The world can and often does define marriage any way it wants. The Bible defines biblical marriage, but the church has largely adopted the world’s definition, leading to chaos and heartbreak within the church as well.
Marriage was established by God and introduced in the first book of the Bible. It is a unique relationship, causing a man to “leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) To prevent anyone from missing this foundational verse, it is rephrased four more times in the Bible.
Jesus quoted it when answering a group of Pharisees in Matthew 19:3-9:
Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Because of hardness of heart, divorce is permitted, but like polygamy, it is a tragic aberration of what God intends marriage to be. And except in one case which is omitted altogether in the parallel passage of Mark 10:2-11, divorce results in adultery.
Much adultery has been committed in the name of this one case, and the resultant adultery is as ongoing as any other sexual relationship (unless a death ends the original marriage). This was generally understood and reflected in the marriage vow of “til death do us part”. Even the world used to be shocked by a divorcee’s marriage. Now, the church doesn’t bat an eye.
So what is the “immorality” Jesus cited? According to the lexicon and concordance at blbclassic.org, in Greek the word is “porneia,” and used a mere 26 times in the New Testament, one of which is in John 8:41: the Jews’ description of Jesus’ own conception. Matthew 1:18-20 describes the event: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.”
According to blbclassic.org’s tools, “send her away” is “apolyo” in Greek, used in 63 verses and also translated “divorce.” The perceived porneia of Jesus’ conception is why Joseph contemplated divorcing Mary. Apparently Joseph was well within his rights to do so–and even righteous. Except it wasn’t porneia, and the angel of the Lord swiftly set Joseph straight, telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife–because they weren’t married yet.
If they weren’t married, how could he divorce her?
This passage illustrates the only New Testament example of the “immorality” clause, and it applies to divorce during betrothal, something we don’t really have in our culture today. To put it into rough equivalency for us, it’s okay to divorce your fiancee if she has had consensual sexual intercourse with someone other than you while you are engaged. And that’s it, biblically.
We all sin, but practicing it risks death or even hellfire (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Hebrews 6:4-8, James 1:13-15), and the Bible designates a special category for sexual sin:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be! Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? For He says, “The two shall become one flesh.” But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:15-20)
This passage reverberates with echoes of marriage, including the seminal Genesis 2:24, and reveals why marriage is so important: it’s a picture of Christ and the church. Christians literally are the bride of Christ, even in this life.
Paul makes this explicit in Ephesians 5:22-33, which gives us the biblical prescription for marriage:
Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.
There’s Genesis 2:24 again, signalling how foundational this passage is as well: husbandly love and wifely respect are keys to a biblical marriage.
The Bible is packed with illustrations and instructions for enhancing our marriages–along with examples of failures and consequences. By daily reading and application (with the help of the Holy Spirit), our marriages can better reflect our ultimate reality of Christ and the church–and give us joy until then. Some of my favorite verses to achieve this goal are Galatians 5:13-26, Ephesians 4:14-32, Philippians 2:1-8, Colossians 3:1-19, 2 Peter 1:2-11 and, of course, 1 Corinthians 13–along with 1 Corinthians 7:1-11 quoted below:
Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But this I say by way of concession, not of command. Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.
Blbclassic.org notes that the “immoralities” in verse 8 above is again “porneia,” and we have circled back to divorce once more–or rather to not divorcing. Paul continues in this passage, “A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.” (1 Corinthians 7:39-40)
Romans 1:28-32 also includes porneia (translated “wickedness” below) in a frightening list of sin, and indicates what happens when God’s authority is rejected:
And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.
Misery loves company. So does sin. Practicing a biblical marriage may put us in the minority, but we’ll find plenty of cheerleaders if we walk in the way of the world. Those voices, however, will someday have to explain themselves before a righteous God.
A biblical marriage requires a considerable investment of thought and effort. After hearing all Jesus had to say about marriage to the Pharisees in the earlier Matthew 19 passage, “The disciples said to Him, ‘If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.’ ” (10)
That is a topic for another post, perhaps. For our part, my one and only husband of my youth and I have learned over more than thirty years of marriage that God’s way is the way, even though it’s often the opposite of our inclination. We are best friends, grateful for our relationship and the children our marriage has given us–even during lockdown.
Have you found Scriptures that help your marriage or relationships? Please comment below. I’d love to hear about your favorite verses and how they’ve worked in your life!