.  Our hyper-sexualised culture has almost forgotten about  intimate non-sexual friendships.  Relationships are essential for human flourishing, but marriage is not.  But God’s plan and purpose in marriage—public, exclusive, permanent and complementary—reflects his plan to bless individuals, families and society, and to display his faithfulness and love for his people in Christ.

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[1] Henri Blocher, In the Beginning—The Opening Chapters of Genesis tr. David G. Preston (IVP, 1984) p102.

[2] Kevin DeYoung, What does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?, (Crossway, 2015) p32.