Marriage: Mystery and Meaning

Marriage in the 21st century comes in all shapes, sizes, colors and flavors. But it wasn’t always so. Just as our societies are undergoing a general transformation, so people’s ideas about marriage are being reshaped, leaving them wondering what type of union will survive.

Many have come to the view that fundamental aspects of our society are deficient and need improvement. Marriage, long considered a building block of society, has understandably been caught up in this desire for change. But in the quest to reshape and improve marriage, are people becoming more enlightened or are they reinventing a very old wheel?

Before we overturn long-established ideas about marriage, we need to understand the transformations that have already taken place. From a historical perspective, many of our defining beliefs concerning this ancient institution are rooted in traditional Christianity. Unfortunately, the institutionalized churches have largely forgotten their own roots, often placing tradition and philosophy above the authority of the Scriptures they call holy. The institution of marriage has suffered substantially from this approach.

The Gnostic Connection

To discover where Christian churches obtained their approach to marriage, it’s helpful to understand something about a spiritual movement that existed side by side with the early church and over time became mingled with it. Gnosticism (from gnosis, Greek for “knowledge”) may roughly be defined as a syncretistic religion bearing the strong imprint of Christian influences. It is this syncretism, this grafting of Christian themes into an essentially pagan philosophy, that produced the basis for the concept of marriage as it evolved through the centuries.

Deeply embedded in gnosticism was Oriental dualism, which found various expressions under later Greek influence. This dualism identified the material world as the seat of evil; it therefore also taught that the physical existence of humankind was essentially evil.

Connected to this dualistic philosophy was an attitude of deliberate indifference toward the material world. Marriage and sexual propagation were thus considered either as absolute evil or as altogether worthless, and sexual pleasure was frequently looked upon as forbidden.

This view of marriage and sexual propagation, which had its roots in mystic religions that existed long before Christ walked the earth, became a tenet of Christianity as it developed under the increasing influence of Rome. This despite the efforts of some early church fathers to counter the encroachment of gnostic thought on their religion. Still, through its syncretistic tendencies, gnosticism crept into Christianity and introduced a whole host of sacramental, mystic ideas. This is considered by some historians to have been one of the most powerful factors in the early development of Christianity.

Thus the church, as early as the first and second centuries, embraced a largely pagan view of marriage and sex. Institutionalized religion, following its first generation, absorbed some of the pagan dualism of Greece and pasted the label “sinful” on sex. Through the following centuries, that label stuck as moral standards throughout Europe were driven by the ever more dominant Roman Catholic Church.

The view that marriage and sex were somehow evil and base—that sex must be used only to procreate—placed marriage in an impossible situation. It was robbed of a significant source of the joy and happiness that the union was intended to produce. Yet this was the kind of marriage that many of our forebears accepted as normal.

This repressive “normalcy” promoted by Christianity did not actually begin with the gnostics, however. We find that the real source of this attitude is identified in the pages of the Bible and precedes gnosticism by several millennia.

Back to the Beginning

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” says Genesis 1:1. God created the physical environment, with land, atmosphere, seas, plants and animals, as a habitat for the pinnacle of His creation—humankind. He said, “Let Us make man in Our image,” and thus He created humans in His own image. This He did not say about any other aspect of the creation.

God is also shown to be the author of marriage and sex, a point made quite clear in the early chapters of the first book in the Bible. After God had created the man and the woman and had told them to procreate, He announced that “everything He had made . . . was very good.” In the second chapter of Genesis, which fills in more detail of the creation week, we are told that God created the woman from the man and that a man was to leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife as one flesh. Thus God created marriage between a man and a woman, and He designed sex to be a part of the marriage relationship.

There was absolutely no shame or guilt attached to the relationship between Adam and Eve. So where did a shameful view of sex come from?

The second chapter of Genesis concludes by telling us that these two humans were naked but not ashamed. How different is this approach from what came out of the first and second centuries after Christ under the heading of Christianity? There was absolutely no shame or guilt attached to the relationship between Adam and Eve. So where did a shameful view of sex come from?

In the third chapter of Genesis we are introduced to a serpent, which symbolizes the enemy of God’s way of life, Satan. The account relates how this adversary induced Adam and Eve to reject God’s way as symbolized by the tree of life and instead decide for themselves what was right and what was wrong—an approach that has percolated down to our time today.

As a result of choosing this way, the beautiful relationship Adam and Eve had, as pictured by their unashamed nakedness, was shattered. In Genesis 3:7 we see that because of sin their eyes “were opened”; they knew they were naked and thus hid themselves from God. They became ashamed of their nakedness and had guilt suddenly embedded in their minds.

Here, then, is the origin of ideas that the physical human existence is essentially evil and that marriage and sexual propagation should be considered in a negative light. The first humans disobeyed their Creator, and their attitude toward an ideal relationship—one built on trust, openness and a close bond with the One who had created it all—was subverted.

The Pendulum Swings

Today’s unhappy state of the marriage union reflects both the earlier repressive attitudes toward marriage and sex and the revolution that rocked those attitudes in the seemingly enlightened 20th century. Repression, in this case led by the church, was bound to bring about a reaction sooner or later. History bears out that repression inevitably does engender a reaction, often toward an opposite extreme. It’s just a matter of time.

Repression, in this case led by the church, was bound to bring about a reaction sooner or later. 

Enter Sigmund Freud and others, who appeared on the stage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries declaring that sexual repression and the attitude of shame toward sex were the cause of neuroses and mental disorders. Psychoanalysis pried open the box of sexual repression. Accelerating the pace at which these bold new ideas took hold were two world wars that brought men and women new freedoms and independence and encouraged acceptance of a liberalized sexuality. By the 1960s the world began in earnest to throw off the repressive authority of the church in matters of marriage and sex.

Elaine Storkey, who teaches theology and sociology at the University of London, made some interesting observations in her 2000 book, Created or Constructed? The Great Gender Debate. Regarding societal changes of attitude toward male-female relationships, she wrote that World War II “had unsettled relationships, patterns of hierarchy and values, and the 1950s ultimately failed to win the new generation over to the perspectives of the old. Things were changing at the very heart of these societies. One key change was the whole area of how men and women were to relate to each other. . . . Issues of sex and gender began to surface . . . and a challenge began to be mounted which many in society did not understand. . . . Who was to say which of the historical lessons needed to be called upon in the years following the 1950s?”

Indeed, which historical lesson can we look back to in order to clear the confusion regarding what marriage and sex are all about?

The ultimate historical source for this information is the Bible, which explains why marriage and sex were created.

All in the Family

If God is the author of marriage, then what did He intend as its purpose?

The concept of the family is central to understanding that original purpose. A major clue can be found in the creation account of Genesis 1. In verse 1 we are introduced to God as the creator of the heavens and the earth. This reference to God in the first verse of the Bible is interesting. The Hebrew word is Elohim, and it is plural. Thus the word Elohim implies a plurality—more than one being. This is consistent with the use of the words Us and Our in verse 26.

This concept is further developed in the New Testament in the Gospel account of the apostle John. In the first chapter, John gives these beings identity: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1–2, 14). John then refers to these two beings, the ones who spoke in Genesis 1, as the Father and the Son (Christ)—a very clear family structure.

We also find a number of references to another familial relationship, that of bride or wife. Revelation 21:9, for instance, talks about “the bride, the Lamb’s [i.e., Christ’s] wife.”

The Scriptures talk of God the Father and Jesus Christ in terms of family relationships.

We see, then, that the Scriptures talk of God the Father and Jesus Christ in terms of family relationships. And to complete this godly family, we are told, there will be many additional sons and daughters, among whom Christ is the firstborn (Romans 8:29). The apostle Paul stated in the book of Romans that those led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God, “and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14–17). Again, Paul wrote to the church in Galatia that “because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba [i.e., “Father” in Aramaic], Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ” (Galatians 4:6–7).

To assist us in understanding these spiritual family relationships, God designed the institution of marriage. The apostle Paul wrote of the human marriage relationship, recapping the Genesis instructions given to Adam and Eve and concluding that “for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31–32). Notice that the reason given for physical marriage is the understanding it imparts concerning a spiritual marriage between Christ and the body of believers who comprise the Church. Marriage is a constant reminder of our sacred relationship to Jesus Christ.

With this understanding as a foundation, it becomes clear that the relationships between husband, wife and family are meant to give us insight into the relationships between God the Father and Jesus Christ and between humankind and God. Individually, humans are intended to become the children of God, heirs in God’s family. God ordained the institution of marriage to help teach us about this awesome potential. In other words, the family structure that is based on the human marriage relationship helps us, through physical analogy, to better comprehend God and His plan for us to become a part of His family.

Marriage and sex were designed by God to facilitate an understanding and an appreciation of the sacred, spiritual relationship between the spiritual Creator and the physical humans made in His image. How sad it is that people have been robbed of such an abundant source of fulfillment and happiness.