As you’re no doubt aware, I categorize my posts on this blog according to the topics of the conversations in D360. I wrestled with where to categorize this one—because like the conversation topics themselves, it belongs to more than one topic. Should it be assigned to the topic “In the Image”? Or “Community”? Or another? (I have one in mind; you’ll recognize it when you get there.) Well, on a functional level, WordPress makes it easy, of course: I can assign the article to multiple categories. But I thought I would open the window on this little bit of my angst to illustrate how the characteristics of discipleship discussed in D360 are interrelated. Biblical quotations are from the New International Version.
Marriage. It’s no secret that in recent years, much intellectual and emotional capital has been invested in discussions about what it is and what it ought to be. The traditional Christian perspective seems over the past few years to have fallen out of favor. But it is still the standard for Christians: God created marriage between men and women. God created sexuality with multiple dimensions—including emotional and spiritual dimensions; it’s not just for making babies (although babies are one of the blessings of sexuality!). God wired men and women to complement each other—to be partners—and to commit themselves to each other for life.
In a world that demands more and more to understand things in observable, material ways, the intangible dimensions of marriage are often misunderstood. So what I want to do here is explore the spiritual dimension of marriage as deeply as it deserves from the Christian perspective.
Of the major religions of the world, only Buddhism does not recognize a spiritual aspect to marriage. Hinduism does. Islam does. Judaism and Christianity do—each acknowledges that marriage unites two human beings spiritually, not just physically and emotionally (well, and socially and economically). Their marriage relationship belongs to their supernatural relationship with a supernatural God.
The reason I lump Judaism and Christianity together is that each faith’s teaching about marriage has the same root: the biblical book of Genesis.
In the first chapter of Genesis, human beings appear, at least at first glance, to be God’s final and greatest creation. Genesis makes a big deal about it:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
Genesis 1 describes humans as the only things God made in his own image. In other words, nothing else in all creation was like God; being made in the image of God is a human distinction. The purpose? God intended humans to rule the rest of his creation alongside him.
Then Genesis 2 seems to introduce a disconnect. In Genesis 1 God had created a man as the pinnacle of creation to that point; he had pronounced creation good—and creation that included humanity he declared very good. But in Genesis 2 he says it’s not good for the man to be alone—and when he brings the man, Adam, all the kinds of animals for him to name—even though there were already females, presumably, among the animals God brings—no suitable mate can be found for Adam. Oops! Did God goof? Or … did God plan the creation of woman to be something unique in order to impress upon both the man and the woman how important it was for them to be together?
After God has fashioned a woman out of one of Adam’s own ribs and brought her to him, Adam certainly is impressed:
The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” (Genesis 2:23)
So as we see from the narrative, the climax of creation is not just the creation of humans but the marriage of these creatures, whom God has made in his own image! God’s creation of Eve from part of Adam’s body shows how ancient the idea is that in marriage the man and the woman unite, or overlap. And of course, God’s creation of the one-flesh sexual relationship (Genesis 2:24) extends that concept for all time and all generations.
From this perspective, humanity is not God’s last and greatest creation; human marriage is.
Judaism gives particular emphasis to a further supernatural aspect to every marriage. “If G-d created man, woman, and their marriage relationship,” writes Rabbi Maurice Lamm, “and if the creation of man and woman is good and marriage a blessing; then G-d is a conscious, albeit silent, partner in the marriage. Thus the ideal Jewish marriage is a triangle composed of two human beings and their Creator.”[i] Christians embrace this concept too.
There are many implications—huge implications—to this. For example, imagine the metaphysical impact of adultery. “If one partner is unfaithful it is not just a marital problem, it shatters the fundamental unit of creation,” says Lamm. To illustrate: a human wife may be able to forgive her husband’s violation of her personal integrity, but, as Lamm points out, “they have no right to forgive their assault upon G-d’s integrity and His participation in the marriage.”
When Jesus came along and offered groundbreaking new insights about the character of God, it had ramifications for marriage also. Jesus presented a sharply-focused understanding of God as triune—Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons together in one divine essence. In this context, God exists eternally in perfect community. The one-flesh community of marriage serves as a reflection of that community in the creatures made in his image.
This is not to say that the supernatural unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is in any way sexual. Just as humans are not God, neither is being united in one flesh the same as God’s community; but in the natural, physical human design we see a shadow of the greater community of God.
Don’t read on yet. Read the preceding paragraph again and let it sink in.
Now you can read on.
The apostle Paul offers one more expression of this spiritual vision of marriage. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul paints a picture of the relationship of Christ, the Lord of Creation, with the church. “Husbands, love your wives,” he says, “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.” He goes on,
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. (Ephesians 5:25-32)
In other words, Jesus, the Son of God, the Anointed One of God, envisions a level of community with his church—the aggregate body of all who believe in him—that humans can only begin to comprehend by comparing it to the one-flesh community of man and woman in marriage as God created it in the beginning.
John, the writer of Revelation, offers a vision of this community in its final glory:
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21:2-3)
What does this mean?
Well, if you ever imagined that the Bible was full of finger-wagging no-no’s regarding sex, think again. Rather, it presents sexuality as a gift given by God to help bring us just a little closer to glimpsing what it’s like to be created in his image and to be in community with him. It would be hard to find a higher view of human sexuality than we see in the Jewish and Christian scriptures.
And don’t miss the thing to be inferred from this: in this context, between a man and a woman united in Godly marriage, becoming one flesh … yes, sex … is … (wait for it) … worship—of the God who has made them in his image and invited them to glimpse what community in His image is like.[ii]
Paul reminds the church at Corinth, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Cor. 6:16) Well, what do you do at a temple—do you worship? (Answer: yes)
If you’ve never heard this and are initially perhaps even outraged by it, take a moment to consider why; the story behind it is also in Genesis. God’s Enemy, identified in Genesis as a serpent, was bent on corrupting God’s creation, and he accomplished his nefarious objective with brilliant efficiency: ignoring everything that was not created in God’s image, he went straight for God’s two last, greatest creations—human beings and human marriage—and he managed to corrupt both by weakening (and essentially breaking) the bonds of trust between the man and the woman and between humans and God.
How far we have managed to stray from the vision God had for human sexuality.
The Bible supports this understanding about the one-flesh marital union of man and woman in negative terms as well as positive. In the writings of the apostle Paul especially, we find images of what is not consistent with the sacred-community ideal of marriage as created by God. Sexual activity outside of marriage does not live up to the ideal. One-flesh sexual activity between people of the same gender does not live up to the ideal. Misuse of the sexual relationship of man and woman, even within marriage, does not live up to the ideal.
But how many of us have heard the warnings about these things without fully understanding the reason behind the warnings?
From Jewish and Christian perspectives, marriage has a powerful and complex spiritual dimension rooted in the Bible’s most ancient story. Marriage is unique; the unity of husband and wife has been designed to resonate with the creation of humanity in the very image of God. And God protects marriage and the one-flesh husband-wife relationship, as author Gene Veith says, by hedging it around with taboos.[iii]
True, that’s a lot to live up to; in fact, no one will achieve the ideal in this life. On the other hand, what impact—what blessings, if you will—could striving for this ideal have for our most cherished relationships?
[i] Maurice Lamm, “Jewish Insights into Marriage,” from The Jewish Way in Love & Marriage, http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/465160/jewish/Jewish-Insights-into-Marriage.htm
[ii] So, yes, you found it: “Worship” is the third category to which I am assigning this article.
[iii] Gene Edward Veith Jr. and Mary J. Moerbe, Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood, Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012, 83.