Project Wittenberg

Human Sexuality:
A Theological Perspective

Marriage and Its Purposes

A Report of the
Commission on Theology and Church Relations
of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod
as prepared by its Social Concerns Committee
September 1981

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The earthly estate of marriage is a divine institution. It is therefore subject to certain divine requirements which remain in effect until the close of this age regardless of the social customs, civil laws, or ecclesiastical rites which may come to surround it. That God Himself established marriage and pronounced it good also means that He created it for the good of humanity. He is at work in marriage to accomplish His purposes. In marriage God intends to provide for (1) the relation of man and woman in mutual love (Gen. 2:18); (2) the procreation of children (Gen. 1:28); and (3) the partial remedy for sinful lust (1 Cor. 7:2). Both the fourth and sixth commandments presume and support these purposes of marriage in human life.


[8] While "mutual consent" constitutes the essence of marriage, there are certain conditions set forth in the Scriptures under which proper consent cannot be given -- e.g., married persons cannot give consent. Martin Chemnitz dealt with this question in the following way: "'What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.' But in order that it should be such an indissoluble bond and inseparable union, it is necessary that it be a divine union, that is, that it not be in conflict with the teaching of the Word of God about the essence of marriage.... For instance, if there is an impediment in the degrees either of consanguinity or of affinity which God in His own Word Strictly prohibited; if a person had another lawful wife beforehand; if the consent was not freely and expressly given, if the kind of error with respect to the person entered in which happened to Jacob with Leah; if a person's nature is simply not fit for marriage, etc.... Moreover, they do not separate a marriage that has been divinely joined, but show that it is not a lawful or divine union" (Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II, trans. Fred Kramer [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1979], pp. 738 f.; italics ours).

[9] For a discussion of the beginning of ecclesiastical participation in marriage cf. E. Schillebeeckx, O. P., Marriage: Human Reality, and Saving Mystery, trans. N. D. Smith (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965), pp. 244 ff. As a human institution a wedding rite win normally provide(1) a reverent context for announcement of the consent which is of the essence of marriage, (2) for the giving of thanks and praise to God for the institution of marriage, and (3) for the prayers of the congregation that the marriage will be a God-pleasing and fruitful one.

[10] The Greek term porneia is used in the Scriptures (Septuagint and the New Testament) to include the whole range of sexual immorality, i.e. fornication (Matt. 15:19; Acts 15:20, 29; 1 Cor. 5:1; 6:18; Gen. 38:24; Lev. 18). Porneia is sometimes used in the narrower sense of marital infidelity or adultery (Matt. 5:32; 15:19; 19:9; Lev. 20:10-11). The Scriptures categorically condemn every form of fornication as sin against God (Lev. 18; 20:10-11; 1 Cor. 6:9-10, 18; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5).

[11] The nature of commitment in the sequence of engagement and marriage is a twofold one: The promises involved in engagement (betrothal) are made with a view to the pledges given as part of the marriage ceremony, where the promise to live together as one flesh is given in public.

[12] The usual requirements for a valid common-law marriage recognized as legally binding in some states are: (1) an agreement presently to be husband and wife; (2) living together as husband and wife; and (3) holding each other out as husband and wife.

[13] At the present time approximately a third of the U.S.A. states legally recognize common-law marriages.


Mutual Love

[14] The frankly erotic quality of the Song of Songs is not a frequently mentioned topic within the church. Yet it could and should be. Consider the following comment of Stephen Sapp: "Although God neither appears nor is mentioned in it (which makes it 'secular' for us). For the sages he is not absent from the Song, nor are his love and concern for his creatures unmanifested in it. Rather they are clearly shown in the enjoyment and pleasure (given by God to man in the creation) which the lovers find in each other and in their surroundings" (Sexuality, the Bible, and Science, p. 26).

[15] C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1 trans. James Martin (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, n d., reprinted by Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p.86.

[16] It is clear that Gen. 2:18-25 has reference not only to marriage but to the broader male-female duality. Here, however, we use it primarily to refer to marriage itself as the center of the male-female relation. That this is justified, v. 24 makes evident.

[17] Keil-Delitzsch. P. 90.

[18] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, I, v. 45.

[19] Cf. Helmut Thielieke's fine discussion (The Ethics of Sex, trans. John W. Doberstein [New York: Harper and Row, 1964], pp. 66 ff.) of the distinction between sexual knowledge and knowledge about sex.

[20] Thielieke, pp. 20-26.

[21] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1960), pp.134 f.

[22] Ibid., p. 135.

[23] We have, of course, described marriage as we in our culture ordinarily experience it. It is equally possible that it might not be preceded by mutual love (e.g., marriages might be arranged by parents), but the institution of marriage would still be ordered toward such a relationship of mutual love, and we would expect it to give rise to this love.



[24] Robert Mehl, Society and Love: Ethical Problems of Family Life, trans. James H. Farley (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964), p. 46.

[25] The ease of contraception has been the cause of considerable disagreement within Christendom. The position and the problems of the Roman Catholic Church with respect to this matter have been well publicized, though perhaps not well understood. The teaching of Pope Paul VI in Humanae vitae itself largely a rearticulation of the traditional Catholic position, is that "each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life"(Humanae vitae [New York: Paulist Press. 1968,par. 11]).(We might note that, technically, an encyclical is not held to be infallible teaching. From the Catholic perspective the pope here speaks, of course, with great authority, but he does not utter infallible teaching.) Catholic teaching recognizes both the relational and the procreative purposes of marriage and affirms that both are to be fulfilled within marriage. Its position on birth control derives from its insistence that no single act of sexual intercourse can seek to enhance one of these purposes (the relational) while deliberately frustrating the realization of the other (the procreative). It is not enough, according to this teaching, for the marital union of husband and wife as a whole to be fruitful. Rather, every act of intercourse must place no artificial impediment in the way of fruitfulness. From what the Scriptures say about the threefold purpose of marriage, we could judge that such a viewpoint isolates the sexual act from its human, personal context and focuses too narrowly on the procreative function apart from the personal context. This is, in fact, a judgment shared by many contemporary Roman Catholic moral theologians.


Restraint of Sin

[26] We must, in this connection, add the observation that many marital unions offer healing in quite another, almost paradoxical, sense. Serious illness may afflict one of the partners; or professional responsibilities may make it necessary for one of the spouses to be absent from home for longer periods of time. Such situations call for the discipline of continence. That is to say, personal fulfillment is found at a moral and spiritual level quite apart from the opportunity of partners in marriage giving themselves to each other in sexual intercourse. Experiences of this kind fall under the category of bearing one's cross of discipleship. No less than the power of the Holy Spirit is available to married partners under circumstances of this kind. In fact, they have been given the specific promise: "God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it" (l Cor. 10:13).

[27] Gabriel Marcel, Homo Viator: Introduction to a Metaphysic of Hope, trans. Emma Crauford (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962), p. 87.


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Rev. Robert E. Smith
Walther Library
Concordia Theological Seminary.

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