Does the Bible have much to say about marriage? Besides Levitical laws that are often misinterpreted (and, even more often, ignored altogether), Jesus’ condemnation of remarriage after divorce, and a handful of politically incorrect household codes in the New Testament (also called Haustafeln), what else is there to talk about? The uncomfortable reality of polygamy among some Old Testament saints? Forbidding adultery? Outright and explicit condemnations of homosexuality in the Levitical law and the New Testament epistles (particularly Romans 1)?
Actually, much of biblical narrative in its entirety pivots on the theme of matrimony, and fidelity to that covenantal institution plays a significant role in the common life of God’s Kingdom. To neglect marriage would be to neglect much of the Bible, the Gospel itself, and the Christian life. But to understand this, we need to have some context.
YHWH Wants a Bride
One of the main allegories the reveals God’s relationship to His people is that of marriage. To put it bluntly, God wants a bride. Betrothal and spousal themes litter the Old Testament (which includes an entire book based around a courtship and marriage: the Song of Solomon). It is obvious that the “candidate” that catches God’s eye is Israel, not unlike how Esther caught the eye of King Ahasuerus. What comeliness did Israel have that merited this? God only knows. But He did elect her, choosing to espouse Himself to her by a covenant, proven by mighty redemptive acts in history.
Ezekiel 16 graphically reveals how YHWH found Israel in her metaphorical infancy. He claimed her, covered her shame, cleansed her, anointed her, clothed her in glorious finery, fed her, and provided for her every need. Sadly, she proved unfaithful, playing the harlot with many other lovers. This is all an analogy for Israel’s historical experience: of being a people of no reputation chosen by God, rescued from enslavement in Egypt, baptized in the Red Sea, sanctified in the wilderness, granted a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, and even reaching seasons of greatness, particularly during the reign of Solomon. However, Israel (in both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah) committed spiritual adultery by engaging in idolatry. Baal and other various deities received worship; the heart of Israel was not faithful to YHWH. Consequences in the form of national chastisements (particularly the Babylonian Exile) resulted from this infidelity. Jeremiah 3 explores the same themes, as does the book of Hosea. Jeremiah even uses the language of a divorce to describe the fraught relationship between God and His unfaithful people.
Yet the Bridegroom loves the Bride; the divorce would not be permanent. He would redeem His Beloved by shedding His own blood, justifying her and thus redeeming her. In traditional Jewish weddings, there is a point at which the husband and wife enter the bridal chamber to consummate their marriage. A bloody sheet is to be presented as evidence of the wife’s virginal purity. However, if she has been unfaithful, and yet the husband still desire her, he can shed his own blood and place it on the sheet on her behalf. This is precisely what Christ achieved on the cross. Approaching the cross from the aspect of spousal imagery helps reveal more of the Christian doctrine of justification
Therefore, it is no surprise that renewed Israel, the Church, is revealed to be the Bride of Christ in the New Testament Scriptures. St. Paul is not necessarily treading new ground when he claims the same in Ephesians 5. Instead, he teaches ancient truths that have been further revealed and fulfilled in Christ Jesus, and he connects the same to the lives of God’s people, particularly with regard to the ethics of marriage. Just like mundane (human) marriage, this union between Christ and His Bride is procreative. He plants the seed of the Gospel in her. The fruit the Bride brings forth is the fruit of good works. And, of course, the celebration of this union is an eternal one, illustrated by the wedding feast of the Lamb, particularly as presented in the Book of St. John’s Revelation.
Another ancient marital custom informs the nature of apostolic ministry and, arguably, all pastoral ministry. This is the shaliah. An example of this was the servant Abraham sent to acquire a wife for his son Isaac as recorded in Genesis 24. This man has the authority to serve as an emissary or messenger for his master, betroth a maiden for his master (or a member of the master’s household), and then guard the betrothed safely back to the household, warding off dangers and making provision for her. St. Paul claimed such a role for himself with regard to the church in 2 Corinthians 11:2: “For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.”
Matrimony and the Household
The household, which is founded on the covenant of marriage, is a redemptive unit. This is clearly seen in the Old Testament examples of Adam (and Seth), Noah, Abraham, and David. We see such themes return in the references to adoption as being a metaphor to understand salvation in the New Testament. More Christians would appreciate this analogy if our households today were productive rather than recreational. Before the Industrial Revolution, households meant provision, shelter, belonging, identity, continuance, development of piety, and much more.
The household still held an important redemptive role in the eyes of the apostles Peter and Paul, as is evidenced by the Haustafeln. Unfortunately, this is lost on many commentators today, who often seek to vilify such teachings or else blunt them, essentially claiming that they were examples of condescension or compromise in a more backwards age. The latter group, which can often be found in the evangelical camp, can construe Paul in particular as intentionally creating a ripple effect that was destined to destroy the very institutions (namely, the productive, redemptive household and its patriarchal order) he seems to uphold. Of course, this fails to take into account such themes as a heavenly Father, the Second Adam as federal head, and the Son as the first-born heir according to the promise. Such domestic metaphors, which take place in the context of holy matrimony, cannot be ignored.
St. Paul expected Christians to serve as living icons of the marital-spousal union Christ has with His Church. Those that are single illustrate single-hearted faithfulness to the Bridegroom as members of the Bride’s Body, heralding a time when resurrected men and women will no longer be married or given in marriage to one another (Matthew 22:30). Meanwhile, those that are married reveal the relationship between Christ and His Church, with the husbands loving their wives (particularly in laying down their lives for the Bride) and the wives obeying their husbands. And a household—indeed, any productive endeavor—that does not appreciate hierarchies and various kinds of authority (including children’s honor of their parents) is at risk of disastrous extinction. While the Church is the ultimate and only redemptive household that will exist everlastingly, the domestic family is not eliminated in the new covenant before the resurrection (for grace does not abolish nature).
Thus, the apostles expect Christian families to function well, in a godly manner, each member of the same fulfilling his vocation with all alacrity and faithfulness. Even single people can be members of a Christian household, whether by descent or various other means. As Paul made clear in his epistle to Titus, such a godly shared life would serve as salt and light in the rotting darkness of pagan cultures like that of Crete.
Therefore, it is obvious that marriage is not simply a matter of a few proof-texts gleaned by happenstance from Holy Writ. Instead, it is an undergirding reality of the Gospel of salvation. It reveals God’s rescue of His people. And it is an integral tool or strategy in His transformative redemption of the world.
Barton Gingerich serves as a priest at St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Richmond, Virginia, and previously served on the staff of the Institute on Religion & Democracy. The author owes a debt of gratitude to the late Presiding Bishop Royal U. Grote, Jr. for his instruction on this subject and to Chris Wiley.