The Purposes of Marriage

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Marriage is purpose-driven, that is to say, driven by God’s design from the beginning. In the marriage liturgy, after the majestic words introducing the origins of marriage, there follows a statement of its “causes” or purposes:

The union of husband and wife in heart, body and mind was ordained by God: for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord; for their mutual joy, and for the help and comfort given one to another in prosperity and adversity; and to maintain purity, so that husbands and wives, with all the household of God, might serve as holy and undefiled members of the body of Christ; and for the upbuilding of his kingdom in family, church, and society, to the praise of his holy name (201-202, BCP 2019).

Procreation and the Nurture of Children

The first purpose mentioned, in the Bible and the liturgy, is the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.

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In procreation, God invites a man and a woman to participate in a miracle, the ongoing miracle of God’s creation. When two bodies come together, it is for a moment of pleasure and then they separate; when a child is conceived, a new body and soul come to be, with equal DNA from each parent, and this child will someday pass on that genetic heritage to another generation. The embryo encodes this surprise: the child is either male or female (with the XY or XX chromosome). Hence the exclamation at birth: “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!”

The sexual union of husband and wife necessarily entails the possibility of conception and birth of children. While the Anglican church does not teach that every sex act must be equally “open to reproduction” – that is Roman Catholic teaching – it does say that marital sex is inherently procreative and that abortion is immoral and contraception is acceptable only in family planning and not in family prevention. While having children is God’s general mandate, the Bible affirms that there is a divine mystery to conception, such that some couples experience difficulty or inability to conceive.

The procreative purpose is only half-baked without the education of children and young people. The Bible makes clear the need to “train up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:9). Parents and godparents, and indeed the whole congregation, promise in baptism to see that the child is brought up in the Christian faith and life. Hence Christian formation and education is an essential responsibility of the family and the church and is especially relevant in a society where skepticism and overt anti-Christian views are found in schools and the media. For this reason, many Christians in the West are considering private or home-schooling alternatives or supplemental catechetical programs.

Marital Love

C.S. Lewis wrote a famous books on The Four Loves, which he identified as family affection (storge), sexual desire (eros), friendship (philia), and God’s love (agape). So which kind is it that we find in marriage? I would claim all four, and they are experienced in different ways through time.

In the normal course from courtship to marriage, sexual desire is aroused. The lover’s eye fastens on the beloved and says, “This is the one for me, and want her or him for myself.” During the betrothal period, intense desire for the other is broadened, connecting with the other’s family and imagining a family of one’s own. Lovers, wishing to share everything together, become friends and find an intimacy that includes but goes beyond sex. Finally, Christians see in this whole process the loving hand of God, guiding them up to and beyond the wedding day.

And that is just the beginning. On the day of the wedding, sexual desire is fulfilled in mutual joy and transformed into a practice which the Bible describes as a “seal as strong as death.” The sexual bond becomes the basis for the flowering of other loves, as husbands and wives become friends, helpers, and parents. In old age, the sexual passion may be reduced but marital love remains.

Promotion of Purity

The classic Prayer Book is blunt in this regard, saying that marriage “was ordained as a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.”

Fornication is a biblical word (porneia), that covers a variety of sexual practices outside marriage (the word “pornography” comes from it). According to the Bible, sex in marriage is right and good, sex outside marriage is sin. There is really no way around this moral divide.

There is a “natural” logic to monogamy: God seems to have designed an equal number of males and females for mutual fulfillment. But in a fallen world, this natural math quickly fails: before long, boastful Lamech took two wives (Gen 5:19-24), and polygamy, formal or informal, became the norm of most societies, even in ancient Israel and even today in some Christian cultures.

Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina, his great novel about adultery, saying: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Survey after survey confirms that faithful couples have good sex lives. The Bible itself includes a vivid book called The Song of Songs, which describes erotic love as “strong as death,” but which in the same breath warns that “jealousy is fierce as the grave” (Song of Songs 8:6). Nothing is more tragic than a marriage torn apart by adultery, abandonment or abuse, with the lifelong scars on spouses and children.

St. Paul puts it bluntly: Flee fornication (1 Corinthians 6:18), and I might add specifically to men before or after their wedding day: flee online pornography, which is the bastard child of the technological revolution.

Building Up Christ’s Kingdom

The Anglican tradition has always seen marriage as essential to human happiness. Here is what the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops stated a century ago: “…to live a pure and chaste life before and after marriage is, for both sexes, the unchangeable Christian standard…and an essential condition of human happiness” (Resolution 66).

In the past century, Western societies have by and large abandoned this understanding of Holy Matrimony (let the Global South reader beware!). Recent court decisions in the USA have claimed to redefine marriage and even human sexual identity as a matter of personal choice. Not surprisingly, these societies have been plagued by various social pathologies that go under the hashtag “LGBT+++,” accompanied by overwhelming human loneliness, the sense of being lost in the cosmos. If the Word of God is true, it is inevitable that denying God’s design for marriage will lead to personal unhappiness.

The Anglican Church in North America rite places the vocation of marriage firmly in missionary terms: service of the Kingdom. Christian marriage – along with Christian singleness – is a form of discipleship, of taking up the Cross and following Jesus. In the early church, widows were the special care of the church. Today the church needs to offer love to the variety of single persons, from the not-yet-married, to divorcees and widows and widowers, and to those whose sexual attractions lead them to remain celibate.

Many people in high places today think they can blithely tear down the King’s design for society without consequences. Hence the scandal of being a Christian in our culture may include acts of resistance to the law of the state and the opinions of friends and colleagues. By God’s providence the day will come when God’s order is restored to the benefit of the public sphere.

Prayer and Blessing

Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in his ways! You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you. Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be live olive shoots around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD. The LORD bless you from Zion! May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life! May you see your children’s children! Peace be upon Israel! (Psalm 128)

This article is adapted from Stephen Noll’s book, Marriage: According to the Book of Common Prayer, now available from Anglican House Publishers.

Published on

February 4, 2023

Author

Stephen Noll

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry.

View more from Stephen Noll

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