What is Marriage?

What is Marriage?
May 4, 2018

By Preston Sprinkle

When Christians dialogue or debate the ethics of same-sex relationships, they typically start by talking about the so-called “prohibition passages” like Leviticus 18:22 or Romans 1:26-27. The discussion usually focuses on whether these passages apply to modern day, consensual, adult marriages. Or some people argue that the biblical writers didn’t know about sexual orientation—that some people are born gay, but the biblical writers didn’t know this and that’s why they prohibited same-sex sexual relations. If the biblical writers knew about orientation, they’d have no problem with two adults of the same sex getting married.


These are important discussions to have and all the evidence needs to be weighed and considered. But I suggest that questions surrounding the prohibition passages or sexual orientation shouldn’t be the first or main questions asked. Instead of asking, did Paul prohibit same-sex marriage? we need to ask the ultimate question: What is marriage?


Is marriage the union between two consensual adults—who fall in love and are committed to each other? Or, is marriage the union between two sexually different persons?


I would suggest that the Bible says the latter. Marriage is the union between two sexually different persons. It’s not as if marriage is between two people, and oh, by the way, we Christians have always believed that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Even that doesn’t capture the historically Christian view. It’s not as if sex difference (male/female) is an arbitrary add-on to a Christian view of marriage. Rather, sex difference is an essential part of what marriage is. Marriage by definition is the union between two sexually different persons and not simply the union between two humans regardless of sex difference.


We see this in Genesis 2—the primary and foundational passage on the basic ingredients of marriage. After surveying all the animals and not finding a suitable partner, God creates Eve from Adam’s side (sometimes translated “rib”), which elicits a passionate response:

"This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh! She shall be called “woman,” for she was taken out of man." (Gen 2:23)

 The main things being highlight here are sex difference and equality. Eve is equal to Adam since she is human, but different from Adam since she is ___________ .

 However you fill in that blank is essential for your view of marriage. I’d say the difference between Adam and Eve, the main difference being highlighted by the text, is sex difference. Eve is female.


 The very next verse says:

For this reason, man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. (Gen 2:24)


This verse (Gen 2:24) is like “the John 3:16” of marriage verses. It’s often quoted in the New Testament and in Judaism when writers are looking for a quick statement about marriage (see e.g. Matt 19:5; 1 Cor 6:16; Eph 5:31). Notice—and this is super important—the connecting phrase “for this reason” links sex difference and equality to the Bible’s primary and foundational statement about marriage in Genesis 2:24. 


For this reason. What reason? Sex difference. Marriage (2:24) is precisely the union between two sexually different persons.


Jesus too highlights sex difference when talking about marriage. In Matthew 19, he tells the Pharisees:

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ (Gen 1:27) and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Gen 2:24). (Matt 19:4-6)


Jesus keeps the connecting phrase “for this reason” in his quote of Genesis 2:24. But instead of linking it to Genesis 2:23, he connects the marriage passage back to Genesis 1:27: The Creator “made them male and female”—an even more explicit statement about sex difference. 


For this reason. What reason? Sex difference. Marriage, according to Jesus (Matt 19:4-6), is precisely the coming together of two sexually difference persons.


Dialogues and debates about same-sex relations and marriage are important conversations to have. I would recommend, though, beginning with the definition of marriage and not running to the prohibition passages. The question isn’t can do people of the same sex get married? The question is what is marriage?


There’s no point debating Leviticus 18 or Romans 1 when people have two very different definitions of marriage. The first three questions I always ask people who disagree with the traditional Christian sexual ethic is: (1) how do you define marriage? (2) Where did you get that definition from? And (3) how does Scripture inform your definition of marriage?


If you follow this approach, it’s never good to be argumentative or make it sound like you’re cornering someone into a logical cul-de-sac. Always honor people you’re talking to and truly listen to what they’re saying. But these three questions are super basic and foundational. They should be the first things people discuss before moving on to other important questions about faith, sexuality, and gender.