Recently I got in a conversation on social media about the necessity of sex to consummate marriage. Is it a marriage if the couple never sleeps together? It has been the almost universal opinion of the church for two-thousand years that if a couple does not sleep together, it is not a marriage. Even more recently, my wife had a friend get married, but the husband refused to sleep with her. She went to the state and got the marriage annulled. Note she did not get a divorce. Why? She was never married to begin with. My thoughts on this issue were spurred by this quote from Jim Newheiser’s book, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage:
A marriage is valid when a covenant of companionship is made between a man and a woman who present themselves forward to the community as being married…While sexual union is ordinarily part of marriage, a couple can be truly married without physically consummating the marriage.
Can a couple be married in heart only and not also in body? A blog post is insufficient to answer this question. But here is a basic outline why without sex there is no marriage.
First, a marriage is a promise to have a sexual relationship. For centuries marriage has been contractual. It is not just a contract of course. But it is not less than a contract. Throughout history when you said, “Yes I will marry you” there were certain unwritten (and sometimes written) promises that you were making. One of these was the promise of a sexual relationship.
It did not matter what the reason was. If you could not have sex, you could not get married. A man castrated in battle could not marry. A woman who for whatever reason could not have sex could not marry. Sex was not just assumed. It was mandatory. It was a contractual obligation. If something happened after the marriage vows had been said and intercourse had occurred then that was a different story. But if there was no sex there could be no marriage.
The second reason why sex was mandatory was the purpose of marriage. Marriage was not just about companionship. It was about children. Marriage is for procreation and therefore the couple should have sex in order to have children. A refusal to have sex is a refusal to bring marriage to one of its God-ordained ends: children. It is like getting engaged, but never getting married.
Finally, God commands the husband and wife to become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). There have been all sorts of exegetical gymnastics in recent years trying to evade the primary meaning of this phrase. Stephen Clarke says it well,
While it would be a mistake to regard one flesh solely in terms of sexual intercourse, it would be an even greater mistake to miss the reference to family and reproduction and concentrate instead on the modern idea of companionship. One reason that animals will not do as a partner for man is their inadequacy for reproductive purposes. The man needs someone with whom he can live and establish a household. Implicit in this, especially for the first man, is the need for sexual relations and reproduction.
Can a couple be one flesh without ever having sex? The answer is no. An unconsummated marriage should be annulled. A valid marriage is one in which public vows have been made between a man and a woman and sex then follows.
Why the Change?
Today if you ask evangelicals if sex is necessary for marriage most would answer no. Sex is good for marriage and should be encouraged, but it is not mandatory. What has changed in the last century to shift the church’s opinion? There are numerous reasons, but here are two primary ones.
First, a feeling of love and mutual commitment became all that is necessary to make a marriage valid. The end, or as theologians like to say, the telos of marriage moved from children, protection against sinful lust, and companionship, help, and comfort to self-fulfillment and personal happiness. When asked, “What is marriage for?” our fathers in the faith would have much different answer than we do.
Second, procreation has been removed as a purpose for marriage, even Christian marriages. If you want to have children that is fine. But if you want to have a purposely fruitless marriage that is fine as well. A rejection of children does not automatically rule out sex in marriage. But it does diminish the importance of sex in marriage.
Why does this matter? Who cares if a couple wants to live together and never consummate their marriage? Who cares if someone is paralyzed and wants to marry?
The reason this matters is that without the sexual component of marriage it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to defend Biblical sexual ethics. Why should marriage be restricted to one man and one woman when sex is negotiable? Why should sodomy be a problem if heterosexual couples don’t even need to have sex to make a marriage? If marriage is primarily about companionship, my happiness, and self-fulfillment then what would restrict it to a man and a woman? But if marriage is a one flesh sexual union designed for procreation then not only does it rule out refusing to have sex, but it also rules out numerous other perversions of marriage.
Sex must remain central to our definition of marriage if we are to hold the Biblical line. Without intercourse it isn’t a marriage.
I concur throughout, though I can already hear the chorus of “But, but, but …” and “What about . . .?” In fact, I can think of a few myself. But, these are legitimate questions that come up, to wit:
1. What say you about the couple with a husband whose spinal chord injury renders his sexual parts utterly dysfunctional as far as sexual “performance” is concerned? Is his marriage licit? Valid in the absence of ordinary sexual activity?” I know one such couple.
2. Alternately, what say you of the very elderly man and woman (she mid-80s, he early 90s) who contract a marriage when “When the almond tree blossoms, The grasshopper is a burden, And desire fails.” I do not, in fact, know how or if ordinary sexual activity proceeded after this wedding. I do know his health was marginal, and she (at age 84) was a virgin!
3. Or, a situation that is not common, but also not unheard of – namely, a death-bed wedding, where one is lucid but physically incapacitated and dies a couple of days later, never having recovered from his death-inducing disease (cancer). Is such a covenant valid as a marriage?
Granted – these are exceptional. But, the vagaries of our world, post-Fall, generate such situations. I don’t know that I’m prepared to declare that the situations I’ve described above are NOT marriages. What would you say about such things?
Fr. Bill, thanks for the comment. There are certainly a lot of murky situations in this world. Here is how I would look at your three scenarios.
The first scenario is easy. A marriage, already consummated, where one of the spouses loses their ability to have sex is still a marriage. A refusal to have sex could lead to divorce, but the inability after consummation does not make the marriage not a marriage.
The second scenario depends. If the couple cannot have sex for some reason then why marry. They could be friends or even live as roommates if they wished. I believe there are ways of transferring money/life insurance to someone else even when they are not married. If the couple can have sex and wants to marry then they should marry and consummate the marriage even if sex throughout the marriage is rare due to age.
In the third scenario, I know this will sound hardhearted, but I see no reason for a someone to marry when death is imminent. What is the purpose of the ceremony? Marriage has a specific purpose in God’s economy. Marrying someone who is about to die does not fulfill that purpose.
I hope that helps. With Grace, Peter