Andreas J. Kostenberger is the Director of Ph.D. Studies and Professor of New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) and founding president of Biblical Foundations, an organization with the aim of "restoring the biblical foundations of the home, the church, and society." Dr. Kostenberger holds doctorates awarded by Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) and the Vienna University of Economics. His publications include the commentary on John in the Baker Exegetical Commentary Series, and God, Marriage, and Family. With Peter O'Brien, he wrote Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, and The Book Study Concordance with Raymond Bouchoc.
The Current Cultural Crisis
Incredible as it may seem, we can no longer assume that people in our culture understand what the proper definition of "marriage" and "the family" is. Not only is this a sad commentary on the impact of same-sex marriage activists on our society, it also shows how the culture's memory of the biblical tradition on which it is largely based is fading fast. What is marriage, biblically defined? And what is the biblical definition of a family? In this brief treatise on marriage and the family, we will take up these questions and proceed to discuss a number of related matters, such as singleness, divorce and remarriage, and homosexuality, in an effort to develop a full-orbed understanding of the biblical teaching on the subject. As I have sought to demonstrate at some length in my book God, Marriage, and the Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, marriage and the family are institutions under siege today, and only a return to the biblical foundation of these God-given institutions will reverse the decline of marriage and the family in our culture today.
What Is the Family?
The Bible defines "family" in a narrow sense as the union of one man and one woman in matrimony which is normally blessed with one or several natural or adopted children. In a broad sense, this family also includes any other persons related by blood (the extended family). In the book of Genesis, we read that God in the beginning created first a man (Adam) to exercise dominion over his creation and subsequently a woman (Eve) as the man's "suitable helper" (Genesis 2:18, 20). Then, the inspired writer remarks, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24 ESV). This verse sets forth the biblical pattern as it was instituted by God at the beginning: one man is united to one woman in matrimony, and the two form one new natural family. In this regard, "become one flesh" not only refers to the establishment of one new family but also to the husband and wife's sexual union leading to the procreation of offspring. This, in turn, is in keeping with God's original command to the first human couple to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion" over all of creation (Genesis 1:28).
These aspects of marriage-the complementarity of male and female, and the irreplaceable role of male-female relations in reproducing the human race-are part of the original order of creation, and are evident to all human beings from the enduring order of nature. These common elements of marriage are at the heart of our civil laws defining and regulating marriage. Therefore, people of all cultures and religions-including those who lack faith in God, Christ, or the Bible-are capable of participating in the institution of marriage. However, we who are Christians believe that the fullest understanding of God's will for marriage can be derived from a careful examination of scriptural teachings. It is incumbent upon the church to educate both itself and the larger culture regarding the full breadth and depth of God's intentions for marriage.
Marriage: Contract or Covenant?
Today, marriage and the family are regularly viewed as social conventions that can be entered into and severed by the marital partners at will. As long as a given marriage relationship meets the needs of both individuals involved and is considered advantageous by both sides, the marriage is worth sustaining. If one or both partners decide that they will be better off by breaking up the marriage and entering into a new, better marital union, nothing can legitimately keep them from pursuing their self-interest, self-realization, and self-fulfillment. To be sure, there is talk about the cost of divorce and the toll exerted on the children caught up in the marital separation of their parents, but even such a toll is considered to be worth paying in order to safeguard the most cherished principles of our independent-minded, freedom-worshipping, individual rights-exalting culture. If one or both marriage partners want to get out of the marriage, nothing should hold them back, or else the culture's supreme values-individual choice and libertarian freedom-are not given their due.
By contrast, the Bible makes clear that, at the root, marriage and the family are not human conventions based merely on a temporary consensus and time-honored tradition. Instead, Scripture teaches that family was God's idea and that marriage is a divine, not merely human, institution. The implication of this truth is significant indeed, for this means that humans are not free to renegotiate or redefine marriage and the family in any way they choose but that they are called to preserve and respect what has been divinely instituted. This is in keeping with Jesus' words, uttered when his contemporaries asked him about the permissibility of divorce: "What therefore God has joined together let not man separate" (Matthew 19:6). For this reason, marriage is far more than a human social contract; it is a divinely instituted covenant.
But what is a "covenant"? In essence, a covenant is a contract between two parties that is established before God as a witness, a contract whose permanence is ultimately safeguarded by none other than God himself. In this sense, marriage is a covenant: it is entered into by the husband and the wife before God as a witness. Because it is ultimately God who has joined the marriage partners together, the husband and the wife vow to each other abiding loyalty and fidelity "till death do us part." Rightly understood, therefore, a marriage entered into before God involves three persons: a husband, a wife, and God. For this reason, it is not self-interest, human advantage, or an unfettered commitment to personal freedom that governs the marriage relationship, but the husband and wife's joint commitment to conduct their marriage based on God's design and sovereign plan.
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