Marriage in the New Testament

UPDATE: A commenter pointed out that I had missed an important scripture in my list below. The post has been updated accordingly.

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Conservative Christians are well known for their insistence on the stereotypical family composed of one man, one woman, and n children (where \in \!\, \mathbb{N}^+).

I thought that if this traditional picture is to be challenged, I ought to see what the Bible has to say about marriage. Specifically, I ought to see what the New Testament has to say, because Christians will usually disown the Old Testament as soon as the going gets rough (and in the Old Testament, the going gets rough quite a lot).

So, I tracked down every reference to marriage in the New Testament that I could find. All unique references are reproduced as footnotes below (there are additional scriptures that repeat the same messages –  I didn’t think it important to include these).

Here, in bullet form, is the sum total of what the New Testament has to say about marriage:

The nature of marriage

• Marriage is the joining of a man and a woman in a physical union that no one should break apart. [1]

• Marriage is a concession to lust: it allows people to escape going to hell for having sex. If lust weren’t such an issue, it would be better not to marry at all. [2, 3]

• There is no marriage in heaven. [4]

• Devotion to God is more important than your marriage. [5]

Husbands

• Husbands must love their wives as they love themselves. [6]

• Husbands must be considerate toward their wives. [7]

• Husbands must give their wives the respect due to a weaker partner. [8]

Wives

• Wives must submit to their husbands. [8, 9]

• Wives should not adorn themselves, but dress plainly. [9]

Divorce and death

• Do not divorce for any reason other than sexual immorality. [10]

• Do not marry a divorced woman. [10]

• Young widows are invariably a nuisance (!) [11]

Here is a list of things the New Testament is silent on:

• The value of having children.

• The ideal number of children.

• The fate of children following the divorce of their parents.

Interestingly, the only real definition of marriage in the New Testament is Jesus’ quote from the Old Testament [1], implying that Jesus recognizes the status of the old law when it comes to such matters.
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[1] “‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’” (Matthew 19:4-6; Jesus refers here to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24.)

[2] “Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” (1 Corinthians 7:1-7)

[3] “If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.” (1 Corinthians 7:36-38)

[4] “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” (Matthew 22:30)

[5] “‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’” Luke (18:29-30)

[6] “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” (Ephesians 5:22-23)

[7] “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” (1 Peter 3:1-7)

[8] “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:22-24)

[9] “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.”

[10] “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32)

[11] “No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.

As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge. Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to. So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.” (1 Timothy 5:9-15)

4 Responses to Marriage in the New Testament

  1. You’ve left out Jesus’ words here, which clarify all we need to know about marriage between one man and one woman:

    ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:3-6, ESV)

    Jesus doesn’t discuss polygamy, gay marriage, or any of the other alternative unions clamoring for their civil rights as optional. Sorry. Try again.

  2. Keith says:

    Thanks Warrioress, not sure how I missed that.

    I’ll add it to the list.

  3. Phyllis High says:

    Long-term gay couples model as husbands & wives & call each other as such, so this caveat & Jesus’ focus on unconditional Love & respect would surely consider their ceremonies sacred. Procreation is not as risky now as when large families ensured inheritance.

    Other than that Jesus has nothing to say on the topic, which seems to indicate he has no priority on this. Most think he was not married, tho’ traditions carried out by he & his mother at the marriage of Cana indicate it was his wedding, since those were ONLY duties of a groom & groom’s mother. But if he was NOT married, he was seriously radical in this since ALL rabbis were required to be married. So either way it shows Jesus was open to behavior change of if one’s heart was righteous.

    • Keith says:

      Phyllis:

      While it’s true that gay couples call each other husbands and wives, all mention of marriage in the NT includes exactly one husband and one wife, so it seems rather clear that only heterosexual marriage is being discussed. Also, I think the most likely explanation for Jesus not mentioning gay marriage is that it simply wasn’t a concept on the moral radar in those days. It’s just not something that would have occurred to him. It would have been about as foreign a concept as the telephone.

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