Today I am kicking off a new series of articles that is going to ask the simplest of questions: “What’s the purpose of …?” Though the question is simple, the answers can be difficult and even controversial. We’ll begin with the home: What’s the purpose of marriage? What’s the purpose of sex? What’s the purpose of children? Then we’ll turn to the church: What’s the purpose of the church and its pastors? What’s the purpose of the Lord’s Day and the Lord’s Supper? What’s the purpose of worship and baptism? These are questions that perplex many of those outside the church and just as many within. We will tackle these questions week by week, attempting to put to rest any lies and misconceptions and to bring to the light the divine truth. We begin with marriage.
What’s the Purpose of Marriage?
What’s the purpose of marriage? A brief search turns up a host of answers representing a multitude of worldviews. These answers reveal no end of confusion, but most perspectives can be summarized under two headings.
The most common view in Western culture is marriage as contract. In this view, marriage is essentially a contract between two autonomous individuals, which they use a means of fulfillment or self-advancement. Those who hold to this view understand marriage as a man-made institution that was created for the mutual benefit of those who choose to enter into it. Because human beings invented marriage, it remains in effect only as long as human beings find it beneficial and desirable. When it no longer provides fulfillment or self-advancement—when it becomes inconvenient, unenjoyable, or just plain difficult—it can and should be easily dissolved. Such a marriage “works” only as long as it benefits the two individuals.
It is worth pointing out that the understanding of marriage as a contract leads smoothly and inevitably to the acceptance of alternate forms of marriage, including same-sex unions. If marriage is a man-made institution that exists for the mutual benefit of individuals, humans are free to form any kind of union that appears to be beneficial. In fact, “marriage equality” becomes nothing less than a human right. A human-made institution can always be expanded or reformed to accommodate the wishes of humanity.
A second view of marriage is marriage as sacrament. This is the view that dominated Western culture while it was under the control of the Roman Catholic Church. While the Reformation disrupted it, its vestiges remain even outside Catholicism. In this view, marriage is a sacrament under the control of the Church and, like all sacraments, provides saving power to those who participate in it. After all, according to the Church, all of “the sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.” Though this view is said to be founded on Scripture and the writings of Augustine, it is actually founded on a mistranslation of Scripture and a misinterpretation of the Church Father.
The contract view and the sacrament view are compelling because both contain elements of the truth. Marriage is meant to provide mutual comfort to the husband and wife, as Solomon makes clear: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:9), and “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Proverbs 5:18). J.R. Miller writes, “The married life … is God’s own ideal of completeness. It was when he saw that it was not good for man to be alone, that woman was made and brought to him to supply what was lacking. The divine intention, therefore, is that marriage shall yield happiness, and that it shall add to the fullness of the life of both husband and wife; that neither shall lose—but that both shall gain.” However, comfort and joy are meant to be the result of marriage, not its foundation or essence. Their lack in a marriage does not justify its dissolution.
Meanwhile, though marriage is not a sacrament that dispenses divine life upon the husband and wife, it is a means by which God sanctifies us and makes us more like Jesus. Paul writes, moreover, that marriage provides a legitimate outlet for sexual desire and, in that way, preserves us from sexual sin: “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2). Hence, Gary Thomas posits the question: “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” Yet even something as good and noble as holiness is not the primary purpose of marriage.
What Does the Bible Say About Marriage?
Though marriage provides many wonderful benefits including mutual comfort, godly offspring, sexual fulfillment, and a means of avoiding sexual sin, these are not its highest purpose. Marriage is not a man-made institution primarily for man’s benefit, but rather a God-made institution primarily for God’s glory. The highest purpose of marriage is to display to the world the sacrificial love of Christ for his bride, the church. Here is how Paul teaches this: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32).
Before God united Adam and Eve in the very first marriage, he already had something else in mind. Before he joined the first husband to the first wife, he was already thinking forward to what that marriage and every subsequent marriage would portray: the relationship of Jesus Christ and his church. Every marriage is meant to display the truth about the covenant-keeping love of God for his people. In this portrait, the husband is a display of Jesus Christ who woos his bride, who leads her, who cares for her, and who is intimately united to her; the wife is a display of the church who is drawn by Christ, who joyfully follows him, who joins in his life and work, and who is intimately united to him. Marriage gives us a vivid picture of the kind of love God has for his people and the kind of love his people have for him. It gives us language to use to understand and describe something so beautiful, so wondrous. As Tim Savage writes, “We marry, not primarily for our own benefit and pleasure, nor principally for the comfort of mutual affection, nor ultimately for the joy of bearing and raising children. We marry because in a work of unparalleled glory the Lord built this union. We marry because of his glory.”
What is the purpose of marriage? There are many proposed answers, but they are essentially divided by this key question: Is marriage an institution created by man or by God? Gary Thomas says, “The key question is this: Will we approach marriage from a God-centered view or a man-centered view? In a man-centered view, we will maintain our marriage as long as our earthly comforts, desires, and expectations are met. In a God-centered view, we preserve our marriage because it brings glory to God and points a sinful world to a reconciling Creator.”
Once we recognize that God created marriage, we search the Scripture to carefully and faithfully ensure we understand why God created it. There we find that God intends for marriage to be a lifelong union between a man and woman that displays the glory of God in the gospel.