What Is the Biblical Definition of Marriage?

Two far-from-perfect people are covenanting their life together — in sickness and in health, for better or for worse — until death parts them. What a beautiful picture of Jesus Christ (the groom) and his never-ending love for the Church (the bride).

Husband and wife in a smiling embrace

It is funny how our perception of things changes over time. For example, as a young child, I thought marriage was about this mysterious thing called “love.” Love was a noun, and whether you had it or not was dependent on whether you checked “yes” or “no.”

As an adolescent, I thought marriage was how you had children — the inevitable next step in adulthood (but come to find out there is more to it than just marriage!). In high school, I thought marriage was about the emotion of love — the poetry, the love songs, the warm, fuzzy feelings.

Then, in college, I thought marriage was about service and action — love was a verb. Now that my wife, Rebecca, and I have been married for 12 years, I have discovered that marriage is all of the above (or even more if we consider what the ancient Greeks had to say about it)!

Many of us have different ideas of what marriage is all about. If you have been married for a while, you have probably discovered that your spouse and you have different ideas — which has probably led to more than a few “discussions.”

The Meaning and Purpose of Marriage

There is also an increasing amount of confusion in our culture on the meaning and purpose of marriage. For example, here are some lies that the culture around us says about marriage:

  • Marriage is an old social custom, created by humans.
  • If I choose the right mate, I will have fewer problems.
  • Choosing to not marry will avoid relationship problems.
  • My marriage or my spouse should make me happy.
  • Divorce is sometimes the only option. 

Sadly, the confusion and misunderstandings about marriage have unraveled the beautiful fabric of what God wove together and have distorted the glad harmony and loving, submissive environment that God designed marriage to be.

But if we are honest, even those of us that have a more “traditional” view are also trying to wade through the messiness of relationships. Because of these things, many of us well know what marriage is not… but what is it? Or more than that, what is the biblical definition of marriage?

While we could look to many passages throughout Scripture to answer this question, we will go to the Book of Genesis to see this simple understanding: God gave us marriage to enjoy and display the gospel.

In the very beginning, God formed the first man, Adam, out of the dust and set him over the Garden of Eden. But soon enough, God declared that “it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18, ESV). Adam needed Eve and the nature of humanity required women.

So, to meet his need, God caused Adam to fall asleep so he could perform the first surgery ever recorded by taking a rib from Adam’s side and creating a woman out of it (“woman” meaning “out of the man”). God did not make Eve from Adam’s head to be above him or from his feet to be below him; he made her from Adam’s rib to be beside him and with him.

Then God sets in motion a meaningful event that would eventually become known as “marriage” when he declares: “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, ESV).

It must have been a beautiful wedding. God was the matchmaker, the florist, the officiant, and the Best Man. It was the best honeymoon you could imagine: They lived in a garden together (naked), fed each other fruit, and had no distractions. They were each other’s first kiss, hug, handholding, and everything else! They were literally made for each other. They were open, trusting, intimate, unhindered, and totally unashamed.

Adam and Eve did not create their marriage, it was God who drew the blueprint in becoming one flesh within marriage. This matters because if God gave it and designed it, then he gets to define it.

Why is Marriage only for Men and Women?

Marriage was defined by God, in the very beginning, as one man, one wife, joined together, unity, indivisibility, and that union that takes place. And actually, just the whole complementarity that we are two parts of an integrated whole is really even just marked on our bodies as male and female, really. The pieces fit. It's like God created us that way. And it's not like God, it's not unimportant, it's very critical, and it's very foundational to who we are. And it's very foundational to the message that God wanted to get across. He started history with a man and a woman in a marriage because he wanted to communicate important cosmic, spiritual truths about who He is, and also about Christ's relationship to the church. And He imprinted that on our bodies and our relationship as male and female and marriage, right at the very beginning of time.

It's like He wanted to tell a story, and so He stamped the story on man and woman and on marriage. And this story will stand throughout history until we see its consummation, until we see the reality to which the story points, and that is Christ's union with the church for eternity. 

And so this isn't just some arbitrary cultural sort of custom that we're talking about when we're talking about marriage. We are talking about who God created us to be, about truths about the Godhead, truths about how Christ interacts with the church, truths about male and female, all sorts of things that are obscured when we think of marriage as some sort of social construct or cultural construct. It's not.

Now certainly, various cultures have approached marriage in different ways. I know that there was one culture that the man would marry the woman, if he gave her a sweet potato, then they were married. Well, that was the cultural way, the legal way, that they were married. And cultures attach different legal meanings to it throughout various cultures.

But in terms of the actual meaning of marriage, we cannot change that. God created marriage to display some very important truths. And in Romans Chapter One, Verse 19, we're told actually, and that's in the context of sexuality when God is addressing different sexual things, and changing the order of things, then maybe people who think, "Yeah, we can do girl-on-girl or guy-on-guy or whatever." And it is in that when we are told that creation, actually from the very beginning, creation was meant to display the power of God, and truths about the character of God, and the triune God, and the invisible nature of God. So who we are as male and female, marriage in the very beginning, was created to display these cosmic truths. And that's why we need to honor marriage and honor who God created us to be as male and female.

God’s Ultimate Design for Marriage

Even though sin would later enter in and distort their relationship (Genesis 3) just as it does ours today, God designed marriage in such a way that offers a couple enjoyment through having a deep friendship, being sexually intimate, sharing life-long experiences, and having a family.

Think about it: God made men’s and women’s bodies in such unique ways that even the act of sex brings pleasure. Those are all gifts from our Good Father who designed marriage for us to enjoy.

But marriage is also an allegory that displays the gospel in a significant way. Because of God’s grace, marriage is a “secondary ordinance” that serves as a visual aid and a tangible reminder of the gospel by comparing God’s relationship with us to a husband’s relationship to his wife. The Apostle Paul plainly explains how marriage is more about Christ than us:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32).

Think about it: Two far-from-perfect people are covenanting their life together based on no matter what they have done in the past, no matter what happens in the future, in sickness and health, and for better or worse until they die. What a beautiful picture of Jesus Christ (the groom) and his never-ending love for the Church (the bride).

The fact that marriage is a picture of the gospel is so important, and it is why any other version of or abuse of marriage (homosexuality, pre-marital sex, pornography, divorce, domestic abuse, adultery, etc.) is so destructive — because it distorts the image that marriage was designed to present.

But the closer a marriage looks like God’s design (with limitless love, mutual submission, forgiveness, kindness, selflessness, etc.), the more it presents the gospel to the world.

Significance of Biblical Marriage

So, the right definition of marriage matters... a lot! When God, who created us and knows us, created marriage, he created it for our enjoyment and to display the gospel. It is one of the countless ways that God expresses his grace and love to us.

And because of that, a couple that is focused on God will naturally have a more blessed marriage because they are bound together by the strong “three strands” that Solomon talks about in Ecclesiastes 4:12: The husband, the wife, and God.

Photo Credit:© iStock/Getty Images Plus/Jelena Danilovic


Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, and most recently as the Lead Pastor and Planter of Village Church in Churchville, Virginia. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the Gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.