God has created the marriage bed for procreation and to create intimacy and affection between husband and wife. It is both His generosity and His love for life that makes this act pleasurable. That pleasure is subject to abuse, but is nonetheless a part of His gift. Husband and wife should embrace this pleasure and rejoice in it, but also be wary of its dangers. As Scripture teaches: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Heb. 13:4).
When Jesus tells us that though we are in the world we are not to be of the world (John 17:14–15, 2 Cor. 10:3–5), He is warning us against the world’s influence. In our day, there is no influence more dangerous or pervasive than the perversions of the marriage bed. The world takes the pleasure of the marriage bed as an opportunity for selfishness both outside of and within marriage. It removes procreation, the gift of life and genuine affection and service from the marriage bed (Gal. 5:16–21). The gates of Hell cannot prevail against Christ and His church, but the world’s view of intercourse is a real and pernicious threat — even within marriage. The world views pleasure as a personal right and ultimate goal. When we view the marriage bed in this way, our families, church and country are deeply hurt. It denigrates those who participate in it. It stops conception. It undermines the true joys of holy marriage.
God’s gift of the marriage bed
We are to be in the world but not of the world. We must beware of the world’s constant influence, promoting its fantasy in all forms of the media, at work and even in our own flesh. We must seek to correct that influence by being ever reoriented back to reality through God’s Word. While not comprehensive, I propose two areas in which to begin, that is, two areas of thought where we can reclaim the marriage bed and restore joy to the family by coming to a fuller realization of the gift that God has given to married couples: the love of children and life and the love of spouse.
In the first place the Bible teaches that God has instituted holy marriage for the care and nurture of children (Gen. 1:26–28, 9:1; Psalm 127:3–5; 3 John 1:4; Eph. 6:4; Prov. 29:17; Matt. 19:14). Husbands and wives need to live for others. Love between husband and wife is explicitly heterosexual, that is, love for another rather than love for the self or the same. Even as God loves us by sacrifice, Christian love is always sacrificial, as St. John teaches: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16; see also Eph. 5:1–3; 1 Cor. 13:13; 1 John 4:19).
Sacrificial love is nowhere more obvious than in the raising of children because children never contribute anything near to what they take. There is joy in the raising of children, to be sure, but there is also hardship. They are costly in many ways. This is good for we were created to love others, to love those distinct from and unlike ourselves. We were made to sacrifice for them. This love is the opposite of idolatry. It leads us into being more fully human, more accurate reflections of God’s image. So it is that the marriage bed is first for procreation. God has commanded that we be fruitful and multiply, not only for the filling of the world but also for the purification of our souls.
This does not mean infertile couples lack the fullness of marriage. It does mean that God custom-makes each cross He places upon His children. By these crosses, Christ strips us of our idols. Some are born blind, disabled or suffer violence. Some couples cannot conceive. These are unnatural crosses that God uses for good. Consider: The world is a richer place for the blindness and deafness of Helen Keller and the martyrdom of St. Lawrence. And at the same time, God promises that all these custom-made crosses, infertility included, will be cured on the Last Day.
This isn’t simply to say that such couples deserve our empathy. Childless couples must actively cope with this burden as the command to raise up children in the fear of the Lord remains. Couples without biological children should seek ways to care for others. We all have fathers and mothers, biological and otherwise, whom God has used to raise us in the faith.
Typically, providing nurture and care to others comes naturally to Christians. It doesn’t need to be plotted or planned, but for those who have been denied biological children, it is often useful that this be recognized and embraced. Husbands and wives need to live for others not only for themselves or for their own pleasure. The care of others outside of one another makes husbands and wives better husbands and wives. It gives meaning to the marriage bed while also increasing its godliness.
Love of the spouse
This sort of love for others is also at work in the marriage bed itself. St. Paul teaches this when he writes: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). God gave us the marriage bed as an act of affection and intimacy. “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph. 5:28). This is also an aid against temptation (1 Cor. 7:1–2, 5). The most obvious temptations that the marriage bed guards against are adultery and self-abuse, but there are others. Even within holy marriage, especially as we have been corrupted by the world’s false view, we are tempted to use the marriage bed wrongly for love of self and one’s own pleasure rather than a sacrifice where we love one another as Christ loves the church and give ourselves up for one another.
St. Paul writes this explicitly. Husbands and wives do not have authority over their own bodies (1 Cor. 6:18; 7:3–4). They are not to deprive one another but rather are to surrender to one another. Yet, at the same time, this is a surrender of affection not a submission to abuse or degradation. Husbands are to give up their pleasure for their wives and vice versa. They are to come together with reverence, coming to one another’s bodies as to that which Christ Himself has sanctified and cleansed by His blood, recognizing in the other the Lord’s own beloved, holy and without blemish. Husbands and wives are never to view or treat one another as things to be used but as that to be served, sacrificed for and cherished (Prov. 5:18–19; Col. 3:19).
The one-flesh bond between husband and wife is the bedrock of society, the foundation of civilization. The stakes are high and the potential for abuse almost limitless, yet it is a gift of the highest order, and there are few joys like it on this side of glory.
Photo: LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford