What Constitutes Biblical Marriage?

I took part in a lively discussion (PDF) at the Dalrock blog discussing what signifies the start of a biblical marriage. The traditional Christian viewpoint is that it begins with a marriage ceremony. Historically this was marriage by a member of the clergy, although civil marriage is given equal weight by most. Only a small minority took the sex=marriage viewpoint.

The discussion was precipitated by the non-traditional views of Artisanal Toad, a polygamist that I have debated with in the past. He holds a variety of unusual viewpoints. Among them are the view that marriage begins with the first sexual act. There are some eligibility requirements that have to be met, but he rejects the notion that a marriage ceremony has any significance at all.

Much difficultly comes with meaning of the word ‘marriage.’ When the word[1] is used in the Bible, it is used in three different ways: Marriage beginning with the sexual act in the absence of a ceremony, marriage beginning with a ceremony or agreement absent the sexual act, and marriage beginning with both.

This creates difficulty for both the ceremony=marriage and the sex=marriage views. Each of these viewpoints attempts to minimize the evidence in favor of the other viewpoint, trying to rationalize it away. I was dissatisfied with either approach because it was unable to cleanly harmonize the complete biblical teachings on the subject.

The fundamentals of marriage are described right away in Genesis 2:18-25.

The reason given there for marriage is that man and woman were meant, by design, to be together.[2] This mirrors the relationship between God and man. We were meant, created in fact, to be in a relationship with God. This makes marriage sacred.[3]

At least as important is a husband and wife becoming one flesh. What does this mean? Below we’ll examine Jesus’ teaching, but first let’s look at the various meanings attributed to this terminology.

First, becoming one flesh is metaphorical. They become completely united in purpose and should no longer be thought of strictly as individuals. A husband should see the wife as an extension of himself, and she should do the same of him. Neither should ever think solely of themselves. To marry is to give up sole control of one’s self.

Second, there is a spiritual joining that transcends the physical. The pair are joined together with a spiritual bond and become inseparable. This, again, mirrors the relationship with God, a bond that is intended to be permanent.[4]

Third, it refers to the creation of children. Literally by joining their flesh together, they gain the power of creation, the very power that is described in Genesis 2. Genesis never says that creation ended, only that God rested on the seventh day. This is our sacred inheritance: to take the baton, as it were, of creation and continue it in the form of procreation.[5]

Fourth, it refers to the joining of blood, that is, family. When the pair are married, their families become one family. This is why a man could not marry his deceased wife’s sister: it was considered incest, even though they did not literally share the same genetics.

Fifth, and this is the hotly debated point, becoming one flesh refers to having sex for the first time. Here I take the non-traditional, minority viewpoint and note that because no ceremony is mentioned here, this refers to having sex as the beginning of the first marriage. The contextual and linguistic evidence strongly supports this conclusion.[6]

Sixth, whether the joining into one flesh is physical, metaphorical, or spiritual, the word for the pair being united is more like glue. They are stuck together (pun intended). The implication is permanence.

Now we must look at the words of Jesus in Mark 10:1-12. The Pharisees asked Jesus a technical question on the Law regarding divorce. Jesus replied by quoting Genesis. He stated that God created humans specifically as man and woman, that they are intended to become one flesh, and that this bond is permanent and cannot be set aside by man. He then declares that this is why divorce and remarriage constitutes adultery.

Jesus understood divorce to be the opposite of the one-flesh joining, that is, sex. The logic is simple. The divorce, a human institution that cancels marriage, cannot set aside the one-flesh bond that God has set. Divorce or not, marriage or not, sex with the other woman is adultery. The one-flesh bond is permanent and unbreakable except through death.

The key to the original riddle is to understand marriage as a social construct and marriage as God views it: a one-flesh joining. These two concepts are so intertwined in the Bible, that it’s almost impossible to separate them. And they really shouldn’t be.[7] Sex is a one-flesh joining, even in the absence of the social construct called marriage. This is seen most clearly in 1 Cor. 6:16-17 where sex with a prostitute constitutes a one-flesh joining. Yet sex and marriage belong together. It is always an aberration when they are separate.[8] Sex is what makes a ‘marriage’ indissoluble.

Regardless of whether or not there is  a marriage, sex creates a one-flesh joining. This may be licit or illicit. The only time it is licit is in the context of a new or existing marriage. Thus, all sex outside the bounds of marriage is unconditionally wrong.[9] To put it more technically, sex always creates an implied obligation or expectation of a marriage. Adultery violates the core tenants of marriage because the one-flesh joining creates an implied promise (of a complete and permanent union) that cannot be fulfilled.

Marriage is more than just sex or a ceremony. Trying to reduce it to just one of these things misses the depth and importance of marriage. It is just another way of minimizing the importance of marriage in the eyes of God. We must not do this. Marriage and sex are fundamental to creation. They are God’s final work of creation in Genesis. We would do well to treat them with the utmost respect that they deserve.

[1] Or related terms. For example, ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, which obviously imply marriage, are used in similarly ambiguous fashion.

[2] Genesis 2:23 is poetry. It describes the splitting of a man to create a woman. In v24 it describes the rejoining that occurs in sex. It is a point, counter-point.

[3] No-fault divorce stands in stark contrast to the sacredness of marriage.

[4] See 1 Cor. 6:16-17.

[5] This is one of the primary reasons abortion is wrong. Aborting a baby is the antithesis of Creation. It violates the fundamental order of creation. It is one reason why the Roman Catholic Church stands so strongly against birth control, especially chemical birth controls that prevent implantation or end a pregnancy after conception.

[6] See What is the Torah?.

[7] The sex=marriage and ceremony=marriage viewpoints both miss the point. Both are correct and wrong at the same time.

[8] This of course includes sexless marriages. David and Abishag did not consummate their marriage and it created a serious political problem because they were not one-flesh joined.

[9] Sex that creates a marriage, such as that between two unmarried virgins, is licit, so long as it results in a marriage in actual fact. Premarital sex can only be resolved by becoming officially married or remaining unmarried for the rest of their lives.


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    1. Derek Ramsey

      I don’t understand your question. A wedding ceremony is where two people say vows and are declared husband and wife, followed by an after-wedding party, followed by sexual consummation. The most important part (from God’s perspective) is the consummation. The former are just formalities and social conventions insofar as the vow of marriage is implied by sexual consummation.

  2. Komizar

    I saw this comment on a forum:

    “Jacob and Rachel were betrothed, which in Hebrew culture meant they were husband and wife by covenant (v. 21), but they did not have sex. According to Hebrew custom, Jacob paid a dowry to Laban, the father, for Rachel (v. 18). Then they held a wedding feast for Jacob and Rachel with many people there, presumably also within Hebrew customs (v. 22). According to our standards today, Jacob and Rachel were at this point more than married enough to be considered united and separated from Laban. They were married under a covenant, and they had a wedding. Yet when Jacob has sex with Leah, we see that he has to pay another 7 year dowry for Rachel, again! Apparently those dowries went to whoever you ended up having sex with, not the person you made a covenant with. The covenant meant basically nothing in terms of the right to “own” Rachel, it would seem.

    From the other angle, let us consider Leah’s marriage to Jacob. Leah and Jacob were not betrothed, or Jacob would not have been angry upon having sex with her (v. 25). The wedding was not for Jacob and Leah, or Jacob would have known about the deception. Yet when Leah and Jacob have sex, apparently the dowry transfers to her, and Jacob apparently has to agree to keep her as his wife in order to obtain Rachel. Sounds an awful lot like sex made them married, despite the lack of covenant.

    Now let’s look at the story from Laban’s perspective. Laban knew all along that he was going to deceive Jacob into having sex with Leah. But here’s the thing: what purpose would deception serve if sex has no inherent commitment? Laban would essentially just lower Leah’s virgin status needlessly, as the sex would constitute just premarital sex, and he would have angered his potential son-in-law needlessly, and in this day, such a thing was potentially mortal in danger.

    No, the only way Laban’s plan of deceit makes sense is if he has the capability of “tricking” Jacob into marrying Leah, which points directly to the idea that sex is marriage. Conversely, the only thing lacking in Jacob and Rachel’s marriage was sex, and without that, Jacob could not have left Laban’s household without her.”

    1. Derek L. Ramsey

      IMO, this is correct.

      Because Jacob didn’t know he was marrying Leah, he could not have consented to marrying her, yet the marriage was still valid. Having sex with her outweighed any contractual terms or consent (or lack thereof).

      Now, I can see how one could argue that he agreed to marry her in the wedding ceremony and it’s his fault for somehow not verifying. Proponents of this view have to accept that the Bible promotes “blaming the victim”, which is a difficult position to take. It’s not like he was socially permitted to see her before they were married. The whole point of a legal process of betrothal is to make sure everything gets done by the book.

    1. Derek Ramsey

      The difference is largely social and cultural. However, the broader answer is found in Exodus 22:16-17:

      “If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins.”

      The Law gives the father the right to forbid the union, so why does the man have to pay the bride-price unconditionally? In “Man and Woman in Biblical Law”, Tom Shipley writes that it “…does not mean he must marry her, but to bestow a dowry because of the marriage that has already taken place via sexual relations.” [part 1 – p46] Furthermore, he writes “That a marriage took place during the seduction is the very premise of this law.” [part 2 – p.67]

      But there is another reason why the man must pay the bride price: to make her a bride. If he did not pay, she would be his concubine (i.e. servant-wife). They would still be ‘married’ as a consequence of having sex (as per the above), but she wouldn’t be his wife. Shipley notes “The point is that a man who seduces a woman into marriage without her father’s consent is forbidden to make a concubine out of her.” [part 2 – p.67] Under Law, a man can’t sneakily have ‘premarital sex’ in order to bypass the normal requirement to marry (i.e. pay the dowry). This is the Hebrew equivalent of a shotgun wedding.

      Exodus 22:16 is distinguishing between a free wife and a concubine/servant wife, not between married and unmarried.

      Also of note is that if the father forbids the union, he is instituting a divorce. Since all divorce is forbidden of Christians, this patriarchal rule no longer applies to us. Thus, when two people have sex, they are permanently married.

      Further proof is in Exodus 21:7-10 where a concubine (someone sold for marriage; possesses no rights of inheritance for her children) is explicitly called a wife.

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  6. lastholdout

    God recognizes our joining as one happens through the act of sex. In 1 Corinthians 6:16 Paul uses the example of the **unmarried** to make the point that sexual intercourse is how we become one: “What? Do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For ‘the two,’ He says, ‘shall become one flesh.’” Paul’s use of the unmarried as an illustration is no accident. There is nothing else in the marriage relationship that makes a man and woman “become one” but their sexual activity. Not the vows on their wedding day, nor sharing the same home. Nothing else makes them one.

    Many people have a hard time connecting the physical to the spiritual; however, that is exactly what Paul is telling us. Anyone who struggles accepting the connection between the physical and spiritual is influenced by the secular culture or misguided teachings of other Christians. Or they may be unable to overcome a past sexual trauma or are living under the guilt of their premarital promiscuity.

    Although sexual intercourse creates a union of a man and woman, married or not, no matter how much society proclaims we are to be inclusive, the sexual relationship is to be exclusive. It is unique to husband and wife, meant strictly for marriage. It is God’s command; one we cannot disrespect without consequence.

    In the next chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses the day’s false teachings and beliefs with an explanation of the biblical marriage dynamic, saying the husband should render “due affection” (v. 3) to his wife and vice versa, since each is compelled by the marriage covenant to give of their body to the other as an expression of oneness and love –a communion. He concludes the passage: “Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer. Then come together again, so that Satan does not tempt you for lack of self-control” (v. 5).

    There is a presumption that underlies Paul’s instruction in this verse. It is the need for renewing oneness. Paul explicitly states that this regular communion is necessary in order to avoid sin. Husband and wife commit their bodies to one another to fulfill the oneness that tightens their bond and to help avert sinful acts of sex outside the marriage bed.

    These messages make it clear that the sexual aspect of marriage goes beyond procreation. The relational aspect of sexual acts between a husband and wife includes becoming one flesh. It brings a oneness to the relationship that cannot be duplicated in any other way. It is an act of communion between a husband and wife to establish and renew the relationship on an intimate level. Paul says they are to be deliberate and regular. Anything less is simply a friendship. A unilateral decision to withhold affection by either party is a betrayal of their vows to love and cherish. One must ask if a Christian marriage can be valid if this ongoing communion is absent.

    1. Derek L. Ramsey

      “In 1 Corinthians 6:16 Paul uses the example of the unmarried to make the point that sexual intercourse is how we become one…”

      Paul makes no mention of the unmarried in 1 Corinthians 6. The first mention of either married or unmarried is in 1 Corinthians 7:2, where husbands are told to only have sex with their own wives. Thus, if Paul was qualifying it at all, he was certainly referring to husbands having sex with people who were not their wives, which includes prostitutes.

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