Becoming ‘one flesh’ – a theological statement about marriage

  • Question from DM, United Kingdom

    I am getting married later this year and am wondering what the Bible actually means when it says we will become “one flesh”? I presume in God’s eyes it means more than just entering into an intimate physical relationship?

    The idea that “…a man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis Chapter 2, verse 24) follows the account of the creation of Eve, moulded from Adam’s rib (verse 22). In some sense the reuniting of man and woman in the covenant of marriage could be viewed as a return to that original state of ‘perfect’ humanity before humanity was split in two. As stated previously on freelance theology, the specific account of the creation of human beings in this way explains why there are two genders, but one race, in pre-scientific terms.

    In the New Testament, Jesus refers to this creation story as an argument against divorce in Matthew chapter 19, verse 5 and Mark 10, verse 8. This is where the phrase commonly found in the wedding liturgy, “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder” is applied to the state of marriage. It is interesting that in these gospel instances, Jesus is answering a ‘test question’ about divorce put to him by the Pharisees. He is asked whether it is ‘lawful’ for a man to divorce his wife for any reason. Referring back to this passage in Genesis, Jesus is effectively saying that women are not to be regarded as possessions or accoutrements to be discarded at will.

    Paul uses the verse differently in 1 Corinthians chapter 6, verse 16. In a comment on moral behaviour he argues against casual sexual relationships, in this case with a prostitute, because uniting with a prostitute causes a man to ‘be one with her in body’. Paul’s interpretation of this verse has given rise to the relatively recent idea that ‘soul ties’ to previous sexual partners can have a long-lasting effect on the spiritual health of Christians.

    However, whether Paul actually thought that sex had such a permanent effect could be debated. His main aim in this passage is to convince the Corinthian believers that they should be sexually continent, because they were united to Christ and this had a physical effect as well as a spiritual effect.

    One of the earliest heresies to creep into the early church was the idea that because Christians’ souls were saved, any physical activity could not be sinful. This was a corruption of Hellenistic (Greek) philosophy that firmly separated the ‘divine spark’ of the soul from the physical body it was trapped in. With a more holistic view of humanity, Paul railed against this idea. This is also one of the reasons why he insists that the resurrection is experienced bodily (1 Corinthians chapter 15, verses 35-49).

    In Ephesians chapter 5, verse 39, Paul quotes this verse again, as a “profound mystery” (verse 40). In a way his use of the verse again echoes Jesus’ principle. By telling Christian men that they must “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (verse 25), he ignores the contemporary cultural idea that wives were the possession of the husband. This whole passage in Ephesians is often misquoted to demand that wives ‘submit’ (or ‘respect’) their husbands, but in reality, a better understanding of the culture at the time sees the revolutionary message that Paul presents.

    Three powerless groups are listed in this passage, which continues into chapter 6: wives, children and slaves. None of them had any rights in law and were at the mercy of the head of the household. Each is encouraged to respect or obey their husband, father, or master – in reality they had little choice but to do so. The sting in this section is that the powerful head of the household was being told to love their wives ‘Christly’, or ‘as yourselves’ (chapter 5, verse 33); to ‘not exasperate’ their children (chapter 6, verse 4); and to treat their slaves with the same respect as the slaves treat them (chapter 6, verse 9). This was a manifesto of societal revolution and one that is often overlooked in current church teaching.

    To conclude: becoming one flesh implies a change on a semi-mystical level, where both parties treat the other as an equal extension of themselves and perhaps, in that unity, discover the original nature of undivided humanity.

    Thanks for your question, DM, and congratulations on your forthcoming marriage.

    Caveat: This is a theological interpretation of one aspect of marriage, in response to a specific question. freelance theology recognises that marriages do break down, for Christians and non-Christians, for a number of different reasons.

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