Wednesday, May 26, 2021

They Shall Become One Flesh

At work a few weeks ago, the old phrase “one flesh” came up in conversation. I can’t remember how exactly, but I think it had something to do with the low priority modern married couples often place on the husband-wife relationship in comparison to the parent-child relationship. Sadly, we all know people whose emotional attachment to their children or parents greatly exceeds their loyalty and commitment to their own partner.

In our highly atomized age, the concept of two individuals becoming mystically united seems exotic, even unrealistic, to many. So what does it mean? Does “one flesh” merely refer to the sex act itself? Does it refer to the cooperative production of the fruit of marriage, children? Can two people really function as one person?

As you probably know, the phrase originates in Genesis 2:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

The introductory “therefore” points us back to the local context. In the absence of a “fit helper” for Adam, a need which God anticipated and even Adam had come to perceive, God put Adam into a deep sleep, took one of his ribs and fashioned it into a helper for Adam.

Exploring the Context

Several things jump out at me from the story of the creation of the woman:

  • Adam, though already active and purposeful in the world (employed as Eden’s first and only official gardener), was incomplete without her. Eve was given to him to enable him to more effectively fulfill his God-given directive to “work it and keep it”. Effective service was an important consideration in her creation: not just individual service, but shared service.
  • Eve’s purpose was not independent of Adam’s. She was not brought into existence to self-actualize or “find herself”, but to function as a “fit helper” for Adam. Sure, she could choose to toil away at some task of her own initiation if she wanted to, but in doing so she would be abandoning the role for which she was specifically designed and was bound to find most fulfilling, just as Adam found working on his own less-than-completely satisfying. Adam without Eve had inadequate capacity for service, while Eve without Adam had no meaningful direction.
  • Whereas man was made from the dust of the earth, woman was made wholly from the previously-existing man, and nothing about her was original to her or foreign to Adam’s own nature and makeup. Though different in function, personality, disposition, and in many other ways, all the parts of each were made from exactly the same raw materials. At the most basic level, there existed a divinely-designed compatibility to which each might appeal when necessary.

This last aspect seems to have been important to Adam, as he verbally celebrates it: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

After this comes our “therefore”.

The Meaning

So then, the writer of Genesis seems to be saying that in leaving mother and father and making his relationship with his wife the primary focus of his life, a new husband is acting consistently with the original divine purpose. He is behaving in accord with God’s mandate. It is not so much a rejection of the parental relationship as an acknowledgement that the parent-child relationship has now attained the goal for which God intended it. The next step is for man and woman to step out into the world under God united in purpose to fulfill their own mission, whether it be gardening, shepherding, administrating, fishing for men, or whatever task to which God might collectively call them, not to mention one of the primary purposes of all marriages: the production of godly offspring.

Becoming one flesh is more than just engaging in sexual congress, though it obviously includes it. It is the actualization of shared purpose. The cooperative nature of the sex act itself is only a little picture of the greater unity, in which two people work together to accomplish something neither is completely equipped to do alone.

But the cooperation and mutual care required to accomplish a united purpose in the bedroom is illustrative of the cooperation required in every area of married life in order to accomplish those things for which God has designed marriage. If Adam goes off and does his thing because it makes him happy, and Eve goes off and does whatever pleases her, and each lives independently of the other despite sharing a bed and the same roof over their heads, all the sex in the world does not really make them “one flesh” in the sense God intended.

The Intended Permanence

The permanence of this mutually-productive and exclusive relationship is implicit in Genesis but explicit in the gospels, where the Pharisees test the Lord on the subject of divorce. Their question: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” The Lord deftly sidesteps the issue of lawfulness and goes right back to Genesis, appealing to the “one flesh” concept to affirm that man should not separate what God has joined together. The “joining together” as one flesh was intended to be life-long. The significance and permanence of this union are not dependent on children resulting from it, nor is it merely a reference to the sex act.

And we can see why, provided we have understood the concept correctly in Genesis. Husband and wife are literally on a shared mission from God. That was the original intent. Marriage was not just about them and their personal satisfaction in life, but about God and his purposes. To introduce a third party or to break the union is not just to dissolve the marriage but to abort the mission, whatever that may be. The “fit helper” no longer helps, the man is no longer adequately equipped for the service to which he was called, and God’s purpose is no longer fulfilled in their lives.

It is not just the partner who is being cheated when husband or wife strays or breaks the union; God himself is being cheated. If you have ever witnessed the marriage breakdown of a church leader or a mature Christian couple, you can verify the reality of this. The damage is ongoing and extensive, and it is God’s work and God’s name to which the greatest injury is done. The predictable squeals and squawks of the parting couple are the least of it.

The Illustration

One reason for this is revealed in Ephesians, where Paul quotes from Genesis, then adds this:

“This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”

If marriage is a God-designed illustration of the Son’s relationship to his bride, then of course any attempt to dissolve Christian marriage or contaminate it with the presence of others destroys the picture of the divine reality it was intended to communicate. So then, Paul goes on to command that Christian husbands and wives do their job and maintain the illustration for the world: “Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”

Likewise, the apostle lectures the Christians in Corinth about the evils of sexual immorality, and once again appeals to Genesis:

“Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ ”

Here he declares that the bodies of believers are “members of Christ”. In a similar sense to that in which husband and wife have been joined together by God as “one flesh”, the believer has been joined together with Christ. Thus, for Christians, sexual immorality, whether one is single or married, is a violation of unity with Christ, a relationship even more precious than marriage. The purpose of that union is for Christ to be displayed in the world through the conduct and testimony of believers, both individually and collectively. When a man takes his body and unites it with another outside of marriage, it is not just personal chastity but the shared mission of glorifying God in the world that is destroyed.

In working together for something as petty as personal sexual gratification, let alone commercial exchange, the mutually agreeable sex act becomes a horrible parody of the divine intent embodied in the “one flesh” concept.

A Few Practical Questions

Too few courting Christian couples think seriously about what their marriage will actually look like on a daily basis once the honeymoon is over. A few practical questions for those who have yet to experience marriage:

  • What are the prospective husband’s goals in the service of the Lord? What is/are his gift or gifts, and how does he see himself relating to the body of Christ?
  • God gave Eve to Adam to be a “fit helper”. How can the prospective wife “help” the husband serve the Lord with all the tools God gave him?
  • Does the prospective wife even want to be somebody else’s “fit helper”, taking spiritual direction rather than initiating it? Has she got strong ideas of her own about serving the Lord that are at variance with those of her intended?

If so, then she is probably not an “appropriate help” — at least not for him — and they both may be better off looking at other options rather than feeling frustrated or forced into roles for which they feel unsuited.

One further question for those who are already “one flesh” in the physical sense but having a tough time entering into the reality of it in every other way:

  • If you were to part ways, as far too many Christians are doing today, what else would be lost apart from the time and effort you have put into this marriage? Who else would be hurt? How would the name of Christ be impacted? What spiritual “mission” might never be realized if you were not together?

These are the sorts of questions better asked (and answered) earlier than later.

No comments :

Post a Comment