This post is a response to an anonymous question I received two days ago through our Have a Question page. This person asks:
If marriage is not the same today as it was in the bible, are the guidelines for sex still in marriage still the same? [sic]
As is usually the case, I wish I could respond and ask more questions in return to clarify the question, but as it is anonymous, I cannot. So, I’ll proceed with what we have.
Is marriage the same today as it was in the Bible?
This question has to be answered first before proceeding I think. It’s not really stated as a question by the asker, but it is an assumption that’s stated, and I wish to challenge it. The first question I would have asked in response would be “In what way is marriage not the same today as it was in the Bible?”
To that, I think we need to look at the Biblical definition of marriage. And for that, we generally start at the beginning. We see the first glimpse of what marriage is in the garden of Eden when the man and the woman are created. Right after the woman wakes up, we have a verse that says
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall become united and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
Which is a little curious in context. After all, there was no such thing as a father or mother yet, these humans were created, not born. Nevertheless, this one verse tells us a lot about marriage:
- The husband and wife need to leave their childhood family and start a family together, that a husband and wife constitute a family unit.
- That their lives should be intertwined, they should be “united” and the husband should “cleave” to his wife. Actually, the Hebrew says can be translated “clings-to” or even “catch by pursuit”. It gives the feeling of casing her and never letting go.
- That part of being married is the act of sex, this state of being “one flesh” is something reserved for marriage and is a promise of marriage.
This one verse gets quoted both by Jesus in Matthew 19 and by Paul in Ephesians 5 and is generally considered the primary verse for the definition of marriage.
So, is marriage today different? Well, that’s two questions I think. It’s God’s intent for marriage the same? I think so. Do we carry out that intent? Often not. We see a continuing rise in unmarried rates, people living together as if they were married, but without acknowledging what it is, for various reasons (financial reasons, commitment issues, whatever). We see a divorce rate between 30% and 50% within the church even. And our culture views sex, not as a holy and blessed act intended for marriage, but as a meaningless, harmless, recreational activity to be enjoyed by all in any context.
But, I still argue, marriage has not changed. Often what occurs and is called marriage is a cheap facsimile of marriage, a mockery. I wish they would use a different word for it. But, I believe that is part of the point…to degrade this sacred bonding.
Is biblical advice still relevant?
When dealing with the Bible, one has to be aware of two containers that commandments, advice, examples, etc. fall within:
Methods are cultural, they are responsive, they are temporary. They fit a certain circumstance, or a time, or a people (or person).
Principles are eternal. They are for all people, at all times. They do not change, and they do not become irrelevant.
In 2 Kings 5, we see a story of a Syrian commander, Naaman, who has leprosy. Elisha tells him to go watch in the river Jordan (a dirty river) to cure his leprosy. This is a method. Washing in dirty water is not a cure for leprosy. But, it was for Naaman. The principle is to listen to God, that He do things that defy our logic, and I think He often does, just to prove that we’re not in control.
In Acts we see the apostles going out and telling everyone in the street that Jesus is alive, that He is our redeemer, and they convert 3,000 thousand (perhaps thirty thousand depending on the manuscript) in a day. If you tried to evangelize the way they did today, you might be locked up. The method was for them. The principle, to tell the world about Jesus, remains.
In the New Testament, we are told to stay away from temple prostitutes. Here in North America, we don’t have temple prostitutes, I don’t think we ever did. So, this method doesn’t apply. However, the principles, of only worshiping God, of only having sexual relations with your spouse, are still relevant today, and will always be relevant.
These are simple ones. The discussion about what is a principle and what is a method can sometimes be more complex, but I don’t think they are for the definition of marriage. There is nothing cultural or temporal about them. They are very simple, clear, guidelines, and, in my experience, they still hold true. I would argue these are principles, and they will always be relevant. By extension, I believe the advice we have about sex is still relevant today. I think it can be boiled down to a simple principles and it’s corollary:
- Only have sex with your spouse.
- Do have sex with your spouse.
These principles may be archaic in the sense that they were given to use thousands of years ago, but they are not outdated. They have stood the test of time. Because humans haven’t really changed that much in the intervening time, and neither have our relationships. We still have the same issues, the same problems, though they may take new forms. We don’t have temple prostitutes anymore, but we do have porn, and we even have people claiming there is Christian porn.
Now, each of these principles are enough to write entire posts, or a series of posts on, but in short:
To only have sex with your spouse means no casual sex, no sex while dating, engaged or any other “committed” relationship. If you aren’t married, don’t have sex. By extension, if you are married, don’t have sex with anyone who isn’t your spouse, even if your spouse “lets” you (see how that worked out for Abraham in Genesis 16 and 21). No threesomes or moresomes either. These aren’t outdated arbitrary puritanical rules. These are designed for our protection from things we cannot even foresee. Even having sex with your future spouse has consequences that extend into your marriage.
But sex is an awesome and blessed thing between two people. And so, when you are married do have sex with your spouse. Don’t withhold sex, or affection, from them. Don’t do it out of duty, but do your best to be an involved and attentive lover. These too are not some archaic construct designed to satisfy the male sexual drive. The call to have sex with your spouse is what makes you one flesh. It binds you together, it increases intimacy, which will extend to the rest of your marriage. Don’t believe me? Prove me wrong. If you are the low drive spouse, give yourself to your spouse frequently and enthusiastically, and see how it changes your marriage.
Those are my thoughts. What are yours? Do you think the Bible’s advice on marriage and sex is outdated?