The Myth of “Biblical Marriage”

Coming out of the elections on November 4th, amazingly, the issues of the day don’t seem to be revolving around Obama’s election as much as they are violently ricocheting within the debate of what constitutes marriage in our society today. The passing of Prop 8 in California, with similar props passing in a few other states, has ignited the debate to a level never before seen.

I’ve had several conversations with social conservatives over the course of the last few months and they’ve all gone something like this:


SC: I’m voting no on prop 102 or prop 8.
ZL: Yeah, why’s that?
SC: Because we need to protect traditional marriage.
ZL: Yeah? What’s your definition of marriage?
SC: It’s between one man and one woman.
ZL: Says who?
SC: God, that’s who.
ZL: When did God tell you that?
SC: When I read it in the Bible.

……and scene. (actually the conversation would go on, but for the purposes of this post, i’m making an edit)

After having several these kinds of conversations, I’ve come to the conclusion this is not an issue of whether or not “Biblical marriage” is at stake here. It is painfully obvious that as a society, Christians included, we’ve already discarded many attributes of the culture of marriage we find in the Biblical text. “Biblical marriage” has already been run through the meat grinder and even Christians can take much credit for the way marriage is now packaged.

When my wife and I were married, we were married in a church that required us to undergo pre-marital counseling. If we had refused, the church would not have agreed marry us. This was a very good thing, in my opinion, and it was completely within their right to do so. Holly and I found it very helpful and I’d always recommend engaged couples to do the same. But let’s imagine for a moment if I were to announce in one of the counseling sessions that not only was I marrying Holly, but that I had also arranged to marry another woman from the church who’s father I had made an arrangement with. Yeah, that sounds crazy right? But because I was not an elder of the church, I could have cited the many examples of marriage in the Bible to support that my request was totally appropriate. Obviously polygamy is frowned upon by our current set of laws, but if we are talking about what constitutes “Biblical” marriage, then I think it’s valid point. Not only was polygamy accepted, but it was also typical for young teens to marry as well.

Another example would be how many churches today don’t hesitate to marry people who have been divorced for reasons other than adultery. By doing so, they’ve taken it upon themselves to redefine what the Bible constitutes as a valid marriage. It’s ironic that there’s so much talk about redefining traditional marriage without being honest about how the Church has already set about to make their own tweaks on what is and isn’t allowed.

What’s interesting is that there seems to be a endless fervor when addressing same-sex marriage equality but not the same passion for legislating the illegality of other types of heterosexual marriage that could just as easily be deemed “unBiblical.”

In the end, we must be honest about how the cultural backdrop, or setting we find ourselves in has an enormous influence on what we kinds of behavior we see as acceptable. If Christians today want to be honest, we can all agree that the culture of marriage the Bible depicts throughout is not ideal. And if one wants to back up their argument against same-sex marriage on the grounds of biblical marriage, then they can’t just take the parts of the Bible they find agreeable and ditch the rest. A friend of mine recently made the point that when we use the word “Biblical” as an adjective, we should pause and truly wrestle with what that really means.

14 thoughts on “The Myth of “Biblical Marriage”

  1. i think you’re hitting the nail on the head, sort of. christians should shut up about biblical marriage when dealing with things in the political sphere. biblical marriage has very little, if anything, to do with what legally constitutes marriage in america.

    i do think you can come up with an image of what “biblical marriage” should look like based on the witness of the new testament.

    but again, that doesn’t make any difference when you’re talking about denying people legal rights that they allowed to have constitutionally.

  2. Sean, I think we can look at what the culture of marriage was like when the NT was written and it decidedly looks different than what conventional marriage looks like today, even among Christians. The only concrete prohibition on polygamy in the NT that I’m aware of is from Paul and he only includes “elders” in that instruction. if that’s the case, then even in the NT, polygamy seems to be technically ok for non-elders, if we are to take the NT at face value, which I think, if we are honest with ourselves, many Christians stopped doing a long time ago. and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    I think we can and should allow what we’re taught by the NT in regards to marriage inform our marriages today. I just don’t think we should go around claiming that marriage has been this one way (one man, one woman) forever. it has evolved.

  3. I think that the Bible is very clear on how marriage is defined. Unfortunately, for so many Christians today we live in fear of appearing intolerant and not accepting of others. But that is why Jesus calls it “the narrow way”. It IS hard to speak and acknowledge the truth but the truth is not the truth if it becomes relative.

    Both Jesus and Paul to God’s design at creation (“from the beginning”) in support of lifelong marriage between husband and wife as God’s ideal and thus the context for human sexual activity (Matt. 19:3-12; Mark 1-:2-12;Rom. 1:18-32; 1 Tim. 4:3-4)

    I think that if we view marriage as a more than just a piece of paper it is quite different from the word civil union. But either way it is clear that we are to love everyone.

    You had a good point that people often pick and chose what they want from the Bible but at the same time we can not pick and chose aspects of Christianity to fit what we want them to be. I suppose what I am saying is that while unpopular at times we have to stick the what is the truth and that is the truth that comes from God.

  4. well, lifelong marriage might be kind of difficult but I think I understand what you mean.

    so amy, are we to be tolerant of polygamy, since it seems relatively clear that it was an acceptable marital practice in the Bible?

  5. i wasn’t necessarily talking about prohibitions against polygamy in the new testament. i’m especially talking about metaphors used in relation to jesus as the husband and the church as the bride. and also concepts taught throughout the epistles and the gospels in terms of human relationships.

    the church is referred to as the bride, the body that christ continually sacrifices for. the person for which the husband gives his all.

    as well, you can see that polygamy isn’t an accepted biblical practice because it presupposes — sometimes overtly and sometimes subtly — that women are less human than men. the idea is that a man can own women. they aren’t equal.

    the new testament speaks directly against this idea of people as property. particularly with the concept of slavery. paul encourages philemon to treat onesimus as a fellow human and not simply property, or even an employee (and reflects the same concepts in other epistles).

    the idea of marriage as being between two people (i would say man and women specifically, but that’s not the issue at the moment) instead of any random number isn’t explicitly spelled out in the bible. but if you look at what the new testament says about how people are to relate to one another, and how the husband and wife are to treat one another, then it can be seen that polygamous relationships can’t be had while maintaining a christian character.

    and then you can also add the witness of the early church, the apostolic fathers, etc. to the discussion. they all viewed marriage the same way. unlike many protestants, i would say that carries plenty of weight, too.

    but i agree with you on a very basic level. many christians talk about “biblical marriage” as if it’s plainly taught in some passage that it is “one man and one woman, for life” when it is most certainly not.

    the thing that kills me, and i think this is really the crux of the matter here, is that many christians are so dependent on the idea of “sola scriptura” that they have to twist and contort — and invent — things so they appear to be explicitly in the biblical text. the truth is that there is no real sola scriptura in the strict sense that some evangelical fanatics would have us believe. there is usually much more nuance and much more complexity than plenty of people want there to be. even in “obvious” issues like the trinity or the divinity of christ. it’s not as simple as it appears. however, just because it’s complex doesn’t mean it’s not true, either.

    with that said, i think maybe a better term to use would be “christian marriage” instead of “biblical marriage.” because we’re not necessarily talking about “marriage by the Book,” so to speak. we’re talking about marriage as how it should be defined when it has a specifically christian character, when the kingdom is being lived out through the relationship.

    but again, talking about “christian marriage” in the political sphere and using it to justify denying homosexuals equal, legal rights is stupid. and wrong. and it should stop. just because christians want to define marriage a certain way doesn’t mean that all people must do the same.

  6. Here’s my 2 cents. Polygamy is a pretty silly argument in favor of same sex marriage and the “evolution of the model of marriage”. Indeed what marriage looks like has changed. But that’s not God’s doing. It’s ours. When looking at polygamy in the Bible we need to ask a few questions. (One) Did God allow polygamy? I think this is a pretty obvious yes. (Two) If God allowed polygamy then did it change and why did it change? It is not as much God disallowing something He previously allowed as it is God restoring marriage to His original intent. Even going back to Adam and Eve (not Eves), polygamy was not God’s original intent. God seems to have allowed polygamy to solve a problem, but it was God’s desire for the problem never to have occurred. Similarly it was never God’s original intent for Adam and Eve to sin. So in the interim God allowed the sacrifice of animals to atone for sin. When Jesus died and was resurrected God restored His original intent with respect to our relationship with Him and atonement of our sin. The polygamy argument then really falls apart when we look at Ephesians 5:22-33 where Paul compares the relationship of Christ (the husband) to His church (the wife). Not to mention the Greek here for wife is all singular (not wives) just as it is also in 1 Corinthians 7.

    The issue of same sex marriage is a difficult one because it’s not necessarily addressed explicitly in the Bible. So we have to look at the underlying issue of homosexuality where one good place to start is 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 “Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.” So it is explicitly listed here. But it is a sin and sin is something we are all guilty of. So if we are to ask can a gay person go to heaven? Then we have to remember there are no prerequisites for that other than believing on the name of Jesus (read John for all that). Lastly we have to always remember love. It is the greatest commandment. We should love all of God’s people and treat them with the same attitude and character that Christ would have. It’s shameful when people say they are Christ followers but have no love for gay individuals.

    On a personal note Zach this is my first time commenting here and I want to say thanks for Jimmy Eat World and this blog. I’ve been a fan since 95 or 96 when I first saw you at under the couch in Atlanta. I’ve now probably seen the band live at least a dozen times and it’s always a face rocker. Love it, keep bringing up interesting discussions.

  7. I don’t comment often either, however…should we not be thinking about ‘civil’ constructs of marriage rather than ‘Biblical?’ Is it necessary for Christians to hold everyone up to a Biblical standard even when the Bible isn’t a person’s particular standard? It’s pretty ridiculous to throw, “but Jesus says…” to a person who could give a rip about what Jesus says. Does the Church need to be running the government when it’s struggling to run itself?

    I appreciate both sides of the discussion, but when civil privileges are at the core of the issue (and not moral definitions) ought we not turn our rhetoric towards civic discussion rather than religious?

    I could go on and on, but that’s my half penny.


  8. If Genesis is to reflect God’s original intent, then why can’t we talk to snakes? 🙂

    I never intended to say that polygamy in the Bible clears the way for SSM today. I’m just pointing out that the idea of what a valid marriage consists of have evolved, and that’s not a bad thing. I agree that citing polygamy in the Bible as an argument for SSM is silly. But it’s also silly to cite the Bible in making the argument that marriage, as God intended, is exclusively the way we accept marriage to be today.

  9. i love Chris’s comment just above. My partner and i were just talking about this when we we found his comment. He nails it on the head. This is NOT a theocracy and we have a Constitution that gives us freedoms, not take them away!

    My partner can’t agree more. She is so excited at the thought of putting divorce on the ballot because divorce of course IS against the Biblical standards in marriage. She is so offended people have been divorcing for years and years that it is about time we took that right away from them. Therefore, she’s starting a petition to get a new ballot on the books to take away the right to divorce! She can’t stop laughing!

  10. I am not sure why churches feel the need to weigh in on the debate of what a state should recognize. If the state told churches that they will have to marry gay people, it would be an issue.

    I am repeating myself, but I find the definition of marriage far more damaged by adultery and divorce than I do by allowing to people who are in love to suffer like the rest of us 🙂

  11. Whether you “approve” of it or not is irrelevant. Do you approve of divorce? The Bible doesn’t, but it’s legal. Do you approve of premarital sex? Most people don’t care anymore, but it was a grievous sin for hundreds of years.We disagree on all kinds of moral issues, but we rarely exclude people from important forms of civic life because we disagree with them. Adulterers can marry and remarry all they want. Polygamists can join the army, along with some convicted criminals. But gays are excluded an incredibly important rite of passage in American culture because others think their private love lives are “immoral?” It doesn’t make sen

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