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What is marriage?

November 2015

The opening paragraphs of Chapter 24 in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) describe the biblical parameters for marriage. ‘Gay marriage’ doesn’t feature, because homosexual desire and behaviour are both forbidden by Scripture (Romans 1:18-32).

The WCF opens: ‘1. Marriage is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband, at the same time.

‘2. Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with a legitimate issue, and of the church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness.

‘3. It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry who are able with judgment to give their consent. Yet it is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord…’


Dr Jack Sin, pastor of Maranatha Bible-Presbyterian Church, Singapore, in a recent email, has drawn attention to the following valuable quotation from American Presbyterian leader Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823–1886) on the Confession’s teaching on this matter. Particularly worthy of our consideration is the quote’s final paragraph.

‘Marriage is a religious as well as a civil contract. No state has any right to change the law of marriage, or the conditions upon which it may be lawfully constituted or dissolved, as these have been ordained by God.

‘Neither has any man or woman a right to contract any relation different in any respect, as to its character or duration, from that which God has ordained as marriage. Hence marriage is a human contract, under the limits and sanctions of a divine constitution, and the parties contracting pledge their vows of truth and constancy to God, as well as to each other and to society.

‘But it is also a civil contract, because every state is bound to protect the foundations upon which social order reposes, and every marriage involves many obvious civil obligations and leads to many civil consequences touching property, the custody of children, etc.’


‘The state must therefore define the nature and civil effects of marriage, and prescribe conditions upon which, and modes in which, it shall be publicly acknowledged and ratified or dissolved.

‘It is of the highest importance that the laws of the state do not contravene the laws of God upon this subject, but be made in all respects to conform to them. The law of the land is to be obeyed for conscience sake, whenever it does not contravene the higher law of God. When it plainly does so, then Christian men and church sessions are to act themselves and to treat others just as if the ungodly human enactment had no existence, and then take the consequences’.

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