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Published Date: July 30, 2009

Published Date: July 30, 2009

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Marriage and Singleness as Teaching Tools of the Image of God

I have often told my parishioners the biblical truth that we live in God’s schoolhouse. The world God created for us is a visual lesson of God’s existence and God’s watch-care over us. As one example, we are enveloped in a protective placenta of water vapor that shields us from the sun and filters its power down to a diffused treatment of rays that warm us; nourish us with vitamin D; dry the ground so we can travel and build our homes on it; grow the trees that replace our oxygen, the plants that supply our food, and the animals that serve us in a variety of ways; provide light by which we can conduct business; and, in short, make living possible. The complex interweaving of such conditions testifies to an intelligent Creator who has intentionally fashioned and shaped our environment so that “the heavens are relating the glory (or majesty) of God1 and the sky is announcing the production of his hands” (Ps. 19:1, v. 2 in the Hebrew Bible). In fact, there is a message that pours out through all the earth, according to Psalm 19:1–4, that is not audible and yet is an informative declaration of knowledge imparted by the very interwoven fabric of life itself.

A message of mutuality has been implanted in our relational nature

Arch Davis is a dear friend of mine who, in the 1990s through his organization Davis Systems, Inc., built supercomputers for a variety of institutions from the national laboratory at Los Alamos to the research centers of Princeton University. Arch was once invited to hear the late great pioneer on the investigation of the cosmic phenomenon called the black hole, John Wheeler, reflect on the structures of life. According to Prof. Wheeler, our earth is supported by no “turtles,” as in ancient myths, and by no immutable laws. Instead, when one peers down below the atoms, down below the quarks and whatever lies beneath them to the very bottom of the building blocks of existence, one finds a foundation of information that determines how everything in our world works. This underlying information, for example, dictates within our bodies how our cells replicate each other so that our eyes, kidneys, blood, and hair continue to produce themselves and we maintain a stasis within our kinetic development.2 I believe this discovery sheds a whole new light on the Genesis 1/John 1 image of the “word.” Genesis 1 tells us repeatedly God speaks and creation comes about. John 1:1 identifies that creative “Word” of God as a person of the Godhead who then incarnates and enters into creation to recreate it spiritually. No more profound an explanation of the lesson of God’s schoolhouse can be drawn for us.

But, I realize, there is an even deeper level within each of us at which the pedagogical intention of God operates. We are each ourselves a living classroom within the great terrestrial school. Psalm 8’s verses 3 and 4 reveal that connection as they link up these sources of information with a question.3 When we consider the entire macrocosmic environment that God has fashioned—the planets, the suns—and then examine the microcosmic reality of our own being, do we not learn a new set of lessons: the significance of the place God has given humanity in the world, the gift of glory and honor God has endowed upon all of us, the responsibility of the task of stewarding the earth and all the life forms that share it with us, which God has charged us to do in mutually submissive harmony across the genders and the people groups, and, through all of that, the immeasurable love that God has for us?

As we explore the nature of our God-ordained rule, we realize that it is communal. Genesis 1:26–27 quotes God as saying literally: “Let us [and we should notice here the language’s reference to the plural nature of the One God] make Adam [that is, humanity, in a collective singular designation] in our [plural] tselem [that is, image or likeness, a word used for an idol or a representation], after our demuth [resemblance or model, or, again, image or likeness] and let them rule [notice the language has moved to the plural pronoun for people, which is how we know this reference is not just to men, but to both men and women to rule together, describing both humanity’s collective plurality but also the individuality of each human, reflecting the somehow plural but united God who created us individually but collectively].” And then, verse 27 explains: “And God [the plural word ’Elohim4] created Adam [the singular word] in his [singular] likeness, God [plural] created him [singular], male and female, he [singular] created them [plural].” No greater statement of mutual cooperation within the Trinity reflected in humanity could be expressed. Clearly, the Great Triune God commanded the full humanity—male and female (them)—to rule and steward the earth, women and men receiving the command equally together. And, after our first parents left the protected garden in Eden behind, dropping out of God’s kindergarten, and the malignant fallen world now provided the rest of humanity’s education, humans discovered even more instructive aspects had been built into our bodies and into our nature as beings who relate with one another. One such divine tool was our creation in the image of God.

Both singleness and marriage tell us about God

Since these words in Genesis were revealed, scholars have puzzled over the meaning of the image of God being the pattern for humanity. What does it mean that God has formed us in God’s image, after God’s likeness? What does it mean for us to bear the image of God?

Theologians over the centuries have speculated about the many possibilities for the meaning of the “image” and “likeness” of God, and a wide variety of options have been put forth. Among them have been: humanity’s essential power to reason, free will, original righteousness, the original state of purity, a unifying factor in human personality, the ability to rule and subdue the earth (which reflects how God rules and subdues the universe), moral responsibility, intelligence and humanity’s innate knowledge of God, the talent to sub-create, the blessing of rational, moral, spiritual fellowship with the Creator and one another (that is the ability to have a relationship with God, or simply our relational aspect), and on and on.

For myself, I believe the answer is embedded in the language of Genesis 1:26–27, that the unity/plurality of the Godhead is reflected in the singularity/plurality of humanity. In other words, humanity mirrors corporeally a spiritual unity/plurality in God, what we recognize as the triune nature of the One God.

We recall that God is spiritual, not material. Deuteronomy 4:15–16 warns that God is not to be depicted by means of any idol, either male or female, since God has no shape. God is spirit and not gendered, and is at the same time the source of what translates in humans as male and female. Sexual attraction draws each gender to the other, and women and men express our unity in the one-flesh sexual union of marriage and all the dimensions inherent in that union, as Genesis 2:24 declares. But, God—as is true of the heavenly beings God has also created, as Jesus taught in Matthew 22:30 and Luke 20:34–36—does not marry, nor is God given in marriage. The true God differs from the gods the Greeks and Romans imagined in their pantheons, who were often simply deified humans. That God is not sexual is the lesson God kept trying to teach the hapless Israelites who continually attempted to marry God off to the Canaanite goddess Athtarath. Sex is a material attribute that belongs to humans, animals, and plants in our material world. We reproduce after our kind; the already complete and eternal God does not. The incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity was a special and unique act, as John 3:16 notes, wherein a person of the Godhead took on human flesh (see Phil. 2:7) for the purpose of atoning for humanity’s sins.  This salvific act in no way suggests that God is a male deity who, with a spirit wife, is busy populating heaven with infant gods and goddesses, as some of the cults suggest.

Instead, our ability to relate to one another sexually is actually intended by God to be a didactic tool built into our very beings that reflects and describes corporeally a spiritual truth about the mutually loving nature of our triune Creator. For example, we are born single beings, reflecting the fact that we worship one God, not three gods. This is one reason why we honor and treasure single Christians who sense a call to singleness. We should never consider them incomplete, because they reflect a truth about the One God we worship. We see that truth stated in the first great “I believe” that God commanded the church to affirm. When God called Israel out of Egypt, God gathered the people together after forty years of wandering. This was in the wilderness beyond the Jordan, and there God commanded Israel, literally: “Hear, Israel, the Lord [that is the singular form], our God[s] [both the plural possessive for Israel and the plural form for God are here], the Lord [the singular form] is one” (Deut. 6:4). The similar Hebrew words for “one” and for “unified” are in play here, so that we read, the God who is both singular and plural in nature is both one and unified.5

In this light, when we cease being single in identity and unite with someone who represents the other half of humanity in marriage, so that our two beings become what Genesis 2:24 calls “one flesh,” a new third being is created in God’s eyes. This new reality in God’s sight, again, is a teaching tool through which God intends to instruct us about the mutual love in the Trinity that God wants reflected within humanity. “Those whom God has joined together,” we declare in a Christian wedding service, “let no one separate.”6 One who drives a wedge between the two halves of a marriage becomes in God’s eyes a murderer who has killed this third whole entity, the new living being recognized by God as the union of wife and husband: the one-flesh creature born when a man and woman wed. Therefore, when we are considering marriage, we are contemplating something of deep and eternal significance to God and to humanity too.

What we are discussing is nothing less than a revelation of God’s nature woven into our very beings and our relationships with one another. In short, we ourselves are breathing and walking teaching tools fashioned by God to instruct ourselves and others in a lesson about the perfect love and harmony of mutual cooperation within the Trinity.

Chastity in singleness, faithfulness in marriage

Thus, when The Book of Common Worship proclaims, “We rejoice that marriage is given by God, blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ, and sustained by the Holy Spirit,” and declares, “Therefore, let marriage be held in honor by all,” since God “gave us marriage for the full expression of the love between a man and a woman,” wherein “a woman and a man belong to each other, and with affection and tenderness freely give themselves to each other,” as no less than “a holy mystery in which a man and a woman are joined together, and become one, just as Christ is one with the church” “for the well-being of human society, for the ordering of family life, and for the birth and nurture of children,”7 we understand how seriously God takes this “gift.” It is theophanic, which is to say it reveals a profound truth about the love of God—the love within the Godhead. We glimpse a dimension of this divine love in Jesus’ prayer to his heavenly Father in John 17.8 Verse 23 shows us that the love in the Trinity is so great that it spills over from the Godhead and pours into humanity. This is something we have noticed reflected in the best of godly marriages. A home with a strong and loving marriage commitment becomes a beacon of light that attracts others and helps light their lives with a search-and-rescue type hospitality that supererogates acts of kindness already flowing within the home over to others in ways that are tangible, for example, providing meals and financial assistance. Further, such a marriage also becomes a healing center, where people come for peer counseling and try to take the model of wholeness of that familial love back to reshape and heal their own fragmented families.9

Love, of course, we realize, is perfected within God, but imperfect within us, for we are only frail creatures who struggle to survive within a fallen world of pain, sorrow, disappointment, and death. But God in God’s infinite mercy has given us one another to learn to love so that we can learn to love the Entirely Other: God (1 John 4:20–21).

To help us do that, God came to us in the great atoner for our wrongdoings, Jesus Christ (1 John 4:10). As the traditional marriage service of The Book of Common Worship reminds us,

Our Saviour . . . has instructed those who enter into this relation to cherish a mutual esteem and love; to bear with each other’s infirmities and weaknesses; to comfort each other in sickness, trouble, and sorrow; in honesty and industry to provide for each other, and for their household, in temporal things; to pray for and encourage each other in the things which pertain to God; and to live together as the heirs of the grace of life.10

A marriage of mutual submission between spouses is one of the greatest illustrations God has placed within our world to proclaim the harmony of mutual submission in the Godhead that models the kind of cooperative relationships that humanity should emulate.

Let all of us remember, therefore, that all human life is indeed sacred: that we daily live out a lesson to ourselves and others about the One But Three who created us. Let us live, then, either in the calling of singleness or marriage in holy ways that praise God and show our gratitude and the honor in which we hold God to the watching world. We can do that if we ask the Holy Spirit to keep us continually aware in our conscious minds that devotion to God through singleness is a high and holy estate and that marriage is God-instituted and honored. We can live holy and God-exalting lives if we ask God for the gift of sight: to see ourselves as our Creator intended us to be, teachers to ourselves and to others by virtue of our very being—created as single people who are intended to be communal in nature. God has created us to edify one another through our lives and our actions, and we should strive to do so.

In this light, the ideal expressed for marriage can be generalized and become characteristic of all Christian relationships within the church of Jesus Christ: that we learn from God through each other “to live together as the heirs of the grace of life.”11


  1. ’El, the word is singular, which is a fact that will become more significant as this article progresses. All translations of the Bible’s Hebrew and Greek texts are by the author.
  2. Arch C. Davis, “Jesus Christ as Creator” (lecture, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Boston Center for Urban Ministerial Education [CUME], Boston, Mass., November 2000).
  3. Psalm 8:5 in the Hebrew Bible (v. 4 in our translations) asks literally: “What is ’enosh, that is, humanity or a human being, that you remember (or pay attention to) people? And a son of Adam (or a human child) that you visit (or care for, or inspect, or punish, or entrust, or number [paqad]) him?” In other words: Who are human beings that you, the Almighty God, even notice us among all the vast worlds you have created—that you continue your interest in us and care enough about us that you punish us and entrust us with your work?
  4. Although alef is actually the first letter in the plural name for God, it is represented by an apostrophe in English, so I decided to adopt the convention of capitalizing the second letter to indicate more clearly that this is a name.
  5. Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, ed. E. Kautzsch and A. E. Cowley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 124, g (398–99), considers the use of the plural in ’Elohim as an “abstract plural” (like poetic intensification), not polytheistic in origin—not implying several gods making up the Godhead, but as “Godhead” is used in English, as “the Most High” or as “the Most Holy.” The main concern here is not to posit three or more gods in the Godhead. Instead, the plural form is obvious, and a reason for expressing God in this plurality obviously exists, but it is not describing separate beings within the Godhead. The overriding quality of God is oneness—One God. This is why we understand God is being revealed as having three faces (as the Greek word used to describe “persons,” prosōpon, reveals), or personalities, or persons comprising the One God. This plurality yet singleness or union within the Godhead runs all through the Bible from the very start onwards. God is revealed as One but Three.
  6. The Theology and Worship Ministry Unit, Book of Common Worship: Pastoral Edition (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox, 1993), 122.
  7. Book of Common Worship: Pastoral Edition, 112–13. Those who would like to read more of my thoughts on the practical application of the model of the love within the Trinity to the Christian family, please consult our new book: William and Aída Spencer, Steve and Celestia Tracy, Marriage at the Crossroads: Couples in Conversation about Discipleship, Gender Roles, Decision-Making, and Intimacy (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009). For an excellent study of the love within the Trinity, please see Royce Gordon Gruenler, The Trinity in the Gospel of John (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2004).
  8. For the Jews, God as “Father” was not a sexual designation as for the Canaanites for Baal or the Greeks for Zeus. The title signified the Creator and the One from whom Israel received its inheritance.
  9. Book of Common Worship: Pastoral Edition, 112–13.
  10. Park Hays Miller, ed., The Book of Common Worship (Philadelphia, Pa.: The Board of Christian Education of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 1946), 183.
  11. Miller, The Book of Common Worship, 183. This phrase, of course, is drawn from 1 Pet. 3:7.