Marriage and Culture: Part 1

written by Dr. Ken Cuffey, President and Professor of Biblical Studies

Recently while waiting at a local business I struck up a conversation with the young woman in her early 20s who was helping me. She shared openly about her training, her job, and her boyfriend. I was pleasantly surprised to discover her openness about her Christian faith. They were deeply involved with a prominent local church that I know clearly proclaims the gospel and has had a deep impact on many lives for Christ. Her boyfriend’s gifting and active ministry was in the area of leading public worship and he loved that from up front he could help people come before God. As we finished she offhandedly mentioned that the two of them were living together. I wonder if the church that used him up front had any clue. I suspect not! Knowing the church, this would have mattered to them.

In conversation with 20 somethings who identify themselves as Christians, and more broadly in the culture across generations, there is no longer a sense of the line drawn for sexual intimacy that was once clearly defined within the church. Our culture affirms that if you’re “in love” and want to sleep together, there’s no necessity to wait for vows and a covenant. It is the spirit of this age that also touts the viability of alternative patterns: Why wait for vows? Why must two partners be of opposite gender? Why aren’t we coming to the place in tolerance that we should now affirm polygamy? (As a recent article in Time hinted.) Why can’t you discover true love in beautiful (adulterous) relationships outside of your marriage? (See Hollywood!)

So what has happened? Evidently the culture and its alternative visions of intimacy exercise a powerful influence, even on believers, and in some way the church has not proclaimed this truth clearly, or at least compellingly, to a new generation. How do we reclaim Scripture’s teaching about the most intimate of human relationships? And do so in a way that we can proclaim and be heard by the contemporary world? Is there a way forward?

This is only a blog, not a book. We won’t be able to solve everything here. However, I do want to suggest a first step forward. This week and next, let’s look to the beginning of the Bible, where we encounter the very first “married couple” in Genesis 1-2. What sort of foundational principles does this narrative of origins lay out for us?

Genesis 1 describes God’s creation of everything that forms the habitat for people, who are the climax of his creative genius. The chapter is like a masterful painting depicting God’s majesty in overseeing the formation of all that goes into our home here on earth. That we are the climax is made clear from several features:

  • Humans are the last product of God’s creation in the chapter;
  • We get the most space devoted to telling of our creation;
  • We’re the only creature meriting an added chapter (Genesis 2) to talk about how God did this;
  • Once God makes humans he looks at the whole picture and evaluates it as “Very good!” (Not just “Good”);
  • We’re the only creature in chapter 1 which gets a poem as part of the narrative (1:27).

 

It’s that poem we need to look at more closely, since it enumerates something foundational for understanding and discussing marriage. In the context of God making humans, we find that the prose of vv 1-26 is changed into poetry in v 27. Hebrew poetry is shown by the presence of lines that parallel each other, often simply restating the same thought in synonymous terms. To break from prose thus far into a brief poem serves to highlight the contents of this verse even more. So as part of the second great creative movement related in the framework of a sixth day, we read (NIV):

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Careful reading of this poem gives us our first two insights to frame our discussion of marriage and what is abiding across cultures and what is not.

First, our existence as humans in two genders is part of God’s original design. God intended for a gendered human existence, if you will. He began this way. Of course, this will be necessary for this newly created species to survive and populate the earth.

Second, our existence as male and female is an integral part of our being created in the image of God. Look at the text. Knowing that this is Hebrew poetry allows us to look for the components in each line that parallel the other.

  • There is a subject in each line: “God”; “he”; “he.”
  • Also a verb: “created” in each line.
  • Followed by an object: “mankind”; “them”; “them.”
  • The fourth part of each line describes how God created humans:
    • “in his own image”;
    • “in the image of God”;
    • “male and female.”

 

The first two lines are clearly synonymous parallel lines, stating essentially the same thought in different words. This indicates that we should expect the third line to do the same. Indeed, each part of the third line has a parallel component. The surprise is that it is our existence in two genders that is paralleled with being in the image of God.

This suggests that in some sense human existence as male and female reflects the image of God. How can this be? Male and female are both human, so they are the same. But male is male and female is female, thus different and distinct. Our existence in two genders by necessity brings us to the fact that there is a built in diversity within our common humanity. That this is “in the image of God” indicates that being male and female resembles God, in some way mirroring diversity within unity, difference within commonality. At this point in the Bible it doesn’t spell out God’s existence in a Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit. It does give us a hint that there is more to God than we might first think, and that is to be reflected by husbands and wives down here on earth!