2. Marriage as a Divine Ordinance
Key to the New Testament teaching on marriage is the concept of marriage as a divine ordinance, and therefore not merely a matter of social convenience or state law. The essence of marriage comes from creation itself, and the Christian teaching on marriage is not a matter of a high ethical ideal for Christians but sets forth the very basis of marriage itself. If marriage itself is in fact a divine ordinance, then true principles of its nature must have universal validity.
Thus, when Jesus was questioned on the subject of divorce by the Pharisees, he immediately referred the matter to the principles involved in creation itself. The permissive legislation of divorce was not something which was "from the beginning". Alluding to the declaration of Gen. 2.24, which enunciates unconditionally the nature of the marriage relationship, he gives as the conclusion of the matter, "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate" (Mt. 19.3-8; Mk 10.2-9). P. Bonnard has pertinently commented, "It is not the antiquity of the institution of marriage to which Jesus calls attention, but the priority, in right as well as in fact, of the creative design of God". That they can and ought to become thus bound together in marriage is so "by the will of the creator inscribed in their physical differences".1
Seeing marriage as a divine ordinance leads to another factor, the sanctity of marriage. This is implicit in the first creation narrative – "And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply...' " (Gen. 1.28). It is also implicit in our Lord's teaching on the indissolubility of the marriage bond and in Paul's teaching which likens the marriage bond to that between Christ and the Church (Eph.5.31-32). However, there are two sections of teaching which demand consideration in this connection – Christ's teaching on eunuchs (Mt.19.10-12) and Paul's teaching in l Cor. 7.
The strict teaching of Jesus on the subject of marriage evoked from his disciples the comment that "it is better not to marry" (Mt. 19.10). Jesus' reply did not endorse this comment. He enumerated three classes of people who are continent and therefore celibate – those born impotent, those made impotent by men and those who for the sake of the kingdom have chosen not to marry. It is those who have thus exercised their freedom of will to whom it is given to accept this. But it is by no means considered that all would thus become eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom, nor that those 'to whom it is given' have received some superior vocation. There is no suggestion that marriage is a second-rate expedient for those who cannot attain to the highest virtue of celibacy. The teaching only deals with special instances in which the needs of the Kingdom would have to take precedence over the desire for marriage.
The teaching of Paul in 1 Cor. 7 has also been taken by some to indicate that celibacy is to be commended and that marriage is basically for the weak. "Good" (kalon) in v.1 does not refer to moral goodness in the sense of what is commanded by the law of God (this is expressly clear in v.26), but to what is commendable under the circumstances. These circumstances are the imminence of the End, in view of which Paul had no interest in the continuance of the race,2 as is clear in vv.23-31. However, other circumstances also pertained in Corinth – notably the temptations to unchastity which were particularly strong and had already received comment from the Apostle (6.12-20). In ch.7, he acknowledges that what he considers laudable in view of the imminent End is not expedient as a general rule, especially in Corinth. Because of temptations to immorality (v.2), the statement of v.1 cannot be taken as an absolute, universally valid rule, but is to be seen in terms of a gift of God (carisma – v.7). Again, in v.8, Paul cannot make his kalon a universal principle, for if not to marry involves one in consuming passions then it is better (kreitton) to marry (v.9).
The question naturally arises whether Paul's view of marriage is rather low, seeing its only purpose in preventing immorality. However, Paul is not here speaking of the purpose of marriage, but is rather dealing with the exigencies of a practical situation. Robertson and Plummer have the useful comment on v.2, "The Apostle is not discussing the characteristics of the ideal married life; he is answering questions put to him by Christians who had to live in such a city as Corinth. In a society so full of temptations, he advises marriage, not as the lesser of two evils, but as a necessary safeguard against evil".3 The teaching of v. 3ff makes it clear that the view of marriage here is not as low as is sometimes supposed. These verses make it clear that those who are married have a duty not to withhold conjugal rights4 from one another, Indeed, continence might be maintained for the specific purpose of devoting themselves to prayer, but this was to be only "for a season" (v.5). Prolonged asceticism may in fact give Satan opportunity to lead one or other into sin.5 While he speaks very much in terms of a particular situation, the marriage relationship involves a "debt" (ofeilen – v.3) concerning which the husband and wife are not to defraud (apostereite) one another (v.5). It can hardly be said that he does not see in the marriage relationship something which is good in itself, and it is noteworthy that in Ephesians, when the feeling of the nearness of the End was not so strong, the teaching on marriage takes a much more positive line (5.22ff).6
Thus, these two sections of teaching do not remove the conclusion that marriage is not merely the lesser of two evils, but that, having been instituted in the goodness of the Creator, it is itself good and sacred. It is in fact the very sacredness of the bond which makes its perversion so reprehensible. On the other hand, these sections have emphasised that even the matter of marriage is to be subservient to the Kingdom, not that the married must live as ascetics, but that some few may be called in the purpose of God to remain unmarried and be given the grace to do so.
1 L'Évangile selon Saint Matthieu (Delachaux & Niestlé, Neuchâtel, 1963), in loc.
2 J. Moffatt, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1938) on ch.7; A. Robertson and A. Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of S. Paul to the Corinthians (T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 2ed 1914), on 7.2.
3 ibid., loc.cit.
4 In v. 3, the reading thn ofeilhn is undoubtedly the right one. It is clear that the "debt" referred to is the conjugal duty of husband and wife (RSV – "conjugal rights"). The reading of the Textus Receptus, thn ofeilomenhn eunoian, was perhaps a euphemism for the same thing.
5 The clause, ina mh peirazh... umwn, could be taken with the exceptive clause rather than with that which immediately precedes it. In this case the meaning would be that, while normal marital relations are to be maintained, constant and unrelieved indulgence may have a debilitating effect on the spiritual life and hence provide an opportunity for temptation to ain. However, since it is incontinence outside the marital bond that is sinful, the other interpretation seems the more likely.
6 Cf. C.L. Mitton, The Epistle to the Ephesians (O.U.P., Oxford, 1951), p.22.