God’s handbook on the divine institution of marriage

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Any and all discussions of marriage must commence with the basic and profound understanding that God created marriage in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:18-25).

His ideal is described at marriage’s inception. In the Garden of Eden, even before the Fall, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him.” (Gen. 2:18).

God declared, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:21-22).

The biblical word for “cleave” means to join together in a way that never again can one be separated completely from the other. The means by which this “becoming one” takes place is sexual intercourse. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul warns Christians against sexual sin because you cannot separate God’s purpose for sex from the consequences of the act. There is no such thing as merely “casual sex.” Whether intended or not, you “cleave” to the person with whom you engage in intercourse. (I Cor. 6:15-19).

Adam and Eve, in their innocence, “cleaved” together, becoming one, and “they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” (Gen. 2:24-25).

And ever since, men and women have, as couples, longed for that incredible intimacy of “knowing and being known.”

Alas, everything changed with the Fall of Man. As a consequence of our first parents’ sin, they acquired a sin nature within them which they then passed on to all their progeny. As my faith heritage, the Southern Baptist Convention, states in its Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M),

“Man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence, whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.” (BF&M)

Nevertheless, humanity’s moral failure did not cause God to abandon His master plan for marriage.

Jesus makes it clear in the New Testament that God’s model of one husband and one wife united for life in Holy Matrimony had always remained God’s plan for humankind.

When questioned about divorce, Jesus replied,

“that from the beginning God made them male and female…This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife and the two are united into one…let no one split apart what God has joined together.” (Matt. 19:4-6).

God’s view of marriage as sacred is revealed in the fact that God uses the husband-wife relationship to describe His relationship with Israel and Jesus’ (the bridegroom) relationship to His church (the bride) in the New Testament.

God did not leave Christians clueless about how He designed Christian marriage to work for the benefit of both partners, for the rearing of children, and for the good of human society.

In the fifth chapter of the Ephesian epistle, God reveals that husbands are to love their wives, “even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” (Eph. 5:24-25).

The word the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to use for love is agapé, which is a sacrificial, “in spite of whatever you do” kind of love. Fortunately, we have a divine essay on the wondrous meaning of agapé love penned by the Apostle Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and addressed to the church at Corinth:

“Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.” (I Cor. 13:4-7, New Living Translation).

Husbands are to love their wives in this expansive and sacrificial way. In addition, husbands are instructed to dwell with their wives “with understanding…lest their prayers be not hindered.” (I Pet. 3:7). The sense here is that a husband is to study his wife in order to know her individual needs. And a husband is to put his wife’s needs above his own needs.

Clearly, a non-Christian man is not going to be capable of fulfilling this husband “role” in his own fleshly power. Only Christians who have been “born again from above” and who experience agapé love as a fruit of the Holy Spirit as they are obedient and maturing followers of Jesus will be empowered to succeed as Christian husbands.

The Christian wives are to “submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.” (Eph. 5:22). The verb is reflexive in Greek, meaning the wives are to place themselves voluntarily under their husband’s authority.

Submission in no way implies any inferiority on the part of the wife. After all, in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed, “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but Thine, be done.” (Luke 22:42). Of course, Jesus was in no way inferior to God the Father; yet, he was submissive.

Nevertheless, submission is alien to the natural fallen nature of humankind. Consequently, wives are going to find it difficult, if not impossible to be submissive unless it is produced out of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives.

There is a close scriptural parallel to God’s design for marriage and God’s design for the local New Testament church. In the fifth chapter of Peter’s first Epistle, he admonishes local church pastors to “feed the flock of God…taking the oversight thereof…Neither as being lord over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock.” (I Pet. 5:2-3)

In Hebrews, the members of the local congregation were instructed to “submit yourselves” (Heb. 13:17, same verb, same middle reflexive voice as Ephesians 5).

In both the local congregation and in marriage, there was a divinely designed complementary relationship.

The great spiritual truth revealed in God’s blueprint for marriage is that both husband and wife must be Christians for the blueprint to work. Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul commands Christians, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14).

Only a born-again Christian is going to have the new spiritual nature and the consequent agapé fruit of the Spirit to fulfill those commands on an ongoing basis. God’s model does not work if only one of the marriage partners is a Christian.

Even those who are believers and married to fellow believers know well enough that in the flesh even they cannot be consistently obedient to God’s model. The secret to a truly Christian marriage is for both the husband and the wife to put Christ first in their marriage. When they both do that, they are both drawn closer together as they are drawn closer to Him.

I came across a study a few years ago that found that while one in three marriages in America ends in divorce, in marriages where the husband and the wife prayed together on a daily basis, the rate was one divorce per 440 couples.

I asked myself, “What an astounding finding!” Then after thinking about it for a minute, I thought, “Of course! If the husband and the wife are truly praying to their Heavenly Father in the presence of their spouse, then they are going to know an extraordinary amount about each other. They are going to be pouring out their hearts and souls to God, and they will be speaking of their dreams, their disappointments, their temptations, their hurts, their failures.” Praying together daily in such a transparent and spiritual fashion fosters an emotional and spiritual intimacy very much akin to being “naked” and “not ashamed.”

Of course, many Christians have not experienced this level of intimacy or have done so only intermittently.

This intimacy is God’s intention for all of our marriages, but it requires radical individual obedience.

If your partner will not accompany you on this spiritual journey, it is your responsibility to pray for them and to continue being the spouse God has commanded you to be.

I have been in the ministry now for more than half a century, and I have seen God do amazing things.

There is no marriage so broken that God cannot mend it. Early in my ministry, I had an older couple come to me for pastoral counseling. They were both 45 (the same age as my parents) and their last child had just left for college. They informed me they were getting a divorce.

I asked them what the problem was. The wife, who was obviously the verbal one in the relationship (this is not a sexist comment. I am the verbal one in our marriage), gave me a 5-minute rendition of all his faults. After about 15 minutes, I guess he had enough. He leaned over, spit in her face, and walked out.

Nothing in my pastoral counseling classes had prepared me for that scenario. So I prayed for wisdom and got them back together again (with some Kleenex). I asked the husband, “What made you decide you wanted to ask her out on a date”?

Then I asked the wife, “What made you decide to say yes”?

I questioned them in a similar fashion for about five minutes, and you could see them rummaging around behind all the things that had been felt, said, thought, and done that should not have been felt, said, thought, and done.

Then I asked the wife, “What is one thing you can sincerely thank your husband for having done”? After five minutes of awkward silence, she said, “I’m ready.”

I said, “Look him in the eye and tell him.”

She said, “You know when we first got married and I was sick and all three children were sick?”

He replied, “Yes.”

“I want you to know how thankful I am for all the extra work you did and the effort you made to keep our family together.”

What happened next dumbfounded both the wife and me. The husband, an oil roughneck, was a powerfully built man with no neck. He just began weeping uncontrollably. It had been so long since there had been any expression of tenderness or appreciation between them. She looked at me and I looked at her and we were both flabbergasted.

Cutting to the chase, over the next six months, I witnessed God put that marriage back together.

As God told the prophet Joel so many years ago, “I will restore the years the locusts have eaten.” (Joel 3:25). There is no marriage (what God hath put together) so broken, God cannot restore it if both partners surrender their marriage completely to Him.

Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.

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