Why Should Christians Care About the Definition of Marriage? Understanding Important Bible Passages

This article first appeared at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

I still remember the first time I heard a Christian question why it was bad for the government to change the legal definition of marriage. I was an associate pastor in Washington state, and in 2012 the state voted to allow legal same-sex marriage, three years before Obergefell legalized it nationwide. As people were discussing how they felt about changing a definition that had held firm for all of human history prior, a member of my church shared that she didn’t understand why most Christians were against the state changing the definition of marriage. She expressed that she did understand that Christians should personally be opposed to same-sex marriage given the Bible’s clear teaching on marriage, but she did not see any compelling reason that we should care about what the government allows or defines as marriage.

A decade later, there are many reasons we could clearly point to, ways that same-sex marriage has changed our culture. To name a few: legal battles for conscience protections for small businesses, many religious adoption agencies closing down as they were forced to change their firmly held religious beliefs or stop helping children, the cascade of gender dysphoria that is especially hitting our teens and young adults, and gender and sexuality options that are now being taught openly in our public schools, even to elementary students. But as clear as some of those reasons are for concern, as the Senate now moves toward repealing the 1996 “Defense of Marriage Act,” is there a theological reason that Christians should care about the definition of marriage in our broader culture? To put it another way, is there a “gospel reason” that Christians cannot support the legal definition change of marriage?

A theology of marriage 

Jesus was asked difficult theological questions about marriage by his disciples. While the issue his followers asked about in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 may have been directly about divorce, the answer Jesus gave continues to echo down to us today, answering questions about why Christians should care about the definition of marriage. Just in the first phrase of his reply, Jesus shows why marriage is only truly between a man and a woman: “He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female’” (Matt. 19:4) Jesus takes the disciples—and us—way back. He pulls them back to the Garden of Eden when humanity, and marriage, were first created. 

The Lord clearly lays out that God created Adam as a male and Eve as a female, which will become significant the deeper we dig into why God created humans and marriage the way that he did. Jesus also reminds us that God is the Creator, which means that he not only knows what is best for human flourishing, but also that we do not get to make up our own definition for institutions that God has created such as marriage. If we do so, it will have disastrous consequences as we try to “un-god” God, and “god” ourselves with the powers of creation. Because God created it, marriage was never ours to change.

Next, Jesus explains more about why marriage is deeper and more significant than we often give it credit for, by quoting Genesis again and then adding his own divine thoughts. He explains: “’Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast 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 not man separate” (Matt. 19:5-6). As Jesus explains the significance of marriage here, he gives us huge clues as to why same-sex marriage is not just a bad idea, but is not really marriage. When Jesus talks about marriage in terms of “man” and “wife,” he is not simply speaking to a different culture and time as if in the future, more progressive ideas could erase the way God originally created marriage. He brings the disciples back to creation to show them that the way we understand marriage must go back to when God first created it. Jesus shows us that there is profound significance in a husband and wife becoming “one flesh.” 

There is beauty, function, meaning, and even gospel pointers in marriage between a husband and wife. A man and woman in marriage are different and yet equal, separate and yet joined together as one. This cannot be done between a husband and husband or wife and wife. Not only do they not fit together in the same way physically, but in taking away the God-created differences between man and woman and replacing them with sameness, homosexual marriage also takes away the “one flesh” union that Jesus speaks of here. It is only in the differences of male and female (Matt. 19:4) that there can be the union of marriage (Matt. 19:5-6). Remember, Jesus started answering the disciples’ questions about marriage by asking, “Have you not read?” If Jesus were answering us today as we asked him about same-sex marriage, there is no doubt that he would say something along the lines of, “Have you not read?”, referring to either Genesis or the Gospels, and then, “What therefore God has not joined together, let not man join together.”

But I believe there is at least one more passage Jesus would bring us to with our same-sex marriage questions today. In Ephesians 5, we learn—astoundingly—that God’s design for marriage points to the gospel. As a common grace for both believers and unbelievers, God created marriage from the beginning of time to be something embedded in culture that would point to the love of Jesus for his bride. This is often hard for us to grasp because we don’t mirror this as clearly as we should. But in the union between a man and a wife, there is a pointer to the union of Jesus with his people. The marriage covenant points to the New Covenant. 

Near the end of the longest New Testament passage on marriage Paul explains, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:32) Every marriage between a man and a woman points in some way to Jesus and the gospel, for those who have eyes to see it, even if only in the fact that there is a deep union. The only question is, how clear and well-focused or how tarnished is that picture? But same-sex marriage does not create that picture of the gospel at all. God never intended it to, and it can’t, because it is in our very differences that we find union.

Conclusion

Given the cultural winds, the ideology that leads to the celebration of same-sex marriage and other gender identity issues will continue to gain ground in hearts and minds. But for Christians, while we love those involved in homosexuality as people made in the image of God, we cannot celebrate or endorse same-sex marriage, and we should encourage our legislators to do the same—for the good of families and our wider society.

Because God embedded marriage into culture as a quiet pointer to the covenant love of Jesus for his bride, Christians have more work to do in sharing our faith and discipling our kids and young believers. We have to now build a broader foundation, including the fact that God has clearly defined marriage and that it is not best for our societies or gospel witness when we tamper with it. Yet, in this context, while we have more urgent opportunities to disciple others in how God created marriage, Christian marriages can grow. We can repent of and grow in any ways that we have not pointed to Jesus in our marriages like we should. As confusion grows in what marriage actually is, Christians have an opportunity to shine brighter through living in their marriages as better representatives of Jesus—which starts in our homes and in our churches. While our broader culture becomes less clear about marriage, may we continue to proclaim that the covenant of marriage as God has designed points to the New Covenant of the gospel. And as the basic accepted definition of marriage changes, may we say with our joyful covenant-keeping what is being unsaid all around us.

How Does Knowing Jesus Change How I Think About Sex?


Knowing Jesus really does change everything. Not only does it mean that I know that I have a relationship with God, that my sins are forgiven, and that I will be in Heaven forever after I die–but knowing Jesus changes all of life now.

Knowing Jesus changes how I think about work, finances, friendship, parenting, marriage, and yes–also sex. You might even be able to say, “especially sex.”

For example, knowing Jesus changes how I think about work being for God’s glory, but some of the biblical principles that change how I work are also principles that are often still looked upon highly in society–working hard, for example, or providing for my family.

But the ways that knowing Jesus changes how I think about sex are not something that our culture usually agrees with–or even comes close to understanding. I think as believers, we have to be ok with that to a certain degree. After all, without knowing Jesus we would surely think about sex very differently than we do. Here are three ways that knowing Jesus radically changes how you and I think about sex.

“God knew what he was doing when he created sex and the parameters that would ultimately bring us joy and human flourishing.”

  1. Knowing Jesus shows me that sex is for only within biblical marriage.
    When I was in High School and heard the “locker room talk” from other guys around me, it was obvious that there was a huge difference in the way that the world generally thought about sex, and the way that followers of Jesus are called to think about sex. But I had no idea then the complexities that the current “sexual revolution” was bringing to the way that people would think about sex just two decades later. In my first week of Spanish class, I learned words like “food” and “homework.” In my son’s first week of Spanish class, he learned the word “bisexual” (yes, it is spelled the same in Spanish and English). Yet all societal changes aside, whether in the 90s or 2020s or the 60s or the time of the Roman Empire, knowing Jesus shows me that sex is for only within biblical marriage.

    No matter how much our cultural tides may come and go, God’s design for sex continues to be obeyed only within the committed monogamous covenant relationship of marriage between a man and a woman.

    The Apostle Paul saw this understanding of sex as so basic to knowing Jesus, he wrote an entire paragraph about it to the young church in Thessalonica: “…For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” (1 Thessalonians 4:2-8)

    God knew what he was doing when he created sex and the parameters that would ultimately bring us joy and human flourishing. He knew that sex is powerful like fire, and that it can bring great destruction like when a house burns down, or great warmth and joy like when a fire stays within a fireplace on a snowy night.

    It takes faith to really believe this today. But it doesn’t take a lot of analysis of the consequences of sexual sin to realize that the Creator knew exactly what he was doing when he loved us enough to give us the gift of sex, and loved us enough to give us the parameters for sex.

  2. Knowing Jesus shows me that my sexuality is a power to be used for my spouse’s benefit.
    Everybody knows that sex is powerful. Advertisers leverage this. Abusers take advantage of this. All sorts of people experiment with this. Christians, however, in obedience to God’s commands, use this power to benefit their spouse (1 Corinthians 7:1-5).

    Listen to the attitude that God says we are to have in all situations, including in the bedroom: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to this interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant.” (Philippians 2:3-7a)

    Applying Philippians 2 to your physical intimacy as a couple, would your spouse say:
    a) That you in bed, in humility count your spouse as more significant than yourself?
    b) That you in bed look not only to your own interests, but also to your spouse’s interests?
    c) That you in bed are a servant?

    Knowing Jesus means that Christians are called to a radically different sexual ethic than what the world constantly proclaims. Rather than using sex to take, we are to use sex to give. It is a power that God has entrusted to each husband or wife to use for the benefit of his or her spouse.

    This desire to please and serve the other through the gift of sex is one of a myriad of ways to apply Paul’s instructions to husbands to “love their wives as their own bodies.” (Ephesians 5:28) In other words, a married man and woman are to pursue their “one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31) union so much that they are thinking of ways they may leverage their sexuality to please their spouse.

    This means they will not be afraid to talk about sex with each other in a time, place, and manner that will help each other to become better lovers. One way this can be done is by asking, “What is something I could do for you in bed that would be a blessing to you?” Then listen, don’t assume. You may not often think of talking about sex with your spouse and then learning and growing through that as a way to glorify God, but it is.

    During sex, there is a powerful hormone called oxytocin that is released. Studies have shown that oxytocin is the “bonding chemical.” This is part of God’s good design.

    But as potent and important as this is, there is a spiritual bonding component of sex that goes even deeper. Right after God brought Eve to Adam, the Holy Spirit explains, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) Yes, being one flesh is about more than sex, but it is not less than sex. In the very next verse we read, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25)

    God designed sex partly to bond you together–even chemically and spiritually–with your spouse in a deeper way than any other human relationship.

    You have a stewardship in your sexual relationship with your spouse. You probably don’t often think of standing before God and giving an account for looking out for the interests of your spouse in bed. But God says it matters, and that this kind of attitude and these kinds of actions glorify him (1 Corinthians 7:3).

  3. Knowing Jesus shows me that my sexuality is to be enjoyed as a good gift from a good God.
    I am so glad God created a world in which there is sex.

And I am so glad that God created me to enjoy sex with my wife, with God’s blessing and God’s joy.

Too often, we as Christians are uncomfortable saying things like this. But God is not uncomfortable saying these things. In the section of the Bible that we call wisdom literature, God says this: “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.” (Proverbs 5:18-20)

When God talks about sex within marriage, he doesn’t blush–he blesses.

Here is his blessing over the marriage bed: “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love!” (Song of Solomon 5:1b)

Imagine if you invented something so fantastic that you knew it would greatly encourage and bless the lives of those who used it according to your instructions. But because some people used it wrongly, even those who followed your directions and enjoyed it immensely refused to talk about it.

God invented something that would bond people who are in a covenant together, which also could bring new life into the world, all while giving you pleasure you can hardly imagine exists. We dishonor him when we are afraid to talk about enjoying this invention, or afraid to enjoy it at all. All of the glory for sex belongs to God! So give him glory for the gift of sex, with your spouse.

There is a spiritual aspect of sex that we too often ignore, at our own peril, because it amplifies our enjoyment of God’s good “wedding gift,” a gift that is intended by the Giver to keep on giving. The concept that is often used in the Bible to explain our covenant relationship with Christ is “union.” The only human relationship that was specifically designed to point to this union with Christ is the marriage relationship (Ephesians 5:28-32). And the marriage covenant celebration of sex not only points a husband and wife to their one-flesh union, but for the one who has eyes to see it, it also points to the union we enjoy with Christ. Even the bliss we can experience in sex points ahead to the bliss of the marriage supper of the Lamb.

For some of you reading this, you want to honor God with your sexuality. But you wonder if your past, or the current state of your marriage, disqualifies you from ever enjoying sex as a good gift from a good God. As I once heard Sam Allberry say, “Messes are Jesus’s specialty. You can’t over-mess him.” As Paul the Apostle said, “…but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more…” (Romans 5:20b)

That “pit” your marriage is in right now? Jesus’s power and transforming love will meet you and your spouse right there if you look for him. His arm is not short to save–your soul, or your marriage. He makes all things new. And that includes your sex life.

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