What is the purpose of marriage? Is it to display Christ’s love for the church?
[May 4, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]
The Bible says the purpose of marriage is:
- the mutual help of husband and wife (Gen 2:18),
- the preventing of uncleanness (1 Cor 7:2,9),
- the increase of mankind with a legitimate issue (Gen 1:28).
(as is summarized in the Baptist Confession of Faith 1689, chapter 25, paragraph 2¹)
Some have extended the third point by referring not only to the increase of mankind with legitimate issue, but the increase of the Church with a holy seed (Mal 2:15). (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646, chapter 24, paragraph 2²)
However, there are many Christian leaders today who say that marriage has an even higher purpose which is more important than companionship, prevention of sin, and procreation. They are saying that the foremost purpose of marriage is illustrative: to display the covenant-keeping love of God.
Their teaching is causing victims of abuse to stay in dreadful marriages out of a desire to not besmirch the name of God.
The Bible does not say the purpose of marriage is to signify or display God’s love for the church. Let me share with you a few words from Ps Sam Powell:
I could not agree with the statement “marriage is designed to signify the covenantal love between Christ and His church”. The love between Christ and His church is to be emulated in marriage, but marriage isn’t a sacrament. God has already given us the Lord’s Supper to signify union with Christ. (link)
In Ephesians 5, Paul uses the love between Christ and His church to describe how a husband and wife should relate. Certainly, the love between Christ and His bride – all who have in humility recognised and received Jesus as their Saviour and Lord – is to be emulated in marriage. The example of Christ and the church is a model for married couples to aspire to, though in human marriage the spiritual depth of intimacy and oneness cannot be as pure or deep as that between Christ and His bride.
The idea that human marriage signifies the union between Christ and the church is mentioned in The Form of Solemnisation of Matrimony, Anglican Book of Common Prayer, 1662. But the signifying quality is not declared to be the purpose of marriage.
The traditional Anglican service begins with a beautiful preamble, then it states the three purposes of marriage. All emphasis in quotes is mine, unless otherwise stated.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this Congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.
First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.
Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
The traditional Anglican service says matrimony “is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.” But does not say that this signifying quality of marriage is one of the three purposes of marriage.
After the couple have said their vows, the Anglican minister says the following prayer which refers again to the signifying quality of marriage:
O God, who by thy mighty power hast made all things of nothing; who also (after other things set in order) didst appoint, that out of man (created after thine own image and similitude) woman should take her beginning; and, knitting them together, didst teach that it should never be lawful to put asunder those whom thou by Matrimony hadst made one: O God, who hast consecrated the state of Matrimony to such an excellent mystery, that in it is signified and represented the spiritual marriage and unity betwixt Christ and his Church: Look mercifully upon these thy servants, that both this man may love his wife, according to thy Word, (as Christ did love his spouse the Church, who gave himself for it, loving and cherishing it even as his own flesh,) and also that this woman may be loving and amiable, faithful and obedient to her husband; and in all quietness, sobriety, and peace, be a follower of holy and godly matrons. O Lord, bless them both, and grant them to inherit thy everlasting kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Mystery….mystical union….what’s that all about?
Ephesians 5:30-32 says
For we are members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones. On this account must a man leave father and mother and continue with his wife, and the two will be made one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak as between Christ and the congregation.
The word “mystery” is the English translation of the Greek word musterion. The Roman Church bungled that word by translating it into the Latin word sacramentum. Allow me to quote John Calvin’s remarks on this because he explains it well:
This is a great mystery. He concludes by expressing his astonishment at the spiritual union between Christ and the church. This is a great mystery; by which he means, that no language can explain fully what it implies. It is to no purpose that men fret themselves to comprehend, by the judgment of the flesh, the manner and character of this union; for here the infinite power of the Divine Spirit is exerted. Those who refuse to admit anything on this subject beyond what their own capacity can reach, act an exceedingly foolish part. We tell them that the flesh and blood of Christ are exhibited to us in the Lord’s supper. “Explain to us the manner,” they reply, “or you will not convince us.” For my own part, I am overwhelmed by the depth of this mystery, and am not ashamed to join Paul in acknowledging at once my ignorance and my admiration. How much more satisfactory would this be than to follow my carnal judgment, in undervaluing what Paul declares to be a deep mystery! Reason itself teaches how we ought to act in such matters; for whatever is supernatural is clearly beyond our own comprehension. Let us therefore labor more to feel Christ living in us, than to discover the nature of that intercourse.
We cannot avoid admiring the acuteness of the Papists, who conclude from the word mystery (musterion) that marriage is one of seven sacraments, as if they had the power of changing water into wine. They enumerate seven sacraments, while Christ has instituted no more than two; and, to prove that matrimony is one of the seven, they produce this passage. On what ground? Because the Vulgate has adopted the word Sacrament (sacramentum) as a translation of the word Mystery, which the apostle uses. As if Sacrament (sacramentum) did not frequently, among Latin writers, denote Mystery, or as if Mystery had not been the word employed by Paul in the same Epistle, when speaking of the calling of the Gentiles. But the present question is, Has marriage been appointed as a sacred symbol of the grace of God, to declare and represent to us something spiritual, such as Baptism or the Lord’s Supper? They have no ground for such an assertion, unless it be that they have been deceived by the doubtful signification of a Latin word, or rather by their ignorance of the Greek language. If the simple fact had been observed, that the word used by Paul is Mystery, no mistake would ever have occurred.
Calvin’s commentary on Ephesians 5:32
Here are some other protestant authors who agree with Calvin:
….And they two shall be one flesh, that is, by virtue of the matrimonial bond. This is a great mystery, v. 32. Those words of Adam, just mentioned by the apostle, are spoken literally of marriage; but they have also a hidden mystical sense in them, relating to the union between Christ and his church, of which the conjugal union between Adam and the mother of us all was a type: though not instituted or appointed by God to signify this, yet it was a kind of natural type, as having a resemblance to it: I speak concerning Christ and the church….
Matthew Henry’s commentary on Eph 5:32
This is a great mystery; either, this that was spoken before of a marriage union between Christ and the church, and its being of his flesh and of his bones, is a great mystery, and so in the latter part of the verse the apostle explains himself. Or, this that was said of the conjunction of Adam and Eve was a great mystery, (i.e. a great secret in religion), as being a type of Christ’s marriage with his church; though not an instituted type appointed by God to signify this, yet a kind of natural type, as having a resemblance to it.
Matthew Poole’s commentary on Eph 5:32
In his sermon titled The Matchless Mystery, Charles Haddon Spurgeon preached on Ephesians 5:30 – “for we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones”. After expounding on how Adam’s words “she is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” connoted intimacy of relationship, Spurgeon says:
But I clearly see another and deeper meaning. It meant, from Adam’s lips, mysterious extraction. I will not make bold to say that he knew what had occurred to him in his sleep; he might not have known all, but he seems to have had a mystic enlightenment which made him guess what had occurred; at least the words seem to me to have that ring in them. “She is bone of my bones”—for a bone had been taken from him, “and flesh of my flesh,” for out of him had she been taken. He seems to have known that somehow or other she sprang from him; whether Adam knew it or not, Christ knows right well the origin of His spouse! He knows where His church came from! There is still the mark in His side; there is the memorial in the palms of His hands, and on His feet.
Where did this new Eve come from, this new mother of all living; from where came this spouse of the second Adam? She came of the second Adam! She was taken from His side, right near His heart!
Have you never read, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit”? Had Jesus never died, He would have been made to abide alone as to any who could be helpmeets for Him, and could enter into fellowship with Him. But, inasmuch as He has died, He has brought forth much fruit, and His church has sprung from Him. And in that sense she is bone of His bones, and flesh of His flesh.
“What do I mean by the church?” asks one. I mean by the church all the people of God, all the redeemed, all believers, as I explained at the commencement. Do you think I mean by the church the harlot of the seven hills? God forbid that Christ should have fellowship with her! How can He so much as look upon her except with horror? Do you think He means, by the church, the politically supported corporation that men call a church nowadays? No, but the spiritual, the quickened, the living, the believing, the holy people—wherever they may be—or by whatever name they may be called; these are they that sprang of Christ, even as Levi from the loins of Abraham! They live because they receive life from Him, and at this day they are dead in themselves—and their life is hid with Christ in God. So the text leads us to a deep meditation as to mysterious extraction.
[paragraph breaks added by Barbara Roberts, for the ease of modern readers]
Many Christian leaders these days are echoing the Roman Catholic view more than the Protestant view
Some Protestants take the idea that marriage signifies unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church….and turn this signifying quality into one of the purposes of marriage.
John Piper has been most prolific in this regard. He believes that the chief purpose of marriage is to display the covenant keeping love of God for the church. This was a major theme in his book This Momentary Marriage. And he devoted three chapter to it in his book What Jesus Demands of the World. I could give dozens of quotes to prove this, but I’ll only give two.
…the most ultimate thing you can say about marriage is that it is for the display of God. … Marriage exists most ultimately to display the covenant-keeping love between Christ and his church.
Marriage: God’s Showcase of Covenant-Keeping Grace [emphasis in original]
He calls Gen 2:24 a “mystery” because God did not reveal clearly all his purposes for the marriage of male and female in Genesis. There were hints and pointers in the Old Testament that marriage was like the relation of God and his people. But only when Christ came did the mystery of marriage get spelled out in detail. It is meant to be a portrait of Christ’s covenant with his people, his commitment to the church.
Male and Female He Created Them in the Image of God
Tim Challies follows John Piper. And he’s pretty blatant in claiming that he has a more accurate view than the early Reformers. He says that the ‘display’ purpose of marriage is more important than the mutual comfort, godly offspring, and a means of avoiding sexual sin:
Though marriage provides many wonderful benefits including mutual comfort, godly offspring, sexual fulfillment, and a means of avoiding sexual sin, these are not its highest purpose. Marriage is not a man-made institution primarily for man’s benefit, but rather a God-made institution primarily for God’s glory. The highest purpose of marriage is to display to the world the sacrificial love of Christ for his bride, the church. Here is how Paul teaches this: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32).
What’s the Purpose of Marriage? — Tim Challies
Gary Thomas also follows Piper:
….The key question is this: Will we approach marriage from a God-centered view or a man-centered view? In a man-centered view, we will maintain our marriage as long as our earthly comforts, desires, and expectations are met. In a God-centered view, we preserve our marriage because it brings glory to God and points a sinful world to a reconciling Creator.
Sacred Marriage: What If God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy? — Gary Thomas
John MacArthur, in his book The Fulfilled Family, brings in the word “sacred” – which is reminiscent of the Roman Catholic sacramentum. MacArthur says:
The sacredness of the church is wed to the sacredness of marriage; so by your marriage, you are either a symbol or a denial of Christ and His church. (source)
I could give more examples from other well-known Protestant authors, but I don’t want to make this post too long.
To sum up
- Is the purpose of marriage to display Christ’s covenant-keeping love for the church?
- If a Christian seeks divorce on biblical grounds, is that Christian giving a bad witness to the world because he or she is not displaying the gospel?
I believe the answer to those questions is NO.
[May 4, 2022: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to May 4, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to May 4, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to May 4, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (May 4, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]
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