What are sex and marriage for? For most of us it probably sounds a little strange to ask a question like this. If we were to ask every married couple why they particularly got married, we’d probably get as many different answers. On the 19th June 2000 a columnist in the Times newspaper in England succinctly summed up our culture’s prevailing view of marriage’s purpose:
“The purpose of marriage is personal to each couple”
I’m guessing that in the minds of most people, there is no one single purpose for marriage and sex. The purpose of both marriage and sex is simply determined by the needs, dreams and choices of each individual: some examples might include…
– sexual satisfaction,
– social acceptance,
– relational security,
– emotional fulfillment,
– satisfy our desire for children…
As I’ve heard Christopher Ash state with unsettling insight, “coupledom can become nothing more than a [socially] licensed form of selfishness”.And yet, from the Bible’s perspective, humanity’s sexuality has a much grander and fundamental significance than simply self-satisfaction. The second chapter of Genesis (just for starters) clearly states that the purpose of marriage and sexuality are to help humans do God’s work in the world (Gen 2:15, 18, 20) Genesis 2:18 in particular does not say that God made humans as sexual beings because a woman is emotionally incomplete or lonely without man. Nor did God create marriage and human sexuality because man would suffer constant sexual frustration without woman. Rather, marriage and sexuality are fundamental to God’s purpose in creating people: that we might help each other rule and care for God’s world as God’s image (as God’s representatives in the created realm). Marriage and human sexuality are for the purpose of multiplying and filling the earth with more people who can reflect God’s image in the way they work and care for the world (Genesis 1:26-28). Now, please don’t hear me suggesting that marriage and human sexuality are just there for the sake of pushing out babies! Procreation is only the start of things. Marriage and human sexuality contribute to the whole process of begetting, nurturing and training children to share in God’s image, so that humanity might continue the task of ruling and caring for creation.
And yet, I wonder if this definition of marriage and sex’s purpose still seems a little mechanical to you? Does this description of sex’s purpose seem to be missing a certain something?
What about intimacy, delight & desire? What about companionship, pleasure and passion? If I’m right in suggesting that the Bible doesn’t ever describe these things as the purpose of marriage and sex, then where do they fit in, if at all?
Up until now we’ve only spoken about the purpose of sex & marriage. What God designed marriage for. We haven’t yet thought about the character of marriage and human sexuality: that is, its nature. I’ve only painted half the picture, so to speak.Let me give you an example of what I mean.
Below I’ve tried to diagram the difference between talking about something’s purpose, and its character. A broom’s purpose is not to hold a bunch of straw onto the end of a stick. The purpose of a broom is sweeping!And yet without the characteristics of a sturdy handle and flexible bristles, the broom would not be suitable for its given purpose. The characteristics of something, are what make it good for fulfilling its designed purpose. This is where desire, sexual intimacy, delight and passion fit into God’s design for marriage: they are the characteristics of marriage as God intended it.
I want to suggest that the essential characteristics of biblical marriage fit basically into two categories: The first characteristic of marriage in God’s design is delightful intimacy. The second essential characteristic of marriage in God’s design is exclusive faithfulness. Although I think the breadth of scripture attests to these two fundamental characteristics of marriage time and again, I’ll stick to how Genesis chapter 2 states the case.
1. Delightful intimacy:
In Genesis 2:23 the man responds to God’s creation of woman with something like a poem or song extolling the deep intimacy and delight that should Characterise marriage and sex at its best (see also Proverbs 5:18). I guess you could say that sex and marriage are God’s idea of a team building exercise: they perpetually unite a husband and wife in the service of God.
But marriage should not only be characterised by a delighted sexual & relational intimacy. Genesis 2:24 also describes a second thing that should characterise our marriage/sex. There we read that marriage and human sexuality are designed to be exclusive. For marriage and sex to work as God has designed it, husband and wife must share sex exclusively with each other. A relationship that is characteristically exclusive, lifelong and sexually intimate, will be best suited to doing God’s work of establishing God’s image throughout creation (Genesis 1:26-28). To sum up. Marriage and human sexuality is for begetting and raising people in God‘s image, for the work of filling, subduing, caring for and working creation. That is its purpose! But marriage will not sufficiently fulfill God’s purpose for it, if it does not also display the proper character of sexual intimacy and delight, along with exclusive faithfulness. These are the characteristics that will enable marriage and human sexuality to fulfill their intended purpose. In subsequent posts we’ll ask ourselves how these ideas might help us better understand the concrete pleasures and heartaches that we tend to associate with our current experience of sexuality and marriage.