Definitions of terms are extremely important.
I was preaching in Germany one day, and a group of new friends asked me, "Do you want to play football with us this afternoon?"
I enjoy football—both watching it and playing it. In high school and college my friends and I used to spend our weekends throwing the ball outside and playing pickup games. "Count me in!" I told them excitedly.
To my surprise, when I got down to the field, I didn't find tall goalposts and a brown ball with pointy ends. Instead, I saw two goals with nets on them and a round, black-and-white ball. That's when I remembered: football in Europe (and most of the rest of the world) is a lot different from my American understanding of football. I call their kind of football soccer.
Football. Same term, different definitions. But there are other more significant, extremely consequential examples of this as well. One's definition of a human has huge ramifications for one's view of abortion. How terms like this are defined by a culture determines much about how people not only make decisions but also lead their lives in that culture.
So how does one define marriage?
Moving away from traditional marriage
This question lies at the heart of a moral revolution in our time and culture. For millennia, civilizations have defined marriage as an exclusive, permanent union of a man and a woman. Two decades ago politicians in our country voted across party lines to defend this definition of marriage in what was call the Defense of Marriage Act. Yet in June of 2013 the Supreme Court of the United States struck down key provisions of that Act, paving the way for the complete redefinition of marriage across our culture. And in June of 2015 the Supreme Court exerted its authority again and legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
These decisions represent part of a much larger trend away from traditional marriage across our culture that has taken place over many years. Though it's difficult to obtain precise data, census figures project that nearly half of all first marriages will end in divorce. And that's if men and women decide to marry. The number of cohabiting couples in our culture has nearly quadrupled over the last 30 years as more and more singles postpone or put aside marriage altogether. Marital union is clearly on the decline.
All of these realities cause us to wonder, Is marriage really that important in the first place? And what's the problem with redefining it? Are we really going to say it's wrong for two men or two women to marry each other? Isn't it more wrong (maybe even hateful) to deny two men or two women the right to love one another like this?
More foundational than these questions is how the gospel applies to marriage. What has the Creator God said about marriage? Have we turned aside from what He has said? Does Christ's death on the cross have anything to do with how we define marriage? And what does it mean for followers of Christ to live in a culture that often defines marriage differently than the Bible does? If we're willing to ask these questions honestly, we need to be ready for surprising answers. More important, we need to be prepared to counter the culture around us in significant ways.
Male and female He created them
Our understanding of marriage is built upon our understanding of sexuality. According to our culture, sexual differences are merely social constructions. Sure, men and women have physical distinctions, but even these can be altered, if we prefer. Aside from this, men and women are equal—and by equal, we mean identical.
But what does God say?
The first two chapters of Genesis record complementary accounts of human creation. Genesis 1 tells us, "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (verse 27). The dignity of men and women is on display from the start. Nothing else in all creation, not even the most majestic angel, is portrayed "in the image of God." Men and women alone are like God, but not in the sense that we share all of His qualities. He is infinite; we are finite. He is divine; we are human. He is spirit; we are flesh.
Yet in a way that nothing else in all creation can, men and women share certain moral, intellectual, and relational capacities with God. We have the power to reason, the desire to love, the ability to speak, and the facility to make moral decisions. Most important of all, men and women have the opportunity to relate to God in a way that dogs and cats, mountains and seas, and even angels and demons can't.
This is where any Bible-informed conversation about men and women must begin: with men and women both created with equal dignity before God and each other. Men and women both share in the inexpressible worth of creatures formed in the image of God himself. In this way, God speaks loudly from the start of Scripture against any sort of male or female superiority or dominance. Near the end of Scripture, God refers to men and women as fellow "heirs… of the grace of life" (1 Peter 3:7). According to God's design, men are never to be perceived as better than women, and women are never to be perceived as better than men. Both are beautifully—and equally—created in the image of God.
But not identically. Equal dignity does not eliminate distinction. Genesis 1 makes clear that God creates humans male and female, and he does it for a reason. Right after He blesses them, He commands them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Genesis 1:28). This command is only possible by virtue of the peculiarity of male and female. Multiplication would have been impossible if God had created humans male and male or female and female. God's unique design enables them to carry this command.
Moreover, this divine design involves far more than the capacity to reproduce (as important as that is). There is something greater than mere biological accident or evolutionary adaptation going on here. God creates man and woman to cherish their shared equality while complementing their various differences.
Genesis 2 provides a more close-up picture of how God initially creates man. God forms him from the dust, breathes life into his nostrils, and places him in the Garden of Eden. God parades animals before him, tasking him with assigning names to each of them. The point of this procession is to make clear to man that he is alone—that there is no one else like him. As man looks at each animal, considering monikers that match their nature, he realizes, None of these match my nature. He sinks back into solitude, and for the first time in the Bible, we read, "It is not good" (Genesis 2:18).
So God says, "I will make him a helper fit for him." When man falls asleep, God performs the first surgery, taking a rib from man. Obviously God doesn't need to do this. Just as He has created man from dust, He can create woman the same way. But He doesn't. Instead, God takes a rib from man's side, and He forms a woman. When the man opens his eyes, he is stunned, to say the least. The first recorded human words are poetry, as the man sings,
This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Genesis 2:23
Don't miss the magnificence of this scene. God brings man to realize that he needs someone equal to him, made with the same nature that he possesses but different from him, in order to help him do things he could never do on his own. This is precisely what God gives to man in woman, and the stage is thus set for the institution of marriage. In the very next verse, we read, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24).
Behold the beauty of God's design for man, woman, and marriage. Two dignified people, both molded in the image of their Maker. Two diverse people uniquely designed to complement each other. A male and a female fashioned by God to form one flesh, a physical bond between two bodies where the deepest point of union is found at the greatest point of difference. A matrimony marked by unity and diversity, equality with variety, and personal sanctification through shared consummation.
Christ and the church
None of this was haphazard. From the beginning of time, God designed marriage in this way for a purpose. That purpose was not fully revealed until Jesus died on the cross, rose from the dead, and instituted the church. After all of this, the Bible looks back to the institution of marriage and asserts, "This mystery (of marriage) is profound, and … it refers to Christ and the church" (Ephesians 5:32). When God made man, then woman, and then brought them together in a relationship called marriage, he wasn't simply rolling dice, drawing straws, or flipping a coin. He was painting a picture. His intent from the start was to illustrate His love for people.
This revelation stunned men and women in the first century, and it should shock us in the twenty-first century. Moreover, it is momentous for the way people understand marriage in any culture. Whether Greco-Roman citizens then or American citizens today, most people view marriage as a means of self-fulfillment accompanied by sexual satisfaction. A man or woman's aim is to find a mate who completes him or her. In this view, marriage is an end in itself, and sexual consummation is a celebration of such a completion.
Yet the Bible teaches that God created marriage not as an end but as a means to an end. While personal enjoyment and sexual pleasure are a part of God's good plan for marriage, God's purpose does not stop there. For God created the marriage relationship to point to a greater reality.
From the moment marriage was instituted, God aimed to give the world an illustration of the gospel. Just as a photograph represents a person or an event at a particular point in history, marriage was designed by God to reflect a person and an event at the most pivotal point in history. Marriage, according to Ephesians 5, pictures Christ and the church. It is a living portrait drawn by a divine Painter who wants the world to know that He loves His people so much that He has sent His Son to die for their sins. In the picture of marriage, God intends to portray Christ's love for the church and the church's love for Christ on the canvas of human culture.
So how is this picture portrayed? The Bible explains, saying, "The husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior." Moreover, "as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands" (Ephesians 5:23-24). In other words, God designs husbands to be a reflection of Christ's love for the church in the way they relate to their wives, and God designs wives to be a reflection of the church's love for Christ in the way they relate to their husbands.
But talk about countercultural! Or maybe more aptly put, talk about politically incorrect! The husband is the head of his wife? Wives should submit to their husbands? Are you serious?
God is serious, and He is good. In our limited understanding, we hear words and phrases like the ones in Ephesians 5, and we recoil in disgust. But if we pause for just a moment to consider the picture of marriage from a gospel perspective, our reaction may be different.
When the Bible says that "the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church," we immediately need to ask the question, "What does it mean for Christ to be the head of the church?" The Bible answers that question by saying, "Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. He did this to present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot of wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless" (Ephesians 5:25-27, HCSB).
What a breathtaking picture. For Christ to be the head of the church is for Christ to give everything He has for the good of the church. Christ takes responsibility for the beauty of His bride, ready to lay aside His rights and willing to lay down His life for the sake of her splendor.
So this is who God has designed a husband to be: a man who gives everything he has for the good of his wife. A man who takes responsibility for the beauty of his bride, ready to lay aside his rights and willing to lay down his life for the sake of her splendor. God has designed a husband to be the head of his wife like this so that in a husband's love for his wife, the world might see a picture of Christ's love for his people.
Likewise, "as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands" (Ephesians 5:24). As soon as we hear the word submission alongside the previous picture of headship, we immediately think in terms of inferiority, subordination, and domination. But that's nowhere close to what the Bible means with these terms. As we've already seen, God made clear from the start that men and women are equal in dignity, value, and worth. Submission is not about denigrating the value of another's life. Instead, this biblical word means to yield to another in love.
Not insignificantly, in another instance where the husband is described as the head of his wife, the Father is also described as the head of the Son: "The head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God" (1 Corinthians 11:3). Certainly this doesn't mean that God the Father is dominating and that God the Son is cruelly forced into compulsory subordination. Rather, the Son gladly submits to the Father in the context of close relationship.
This, then, is what the Bible means when it talks about the church submitting to Christ. As followers of Christ in the church, we are in a position of submission to Christ. Is this a bad thing? Certainly not. It's a great thing! Christ loves, leads, serves, protects, and provides for us, and we gladly submit to Him in the context of close relationship with Him.
God has designed marriage to display this relationship. God desires people to know that following Him is not a matter of begrudging subordination to a domineering deity. God longs for people to know that following Him is a matter of glad submission to a loving Lord. So He calls a wife to submit to the loving leadership of a husband who lays down his life for her good.
And as this portrait of marriage is portrayed all around the world, God shows men and women that He can be trusted to lead them by His love.
Once and for all
It is altogether right to be grieved about the redefinition of marriage in our culture. So-called "same-sex marriage" is now recognized as a legitimate entity in the eyes of our government. Such a designation by a government, however, does not change the definition God has established. The only true marriage in God's eyes remains the exclusive, permanent union of a man and a woman, even as our Supreme Court and state legislatures deliberately defy this reality. Without question, we are living in momentous days—momentous in devastating ways.
Yet all is most definitely not lost. The opportunity for gospel witness in contemporary culture is far greater now than it was even a couple of years ago. As spiritual darkness engulfs the biblical picture of marriage in our culture, spiritual light will stand out even more starkly in the portrait of a husband who lays down his life for his wife and a wife who joyfully follows her husband's loving leadership.
Be sure of this: God's design for marriage is far more breathtaking and much more satisfying than anything we could ever create on our own. The more men and women manipulate marriage, the more we will discover that "this kind of marriage" or "that kind of marriage" will not fully gratify us, for only the King who designed marriage is able to finally (and eventually) satisfy us.
Taken from Counter Culture by David Platt, copyright © 2015. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
1. Learn how two very different couples began to understand the meaning of marriage. Read "Their Marriage Was a Train Wreck" and "Why Get Married?"
2. It can't be ignored—sexual immorality is rampant. How can Christians speak into this issue? Listen as Pastor David Platt reminds FamilyLife Today® listeners that God's Word is clear on sexual morality.
3. Seemingly overnight, the culture has shifted to the point where right and wrong are no longer measured by universal truth but by popular opinion. Read David Platt's book Counter Culture.