The Meaning of Marriage

A Review of The Meaning of Marriage
by Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller

Meaning-of-Marriage1Sometimes perspective is everything. Against a cultural backdrop in which feminists declare marriage outdated and no longer necessary (Newsweek Magazine, “I Don’t,” June 11, 2010) even as LGBT couples clamor for it be redefined to confer on them its benefits, New York City pastor Timothy Keller, along with Kathy, his wife of thirty-seven years, offer another perspective on marriage.

Historically, marriage has been viewed as a duty to family and society. In post-Enlightenment times, as individual freedom gained currency as an objective good in itself, marriage came to be viewed as a way to achieve personal life goals such as emotional, romantic, and sexual gratification. This ‘marriage as a means of self-actualization’ view fairly well captures the contemporary construction of marriage.

But the biblical picture, while it encompasses both sets of desirable ends, reveals it to be much more. This is what the Kellers present, starting with Genesis, where God himself conducted the first marriage ceremony. Here are two salient points:

Marriage was established by God to reflect his nature in the world. The essence of God’s nature is his agape love, which means ‘a sacrificial commitment to live for the good of another.’ “Wedding vows are not a declaration of present love but a mutually binding promise of future love,” writes Timothy. In a wedding, “you stand up before God, your family, and all the main institutions of society, and you promise to be loving, faithful, and true to the other person in the future, regardless of undulating internal feelings or external circumstances.” It is an act of embarking on becoming a larger, more mature person. Agape is the caliber of love God himself has bestowed on humanity, but when fallen and frail people undertake to do likewise, a measure of difficulty follows. This leads to another biblical principle about marriage.

Marriage is one of God’s primary means of making us better people – people who increasingly manifest the self-giving nature of God. Nothing has the power to reveal unflattering character traits like marriage. “Marriage by its very nature has the ‘power of truth’ – the power to show you the truth about who you are,” Keller writes. It “takes you by the scruff of the neck and forces you to pay attention to it.” And yet, the greater beauty of the marriage relationship, as God designed it, is that it also possesses the powers of love and grace. It is the place where we discover the radical truth about how flawed we are, and the radical truth of how loved we are, reflecting the persevering, active love of God, revealed in the sacrificial life and death of Jesus Christ.

These biblical principles regarding the purpose, essence, and mission of marriage are all but lost on the secularists of our day, and this explains why the contemporary state of marriage lies in such disrepair. The enemy of marriage is sinful self-absorption, and the self-actualization model for marriage not only speaks its language, it feeds its furies.

Marriage, as God designed it, is a far more profound concept than a legal arrangement affording personal benefits. “Submission to God’s pattern in marriage gets you more in touch with some deep things in yourself, your primary maleness and femaleness, yet marriage balances you and broadens you, too,” writes Kathy. Its blessings and fulfillments are found on the far side of that submission. That perspective, with the help of God, can transform a struggling marriage into a striving and then ultimately a thriving marriage. It can change everything.


This article first appeared in Salvo 20, Spring 2012

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Terrell Clemmons

Terrell Clemmons earned her B.S. in Computer Science at Clemson University. A former software engineer with IBM, she is now a full-time wife, mom and overall, hold-down-the-busy-fort house manager, and a part-time freelance writer on apologetics and matters of faith. She is a contributing editor for Salvo magazine and blogs at Right Angles.

  • Frank


    I know you have strong beliefs about marriage, and I know marriage is talked about in the bible, which you hold dear. I think the problem is that Christians see marriage as exclusively theirs. However, historically, marriage is not exclusively a Judeo Christian concept. Marriage predates the old testament and is found in western and non-western cultures throughout recorded history. Historically, no one owns marriage.

    I know you think that the Christian god created marriage, but there are a lot of cultures and peoples that disagree with you, and I’m assuming you don’t want to live in a theocracy. I’m also assuming you don’t want our government to show one religion preference over another. I think the real problem here is that, historically, our country has been showing preference to Christianity when it comes to marriage. And for the first time in our history, that grip is beginning to slip. LGBTs getting married don’t make your vows any less meaningful, it just widens the definition of marriage by our government.

    • Terrell

      Thank you Frank for communicating respectfully. So many contenders in the marriage discussion do not. Thank you also for using a name. I can’t help but find something shadowy, if not cowardly, in people who won’t identify themselves. And kudos to you for rightly discerning that this whole issue isn’t a matter of rights, but of the definition of marriage.

      You may be surprised to discover that I agree with you on several points:

      Marriage is not exclusively a Judeo-Christian concept. Agreed.

      Marriage predates the Old Testament and is found in Western and non-Western cultures throughout recorded history. Agreed.
      Historically, no one owns marriage. Agreed … as long as we’re taking about human beings only.

      I would suggest for your consideration that marriage is a part of the created order. This would explain all three of the above agreed-upon points, including the one clarification I added onto the third.

      Question for you: Do you believe there is a created order?

      • Frank

        No. I’m an atheist.

        • Terrell

          Well, it’s nice to meet you, Frank. Nice to have you hanging out around here.

          • Frank

            Would you prefer the government show Christianity preference with regards to marriage definition?

            • Terrell

              In a word, Yes.

              • Frank

                Thanks for being honest.

                • Terrell

                  Well, of course. Is there a definition you prefer the government use, or do you prefer no definition?

                  • Frank

                    I want no definition. I want the government to remain objective and not show preference to one religion over another (i.e., the first amendment).

                    • Terrell

                      Do you favor abolishing marriage licensing and any legislation based on marriage as a government-recognized entity? (I would be open to that, by the way.)

                      Or do you favor retaining legislation based on government recognition of marriage, only with no definition of marriage?

                      I’m not seeing how the latter option would work.

  • Ryan Lidster

    I’m just not sure how the Kellers or you arrived at that understanding of “Marriage, as God designed it.” Nowhere in the Bible does it say that “marriage is defined as ___,” but rather, we are given scriptural examples. Those examples do not provide a very clear picture. Many if not most of the patriarchs of Christianity–Jacob, David, Saul, Abraham, Ezra, Simeon, Esau–were polygamists, for example. The Bible speaks favorably of polygyny in that case, so are we to assume that those marriages are part of God’s design? Jeremiah 29:6 and other passages have been interpreted by many Christians over time as an endorsement of polygamy, although I personally think that’s a stretch. On the other hand, where is this version of an exclusively monogamous, sacred marriage you’re proposing found in the Bible?

    Other examples: when a wife was widowed, Genesis 38 and Deuteronomy 25 obligate levirate marriage (the brother of the deceased takes the widow as his new wife). Deuteronomy 22 states that rape victims are to be obligatorily wedded to their rapists if they had been virgins. How is that reconcilable with your and the Kellers’ proposal that marriage is biblically instantiated as a “promise to be loving, faithful, and true to the other person in the future”? I submit that it is not. What the Kellers are doing is called eisegesis, not exegesis.

    One Baptist pastor was frustrated enough with that kind of bogus argument to write an opinion piece in the Washington Post about it. It is short and somewhat polemic, but I think it provides a nice counter to this deeply flawed misconception of marriage in the Bible:

    I hope you reconsider your position, instead returning to the Scripture itself before claiming that your argument flows from it.

    • Terrell

      Hi Ryan,

      Thanks for a respectful comment. To answer your question, if you want to see how the Kellers arrived at that understanding, the best way would be to read their book. As for me, here’s a basic window into my thinking:

      You are right; nowhere in the Bible does it way that “marriage is defined as ___.” As you point out, we are given examples. And as you point out, some of those examples are all over the board in terms of structure. They’re also all over the board in terms of being healthy or – more often – dysfunctional. What you may not have noticed is that nowhere are any of those varieties of marriage structures commended.

      Except for one. The very first marriage that took place was one man/one woman, and God himself was the officiant. And Scripture proclaims that it was “good.” (See Genesis 1:31 and 2:25). All the marriages that followed came after sin entered the picture. I would suggest for your consideration that the fact they’re in Scripture is not evidence of confusion or redefinition on God’s part, but rather is evidence of God’s longsuffering patience with fallen humanity.

      To borrow the Baptist pastor’s terminology, it isn’t that the Bible “dictates” sexual morals or defines marriage. Rather, if God spoke on the subject of marriage and sexuality and the Bible is the record of his having spoken, the principles are axiomatic. We can interpret or reinterpret the God-given axioms however we choose, but we only do so to the extent that God’s longsuffering patience allows. And ultimately, we only do so to our own peril. We may as well try to rewrite the law of gravity. We don’t “break” the law so much as we break ourselves in defiance of it.

      So, that’s my short, blog-comment-length response to your question about how I arrived at my understanding.

      As for your hopeful suggestion that I reconsider my position, I’m certainly willing to if you have another position and are willing to make your case for it. What is your definition of marriage, and what is your sexual ethic or moral baseline? Feel free to state it and make your case here. I will consider it.

      • Ryan Lidster

        Your answer is new and insightful to me, so I thank you for helping me think through this issue more, but it does bring up quite a few problems. You say that God does not commend other forms of marriage like levirate marriage, polygamy, and so on, but Deuteronomy 28 is part of Moses’ litany to the Israelites. Deuteronomy 1 explains that these are the words of the Lord which God told Moses to proselytize to the people, and that they should obey them. It’s very difficult to exclude that from something that God at least tacitly condones if not outright commends according to the Bible. So it’s not just that those examples of marriage happen to be in Scripture in some sort of neutral sense; they were, at least for a time, His spoken law. To claim that there is such a thing as “Biblical marriage” on the one hand, while maintaining that Mosaic law is not part of it on the other, seems demonstrably hypocritical.

        I’m glad that you asked for my own definition of marriage and my moral baseline in separate questions. I think it’s important to remember that definitions are not the same thing as moral pronouncements. The act of defining something is not the same as morally sanctioning it; I could easily define murder without pronouncing it to be good (and without getting on my soapbox and saying why it’s bad, either). Now, that’s not to say that definitions are always neutral or purely descriptive–people have long struggled to define “sport” in a way that includes the things they want to (like golf, baseball, or gymnastics) while excluding the things they don’t (like darts, Starcraft, or ballroom dancing). Even just defining something like an “atom” means that you are making a subjective judgment on some level that an atom should be considered a unit, even though there are some cases like plasma or metallic hydrogen that might challenge the appropriateness of even that judgment.

        So, all that to say that I understand that defining something includes a lot of decisions, but I think there are good reasons for coming to a definition of marriage that is not specific to modern, mainstream American Evangelical Christianity. For example, if a Japanese man and woman get married, it would be ethnocentric and frankly asinine of me to say that they aren’t ‘really married’ if their marriage included no vows before a deity or affirmation of a relationship to the Christian God or any god. Rather, it seems reasonable that a half-decent definition of marriage would minimally need to include them.

        So for me, I agree with many anthropologists in defining marriage as a “legally sanctioned (or, in communities where written law is not established, a culturally sanctioned) union between spouses that establishes relationships between the spouses and their families.” So, while I personally don’t condone levirate marriage, for example, under that definition, it would still constitute marriage in some form. Marriage, to me, certainly *can* imply other things like a testimonial before God in a religious place of worship, but it need not necessarily do so in order to constitute marriage. Across history and cultures, we will find many different forms and purposes of marriage. In the West, for many centuries, and indeed until relatively recently, marriage was considered to be essentially a proprietary contract establishing which families and individuals owned the rights to which property (and, while it might make us shudder now to think of it, that “property” included the bride). Our conception of marriage is very different now–marriage is conceptualized as something very different than it was a few hundred years ago or at the time the Bible was written–but I think that the *definition* of marriage I gave above would hold in all those cases.

        The implication of that is perhaps going to be difficult to swallow, but I think that it logically follows: our laws determine what kinds of spousal relationships are legally sanctioned, who (and how many people) can act as spouses, and what the contractual rights and obligations of marriage are. Under Mosaic law, a surviving brother was the spouse of his brother’s widow. In 2002 in Canada, a spouse was a woman entering into a relationship with a man or vice versa; in 2003, it became a single adult entering into a relationship with another adult. In over 50 countries in 2013, spouses can constitute more than two people. The relationships between those spouses are all examples of what marriage is or can be under that definition. The definition itself has not changed across time, place, or culture, but what has changed is which kind of relationships are legally sanctioned, and which are not.

        As for what I think marriage *should* be–i.e. what relationships I think should be legally sanctioned, or my “sexual ethic” as you described it–I think that’ll need to be for another time. I’ve gone on far too long just trying to define it! My apologies for taking up wall space.

        • Terrell

          Ryan, you said about that you hoped would reconsider my position. I said that I would if you’d offer an alternative position and a case for it.

          But I’m having a hard time discerning from your response what position you are advocating other than marriage being the “legally sanctioned … union between [any number of ] spouses” of any gender.

          Is this the position you offer as an alternative to one man-one woman marriage?

          • Ryan Lidster

            No, that could not be more incorrect. It is neither an alternative to that, nor is it my position. It is my definition. In fact, the point of my posts (plural) was to show how my definition is not the same as my position. For example, if you’d asked me to give my definition of government, I would not limit the definition to democracy. I don’t think communist or totalitarian governments are *good,* but they *are governments.* Any definition that excluded those forms of government would be wildly inaccurate. So, please understand how “defining” and “advocating” are very different things.

            You asked for two distinct things: a definition of marriage, and my own sexual ethic. I thought it would make sense to start with the first, so I offered my definition of marriage: a legally sanctioned union between spouses that establishes relationships between the spouses and their families. As for my personal position, I haven’t advocated for or against anything at all yet.

            In fact, I would rather not offer my personal position. Of course, I will if you press the point — I’m perfectly comfortable with my position, and I don’t intend to avoid a discussion like you are avoiding talking about the Bible’s examples of commended spousal relationships. It’s only that I think that doing so will make you focus on my personal position and miss the bigger point. To be frank, my personal position is probably not much different than yours anyway, but it is not my goal to change your opinion on what kinds of spouses should be legally sanctioned. My goal was simply to say that there is no such thing as a “Biblical definition” of marriage, so that whole line of argumentation really doesn’t follow. Rather, the Bible offers examples and their contexts from which we could argue for what kind of spousal relationships should be legally sanctioned in our society today.

            • Terrell

              Okay, Ryan. If your goal “was simply to say that there is no such thing as a ‘Biblical definition’ of marriage,” you have accomplished that. You’ve said it. Thank you. The alternative assertion is that it does, specifically in Genesis ch 1-2, with supporting references such as those William Okc identified.

              I think the point of disagreement between you and me is how we interpret those Bible passages. I’m willing to identify that point of disagreement and leave it at that.

              I’m glad to hear you say that your personal position is probably not much different from mine. It sounds like we agree much more than disagree. Nice to have on you CAA.

              • Ryan Lidster

                Frankly, that is not an alternative because it is demonstrably false. There are, as I have cited, other instances of commended forms of marriage in the Bible that are not mutually compatible with Genesis 1-2 as an exclusive definition. You have not addressed those contradictory points at all. Separately, saying that the Bible has no examples of other forms of marriage is just a vapid argument; I’ve used the examples of defining mammals and government to show how the absence of other examples is not really evidence of anything definitional in the first place. On top of that, you would do well to remember that it was the very same “absence of Biblical cases” argument that was used by Christian pastors in the 1960s to prevent interracial spouses from being legally sanctioned. It was intellectually unfounded then, and it remains so now.

                More importantly, *even if you accept that a Biblical definition of marriage exists* (which, again, would be folly), there are many reasons not to equate that to a definition of “marriage” writ large. Instead, I’ve offered you an alternative definition that is independent of Christianity and shown why we have good reasons to use that instead. My definition (which is actually not my own original but one that has been around in anthropological encyclopedias for many decades) not only accurately describes marriage and is compatible with your own sexual ethic, but more importantly is compatible with the rest of the Christian and non-Christian thinking world, unlike yours. I’m sad that you’ve dismissed that so callously. I won’t further waste my time or yours debunking a falsehood you don’t seem willing to evaluate critically.

                • Terrell

                  Actually, Ryan, I did address your points about other forms of marriage mentioned in the Bible. I noted that they were all examples of marriage after sin entered the world. Everything from Genesis 3 onward, is marred by sin. Of course they’re not mutually compatible with Genesis 1-2. Genesis 1-2 relate the marriage that God himself performed before sin entered the world and that God himself pronounced “good.”

                  I suggest for your consideration that that one marriage in Genesis 1-2 is sufficient, definitionally, for one man-one woman marriage to be referred to as “marriage as God designed it.”

                  You are welcome to disagree with me. I can be a peace with letting the disagreement over differing interpretations of Genesis 1-2 remain unresolved.

      • William Okc

        I would disagree that the Bible does not define marriage. It gives at least a minimal definition that it at least be male-female, since that is consistently the only gender combination we ever see referred to as marriage. I think too it is significant that even non-Christian religions, some that do not condemn homosexual activity, historically never equate it with marriage. At the existential level there is a definite reality there: male and female together is not the same as 2 males or 2 females together. It is a different type of union. I see Jesus Himself clarifying/defining marriage in Mark 10, making reference back to Genesis but also clarifying for the pharisees what marriage really means: a “one flesh” union between male and female. “From the beginning of creation God made them male and female…” Whatever other variations in areas besides gender that are ever mentioned elsewhere – multiple wives or whatever – the male-female quality of marriage is never questioned, or swapped out for same-sex couplings that are labeled “equal” to marriage. This seems so obvious. How is it that now even Christians begin to be blinded to the unique quality of the two genders together?

        • Ryan Lidster

          Alleged blindness to the unique qualities of heterosexual relationships isn’t really relevant to the point of my comment. Indeed, you could argue from that basis to say that you think heterosexual marriages (monogamous or polygamous) should be legally sanctioned while others should not. In fact, that would be one version of marriage that’s fully compatible with everything I’ve said so far.

          However, the Baptist pastor, Terrell, and I all agree (I think) that the Bible never states outright how marriage is defined. We have to extrapolate using examples. That gives us an idea of what forms marriage took during Biblical times, but that’s hardly the same thing as the Bible delineating what is and is not marriage. It frankly just doesn’t do that.

          Terrell and I disagree on two points. First, Terrell stated that God “commends” only one form of marriage, that of Adam and Eve’s monogamous, heterosexual relationship. I think that the Bible gives explicit commendation to several forms of marriage, few of which are exclusive to a single wife. So, I disagree with her in saying that “Biblical marriage” is a singular concept, even when we understand it not to mean a definition but rather just examples of condoned forms of marriage in the Bible.

          Now, you are correct in saying that the Bible has no examples of explicitly condoned homosexual spouses, so if you’d like to say that “Biblical marriage” should be taken to mean “the union of a man (and his brother in the event of his death) to at least one wife and optionally concubines,” then by all means, that seems logical. I’d just point out that “Biblical marriage” in that sense does *not* mean “marriage how the Bible defines it.” Rather, it can only mean “a complete list of examples of marriage from Scripture.” Those are very different things.

          There’s a further problem with saying that “Biblical marriage” and “marriage” are or should be the same thing. That’s the second point where Terrell and I disagree, as I understand it.

          • Ryan Lidster

            I thought of something that might help explain the difference between definitions and examples. Imagine if I wanted to define a “mammal” (I just picked something that has historically been contentious in science). I could give examples of mammals like lions, elephants, and monkeys; in fact, on point, I could list every mammal that appears in the Bible. That would not be a “definition” of what a mammal is; it wouldn’t tell us what the unique qualities of being mammals are. Separately, in this specific case, it would exclude other examples of mammals like the platypus or entire classes of mammals like marsupials (e.g. kangaroos and opossoms). A definition of “mammals” would have to read something like “a class of animals whose females have mammary glands for feeding their young, and blah blah blah.” So, a definition and a list of examples are really two different things. That’s what I mean when I say the Bible gives no definition of marriage. God shows us examples, but He never comes down and gives us the denotation.

            • William Okc

              Yes, God gives us examples, but how can you overlook the fact that He never gives an example of a same-sex marriage? And that every time homosexual sex acts are mentioned by Him in the Bible, they are condemned as sinful? And that Jesus Himself makes plain that marriage is a one-flesh union of man and wife?

              Put these facts together and you have the answer to the question under consideration, which is whether or not same-sex couples qualify as marriage according to the Bible. They don’t, because there is no credible way anybody approaching the question with fairness can logically put gay marriage together with those biblical facts.

              Marriage is and always has been (even in non-Christian cultures) an intrinsically male-female type of relationship, because it is a relationship structured around the idea of sexual union. Homosexual sex acts are never referred to in the Bible except in condemnation. Saying in protest that the Bible does not give a dictionary definition of marriage is a bit silly because as I said in another comment the Bible is not a dictionary. It gives the definition, but you have to put the information together to get there, keeping in mind that the answer was so obvious as to be a ridiculous question in biblical times.

              So the “argument” that the Bible doesn’t provide a dictionary definition of marriage is really more of a debating tactic used by somebody who is internally convinced that homosexuality must be treated identically to heterosexuality than a serious argument. This is the prevailing fad at the moment: that homosexuality is in every way “equal” to heterosexuality, and must be treated accordingly. The problem with this belief though is that it is false: homosexuality is not equal to heterosexuality. In terms of uniting 2 people sexually, heterosexuality is clearly superior to homosexuality. Which is why it is the basis for marriage.

              Unfortunately, political correctness forbids saying these things unless you are very very careful not to appear “homophobic”, whatever that means. Hurt feelings by sensitive people trump truth and honesty, with the result that people fall into ignorance in enormous numbers.

              • Ryan Lidster

                Homosexual marriage in the Bible is not the question under my consideration. It is clearly your chosen topic, and that’s a valid discussion to have, but it wasn’t the one I was having. If you look at any of my comments (and Terrell’s for that matter), you’ll find that the only time either of us mention homosexuality at all is when I respond to your observation of a lack of homosexual relationships in the Bible. I’m not skirting around the issue; I’m talking about something different. Instead of acknowledging that, you’ve attributed all sorts of opinions and intentions to me that are not mine.

                For example, I’m not overlooking the fact that the Bible never gives examples of condoned same-sex relationships. I actually pointed out how that’s correct! I used the example of marsupials to show how lacking biblical cases of X or Y type of marriage is not really relevant to definitions.

                Mark is clearly referring to marriage, yes, and so is the Deuteronomist. They provide multiple accounts of what marriage should be. If you say that Mark is advocating for monogamy to the exclusion of other relationships, then you have effectively argued that the Bible is self-contradictory. (Given, the Baptist pastor in the article I linked embraces that notion) I’m not sure what kind of weight or importance a “definition” of that kind would have if it is contradicted by another “definition” ostensibly inspired by the same author. Instead, my point in all of these comments has been (and remains) to show why a definition of marriage has to be independent of the Bible. Instead, Christians should use biblical exegesis to argue for sanctioning certain spousal relationships and, presumably, prohibiting the sanctioning of others. Again, if you think that unions between homosexual spouses should not be sanctioned, that is perfectly compatible with my definition of marriage.

          • William Okc

            I was actually responding to Terrell, where she said that nowhere does the Bible give a definition of marriage. And I just wanted to remind her if she may not have referred to the text of Mark lately that there Jesus Christ Himself says in Mark 10 that “…from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh.” I don’t see any credible way anybody can say that the Bible does not rule out same-sex couples as marriages. Because, again, He says FOR THIS REASON a MAN shall leave his mother and father and BE JOINED to his WIFE, and the TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH. He is talking about marriage here. The Bible is not a dictionary. He is not saying “Marriage (noun) – a heterosexual relationship consisting of …” But he is making it plain that marriage, at a minimum, is a relationship based on the one-flesh quality of the male-female union.

            • Terrell

              Thanks William. I agree with everything you said here. I appreciate your elucidation.