H. Norman Wright, a licensed marriage and family counselor, once described a situation that another man had brought to him in the course of his ministry:
A new woman came to work in our office. We struck up an acquaintance and began to talk each day over coffee. In time she began to share the problems in her own marriage and we found that we were both in a position of drifting away from our spouses. We actually found that we communicated better together than with our own spouses. We looked for reasons to be together—we shared similar interests and hobbies. I had no ulterior motives—no sinister plans but I enjoyed our time together as friends.
We saw each other every day for a few moments and once a week we went to lunch. In time I began to compare Elaine with my wife. I saw so many positives in Elaine. The more I compared the more defects I saw in my wife. Then one day it hit me. “I was in love with another woman. Me! No! I’m a married man with three children. I’m chairman of our church board. This happens to others—why me! Why did I let myself get into this mess?” I felt confused. My work suffered—my relationships suffered. I tried to stop my involvement. Some weeks I didn’t see Elaine that much. Other weeks I saw her every day. I had to!
Last week it happened. We made love. I am so torn up right now! What do I do?1
Accounts like this reveal how important vigilance is to a strong marriage. When marriages disintegrate, the fact is that it usually isn’t because of some bizarre event that hits the couple like a ton of lead. That’s possible. But in most cases, when the ceiling caves in on a marriage, it’s because the couple has failed to address the slow leak in the attic.
It’s imperative we face the matter of marriage with realism, cultivating our relationship with our spouse in the way that God intends. And one of the best ways to do that is to ensure we have a solid grasp on the basic theological foundations for marriage. Regardless of one’s marital status, God’s people cannot afford to neglect His wisdom on the issue.
Marriage Is God’s Idea
In the beginning, God determined that marriage should be a feature of His design. Marriage is of divine origin. And in a culture rampant with confusion surrounding marriage, this truth needs to be clearly stated. Man didn’t come up with marriage; if this were true, then it could be revamped at will, set aside in a moment purely for one or both spouses’ convenience. Only when we come to God’s Word and define marriage by God’s standards can we begin to grapple with what it means to fulfill its purposes.
When the ceiling caves in on a marriage, in most cases it’s because the couple has failed to address the slow leak in the attic.
If you’ve attended a Christian marriage ceremony, you’ve probably heard the pastor begin with words like these: “We are gathered here in the presence of God and before this congregation to join together this man and this woman in marriage.” This is the pastor’s effort to acknowledge marriage’s divine origins. It’s a unique relationship appointed by God that He gives as a gift to mankind.
We encounter God’s design for marriage in the opening pages of Scripture. In Genesis 2, having made Adam, God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (v. 18). He then makes the woman, Eve, as a human complement and partner for Adam. From the very beginning of the Bible, then, it’s clear that men and women were formed to be social and sexual beings within the marital context (vv. 21–25).
Marriage Is a Covenant
On account of Genesis 2, Jesus reiterates the divine blueprint for marriage in the New Testament. He views marriage as an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman as they enter into a covenant for life (Matt. 19:3–9).
When we say that marriage is a covenant, it means it’s not merely a contract. Where a contract may be nullified by certain caveats or even at either party’s whim, a covenant is radically different. Covenants carry with them an unconditional sense of commitment and faithfulness.
Marriage is an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman, bound together by a lifelong covenant.
We have the precedent for covenant in God Himself, who often initiated covenant relationships with His people in Scripture. For instance, in Genesis 15, God established a covenant with Abraham, with the solemnity of all that took place in that instance being pictured by death and darkness (v. 12–21). This was to signify the nature of covenants: they are to be entered into not lightly but seriously, with an acknowledgement of the dire consequences to accompany that covenant being broken.
When we think of God’s origin for marriage, then, we should think of it in terms of a covenant. Jay Adams, the late biblical counselor, describes further this God-ordained covenant:
Marriage involves a covenantal agreement to meet all of your spouse’s needs for companionship (on every level: sexual, social, spiritual, etc.) for the rest of your life. It is, therefore, a final act. Christians, unlike non-Christians today who enter into trial marriages, annual, renewable marriage contracts, and the like, need not live daily under the threat of divorce. The binding nature of the divine covenant assures them that divorce is not an option.2
In a marriage, a man and a woman are joined together in a way that cannot compare with any other human relationship. It’s absolutely unique. It’s a bond that may not be forsaken at will—a binding commitment that involves legal, physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions.
Tragically, many Christians affirm something less than God’s divine intent for marriage. A survey conducted in the late twentieth century revealed that as many as two-thirds of Christians interviewed saw divorce as “a reasonable solution to a problem marriage.”3 Today, we can safely assume those numbers have only increased. While we should expect this kind of perspective among non-Christians, it’s devastating that our secular culture’s framework has bled into the church. There’s no way around it: the salt is losing its savor (Matt. 5:13).
In a marriage, a man and a woman are joined together in a way that cannot compare with any other human relationship.
In contrast to this mentality, we must settle in our minds that divorce isn’t an option. Marriage isn’t a kind of business deal whereby we can back out if things don’t go as planned. It’s a covenant. And from the beginning, divorce was not part of God’s design. (See Matt. 19:8.)
Nonetheless, we know that divorce is a reality in our fallen world. Does Scripture anywhere make provision for it? Hear the following pastoral counsel on the issue:
God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). … When in a position to influence another person’s decision, we should not be quick to counsel people toward divorce. Only when we have exhausted all paths of reconciliation should we then turn to the exception which Scripture provides.
In many cases where people casually divorce and remarry, the biblical perspective is that the new relationships are adulterous ones. The exceptions are those who divorce because of a spouse’s marital unfaithfulness or, as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 7, because a nonbelieving spouse has deserted the relationship.4
Exceptions aside, marriage is a flat-out, unreserved commitment to God’s divine mandate: one man, one woman, “till death do us part.”
Marriage Is a Commitment
Upholding the marriage covenant requires serious commitment to one another. When a man and woman are at the altar on their wedding day, they vow to love and to cherish one another. These vows aren’t about feelings; they’re about acts of the will. Indeed, their mutual commitment requires nothing less.
Interestingly, romantic love is never made the basis for marriage in the Bible. When marriages are founded on emotional surges and physical attractions, they’re vulnerable to the possibility of disintegration when those feelings subside. On the other hand, when a marriage is grounded in friendship, companionship, and the awareness of an unending covenant, the possibilities for a flourishing marriage are markedly improved. The vow to love one’s spouse deals not with romantic love but with a serious, covenant commitment to that person.
Marriage vows aren’t about feelings; they’re about acts of the will.
Hence the vital place of vows in a marriage. They aptly summarize the commitment involved, providing the necessary protective walls for when the wind and waves begin beating upon the house. And each day, husbands and wives have an abiding responsibility to live in faithfulness to their vows. For this reason, it’s far better not to vow than to make vows and not fulfill them (Eccl. 5:5).
A Question for Every Marriage
Prior to a couple’s entering into the marriage covenant, most ministers will ask them a question of intent. The question is designed to be pondered carefully, lest they enter into the covenant ignorantly. Whether a couple has been married for a short or long while, Christians would do well to critically examine their marriages with a view toward honoring Christ and each other.
Here’s the question: “Will you love, honor, and keep your spouse?”
It’s imperative that we understand what “love” means in this circumstance. If we view love in terms of pop culture—a kind of “secondhand emotion,” as Tina Turner once put it—then we’ll constantly wish to throw in the towel. However, if we understand love in a biblical sense, as being expressed in actions which fulfill our vows, then we’ll be freed from the tyranny of the emotional ups and downs that plague so many relationships.
Romantic love is never made the basis for marriage in the Bible.
Many couples, when asked whether they’ll love each other, are shocked. They respond, “Are you kidding? Absolutely! Why wouldn’t I love this person?” They can’t conceive of a scenario in which their affections for one another would grow cold. But the love about which the minister speaks is accompanied by honoring and keeping. And it’s in this aspect where idealism intersects with a sense of realism. For the husband, to honor his wife means putting her first, considering her interests before his own, finding the greatest joy in seeing her blossom within marriage to the fullness of all that God intends for her. And for the wife, it means becoming husband-oriented (under her devotion to God, of course) in all that she does.
When a man and woman commit to this kind of honoring one another, it saves them from the contemporary idea of “being my own person.” Instead, it liberates them to discover the glorious dimensions of the two becoming one (Matt. 19:5).
God’s divine design for marriage is a one-man, one-woman covenant union—nothing else. And in Scripture, we’re given a pattern for marriage so radical in its implications that it’s one of the greatest pictures of the Gospel available to the watching world. By bowing a knee to God’s wise plan, husbands and wives can effectively walk together in marriage—through thick and thin, mountains and valleys, failure and success.
This article was adapted from the sermon “Marriage: A Covenant, Not a Contract” by Alistair Begg. Subscribe to get weekly blog updates.
H. Norman Wright, Seasons of a Marriage (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1982), 121–22.↩︎
Jay E. Adams, Solving Marriage Problems: Biblical Solutions for Christian Counselors (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 24.↩︎
George Barna and William Paul Mackay, Vital Signs: Emerging Social Trends and the Future of American Christianity (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1984), 13.↩︎
Alistair Begg, Lasting Love: How to Avoid Marital Failure (Chicago: Moody, 1997), 89–90.↩︎