“For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31, R.V.) (See also Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:45; Mark 10:7-8.)
These words refer, of course, to the action of a man in getting married. They indicate why it should be done. If, therefore, we look at the context of these words, we may expect to find out something about the ground and the purpose of marriage. What is more, these words come more than once in the Bible. They occur first in Genesis 2: 24, and in Matthew 19:4-5 they are quoted by our Lord as words of God, the Creator. In Ephesians 5:31 they occur again. In seeking to understand this repetition we may rightly distinguish a two-fold reference—first, to the divinely-ordained place of marriage, and second, to its God-given pattern.
The place of marriage
The first reference of this statement concerns the fundamental justification of marriage; it indicates the reason for giving it the place that it holds in human relations. This is found in the divine ordering of creation, and in God’s plan and purpose as the Creator. For when God made man he made us male and female. He took the woman out of the man to provide a helpmeet for the man, and a help of such an intimate character as to be his ‘other half’. This fundamental facet of human life is something whose significance we all need to recognise—especially those who get married and their parents. Let us consider two of its aspects.
a) Marriage is a divine ordinance. The witness of Scripture makes plain that getting married is not just man’s idea. It is not merely an expression of the initiative and free choice of the couple concerned. Rather our capacity and our desire for marriage are God-given. Therefore the only wise and right way to live the married life is to seek to learn from God’s word, by submission to his guidance, how it should be done. So, in a Christian wedding, the first thing the man and the woman do together as husband and wife is to kneel in prayer—a practice that they should often repeat.
Also, since it is God the Creator who has thus joined man and woman together in marriage, men have no right to order, and still less to break apart, the marriage relation just to please themselves. So our Lord explicitly declared, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder”.
b) The marriage relation is the primary social loyalty. It is by thus coming together in marriage that a man and woman become parents, and a new family is established. Until a man or woman gets married, their first human duty is to their parents. But, once he or she does get married, from then on, the married partner comes first. So, as the word of God plainly states, a man has an ought, in some sense, to forsake his nearest—to leave his father and mother—in order to cleave to his wife. The one person a married person should never forsake is his wife—or her husband. Family life can only become stable and remain secure when, in devotion to, and care for, one another, husband and wife through thick and thin thus stick together—till death do them part.
The pattern for marriage
The second reference of our text concerns the practice of married life, the pattern of its fulfilment, the way to enter into it worthily and richly. By the Christian, by the saved sinner who by God’s grace and Christ’s death has become a member of Christ’s Church, this pattern is found in the divine ordering of redemption, in God’s work as the Redeemer. For here at a higher level and in a mystical or spiritually allegorical sense, the incarnate Son of God has taken the company of the redeemed to be, as it were, a part of himself—to be his bride and to belong to his body. It is, therefore, in the fulfilment of this relation between Christ and his Church that the Christian husband and wife are taught to find the supreme pattern for living together and for one another. Read thoughtfully Ephesians 5. 22-33. The pattern for the husband is loving self-sacrifice. The pattern for the wife is reverent submission and devotion. So true marriage is a divinely intended school of unselfishness, and a daily challenge to its practice.
Its crowning paradox is that in the hour when each gets a life-partner to lean upon, each is called in a new and lifelong way to begin to give. The secret of happy and fruitful married life is found in giving—in giving first to one another, in giving second to our children, in giving third to all whom we welcome into our home; and above all, and through all, in giving to the Lord himself in reverent submission and devotion and in loving self-sacrifice; remembering “the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said that it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
This article was first published in the Australian Church Record on 11 December 1958. In this series we hear reflections on Scripture from the Rev. Alan M Stibbs.