November 2019 Feature
Conflicting ideas about marriage are emerging today. Some of these have come into the church too. For Christians, it is necessary to reflect on the origins of the institution of marriage and what its primary purpose is. Our answers must be drawn from the Bible which has authority for our faith and practices.
The first two chapters of Genesis tell the story of the Creator and His creation. God created all that is seen and unseen and exercises authority over His creation. God also created Adam and Eve and brought them together in marriage to be the first couple. He created them male and female and in His image (Gen 1:27).
Jesus reiterated this truth when He said, “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’” (Mark 10:6-8). Marriage is a sacred relationship between husband and wife; that is, a man and a woman.
Marriage is God’s idea, an institution established by Him. He has the rights of the Creator and determines how marriage is to be understood and practiced.
Then we ask the question, “What is the purpose of marriage?”
Again the creation account gives us the key answers. Immediately after creating the first couple, God told them, “be fruitful and increase in number” (Gen 1:28). The first purpose of marriage is procreation.
Then God told the couple to rule over His creation as His representatives and stewards (Gen 1:28; cf. 2:15). God gave the first couple the privilege of being “co-creators” with Him. This then is the second purpose of marriage – that of co-creation, attending to and managing the resources in God’s creation.
The third purpose of marriage is what we can refer to as “recreation”. It has to do with companionship which is an antidote to loneliness (Gen 2:18).
The order in which these purposes of marriage appear is important. Of the three reasons for marriage, procreation is the most important and a distinctive characteristic of marriage. The other two purposes are secondary because it can be argued that their social functions are not necessarily restricted to the marital relationship.
This was the way the Church Fathers (recognised authoritative theologians and bishops of the first few centuries in church history) understood the purpose of marriage. All held that sex was only lawful and permitted within marriage. Moreover, several of the Church Fathers taught that the only lawful reason for sex is procreation. Recreational use of sex within marriage was frowned upon by some of them, for example Augustine, as giving in to lust and sin.
This may sound rather prudish to modern ears but it has to be understood by looking at the context. The early church was planted in many parts of the ancient Roman Empire where liberal attitudes to sex were common. Idolatry and sexual immorality were rampant.
In the mid-3rd century AD, it became fashionable for rich aristocratic Roman women to marry men of lower social status. This was purely for pleasure, for there was an agreement that there will be no children in such a marriage to avoid social and legal problems. It was this separation from marriage/sex and procreation that the Fathers saw as unacceptable.
Hippolytus of Rome (c 170-235) wrote: “Children are central to the purpose of marriage.” Later Augustine (354-430) would reiterate: “The procreation of children is the first and natural and lawful reason for marriage.”
The priority and importance of procreation as the sine qua non of marriage was reiterated in wedding liturgies in the church. John Wesley’s worship book, which had Anglican and ancient roots gave details of the wedding liturgy. The minister reminds the couple of “the causes for which Matrimony was ordained”. He then goes on to say, “First, it was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to be the praise of his Holy Name”.
After establishing the primary purpose of marriage, the minister then mentions “the mutual society, help, and comfort” that the marital relationship provides. The most important purpose of marriage is procreation.
However this perspective was slowly eroded with the rise of individualism following the Enlightenment, where personal happiness and fulfilment became an over-riding priority. Along with it came notions of romantic love that became popularised in literature and the media, so much so that romantic love and companionship became the most important reason for marriage.
This change is reflected in liturgical modifications. For example, the wedding liturgy used by the Episcopal Church in the USA in its 1979 edition of the Book of Common Prayer uses the following words:
“The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.”
In many modern liturgies in other Protestant traditions, the reference to procreation as the primary purpose of marriage has also been dropped, apart from calling for faithfulness and love. In a growing phenomenon, couples now want to write their own liturgies and, with influences from the secular world, the situation has been made worse.
In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, however, the older liturgies are still expressed clearly. In the Roman Catholic wedding rite, the primary purpose of marriage as set out in the Bible is expressed with theological and pastoral clarity:
“By their very nature, the institution of marriage and wedded love have as their purpose the procreation and education of children and find in them their ultimate crown.”
It is important to remember the biblical teaching that procreation is the primary purpose of marriage. When the church forgets this or becomes confused by popular cultural shifts, it stammers when society pushes for the redefinition of marriage. This is seen in a growing number of Western nations, where marriage is now defined as a relationship between two persons, no longer restricted to a heterosexual couple.
The arguments used to legitimise same-sex marriage are mainly situated in some notion of individual rights and the idea that marriage is primarily for sex, companionship and love. What is wrong, it is argued, when two individuals of the same gender fall in love with each other and commit themselves to a long-term relationship to be married. Why prevent them from getting married?
The response of the church, at least those parts that seek to be faithful to biblical and historical church teaching, is that the Bible prohibits homosexual acts (which would also include lesbian acts) and considers them sinful (Gen 19:4-11; Lev 18:22; 20:13; Rom 1:18-32; 1 Tim 1:8-11; 1 Cor 6:9-11).
In addition, it must be argued that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation, which is not biologically possible in same-sex marriages, which, therefore, actually deny the meaning of marriage. It is sometimes argued that same-sex couples can adopt children and thus fulfil the mandate to “be fruitful and multiply”. But adoption by same-sex couples is neither fruitfulness nor multiplication as they do not produce children of their own. The use of possible adoption as an argument for same-sex marriage is tenuous as it ignores deeper understanding of the nature and purpose of marriage.
Some may then ask about heterosexual couples who are childless. Following the logic of the Bible, since the primary purpose of marriage is procreation, married couples should not decide not to have children for personal reasons that may have to do with personal comfort and freedom. Unless they are not able to for some medical reasons, couples should have children.
If the primary reason for marriage is procreation, what then is the difference between a childless heterosexual couple and a childless homosexual couple? One has the biological potential to have children (and the couple would not know if they are infertile before marriage) while the other does not. The infertile heterosexual couple, though not able to fully express the purpose of marriage, are nevertheless properly married according to biblical teaching. The other relationship cannot be considered as a marriage. Also, there are numerous examples in Scripture (and in contemporary testimonies) of how God opened wombs of women who are not able to conceive for some reason or other.
It is important to remember the roots (that marriage was established by God as a relationship between a man and woman) and fruits (the central procreational purpose) of marriage as Christians face many challenges to their biblical understanding of marriage. It is when we forget this that we face the danger of being conformed to the patterns of this world instead of being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2).
Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.