We live in a society where the understanding of marriage has become all but lost amid various personal interpretations. There is therefore a need to have a deeper discussion in the family, so to speak—the Christian family. In the midst of widespread confusion regarding the definition of marriage, it’s easy to lose sight of what we believe. We have been blessed with the truths revealed to us in God’s Word. The Scriptures generally, and Jesus in particular, teach us truths about marriage that go beyond what we could ever figure out by human reason alone.
Marriage: A Dominant Scriptural Theme
The first thing we need to understand is that marriage is not a “side teaching” of the Bible; marriage is a central theme of God’s Word, arguably the central theme. Marriage marks the beginning, middle, and end of the Bible. In the beginning, the account of creation climaxes with the creation of Eve, the Bride, in Genesis 2:18-22, followed by Adam’s “wedding vows” in Gen 2:23, forming the first marriage ever and establishing the pattern of marriage for the rest of human history (Gen 2:24).
At the end of the Bible, all of human history comes to an end with the announcement of the “wedding feast of the Lamb” (Rev 19:7), followed by the revelation of the “Bride of the Lamb” who comes out of heaven from God (Rev 21:2). This “Bride of the Lamb” is the Church triumphant, pictured as the new and heavenly Jerusalem. Some of Scripture’s final words are an invitation from the “Spirit and the Bride” to “come” to the wedding feast (Rev 22:17).
In the middle of the Bible we find the Song of Songs, the longest love poem in the Bible. Through images and metaphors, this book describes the relationship between the Messiah and the people of God as a courtship and marriage based on love which is “stronger than death” (Song 8:6).
So the Bible begins and ends with marriage, and stresses it in the middle. We should add that the prophets describe God’s relationship to Israel as a marriage (Isa 56, 60; Hos 2; Jer 1-3; Ezek 16, 23) and Jesus tells parables portraying himself as a Bridegroom come to wed his Bride (Matt 22:1-14; 25:1-13).
Marriage is not incidental in the Bible. It’s central.
If you don’t “get” marriage, you don’t “get” the message of the Bible. Why is that? Because marriage is a covenant. A “covenant” is the extension of kinship by oath. In other words, it’s a way of swearing someone into your family.
It’s All Part of a Great Story
Now, the Bible is all about covenants. It’s divided into two of them: the “Old” and the “New”, because “Testament” is just the Latin word for “covenant.” The fourth Eucharistic prayer sums up the whole Old Testament in one phrase: “Time and again you offered them covenants, and through the prophets taught them to hope for salvation.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, the story of the Bible is the story of God offering covenants to mankind, because God is always inviting us to become his family (CCC 1). Jesus came to make the New Covenant, where we become God’s family by ingesting his flesh and blood, so becoming the very “flesh and blood” of God, members of his family.
Marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman. It symbolizes the covenant between God and his people. Marriage is celebrated by two persons becoming one flesh in the marriage bed. The New Covenant is celebrated by God’s people becoming “one flesh” with Christ in the Eucharist. There is a very close connection between marriage and the Eucharist.
Marriage has to be lifelong, and to one person, because it is a holy icon of the relationship between God and his people (Tweet this). God does not reject his people, divorce them and leave them and take up with another. God is always faithful to his people. And God is not married to several bodies. He is wedded to one Body, which is the Church (Eph 5). That’s why we don’t divorce and remarry, nor marry more than one person (see Matt 19:6; Mark 10:9). Doing either of these things destroys marriage as an icon of God’s faithfulness to his people.
(It’s important here to note that an annulment is not a Catholic version of divorce. An annulment is a declaration that a marriage did not actually take place. It does not dissolve a valid marriage.)
Marriage is tied up with what it means that human beings are “made in the image of God.” Genesis 1:27 describes it this way: “So God created the man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Notice that “the man” (in Hebrew, literally, “the adam”) is both singular and plural: God created him; but as both male and female he created them. How can the one be two and the two one? The answer comes at the end of the next chapter: “a man … cleaves to his wife and the two become one flesh.”
Notice that being created male and female is united to being created “in the image of God.” God is most fully “imaged” by the one-flesh union of man and wife. Both maleness and femaleness have their role in imaging God. Husband and wife image God (or are an “icon” of God) by representing his permanent, exclusive covenant relationship with his people. They also image God because husband and wife are two persons whose fruitful love becomes a third person, a child. This is an icon of the Trinity, in which the love between two persons becomes the third person.
What We Believe About God Impacts What We Believe About Marriage
Because marriage is a sacred icon on the image of God, people’s idea of God and their idea of marriage are always tied. If you get one wrong, the other will also be wrong. One’s theology determines one’s matrimony. Atheists, for example, don’t believe that God has any relationship to his people, because to them he doesn’t exist. Therefore, atheists tend to have no theory of marriage at all, and a number of influential atheist thinkers (like Marx and Engels) have wanted to abolish marriage and the family, or at least minimize them as much as possible. Muslims, on the other hand, understand God’s relationship between himself and his people as that of master and servant. For example, the word “Islam” means “submission.” This becomes reflected in the law and practice of marriage, which in Islamic societies is very imbalanced in favor of the authority of the husband. And so it goes with other religions and philosophies, as well: one’s view of marriage flows from one’s view of God.
God planned for marriage to be a life-giving relationship. This doesn’t just mean that it ought to lead to the husband and wife having children and starting a family together. It also means inviting Life himself into their marriage. With this understanding, the couple sees the need to pray together, to seek God’s will in their lives at every turn, and to find ways in which they can draw closer to each other while also drawing closer to God—thereby entering into the mystical union of the Trinity and becoming an icon of God’s love for humanity.
This article was originally published on The Great Adventure blog in September 2015.
Beautiful! Thank you.
“Marriage has to be lifelong, and to one person, because it is a holy icon of the relationship between God and his people ”
Please explain to me how this is true when Jacob was married to both Rachel and Lia (Gen 29), Moses was married to Sephora (Ex 2:21) and the “Ethiopian” woman (Num 12:1), and don’t even get me started on the practice of concubines – which is riddled all around the Old Testament.
Thanks for your great question. Here is a response from Dr. Bergsma:
“Sure! And all those multiple marriages were a mistake! The narrative of the Old Testament shows that invariably, the taking of multiple wives leads to conflict and trouble in home life and society. Jacob was duped into marrying multiple women, against his will, and it caused conflict among his wives and among his sons, almost destroying the family. The multiple wives of Abraham, David, and Solomon all caused disaster in their personal lives as well, with grave results for their descendants.”
I think his point was that God still had a personal ongoing relationship with Abraham, Jacob and David despite their imperfect living arrangements. The deeper issue here is that the Church ostracizes “invalidly married” couples. And yet God did not ostracize the patriarchs and their wives. There is a theology of marriage that we must uphold, but we must also deal with fallen people in a pastoral and practical manner. I don’t know what the solution is — perhaps there isn’t any. But as church weddings continue to decline every year, we’ve got to do more than talk of biblical imagery and symbols.
This view of marriage is beautiful and certainly something for which to strive. In order for this to become the norm in our society, we would need to include this in our catechism classes, and more importantly, children would need to see this lived out by their parents. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as some may see it) we do divorce and remarry. Sometimes it is necessary to divorce. My sister was married to a man who verbally and physically abused her. There is no valid argument for anyone to stay in that kind of marriage.
This was a great article but it saddens me. My husband committed adultery over and over and verbally abused me. I stayed for 33 years and just asked for a divorce. He didn’t want to be with me anymore . So can I never remarry? Should I have tried to get him to stay when he was with his girlfriend?
I encourage you to speak with your pastor about your situation, and I will pray that you find the clarity you seek.
Ok thank you for the prayers