A Biblical Theology of Marriage, Sex and Relationships

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Note: You will probably have read most of this material over the past week as it pulls together some of my recent articles in response to the book “Beautiful Union”. However, I wanted to gather it together as it will form one of the chapters of the E-Book/ teaching sessions I’m putting together on the Doctrine of Humanity “Being Human”. I’ve included it here following on from the other material in this section on a Biblical Theology of Humanity.

As we’ve been looking at the Biblical Theology of Humanity, we’ve taken a bit of time to see how that works out in a theology of gender and focused on men and women separately.  What happens when the two come together? When two become one.  We are now going to flesh out a Theology of Marriage.  This will include thinking about what the Bible takes about sex and relationships.

In Broad brush strokes

We tend to track three themes when looking at the Biblical Narrative, God, Land, Place.  The Bible story is all about God’s people in God’s place under God’s blessing and rule.  It starts with the good, sovereign creator, who makes the world out of nothing, orders it and calls it good.  God makes humans, man and woman equally in his image and then mandates them to fill and subdue the earth. Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent and sin, this subjects them to death and creation to decay. Suffering and struggle are introduced.  God promises salvation and deliverance for his people and defeat and judgement for the serpent and those who ally with him.

God then begins to call a people for himself and makes covenants with them.  There are foretastes of what redemption will look like but also the people experience specific judgement or discipline. He gives them their own land to fill and subdue but when they are unfaithful to him, this leads to a death like exile.  God promises through prophets that judgement and exile will be followed by forgiveness and return. This happens but it is clear that the prophets are pointing further forward to a new Adam, a new Israel, an heir of David who will bring salvation.  This promised one is Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.  Jesus’ death on the Cross pays the penalty for our sin and defeats the serpent.  Jesus rises from the dead, returns to heaven and sends his Holy Spirt.  This means that God is present with his people in whichever places they find themselves.

However, Christ has also promised that he will return and will gather his people together in a new creation where he will reign and so we will be God’s people, in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.  Strikingly, the imagery of that promise portrays Jesus as bridegroom and the church as his bride as the wedding feast begins.

That big, broad-brush picture already highlights a few things that will be helpful and inform pastoral conversations about relationships. First, it points us to who God is. The Triune God is good, he is love, he is sovereign and just.  He does not create out of need, but out of overflowing love.  Secondly, it reminds us that this world was made good but is subject to the Fall. Third it reminds us that humans were also created good, have a role and purpose in creation, are finite, have sinned and fallen but in Christ know forgiveness, redemption and restoration. Fourth, it promises us eternal life, the future restoration of all creation and eternity with God free from suffering with evil banished.

The broad brush Biblical Theology helps us to start thinking about relationships, marriage and sex.  First of all, we can see marriage as a good gift from a good and loving God.  Because God is good and great, not only is sex a good gift but it also means that because God did not create out of need but out of overflowing love and grace that we do not need to see sexual intercourse as a means to win and earn God/the god’s favour. This rules out ritualistic views of sex seen within some religious cultures. 

Secondly, marriage and sex have purpose and meaning.  There are three aspects to this.  First, if God gave man and woman a mandate together, if God said it was not good for Adam  to be alone and made Eve as “helper”, then this means that marriage, including sex is to do with the creation mandate of filling and subduing creation. Secondly -and this is the point in Ephesians 5:21-32, if eschatologically, we are to think of Christ and church as bridegroom and bride then marriage  serves a purpose in pointing us towards the Gospel and our eternal hope.  Thirdly, if we are made in God’s image and if marriage and so sex, point us towards how Christ relates to his church then we expect them to reflect something of God’s nature.  We expect there to be self-giving love in marriage. We expect there to be deep and lasting intimacy.

Thirdly, sin and the fall helps us to recognise that there will be strife and struggle.  This is why sex and marriage cannot be looked to as saviour or satisfier.  There are things that point to this even in Genesis 3 but we also see further evidence throughout Scripture whether in the accounts of barrenness or in examples of distorted, corrupted and abusive relationships which are also censured under God’s Law. 

Fourthly, the perspective of eternity reminds us that marriage and sex are finite and limited.  They are for this life now.  Jesus said that we would not be married in heaven but be like the angels.  This should prevent us from idolising relationships now but help us to appreciate them as a gift for now. It should also help us to have a healthy attitude towards singleness and to widowhood too. 

We’ve painted in broad brush strokes to help set the framework and provide the tools for thinking and talking about sex and marriage in a way that is Biblical, pastoral and healthy. To deepen and flesh out the conversation, we would want to go into more detail looking at specific Biblical teaching.

What does the Old Testament say about sex and marriage?

In our Bibles, the Old Testament is structured as follows, we start with the first five books, the Pentateuch or Torah. We often refer to this as Law because it contains the law of Moses but it also involves significant narrative, we then have twelve books outlining this history of God’s people Israel. These lead up to the Exile, include one life story from the time in Persia (Esther) and then resume with the return under Nehemiah and Ezra.    After this and at the centre of our modern Bibles are the wisdom books including Psalms and Proverbs. Finally, we have the Prophets, 5 major prophets and 12 minor prophets.

The Hebrew Scriptures order things differently.  Like our Old Testament, they begin with the Torah but most of the history books (up until 1 and 2 Kings) are included with and categorised as prophetic books because they are not just telling history but giving God’s verdict on it.  After that, the wisdom literature is included with those post exile narratives and 1 and 2 Chronicles under the heading “Writings.”  To give a feel for the shape of things in its original form, I thought it might be helpfu to follow that structure here.

A. Torah

Genesis 1-3 Creation and Fall

The Torah is the first five books of the Bible and whilst we associate the word with “Law”, it isn’t just a set of rules but tells the story of creation, Fall, Flood and then the calling of God’s people beginning with Abraham, through slavery in Egypt and then into the Exodus. 

The beginning of the story of marriage is therefore found here in the creation accounts.  God makes man and woman, equal, in his image and commissions them to fill and subdue the earth.[1] This is fleshed out in Genesis 2 where God makes man first and after placing him in the Garden of Eden, to care for it and commanding him not to eat from one tree, he states that it is not good for man to be alone.  God brings the animals to Adam to be named, none are a suitable helper for him.  So, God makes woman, drawn from man’s side. Adam sings of her as being from his flesh and bone.  She is literally described as “like-and-opposite-to” him. This is where we get the idea of complementarianism from, that men and women are made equal in nature. There is a unity and oneness but there is also a distinction from them.  It’s worth observing that the idea of being a “helper” is not an indication of a lesser status within a hierarchy.

Moses comments that men will leave their parents and cleave to their wives, a new family unity is formed and there is an exclusivity to this.  This is emphasised in the use of the term “one flesh” to describe the relationship.

Sadly, Adam and Eve do not keep God’s command but instead, they eat the forbidden fruit, tempted by the serpent.  In Genesis 3, it is worth observing that whilst the woman is the one spoken to and responding and whilst she acts first, the man is very much present and involved.  The Fall leads to judgement and death. This judgement of death is expressed first through exile from the Garden of Eden, second through physical death to come and third through a changed relationship to creation and to God’s creation mandate now. Whilst the command to multiply, fill and subdue is exclusively blessing in Genesis 1, in Genesis 3, it takes on a different shape. 

Both man and woman will experience, sweat, toil, struggle and pain, whether in the work of subduing the land or filling it through childbirth.  There may well also be at least a hint of struggle, tension and conflict between man and woman as well. 

Genesis 1-3 sets out the intended purpose of marriage and sex.  Man and woman are meant to complement each other and help together in the creation task given them.  Marriage and sex are to do with the command to fill and subdue creation.  However, marriage and sex are affected by the Fall.

Genesis 6 Boundaries

Genesis 6 tells the story of how the sons of God saw and desired the daughters of men. Whilst the author doesn’t offer explicit comment or judgement, the framing of telling suggests a negative assessment.  This is seen first in the way that the language of seeing, desiring, taking echoes the language of Genesis 3 when Eve takes the fruit. It is also seen in the way that the story is tied to God’s assessment of human sin and strife. 

Who the “sons of God” or “sons of gods” are has been long debated.  The choice is between this reflecting spirit beings, probably fallen angels, forming sexual relationships with human women or it being about intermarrying between the godly line of Seth and the ungodly line of Cain.  Whichever way we read the account; the point is that a boundary has been crossed. God places boundaries around his people, as with the restriction on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and evil for a dual purpose, to protect his people and to protect his purpose.   Sex is bounded.  Genesis 6 provides a teaching basis for arguing that it belongs within the context of marriage and the Torah will go on to define marriage further.

The Law

There are two crucial commandments relating to marriage and families in the Ten Commandments.  The first is the command to honour parents and the second is to not commit adultery. Fascinatingly, the book of Proverbs will spend a lot of time reflecting on these two commandments.   They teach us that marriage is about faithfulness.  There is the faithfulness to each other demonstrated by saying no to adultery but also a faithfulness to God’s covenant and to future generations in the commands concerning parents and children.

The reason that children are to obey their parents is not arbitrary but rooted in the call to parents to pass on God’s covenant and law, teaching their children and grandchildren (see Deuteronomy 6).  This reminds us again that marriage is tied to the creation mandate of filling and subduing God’s world.

The law puts boundaries around sexual activity which emphasis faithfulness in contrast to adultery.  This rules out for example both bestiality and incest.[2]  Note that incest is not just about close physical relationships but any relationship within the close family.  Sex outside of the boundaries of marriage is ruled out. There must be covenant faithfulness. This excludes pre-marital sex as well as sex with other partners.[3]  Divorce is permitted but limited and it is clear that it is viewed negatively.[4]

B. Prophets (and history)

I’ve followed the Hebrew Scriptures structure of Torah, Prophets, Writings in including the history books together with what we more overtly recognise as prophetic literature.  There’s a close interrelation between the two. 

David and Solomon

Whilst David is known as the righteous king and Solomon for his wisdom, it’s important to bel clear that the Old Testament does not set either of them up as examples to be followed when it comes to sex, marriage and relationships.

Both men acquire many wives for themselves, against God’s instruction and this has a lasting and damaging impact, so that whilst polygamy may have been tolerated, we should neither treat this as encouraged or condoned.  In that sense I’m even wary of saying that it was allowed.  It is explicitly stated that Solomon’s polygamy led to sin as Solomon was drawn into idolatry.  Here, we see that the Scripture writers are beginning to draw a direct link between sexual unfaithfulness and spiritual unfaithfulness.

Meanwhile, there are a number of sad and sobering consequences to David’s relationships and marriages.  First, there’s the back and forth as his first wife, Michal is treated as a bargaining chip and a power status symbol. Tragically, this bit of the story finishes with barrenness and Michal despising David.  The most terrible example in David’s life of course is his sin against Bathsheba.  Notice that I consider it to be sin “against” not just sin “with”.  Bathsheba is very much passive in the story, she is seen, summoned, taken.  Many exegetes have legitimately argued that the sin described better fits the modern definition of rape than adultery.  Certainly, Bathsheba is defiled by David.  The consequence is grievous evil, judgement and conflict within the family.  David’s sin is followed by his son, Amnon’s rape of his half-sister. 

The prophetic picture of the unfaithful wife

Ezekiel 18 compares Jerusalem to an unfaithful wife.The prophet Hosea enacts a story where he marries a prostitute who proves unfaithful to him leading to unloved and illegitimate children.  The story represents how God has been treated by Israel.  God loves his people faithfully but they are unfaithful to him. 

It’s in the prophetic literature that we begin to see the image of God’s relationship to his people represented in marriage.  So, rules about adultery, divorce, polygamy etc have more than just an ethical dimension but speak theologically too about our worship of and witness to the living God.

C. Writings and Wisdom

The last part of the Hebrew Scriptures corresponds with the wisdom section of our Old Testament (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs).  It also includes Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles.

This means that in the Hebrew Scriptures, Ezra’s dealings with those who married outside of God’s people, against the instructions in Deuteronomy 7 comes close to the conclusion of the canon.  This reminds us again that marital and sexual faithfulness are closely aligned with spiritual faithfulness to Yahweh.


As mentioned earlier, the book of Proverbs picks up particularly on two of the Ten Commandments, “honour your parents” and “do not commit adultery.”  This reminds us of the role that marriage plays in nurturing and growing the next generation, in response to the creation mandate to fill and subdue.  It also points again to the importance of faithfulness.

Adultery and unfaithfulness is picked up on specifically in the words of Proverbs 6:32:

“The one who commits adultery lacks sense; whoever does so destroys himself.”

However, the theme is there throughout the book and especially in the early stages.  Proverbs 5 and 7 warn about the dangers of seduction. Folly and wisdom are both portrayed as women that invite you in but lady folly is clearly the seductress offering illicit sex.  Meanwhile, we are told that finding a good and godly wife is a good thing[5] and if you are wondering what such a good wife might be like, then Proverbs 31:1-31 perhaps offers some answers. Notice that the Proverbs 31 wife doesn’t quite fit some of our stereotypical expectations of religious conservatism.

Song of Songs

The Song is a love story, possibly penned by Solomon himself, certainly telling the story of his love for his beloved.  Whether or not we should primarily treat this as wisdom about relationships or metaphorical/typological about God and his people/Christ and the Church is hotly debated.  My view is that both are possible.  The Song is first and foremost pointing us to God and his people, it’s about the spiritual marriage we find fulfilled through Christ and his Church. 

However, through that lens, we have much to learn about human relationships too, especially if they are meant to reflect and point to that spiritual relationship.  The big take away, given the sensual nature of the language is that relationships are about love, that intimacy, particularly sexual intimacy is a good thing, a gift from God. 

Where does this get us?

The Old Testament enables us to say some important things about sex, relationships and marriage.  We are pointed to these things as good gifts from God. We are reminded that these good gifts come with a purpose and we discover that they can only be enjoyed in line with the maker/giver’s instructions.  We learn that healthy, faithful, intimate relationships are the product of wisdom and that there is great benefit in them.  Sadly, we are reminded that too often, human relationships fail to live up to that exalted standard resulting in great pain. 

The Old Testament is already showing us that our human relationships are meant to mirror Christ’s love for the Church so that we both learn from that example and through our marriages point back to him.

What does the New Testament tell us about sex and marriage?

We now turn to the Gospels as they reveal what Jesus thought about marriage both through his words and actions and then to the epistles -particularly Paul in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians.  We will also see how marriage shows up right at the end of the Bible as the eschatological telos of the story.

A. The Gospels

Encounters with Jesus

Jesus’ first “sign miracle” in John’s Gospel takes place at a wedding where Jesus, his family and his disciples are guests.  Jesus turns water into wine, not just providing sufficient drink to quench thirst but good quality wine in abundance, emphasising that this is a time for joyful, extravagant celebration.  This points us away from a merely functional view of sex and marriage and towards the kind of intimate pleasure we see in Song of Songs.[6]

John also tells us about Jesus’ meeting with a Samaritan woman by a well.[7] When Jesus asks her for water, she is surprised.  He then offers her living water that will completely quench her thirst and satisfy her desires.  It transpires in the conversation that she has been married five times and is living with someone who is not her husband.  We need to be cautious about speculation now because we do not know the reason as to why she has ended up married five times.  It could be that she is the victim of divorce and re-marriage, passed along the line or that husbands have died and that there have been levirate marriages.  It is fair to say though that marriage and sex have proved in her case to be like water from the well that runs out.  I think it is appropriate then to point to the Gospel and life in the Spirit as offering a better hope and true satisfaction that our human relationships cannot.  We should not go into marriage dependent upon the marriage and on our partner to satisfy. 

It is also crucial too to see that there are reasons culturally and with regards to the Law as to why Jesus might have been expected to engage with her. The very conversation itself is a demonstration of grace and compassion that deals with shame.  Similarly, Jesus is ready to face down the judgemental view of others when a woman considered sinful and immoral approaches him, weeps over him and anoints him with oil.

Jesus’ teaching

We might want to highlight some examples of Jesus’ teaching touching on sex, marriage and relationships.  First, when Jesus is asked about divorce, he goes back to creation principles. Marriage is about God joining a husband and wife together and so it is not for men to break that covenant relationship up.  Jesus provides for the exception of where there has been sexual immorality.[8] 

Jesus’ teaching is seen by the disciples as setting a high standard, a difficult burden to bear. They suggest it might be better not to marry at all.  It seems that Jesus is setting a tougher standard than the OT Law.  How is he able to do this whilst also offering a lighter burden? The answer here is found in his sermon on the Mount where Jesus also engages with sexual ethics insisting that the one who lusts in their heart has committed adultery. Jesus’ law is more demanding because it expects real heart change not just external observation.[9] 

Jesus’ response to the suggestion that it might be better for the disciples not to marry seems to be, with Paul, to recognise that there is a strong argument for not marrying, however, he seems to view this as harder still and therefore not something for everyone.  However, he observes that there are those who are in effect eunuchs, for whom sexual celibacy is the reality and this can be for several reasons including birth/genetics, the impact of what others have done to them and specific calling.[10] 

This helps us to begin to see something that emerges in the New Testament but is not specifically there in the Old Testament.  There is a place within God’s people for those who are single and celibate.  It is also worth noting that there are different reasons for this that may include Gospel calling but may not. As well as considering the natural character and temperament of people when it comes to relationships and singleness, we also need to treat seriously the impact of abuse.

Finally, when Jesus is asked a trick question relating to Levirate marriage “whose husband will she be?” He insists that marriage is not for life in the New Creation, it is for here and now. Again, this helps us to set marriage and sex in perspective. They are important but they are not everything.[11] 

Parables and Eschatology

Some of Jesus’ parables focus on wedding feasts, for example there is the story of the foolish, ill prepared bridesmaids.  The theme of Christ’s return and the New Creation being like a wedding picks up on the OT imagery of God and his bride, Israel and intensifies it. Here, again in the Gospels, we see that marriage is intended to reflect and to point towards the Gospel and Christ’s relationship to his church.[12]

Spiritual parents

It’s worth highlighting the example of Priscilla and Aquilla in Acts.  If marriage is about parenting and nurturing to fulfil the creation mandate, then here we see how it can also play a role in discipleship and nurturing as part of the Great Commission.[13]

B. The Epistles

Paul in Ephesians 5:21-32 teaches about husbands and wives.  This is the primary text for a complementarian view of marriage.  Men and women are to submit to one another in the church.  In marriage this happens as a wife submits to her husband as “the head.”  He is to sacrificially love her, in the same way that Christ loved and gave his life for the church. 

It’s worth noting a couple of things. First, that there is genuine mutuality and equality in marriage as well as distinction. This does not take away from the role of husbands as “head”. The word “head, in the context of Ephesians does suggest authority, though I want to suggest that this is not about gender hierarchy but rather that a husband has the authority to fulfil his responsibilities which are around provision and protection. We might also sum up what it means for wives to submit as “husband love your wife”, “wife, let him.”

Paul says that his teaching on marriage is first and foremost about the mystery of Christ and the Church. Once again we are reminded that marriage is meant to point beyond ourselves and through it we are meant to see something of the Gospel.

1 Corinthians 7 has much to say on marriage, singleness and divorce.   As with Jesus’ teaching, we see that Paul values and honours marriage but protects us from idolising it.  Marriage is important but not absolute. Again, we see how single people have a place and value within God’s kingdom. 

I want to pick up particularly on what Paul says about sex and abstinence. There, he emphasises mutuality and consent. Sex is about our concern for one another and our priority should not be to have our own needs met but to meet the needs and desires of our spouse.  The focus here also reminds us that whilst sex is to do with procreation, it is not just about procreation but also to do with pleasure and intimacy.

As well as being pictured as the bride of Christ, the church is also portrayed as a kind of extended, spiritual household.  Elders then are like fathers and we can also see women taking significant roles so that churches have both fathers and mothers.  For this reason, when determining whether someone is fit for leadership, Paul insists that churches should look at the person’s home life and the state of their marriage. An elder must be faithful, a one-woman-man.[14]

C. Revelation

Right at the end of the Bible, we see the church portrayed as a woman, as a bride.  The Church as New Jerusalem has a rival in the prostitute Babylon, just as lady wisdom faces off against lady folly.  Christ, the lamb, is the bridegroom and we look forward to a day when everything will be ready for the wedding feast.


The New Testament builds on the Old Testament in painting a picture of marriage that is shaped both by its imaging of God’s relationship to his people and specific commands and instructions.  Marriage is therefore meant to be a place of intimacy, but it also has a place in God’s mission.

Marriage is important but within boundaries.  It is for this life and so we are not to idolise it.  This means that we value single people including widows within the life of the church.  Marriage points us to Christ and the Church and is a reminder of resurrection hope.

[1] Genesis1:26-28

[2] Leviticus 18:7-18

[3] Deuteronomy 22

[4] Deuteronomy 24:1-4

[5] Proverbs 18:22

[6] John 2

[7] John 4.

[8] Matthew 19:1-8.

[9] Matthew 5:27-30.

[10] Matthew 19:11-12.

[11] Matthew 22:23-33.

[12] Matthew 25:1-13.

[13] Acts 18:18-28.

[14] 1 Timothy 3:

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