What Constitutes a Biblical Marriage?

Adam Burrell

Marriage-and-the-Gospel

As a minister of the gospel, it is always a joy to be asked to preside over a wedding. I love every aspect of it. I enjoy the pre-marriage counseling. I enjoy the music. I enjoy the festive environment. I just enjoy a good Christian wedding.

Recently, on a teaching trip in Africa, one of the students asked, “What constitutes a biblical marriage?” It gave me pause for a moment. I provide a quick answer but told him that I would make available a more robust answer for him in the coming days. It was hard to give a quick answer because identifying the precise moment a man and woman are married in God’s eyes is a bit difficult. The Bible is clear on the role distinctions in marriage. It is clear that marriage is meant to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life. Yet, when does a marriage actually start? What elements are involved in the beginning stages of a marriage? What seals the marriage to say, “This is when my covenant and union began”? The Bible is not silent on the matter, but it doesn’t speak definitively either. After some time reflecting. I provide him with my answer (one that I would like to share with you today). I believe the answer lies, at least in principle, with three “C’s.”    

Ceremony

While a wedding ceremony is not prescribed in the Scriptures, we most definitely see it described and illustrated in several places. A wedding was very much a community and social event. In Psalm 45 we find the sons of Korah explaining what a royal wedding ceremony looked like. It was filled with festivities, beauty, gifts, and feasting. In John 2 we find Jesus performing his first miracle at the wedding ceremony in Cana, a social event. In Revelation 19, we find the marriage supper of the Lamb. This is the symbolic meal culminating and celebrating the marriage of Christ and the church. In Matthew 25:1–13 we find Jesus telling the parable of the ten virgins. In verse 10 He says, “And while they went away to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage feast . . .” Thus we find here and in all of these verses the idea of some sort of ceremony being part of a biblical wedding.

The point that I am making is that it was a common practice for there to be a celebration or a ceremony for the wedding couple. We find this all over the Old and New Testament. For that matter, we find it in every culture throughout history. The ceremony seems to be part of the expectation of a marriage. The festivities that we find in Scripture would often last for days (Matthew 22) and would ultimately culminate with the vows and the giving of blessings. Thus, for a marriage to take place, it seems fitting that there would first be a ceremony.

Covenant

Besides the ceremony, the most important aspect of the wedding festivities was and is the exchange of the vows, the promise and covenant. When we look at the biblical record, we find that God established marriage in the beginning. He instituted it in the garden with our first parents, Adam and Eve. The first marriage was based on a covenant promise (Genesis 2:24). The act of marriage consisted of three things: leaving, cleaving, and becoming one flesh. The Genesis 2:24 commandment was repeated by Jesus in Matthew 19:5 and Mark 10:7–8, and the Apostle Paul also used this covenant format in Ephesians 5.

We find other references to the marriage covenant all over the scriptures, yet one of the most prominent is found in Malachi 2:14. The prophet writes, “But you say, ‘Why does he not?’ Because the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.’” Here the prophet explains that a marriage covenant is not just “between you and the wife of your youth” but also with “the LORD,” who was a witness of this solemn promise and vow. While we do not have examples of the exact words that were spoken in a marriage covenant, we do find certain promises that are to be made between a man and a woman in their covenant.

For the Men:

  • It is a promise to love his wife as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25)
  • It is a promise to live sacrificially for his wife (Eph. 5:25)
  • It is to lead his wife spiritually (Ephesians 5:26)
  • It is to leave his parents and cleave alone to his wife (Ephesians 5:31)
  • It is a promise of monogamy (I Corinthians 7, Hebrews 13:4)

For the Woman:

  • It is a promise to joyfully submit to her husband (Ephesians 5:22)
  • It is a promise to respect her husband (Ephesians 5:31)
  • It is a promise of monogamy (I Corinthians 7, Hebrews 13:4)

Therefore, for a marriage to be a marriage in the eyes of God, a covenant must be part of the process.

Consummation

While this aspect of a Christian marriage and wedding was not public, it was expected. Sexual intimacy between a husband and wife is the ultimate fulfillment of the “one flesh” principle found in Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:5, and Ephesians 5:31. This act is the final seal on a marriage covenant. Paul P. Enns remarks:  

On the first night, when the marriage was to be consummated, the father escorted his daughter to the bridal chamber (Gen. 29:21–23; cp. Judg. 15:1). The bride’s parents retained the bloodstained bed sheet to prove their daughter’s virginity at marriage in case the husband attempted any recourse by charging that his bride was not a virgin (Deut. 22:13–21).1Enns, P. P. (2003). Weddings. In C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, & T. C. Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (p. 1664). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible … Continue reading

While consummation closes the wedding, it also marks the beginning of the marriage. The “two becoming one” motif does start with the sexual union of the married couple, but this “one flesh” union is much more than a simple act of sexual intimacy. Notice the Matthew 19 progression: the man leaves his parents, the man joins (marries) his wife, the two individuals become one. The last step is what consummates the marriage, but there is much more to it than this. The two are to be so knit together that they behave as one person. While they are two separate people, this “one flesh” union makes them one, together. Consummation marks the end of the old individual life and the start of the “one flesh” union that will continue through marriage for the couple. Therefore, if the couple is biologically able to consummate the marriage, this should be the final seal of the wedding.  

The question may arise, “What about cultural and governmental expectations in marriage?” Time would fail me in parsing out all of the nuances that are involved in the question. But in short, while I believe the government has no place in the marrying business, a Christian should do all that is possible to live within the government guidelines for marriage in its land (Romans 13). Thus, if possible, a couple should follow whatever cultural practices are required by law for them to be recognized as a legally married couple. 

Today, I have sought to answer the question, “What constitutes a biblical marriage?” I believe the biblical evidence, in principle, points to these three C’s: Ceremony, Covenant, and Consummation. If these things are present and true, then in the eyes of God, I believe this constitutes a genuine marriage before the Lord.

References

References
1 Enns, P. P. (2003). Weddings. In C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, & T. C. Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (p. 1664). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
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