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Do you ever get the feeling you missed something? I do.

For example, the whole marriage license thing. My wife and I married in 1968, just as marriage entered a long-term decline. Living together was in; loving was in; formal marriage—“the piece of paper” (as in, “You don’t need a piece of paper to be in love”)—was definitely out.

For a long time, marriage rates declined and divorce rates soared, indicating that perhaps “the piece of paper” didn’t mean so much after all. My wife and I stayed married, and behind the times.

Our children had to cope with plain old relationships: “I have two sisters,” or, “I have a brother and a sister,” or, “We live with both our parents.”

Other children could boast fancier pedigrees, more elaborate descriptions: “I’m my stepdad’s son from a previous relationship,” or, “I live with my dad during the summer and with my mom during the school year,” or, “She’s my half sister: our mom’s the same, but we have different dads.”

While more and more families were “blended,” my wife and I remained “homogenized.”

Marriage suffered further from the depredations of the entertainment industry. Kurt Russell, movie star and longtime live-in of actress Goldie Hawn, damned marriage with faint praise: “I think marriage is fine. It’s got very little to do with your relationship. But the rules that come and go with marriage, I would love for us to be able to do without and get past.”

Karen Go, writing of another high profile cohabiting couple, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, said that “instead of believing in a union because it has been written down on paper, I value the sincerity of Tim and Susan’s relationship because it isn’t based on a legal tie that forces them to stick it out.”

Then something extraordinary happened. Just when I thought it was down for the count, the marriage license, the “piece of paper” so long ridiculed and devalued, suddenly became a hot commodity. Everybody wanted one, including some decidedly nontraditional applicants. Opinions as to whether this was good or bad differed significantly.

In 1996, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In 1999 and 2004, courts in Vermont and Massachusetts, respectively, weighed in on the subject. With everyone from Congress to courts to cohabitants defining and redefining marriage, it seemed to me, as a Christian, like a good time to check on how the Bible defines marriage.

What the Bible says

To answer such questions, I always like to start with the basics, so I turned to the Bible’s book of the basics, Genesis. Sure enough, right there in the second chapter, marriage comes up.

No sooner did God create Adam than the first man began to look around, and he discovered that among all the animals, only he was alone. As my wife will attest, it’s not wise to leave men alone for very long. God agreed. “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him’ ” (Genesis 2:18).

So God made Eve and joined the first couple in marriage. Lest we miss the significance of this, Genesis goes out of the way to clarify this union. “For this reason,” the author tells us, “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Simple, straightforward: one man, one woman, one flesh.

But “one flesh”? Yes. During the fleeting moments when husband and wife come together physically, they are one flesh. And when conception occurs as a result of this physical union, this one flesh takes on an independent form as a child. Every parent can see this. Each child, so individual, is nevertheless an interesting blending of the parents’ physical characteristics. “He has his mother’s eyes,” we say, or, “She has her father’s complexion.”

Modern DNA identification techniques verify this blending into one flesh beyond eyes and complexion, all the way down to the genetic blueprint. The child becomes a living testament to the oneness of the union.

Not by chance do we link children with marriage, for God gave a commission to the first couple: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it’ ” (Genesis 1:28). So in the beginning, marriage was “one man, one woman, one flesh.”

Something happened

But then came sin. The blight of sin affected every creature and distorted every relationship, including marriage. The human body no longer functioned perfectly. Some women could not bear children. Some men desired more than one woman, and some didn’t want the one they had. Polygamy and divorce arose, neither of which God intended.

By the time God gave the law to Israel, women had ceased to be seen as “suitable helpers” and had come to be viewed as chattel, possessions to be acquired and disposed of. A man could divorce a woman by simply dumping her belongings outside his tent. The divorced woman often had to choose between starvation, begging, and prostitution. As an initial remedy, Moses required that men provide a bill of divorcement.

If God didn’t approve of polygamy and divorce, why were these practices allowed? Why did Moses provide for the bill of divorcement? “ ‘Because,’ ” Jesus said, “ ‘your hearts were hard’ ” (Matthew 19:8). He reaffirmed God’s original plan. “ ‘Haven’t you read,’ He replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one’ ” (Matthew 19:4–6).

Not only did Jesus reaffirm marriage as “one man, one woman, one flesh,” but He also used the Genesis account as His evidence. So if God didn’t change the design of marriage, who did?

The fourth chapter of Genesis tells the story of Cain. It begins with Cain’s birth and continues with the story of Abel’s murder at Cain’s hands. As punishment, God condemned Cain to the life of a vagabond, always on the move. To protect him from those who would seek revenge, “the Lord said to him, ‘Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold’ ” (Genesis 4:15, NKJV).*

There follows a list of Cain’s descendants. While the narrative passes without comment over Enoch, Irad, Mehujael, and Methushael in a single verse, it devotes four verses to Lamech: “Lamech said to his wives, ‘Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times’ ” (Genesis 4:23, 24).

Here, then, is the first recorded challenge to God’s model of “one man, one woman, one flesh,” and is a total repudiation of God’s authority. The serpent had promised Eve that she could become the same as God. In this passage, known as the “song of Lamech,” Lamech has the audacity to proclaim himself better than God. God provided one wife for Adam; Lamech took two wives for himself. God would avenge Cain’s murder sevenfold. Lamech would avenge his own mere wounding seventy-sevenfold.

Answering the Pharisees, Jesus attributed the changes in marriage to “the hardness of your hearts.” Lamech, who first dared to challenge God’s plan for marriage, displayed a pride-hardened heart that could boast of murder.

In the beginning, God designed marriage as “one man, one woman, one flesh.” Christ Himself affirmed that, in God’s eyes, marriage does not change. As the story of Lamech demonstrates, while we may think that we can change marriage, in fact all we can do is reveal how hard our hearts have grown.

Marriage hasn’t changed. We have.

*Scriptures quoted from NKJV are from The New King James Version, copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.

More than paper

Marriage is more than paper. It’s a committed lifelong relationship and as such, can be challenging at times no matter how much in love you are. The good news is that you can still enjoy a wonderful, fulfilled, and God-blessed marriage simply by working at it as a team. Here are some tips on how to improve your relationship:

  1. Communicate: Talk through your problems rather than bottling them up or yelling.
  2. Realize that no one is perfect: Accept the flaws in your spouse.
  3. Choose your battles wisely: If you are going to pick something apart, make sure it really matters. Unless the issue is something significant, learn to let some things roll of your back.
  4. Forgive: A marriage will suffer if there is hidden anger or mistrust. Therefore, if resolution is found, swallow your pride and forgive your mate.
  5. Never take your spouse for granted: Find things that your partner does well or things that please you and let him/her know.
  6. Be intimate: Let go of your inhibitions. Intimacy is an excellent way to stay close, doing wonders for any marriage.
  7. Date: Just because you are married, you should not stop dating. The activity is not important, just that you spend time together enjoying each other’s company.

Does This Tie Still Bind?

by Ed Dickerson
From the October 2010 Signs