We get a slew of questions from listeners from Indiana to India. This one is from a listener named Ruby in Jaipur. “Hello, Pastor John. Thank you for your sermons and for this podcast. I got married recently and here in India, culturally, a woman lives with the husband’s family. What would you say about this in light of the multiple times where the Bible talks about a man leaving his parents to become one with his wife? What does this leaving look like in a marriage where he physically doesn’t leave his parent’s home?”
It’s risky for me to speak with too much specificity across the miles and across the cultures into a situation that I know very little about culturally. So let me see if I can say some foundational things without too many specifics that might nevertheless give some clear guidance in this matter.
Foundation for Human Marriage
This question really does have relevance — this question and the text she’s referring to. It really does have relevance to every culture, mine and hers, even though some cultures make this word of Scripture more pressing than others. So here’s the text.
“Moses was taking this moment in the creation story to lay a foundation for all subsequent human life.”
In Genesis 2:23–24, Moses writes just after God created the first woman from Adam’s side, saying, “Then the man said, ‘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.’ Therefore” — here’s the key verse — “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast” — we call it leaving and cleaning — “to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
This command to leave mother and father is all the more remarkable because Adam and Eve didn’t have a mother or father. Moses was taking this moment in the creation story to lay a foundation for all subsequent human life. That’s very significant.
The three things he stresses are (1) leave mother and father; (2) hold fast or cleave or be united in a new, covenant relationship with your spouse; and (3) become one flesh, which includes at least the new intimacy of sexual union with its depth and all its fruitfulness.
Then Jesus cites this verse in Matthew 19:5, and Paul quotes this verse in the all-important passage of Ephesians 5:31–32. So both Jesus and Paul recognize how foundational this sentence was in Genesis 2:24, and they re-affirm it for their day. And I think our day as well.
Christ and the Church
So Ruby is right to draw attention to this verse as relevant and, indeed, urgent for her situation. Now the reason I call Ephesians 5 an all-important passage is because Paul — more clearly than anyone in the Bible — reveals the mystery that was present from the beginning in Genesis 2:24. He shows that the union of a man and a woman in marriage was modeled on the covenant relationship between Christ and his church.
Here’s the way he says it: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31–32). That’s what gives such weight and lasting durability to Genesis 2:24.
So, in answer to Ruby’s question, Ephesians 5:22–33 — that whole unit — gives the best guidelines to the essence or the heart of what it means to leave mother and father and cleave to each other in marriage. I think, if we read it carefully, we can draw out four aspects of a marriage that distances it from former participation in the household with mother and father. So here they are.
“What’s not mandated with any explicitness or specificity is how much geography or distance is needed.”
1. There is now a new allegiance, devotion, affection, intimacy, and priority that is clearly implied in the analogy of Christ and the church.
2. There is a new structure of responsibility for who bears the primary burden of providing materially for the family — namely, the husband. Not the father. Not the wife. Of course, everybody in the clan — the extended family all the more so in an agrarian culture — everybody’s pitching in to make life work. But there is a unique responsibility falling to the new husband.
3. There is a new structure of responsibility for who bears the primary burden of protecting the new family. Of course, the whole clan is important in providing protection. But there’s a new special burden that falls not to the father any longer, but falls to the husband. He needs to see to it that his wife and children are protected and safe.
4. There is a new structure of responsibility for who bears the primary burden of providing leadership in this new unit of marriage. That’s why Paul calls the husband the head of his wife as Christ the head of the church. This has profound implications for how each of them relates to the generation that has just gone before, which used to embody so much authority.
Those four new structures of allegiance and responsibility necessarily lead to a kind of leaving mother and father — leaving old structures of allegiance, old structures of provision, old structures of protection, old structures of leadership. At least that much is built into the very nature of what the New Testament describes as marriage.
A Final Principle
Now, what’s not mandated with any explicitness or specificity is how much geography or distance is needed. Do we need ten feet or ten miles between this new unit of social life called marriage and our mother and father?
“We may adapt to cultural norms as long as they don’t undermine the new structures of responsibility in marriage.”
I would guess this is very different from culture to culture, depending on how clans and villages and cities and vocations are conceived in those cultures. So I think the principle would go something like this across all cultures: We may adapt to present cultural norms to the degree that they don’t undermine the new structures of responsibility in marriage. Whenever there is a compromising or undermining of those new structures, we should be moving towards some cultural alteration in our living situation.
So that’s the best I can do without too much specificity. But let me close with one last thought. When Paul is thinking about taking care of widows, he says, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). He’s thinking about a mom or grandma whose husband has died and she has no resources.
So I don’t think that leaving mother and father in the forming of a new family should mean a loss of care or a loss of thankfulness or a loss of respect. But whatever distance happens, there should be some sense of ongoing responsibility that aging parents be taken care of.