What Is The Meaning of Marriage?

For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. Ephesians 5:31


“Marriage is a relationship in which a woman never gets what she expects and a man never expects what he gets,” so said a pundit. Another cynic tells of a conversation a dad had with his school-age boy, who asked, “Dad, I hear that in some parts of Africa a man doesn’t know his wife until he marries her.  Is that right?” and the dad replies, “That happens in most countries, son.”

Yes, we may enjoy some good-natured humor about marriage as we laugh at ourselves, but what has happened to marriage as cultures all around the world have changed is no laughing matter.  Traditional societies honored and cultivated the family; family was a primary value and marriage and children were important elements of building family strength and honor.  As the world has become globally interconnected, the individualistic “my needs first” values of Western societies have spread.  Individual happiness comes first and foremost, making romantic fulfillment the purpose of most marriages.

Tim Keller, in The Meaning of Marriage, points out that we’ve always had consumer relationships—a relationship that only lasts as long as a vendor meets your needs at a price you are willing to pay.  But “Sociologists argue that in contemporary Western society, the marketplace has become so dominant that the consumer model increasingly characterizes most relationships that historically were covenantal, including marriage.”[1]  When the relationship doesn’t meet your needs any more, move on.

Declaring your love by saying “I do,” was never to mean, “I love you today, right now,” but “I will choose to love you, now and until I die.  I promise to choose love.”  The covenantal nature of marriage has been largely lost.  No, marriage, the way we envision it and live it out, isn’t “what it used to be.”  “One of the problems in trying to shore up the institution of marriage,” says John Leo, “is that so many of the professionals who teach and write about it—counselors, therapists, academics, and popular authors—really don’t support marriage at all.  Some depict it as archaic and inherently oppressive.  Others give it tepid support as just one of many acceptable adult arrangements.”[2]

Why did God prescribe the marriage relationship, the marriage covenant?  Keller gets it right when he says, “Designed to be a reflection of the saving love of God for us in Jesus Christ…It is a way for two spiritual friends to help each other on their journey to become the persons God designed them to be.  Marriage is a major vehicle for the gospel’s remaking of your heart from the inside out and your life from the ground up.”      When God decreed, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24), it was not because he wanted to inhibit his creativity or pleasure but to allow for the ultimate personal growth and development.

God knows his creation and that’s why He made a way for us to make marriage work.   “The gospel can fill our hearts with God’s love so that you can handle it when your spouse fails to love you as he or she should…Through the gospel, we get both the power and the pattern for the journey of marriage.”

What’s wrong with marriage is not marriage itself but a misunderstanding of its purpose and our attempts to do it without the power of the Holy Spirit.  When everything fails, we go back to the blueprint.  And that’s what we need to do today.

Resource reading: Ephesians 5

[1] Leo, John, “Marriage bashing a la mode,” U.S. News & World Report, September 22, 1997, ps. 14.  Print.

[2] Keller, Timothy, and Kathy Keller. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York: Dutton, 2011. Print.