In a recent discussion about marriage and the role of the church in performing marriages, a pastor mentioned that he didn’t see the need for the church to perform wedding ceremonies. The way he explained it marriage is a covenant that is ratified when the man and woman consummate their marriage. The important part, to him, is the initial sexual act. That is what makes it a marriage. He went on to say that marriage is a “blood covenant.” Like all biblical covenants, he said, it’s sealed by the spilling of blood.
I was honestly floored by this discussion. I have no problem at all speaking of marriage as a covenant. Vows are made, and there is a legal agreement. Marriage is binding, and there are only a few biblical reasons to divorce. Marriage isn’t to be entered into lightly. It should always be taken seriously.
However, the part about marriage as a blood covenant really took me aback. I did some research into the concept and found a couple of examples of this teaching. As a side note, it does not seem to be mainstream or widely accepted. Many of the pastors and theologians (all reformed) I spoke with had never heard of it. Here are a couple of quotes that explain the teaching. Forgive me for the explicit nature of the following descriptions.
“Marriage: A Blood Covenant with a Three-fold Purpose” by Bob Vincent
So as we look at the inception of marriage under the Old Testament, we discover that it involves, as all blood covenants do, the shedding of blood. And we discover that virginity was a very special and treasured thing in the law of God. And it is special and treasured because it is part of the shedding of the blood in this blood covenant of marriage. So important it is, that the parents of the young woman preserve the evidence that she was a virgin on her wedding night, so that if her husband proves to be a scoundrel and accuses her of not being what she said she was — and this is not the case of someone who is honest and up front before marriage, but this is someone presenting herself for marriage, and she is not really that — then the parents produce the evidence of the blood covenant with the garment or the sheet that was … that absorbed the blood in the cutting of the covenant.
The Hebrew word, by the way, for making a covenant is literally, in Hebrew, “to cut a covenant.” We cut a covenant. And so in the marriage act there are two things. There is the couple committing themselves to live together after God’s ordinance, and there is the shedding of the blood, the private act, the cutting of the covenant. Both things are important.
“Covenant Sexuality” by Dannah Gresh
The next test is that a biblical covenant is always sealed in blood. The covenant between Abraham and God was sealed with animal sacrifice. There was blood.
The greatest covenant that you and I know is the covenant of Jesus Christ and the cross. It is sealed in blood. Do you know that the gift of marriage is also a covenant sealed in blood? Let me be a little technical with you for a just a moment. There is a small tissue within every woman. It’s called the hymen. It’s within her body.
When she has sex for the very first time, this tissue is stretched or torn, and there is a release of blood. Now, if you grew up in the day and age when Jesus walked the earth, the Jewish wedding ceremony took this so seriously, this covenant of blood, that the first gift that they would have given you, as a young bride, would have been white wedding linens.
And they would want you to seal the covenant on that night, returning from your honeymoon chamber with blood evidence to share with your whole family, that this covenant had been sealed in blood. Somebody tell me you’re glad you’re a woman of the new millennium.
But you know what? They weren’t uncomfortable with that. They celebrated it; they understood the significance of the blood. It was a beautiful thing. Sex is a blood covenant.
To summarize, the idea is that all covenants require a shedding of blood to seal the covenant. Marriage is a covenant that is sealed by the shedding of a virgin’s blood during her first sexual experience with her husband.
I find this teaching to be grotesque and potentially very dangerous. I also think it’s unbiblical for a number of reasons.
First, do all biblical covenants require the shedding of blood to seal the covenant? According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, God entered into a covenant of life with Adam before the fall:
Q. 12. What special act of providence did God exercise towards man in the estate wherein he was created?
A. When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.
Was there shedding of blood to seal this covenant? There was, of course, considerable blood shed as a result of the breaking of this covenant. But nothing is said or alluded to about blood in the ratifying of the covenant of life.
Second, marriage is a creation ordinance instituted by God before the fall. Why would there be a need for the shedding of blood before sin and death had entered the world? Did Eve bleed on her wedding night? Only she and Adam know, but I doubt it. The curse brought pain to childbearing and all it entails. There is no reason for Eve to have experienced that pain before she sinned.
The third reason I think this teaching is unbiblical is that we now live under the covenant of grace after the last, best, and only true sacrifice has already taken place. Christ has paid the penalty for our sins, and there are no more sacrifices. Ever. Why would any Christian who has been bought by the precious blood of Christ teach that a woman must offer a sacrifice of blood to seal her marriage?
Lastly, I want to consider the very practical side of things. Not all women bleed on their wedding night. This can be true for any number of reasons. Does this invalidate their marriage? It doesn’t change the vows they made.
Let’s consider a few different scenarios. First, not all virgins will bleed the first time they have sex. That’s simply medical fact.
Second, not everyone who marries is a virgin. Many people have sexual sins that they have repented of. Some people have been sinned against. (Although in those cases I would still consider them to be virgins.) Are their marriages less valid? Under a covenant of works, maybe. But we live under a covenant of grace with forgiveness and mercy.
Also, the teaching seems to demean second marriages. There are valid, biblical reasons for widowed or divorced men and women remarry. In these marriages, no one is a virgin. Their marriages are biblical and God-honoring. Does it matter that they weren’t sealed with blood? Are they less married as a result?
I understand the desire to strengthen the biblical arguments for marriage. Marriage is under attack in our culture today. But in our attempts to bolster biblical marriage we need to be careful about the unintended consequences of going beyond what Scripture teaches. I see four basic repercussions from teaching that marriage is a blood covenant.
- It teaches a repulsive view of the sexual relationship between a husband and wife. What was created to be a beautiful expression of the one flesh relationship should not be twisted into a bloody sacrifice.
- It idolizes virginity. It is a good and God-honoring thing for women (and men) to wait for marriage. It is a blessing, and it protects against many heartaches. But it’s should not be made into an idol. There is a serious danger of that happening. Consider “purity balls.”
- It overshadows the grace and forgiveness that we live under as believers in Christ. We are all sinners saved by grace. There are no more sacrifices required.
- It could be used to promote or excuse abuse. There is so much that could be said here, but I’ll leave it at this. There are despicable men in this world who would use this teaching to hurt women.
Marriage is a beautiful thing. God gave us marriage for our benefit and mutual support and as a picture of the relationship between Christ as His Church. We should work hard to support and protect marriage. But we don’t need to go back to the Old Testament sacrificial system to do so.
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1 ESV)