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What is Marriage? – Alternate Arrangements

We’ve examined the biological, Biblical, and cultural basis for marriage in the past three articles to establish what marriage is and its foundations. Now we are ready to analyze alternate marriage arrangements in the light of this understanding. If you’ve not read the previous articles, do so now using the links above, otherwise the following explanations may not make sense without that context, or you’ll read the wrong interpretation into it.

With that disclaimer, let’s look into other marriage arrangements that have been promulgated now and in times past.

Living Together

We mentioned this in the last article, so I won’t dwell on this one long, other than to say the following. While most people don’t view this as a marriage, if sexual intercourse has taken place, it is. If not, then it is merely living together.

The problem with this arrangement, when sexual intercourse is involved, is that there is often not a marital commitment made by the couple. It is understood more as a dating/going-steady type relationship that could end at any time. The expectation is either couple could decide to switch partners, in effect divorcing their spouse and marrying another. So there is no understanding of this being a marriage, even though in reality it is. Children that may have been conceived will bear witness to that reality.

In essence, the only missing marital bond in most of these cases is legal. Because a lot of people living together don’t have that, they don’t think of themselves as married, not tied down, and will tend to easily tear asunder what God and nature have joined.

Bottom line, if you’ve had sex, you are not merely living together, you are married. One should treat it as such and fully commit to that person as a spouse, not as a “partner.”


Polygamy is a marital arrangement where one spouse has multiple spouses. Traditionally, one man marries multiple wives, but could be reversed. Such marital arrangements are seen throughout the Old Testament. For instance, Abraham had two wives. Some of the kings like David and Solomon had several, often for political reasons more than personal desire.

However, these multiple spouses were not as common back then as some might think. Often the ability to have more than one wife was linked to one’s wealth and status. The poorer folk didn’t have the means to support more than one wife. Additionally, these arrangements often involved a lot of jealousy among the wives, and fed low self-esteem if they felt neglected. Our built in emotional need for monogamy tends to eat away at such family relationships. As can be seen even today, the descendants of Abraham’s two wives are still at each other’s throats four thousand years later.

Per our discussion on marriage, this arrangement has two big problems. One, it violates God’s ideal for marriage. As Jesus related, God’s design was for a man and a woman to be united into one flesh, period. Uniting to another involves divorcing and remarrying again, committing adultery each time. In effect, a man with multiple wives isn’t married to them all in reality, but to one at a time, whoever he’s had sex with last. He is also committing adultery constantly, rending asunder over and over again each marital union created.

Polygamy involves the constant uniting and rending asunder of that marital union, no matter what is legally allowed. So why was it allowed in the Old Testament?

One, there are no Bible passages that allow it. Merely none prohibiting it. Big difference.

Two, it was a culturally accepted practice at the time. While it didn’t meet God’s ideal, a lot of things didn’t due to our fallen nature. God had to pick his “fights,” so to speak. It isn’t until Jesus comes along that this original intention of God is more fully explained. It is then in the New Testament qualifications for bishops, deacons, and the office of widow, that they be the spouse of one other person, not multiple. Because God’s representatives were to reflect God’s ideal in marriage.

So how could Abraham and others be called righteous if they were wrong to have multiple wives? Because as St. Paul says, where there is no law, there is no sin. If God had come down and told them, “You can’t do that, because I consider it a form of adultery,” then they would have been held accountable for not obeying. But knowing their culture and fallen nature, God chose not to make it an issue at the time. Therefore, they were not held accountable for this violation, because they “did not know what they did.”

The one area that polygamy does have an advantage over all other alternate forms of marriage is that it treats the sexual union as a real marriage, with the accompanying commitments and support such a union deserves, at least in theory. As we’ll see, this is not the case with most alternate arrangements.

Open Marriage

An open marriage usually involves the freedom of either spouse to have sexual relations with someone other than their “spouse,” most often within a set of rules or boundaries. Though it is possible to be totally open with whoever without accountability, most boundaries involve keeping each other informed of one’s sex partners and measures preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

This is a similar arrangement to polygamy, except though one is not “married” to they’re partners, but are more like mistresses than wives. This arrangement has a lot of the same problems that a polygamist marriage does. But it has the additional problem that living together has, but in greater measure. It treats sex as not uniting two people into one, but as a mere recreational activity. Most extra partners have no social/cultural union with either spouse, and often no emotional union much less a legal union. Consequently, the commitment to life-long union and establishing a family basis with a spouse is lost, violating the uniting aspect of sex.

Homosexual Marriage

Much of late has been made of homosexual marriage on the legal front. The last election cycle saw several states legalize “same-sex” marriages. Homosexuals see marriage as a right the state grants which has been denied them, while many against it see it as legitimizing sin and making it the moral equivalent of marriage, even understanding the effort to be “redefining” marriage.

However, as we have detailed, the government can’t define marriage, it can only recognize it and provide support for it. Because the state calls something a marriage doesn’t mean it is. Nor does it have the power to change reality any more than it can turn an apple into an orange by passing a law that it is so.

Rather, biologically, two people can only be considered married who have a sexual union potentially capable of producing children. Since homosexual sex can never do that, real marriage is impossible, biologically. Without the possibility of biological parenthood attached to homosexual sex, there is no marital union taking place. It cannot replicate what sex between a man and a woman does.

Likewise, Biblically, homosexual marriage is impossible. There can be no “two becoming one flesh” without the potential of children from that union. This is why Jesus said, “a man and a woman” can unite into one flesh, specifically. Quite apart from the moral issues surrounding homosexual sex, such acts cannot produce a biological family unit, which starts with the parents uniting in an act that can create a family.

“But we love one another!” “But we’ve said vows to one another!” “I’m as committed to him as much as any husband and wife!” That all may be true. But none of that makes it a marriage. Even if a man and woman live together, are emotionally united to one another, become legally married, call each other husband and wife, and live that way until thy die in total commitment to one another, yet if they have sex of every type save intercourse, they would not in reality be married—they would not be one flesh. They would be no different than two very close friends who care intimately for each other.

So is the case for homosexual “unions.” Apart from the questions of sin and whether one can be homosexual, such “unions” are nothing more than two very good friends living together, having committed themselves to one another in various ways, and participating in sexual play for purely recreational/love value. But love does not make a marriage real. There are many friends who love another friend more deeply than many spouses. The lack of love does not invalidate a marriage, nor does its presence create one. It supports a marital bond created by sexual union, as we documented in the three previous articles.

We should note, that this does not invalidate any legal discrimination at the heart of the homosexual drive to legalize same-sex marriages. I personally think it is a bad idea to label them “marriages,” because they aren’t and it isn’t accurate, but a case could be made for a “civil union” to address the legal issues involved. Because that is all the state can do—legally unite two people into a committed relationship. It cannot create a marriage where none exists or can exist.


All of these alternate forms of marriage violate God’s ideal as Jesus laid it out: one man and one woman uniting into one flesh via sexual union for their entire lives, with no one else involved. All involve repeated or planned adultery (not necessarily cheating) by a spouse uniting to someone else, thus divorcing their spouse and remarrying another, except in the case of a couple living together who never break up or have sex with another. The only people, Biblically, who don’t commit adultery in that situation are when the other spouse has already committed adultery, or they have died.

This is all true, except for homosexuals. Since they cannot be married, it is impossible for them to commit adultery. They can cheat and be unfaithful to their commitments to one another, but there is no marital union to tear asunder nor can their type of sexual activities create a marriage that would divorce a real spouse.

Next time, we will look at the myths behind divorce, adultery, and marriage.

About R. L. Copple
R. L. Copple enjoys a good cup of coffee and a fun story. These two realities and inspiration from the likes of Lester Del Ray, J. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, among others, caused him to write his own science fiction and fantasy stories to increase the fun in the world and to share his fresh perspective.
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8 Responses to What is Marriage? – Alternate Arrangements

  1. Good, thoughtful series.

    I’ve more comments brewing, but one quick response:

    A friend who lived in Kenya says the polygamy issue was a serious problem.

    Some churches said you must drop all other wives on becoming a Christian. This sounds good, but it meant women being thrown out into a society where they had no alternative but prostitution.

    My friend’s view was that the best available solution was to say no more wives after conversion, but you must keep all existing wives, because you have responsibilities to them.

    It’s a hard issue, but I can see his point, though I honestly don’t know what I would do in that situation.

    • R. L. Copple says:

      This harkens to the cultural issues involved when polygamy is an accepted form of marriage, and why God probably didn’t make an issue of it at the time. No doubt similar issues were involved in the OT, and many more women would have been “on the street” if not for polygamy, since women had very limited ways to earn a living on their own back then. Which is worse? Live in an un-ideal marriage but being taken care of, or on the street selling your body to the highest bidder? The later is much worse, I’d suggest.

      In most of our modern society, however, women are not forced into such situations, so it isn’t an issue in the same way.

  2. On polygamy:
    I’m inclined to agree, accept existing wives, but no more new ones.
    Not so much a good answer as a least bad one.
    My friend said it is a live issue in Kenya, which is thought-provoking.

    On Marriage generally
    Today Parliament voted for Gay Marriage. Some churches are opposed, some in favour. Oddly enough the Church of England, which is mostly against looks like being banned from carrying them out by Parliament, which has upset the Anglicans in favour and also some of the anti’s on the grounds that it’s not Parliament’s decision, it’s the synods.

    Intriguingly one option proposed by both Stonewall and other gay groups and also by the anti lobby was to make Civil Unions open to all, regardless of sexuality, on the grounds that
    1, under the new law 2 men have a choice of civil union or marriage, therefore a man and a woman should have the same choice
    2, the present law demands a declaration of your sexuality before a civil union is granted, which is pointless intrusion, and very easily defrauded anyway.

    To be honest, I think the point is being missed.
    The real issue is that we have allowed the state to take over the definition of marriage. We did this because it makes sense to have regulation of marriage, and because the state’s view of marriage was broadly similar to the Christian one.

    But that was a mistake, and now the price is clear. If marriage was a thing recognised but not owned by the state, then we would not be in this situation. Gays, Muslims, athiests could all have set up their own ceremonial, with no implications for anyone else. Now that option is no longer open.

    Equally, I find I cannot defend the thing called marriage any more, at least not in my society, because it is now too far removed from anything Christian to be worth defending.

    To give one example (USA from Time magazine). USA courts have declared that divorced husbands (and sometime divorced wives) must pay alimony. If a second wife marries the man, then her earnings are taken into account to support the first wife. One woman remarks, “I was stupid, we should have just lived together, we would have saved a lot on money.”

    Equally in the UK the best financial advice to any young man is not to get married, just live with her. If you marry and it breaks up then she can take you to the cleaners. Or my suggestion, sneak abroad, get married secretly, then come home and pretend you’re living in sin. (I think I’m joking – but I’m not sure.)

    If the state definition of marriage produces that result, then it is now longer fit for purpose.

    • R. L. Copple says:

      Malcolm, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I agree with a lot of your sentiment on the two issues you broached. I’ll only touch upon some points to highlight where I’m going with all of this.

      The real issue is that we have allowed the state to take over the definition of marriage.

      I think I get what you’re saying, but I would frame it a bit differently. We have falsely believed that the state can define marriage, and by doing so, given them that “power.” Not, however, power to define marriage, as that is impossible (one of my key points in going through this). If anything, the legal definition and laws are ancillary to what marriage is. It is defined by biology, and for Christians, therefore by God who made our biology (which Scripture supports as I’ve laid out).

      What the gay marriage movement is about is legal rights. It has nothing to do with sex and love, because they already have all of that they are going to get. The only thing that changes is legal, and therefore will only affect their legal rights. Most of which, all gays can get right now without legalizing marriage by going to a lawyer and getting the necessary contracts signed. Filing taxes jointly is about the only true legal benefit, which is purely financial. And perhaps the legal right to adopt…I don’t know all the laws on that even here in the USA.

      Or my suggestion, sneak abroad, get married secretly, then come home and pretend you’re living in sin. (I think I’m joking – but I’m not sure.)

      Right. Key word there being pretend. Living together isn’t necessarily sinful. If the couple have sex with the commitment to make it a life-long bond, then even minus legal papers or a marriage ceremony, they would be married in the eyes of God. If they treat it as a real marriage, there is no sin.

      But most who live together don’t have that view. Rather, they look at is “trying it out,” taking marriage for a test drive, and either can leave at any time, no strings attached. The lack of a life-long commitment is what makes living together a sin. Traditionally, not getting a marriage license and not having a wedding ceremony was a sign that one was committed to making this relationship life-long. It supported the commitment. So to not do it pointed to a lack of commitment by either party to treat what their sexual union as a full marriage to each other. But that would not necessarily be true that the commitment wasn’t there and sinful.

      Likewise, if I separated from my wife for a time and lived with another woman, but never had sexual relations with her, in truth as it concerns marriage, I would not have sinned. The problem is, most people would assume I had sinned by having sex with her, and no amount of denial would erase that suspicion. My priest would certainly be against it, no matter how much I assured him nothing had or would happen. Even if he believed me, he’d be concerned about putting myself into temptation’s way.

      As to your solution, that might work in some places. Here in Texas, you’d have to be careful to never present yourselves as married to anyone. If there are witnesses that you had, she could still take him to court under common law marriage.

      But I think we don’t need to defend marriage, but clarify what it really is, as I’ve done here. No bill in Congress or Parliament can cause an apple to become an orange in substance. No law passed by our legislatures can turn marriage into something it is not. Until it is possible for gays to create children from their sexual union, the child containing DNA from both participants, it is impossible for them to be married. They will only be able to be close, very intimate friends. What legal rights the state grants them is an entirely different question. I’d lean to calling such agreements as “civil unions” than marriage, because it is more accurately reflecting the reality of what it is.

      • Rick said
        “Here in Texas, you’d have to be careful to never present yourselves as married to anyone. If there are witnesses that you had, she could still take him to court under common law marriage.”

        And I would argue that in that context, Texas law, just like Scots law until recently, is more accurate a definition of marriage.
        Not just biblically, but from an agnostic (ie leaving God out of it) viewpoint as well. It fits the way we are built.

        And frankly, what is the difference between the State definition of marriage and the State definition of civil union?
        Or the “pop culture” definitions for that reason?

        Becausethe biggest difference I can see is that one definition is 2 letters longer.

        • R. L. Copple says:

          In theory, as far as the legal aspect goes, not a lot of difference between “marriage” and “civil union.” My feel is, however, that since gays cannot literally get married like hetrosexual couples do, it is a misnomer to call it a “marriage” which includes something they cannot participate in: the two becoming one flesh. For them, sex is at best a intimate emotional bonding activity, but at its heart is a shared recreational activity. More intimate in degree, than say, going to watch a movie together, but at its core the same thing: sharing something you enjoy with a loved one.

          Therefore, I think civil union is a more accurate description: a commitment/contract witnessed by the state that gives them the same *legal* rights as a marriage would. I think gays would be smarter to push for that than marriage, only because it would get them what they claim they want–non-discrimination–and less push back from those who fear they are trying to redefine marriage. But I think some gays have a misconception that having the state call it a marriage will therefore make it one. But as I’ve said, the state cannot change what marriage is no more than they can change an apple into an orange by passing a bill saying it is so.

  3. PS to the previous post.

    I’ve been trying to put some of these issues into my writing. See for two examples.

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