This article is a summary of an academic paper presented to the second Russian-Finnish dialogue on Christian values and ethics at the Iso Kirja Bible College in Keuruu, Finland in September of 2002.
The purpose of this paper is to present Christian marriage as a covenant relationship between God and a married couple. The paper is based on historical, biblical records, a review of modern literature, and thinking among Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians about the nature of marriage.
Societies are built upon the family unit. Atkinson (1979, p. 84) states that families are the building block of a nation. A society could be said to be as strong as the integrity of the family units that compose the society. The unity and values of family units collectively affect, if not transform, societies and local cultures. United families tend to be more economically secure, their children are better disciplined and emotionally stable, they provide a caring environment for children and the elderly, and many conduct themselves in ways that reflect family ideals. Christian families function as teams that direct their combined resources to accomplish a shared vision.
Marriage is considered by Christians as a divine institution that was inaugurated by God. Today, Christian marriage is viewed in three ways first, as a threefold covenant between God, man, and woman; second, as a contract between the couple and the state; and third, as a pledge of faithfulness between the two being married. The actual ceremony of Christian marriage is based on teachings in the Old Testament, but not on Jewish customs, except for Christians who live in cultures similar to those of ancient Israel. Messianic Jews often follow customs associated with ancient Jewish marriages.
The core precept of Christian marriage is the actual union of a man and woman who become united by God through a marriage covenant. In theology, this union is considered holy (set apart as consecrated) and representative of the perfect union between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Two become one physically, spiritually, volitionally, economically, and socially. The process, through time, of becoming is initiated at betrothal, celebrated in ceremony, consummated in sexual union, and matured through the challenges of life.
God established marriage in the beginning of human history when He created man (Adam) and woman (Eve) in the garden. The first marriage was based on promise and was monogamous (Genesis 2:24). God is seen as creating and presenting the woman to man, an act that continues until today. The act of marriage consisted of leaving, cleaving, and becoming one flesh. Marriage incorporates the concepts of independence from parents; commitment to a marriage partner; sexual union; and a growing, interdependent relationship. Human marriages are meant to be like God’s marriage covenant to His people in purpose and permanence (Bacchiocchi, 1991, p. 40).
The Genesis 2:24 commandment was repeated by Jesus in Matthew 19:5 and Mark 10:7-8 and later by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (Eph. 5:31). Other biblical references to the marriage covenant are found in Exodus and Deuteronomy; the marriage of the prophet Hosea; the writings of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah; the teaching of Malachi; Proverbs; and in Romans and First Corinthians. In Malachi 2:14, the text states, “…though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.” In many biblical texts, marriage is used as an analogy to illustrate God’s unique relationship with His people or to characterize people who keep His law as faithful and those who break His law as adulterers (unfaithful). An understanding of covenant marriage is foundational to understanding God’s love and His covenants.
Through the prophet Hosea’s marriage to a prostitute, who was an unfaithful wife, God revealed Himself as a compassionate, forgiving husband. In Jeremiah, God reminds Israel that He was their husband and even though they were unfaithful, He would establish a new covenant with them. God taught Israel through Jeremiah that marriage is a sacred covenant in which both partners must be faithful. Isaiah describes the final restoration of Israel in terms of a loving and forgiving husband who will restore His unfaithful wife. Malachi concludes the Old Testament by stating that God was the witness to the covenant between them and their wives (Malachi 2:13-14). Marriage is a covenant to which God is a witness. A closer study reveals God’s intervention to bless those who are faithful and to judge those who are unfaithful to covenant agreements.
In the New Testament (covenant), Jesus Christ is the sacrificial lamb who takes away the sins of the world. Through His vicarious death, a New Covenant was established, not on law, but on grace (favor based on Christ’s atonement). The marriage covenant is reinforced by the Holy Spirit who was sent by God at Pentecost to confirm the resurrection of Jesus Christ and to indwell believers; the completion of the biblical canon; the establishment of the church to provide encouragement and an environment for growth; and the transforming work of God to mature each marriage partner. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit, the second person of the Trinity, indwells believers and is available to help the married couple. He becomes a part of the marriage team.
According to Martos in Scott and Warren (1993, pp. 31-34), marriage was considered sacred from the times of the Early Church, but the marriage ceremony itself was not practiced by churches until around the eleventh century. During the first centuries, Christian marriages were conducted according to civil laws; however, ministers were often called upon to bless the union (p. 37). Nelson in Matos and Warren (1993, p. 100) relates that traces of marriage rites emerged in the fourth century and detailed ceremonies were recorded in the ninth century. After Christianity began to spread in Western Europe in A.D. 802, the regional council in Verneuil decreed that nobles and commoners should have public weddings (Martos in Scott & Warren, 1993, p. 47). In the eleventh century, it became a practice to hold weddings near a church and later in the church in order to seek God’s blessing for the union. By the twelfth century, most wedding ceremonies were conducted by ministers to consenting partners (p. ). It was at the Council of Trent (A.D. 1545-1563) that a Christian marriage, conducted by clergy in a ceremony, was determined to be necessary to be valid.
Most Evangelical and Pentecostal denominations share a common interpretation of the nature of marriage and require clergy members to conduct marriage ceremonies. In some cultures, marriages may include three separate ceremonies, i.e., civil, to a mayor; custom, to the leaders of a tribe; and ecclesiastical, before a church congregation. The concept of marriage as a covenant is not shared by all Christian denominations, as some still prefer to focus on the legal or agreement aspects of the union. Evangelicals and Pentecostals prefer to think of marriage as a sacred covenant. Some scholars have seen a relationship between the laws of Moses and covenant marriage (see Appendix).
Christian marriage is not just an agreement or contract, it is also a covenant. In secular society, marriages are based on agreements or contracts that may include a no-fault clause for the dissolution of the marriage. Christian marriage should not be entered into without counsel and wisdom. Christians are encouraged to marry Christians and to understand that marriage is a divine institution, honored by God. This concept differs from those who believe marriage is only about meeting personal needs, self-fulfillment, self-development, security, convenience, or child-bearing.
Marriage is used by the prophets like a prism to reflect the grace of God and as a means to reveal the meaning of covenant (Schillenbeecky in Atkinson, 1979, p. 71). One aspect of this covenant is related to the image of God. According to the Genesis account, man and woman were created in God’s image, which among other attributes, includes the capacity to commune with God and with each other. Other aspects of the image include human will, intelligence, language, and conscience. In marriage, the image of God is reflected in the unity and love between the husband and wife, how they raise children according to principles, and how they relate to others in love.
In Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, a statement is made about the union of man and woman that “A threefold cord is not easily broken” (verse 12). Prince shares a discussion with a professional rope maker who said a rope made of three strands is the strongest because all strands touch (1977, pp. 23-26). The addition of more strands does not strengthen a rope because the additional strands cannot touch each other. In times of stress, when one or two strands begin to fray, the third strand will keep the rope from breaking. This analogy is used by Christians to illustrate how God, as the third and preeminent member of the marriage covenant, protects and overseas the marriage.
God is a covenant God and the Bible is a covenant book, and covenant is the philosophy, core value, or heart of a Christian marriage. The concept of sacrifice is at the core of covenant.
The word covenant is believed to be derived from the Hebrew word cutting (Unger, 1988), although the etymology is not conclusive. Lowlery (2002, p. 44) adds that the word means a solemn agreement with biding force. Covenant is also used to denote allied. In the New Testament, covenant is translated disposition, will (estate), or testament. A covenant was often a treaty or agreement between individuals or people groups. Each party was expected to abide by certain predetermined conditions. In Israel, God was called upon to be a witness to covenants.
A covenant ceremony was usually concluded with an oath to each party and it was customary for a gift or testimony to be offered as a witness. Every covenant was confirmed by animal sacrifice (shedding of blood). After the animal was divided into two parts, the parties walked through the halves of the sacrifice. Some call this the walk of death, but the writer prefers the walk of life into a new relationship. The significance of the sacrifice referred to the cost of covenant (testament of death), the seriousness and penalty for breaking the covenant, and an allusion to promise. Some Christians view the concept of sacrifice as representing the two parties who have, through symbolism, died to a former agreement and conditions in order to live a agreement. Prince (1977, p.33) adds that covenants were cut, and not made (Psalms 50:5). After the ceremony, the parties often shared a communal meal.
The concept of sacrifice is at the core of covenant. It was the cost of the new relationship. Covenants in the Old Testament covenant were sealed with the blood of an animal sacrifice, which looked forward to the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ. Animals were sacrificed and the blood stood as a testimony of the seriousness of the covenant. Christian marriage imposes a cost on the husband, wife, and God which is focused on the cutting of a sacrifice, referring to the atonement of Jesus Christ. The concept of a wedding covenant conveys the idea that the two partners will no longer live independent lives, but will be interdependent and one in their relationship.
Role of Women
Women in a covenant marriage are considered equal to men, but unique in their roles as mothers, homemakers, or working professionals. Global cultures impact the roles of women and their status in the home; however, the Bible teaches equality between the sexes before God. The woman is considered the physically weaker sex in some cases, but not lesser. Both the man and woman are loved equally by God and are objects of His love. Examples of great women of God are recorded throughout the Bible, i.e., Eve, Sarah, Deborah, Esther, Ruth, Pricilla, and Mary. God often calls women to accomplish divine purposes, which sometimes includes leading men.
In a covenant marriage each partner pledges their love, faithfulness, and trust to the other. In past history, the wife might pledge her submission to her husband as the legal head of the family. Thankfully times have advanced and women and wives are just as capable of providing for the family as husbands and fathers are. During the era of the Apostle Paul’s culture, women were asked to follow certain cultural traditions in order to honor the Gospel and to remain effective in their Christian testimony to non-Christians. Craig Keener (1992) has written an exegetical Work on Paul, Women & Wives Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul that has become a resource for many ministers and their wives.
Values are considered the basic assumptions, beliefs, or attitudes on which principles are built; Christian families tend to be led by principles. Biblical values are those taught or modeled in the Bible. Although a number of values can be identified, generally a few CORE values, which are higher in priority, are easier to identify.
The biblical values that underlie a covenant marriage begin with faith in God and a pledge of love and faithfulness to the other partner. A covenant is more than a commitment, because a commitment leaves the instigator in control where a covenant implies complete surrender (Lowery, 2002, p. 118) (see Song of Solomon 2:16). Important values to Christian marriages include trust, prayer, the authority of the Bible, maturity, discipline, honesty, humility, kindness, selflessness, generosity, openness, partnership, peace, family, hospitality, interdependence, and truth. Involvement and the role of the local church is often regarded as a core value to Christian couples.
A covenant is an agreement between two parties based on promise (Atkinson, 1979, p. 70). Lowery (2002, p. 43) states that covenant was in the heart of God from the day He created mankind…it carries with it the guarantee of all the benefits and blessings of that relationship. Covenants governed relationships in biblical times. Many Christian scholars believe that marriage should be understood through the concept of covenant.
The future of the institution of marriage will shape the future of society. Covenant marriages, which are based on a solemn pledge to each partner and to God, promise to strengthen marriages by making each partner accountable to God and by inviting God to be a partner in the marriage. Marriage is not just a private matter, it is also a social event that elicits a commitment from the community.
The beauty of the marriage covenant is also found in biblical imagery and prophecy. The image of God in Trinity is revealed through the loving, submissive, interdependent relationship of the marriage covenant. Another great image of covenant marriage is portrayed by the Apostle John in the Marriage of the Lamb to His Church (Rev. 19:7-16). The Lamb is identified as Jesus Christ and the bride is portrayed as those who have turned from their sin and believed on Jesus Christ. Covenant marriage, which was initiated, sanctioned, and protected by God, was the first social institution intended to model human relationships.