Many Christians set out to defend what they call “biblical marriage”, and this term has become a lightning rod for discussion. Authors such as this one have pushed back, saying that various types of marriage are actually condoned in the Bible –many of them being abusive to the women involved. Advocates of gay marriage are quick to ask why Christians insist on preserving a particular marriage ideal when the Bible describes many different kinds of marriage.
So, does the Bible really support a wide range of marriage types? Are Christians arbitrarily choosing a concept of marriage from the many displayed in the Bible? How should Christians really go about understanding the Bible and determining what God desires for marriage to look like? Certainly, many different types of marriage are described in the Bible, but is it also true that Christians have no basis for advocating a particular type of marriage? These questions are all important.
There is a difference between a description of something and a prescription for behavior. Christians do not believe that every Bible passage carries the same weight in terms of practical application today. Every passage must be understood in its context – both cultural and literary. Taking Scripture out of context is dangerous, and will ultimately lead us to the wrong conclusion. Not all biblical examples deserve our imitation, nor were all intended to evoke it. Here I will discuss three principles I believe will help us understand God’s heart and purpose in marriage. Then I will wrap up by reflecting on the words we use about marriage.
1. Narrative descriptions of marriage practices should not be taken as prescriptive.
The storyline of Scripture of contains many examples of dysfunctional marriage practices, and often these “marriage” stories give evidence of their own destructive results. We may think of Judges 19:22-29. In this scenario when a man is personally threatened with sexual assault by a mob he offers his concubine to the men attacking him in an attempt to save his own skin. After the concubine is raped and abused she evidently dies. Her owner then cuts her up in pieces and sends these pieces to the corners of Israel. Is this a God honoring example of marriage? No, in fact this story gives evidence of a lawless period in time of Israel’s history where “…Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25). This story illustrates the depth of depravity God’s people had sunk to, and in no way validates the behavior it describes.
We may also think of King Solomon’s many marriages. He possessed 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). In this situation Solomon’s practice of marriage went directly against the commands of God. In Deuteronomy kings of Israel are specifically told to not take many wives because doing so would result in their hearts being led away from God (Deuteronomy 17:17). This is exactly what happened to Solomon in his old age (1 Kings 11:4). This too is an example of marriage we are not called to emulate.
We could look at the lives of the patriarchs for other examples of marriage practices that didn’t work out so well. Abraham’s decision to take his wife’s servant in an attempt to have a son was a symptom of his shallow faith and produced very negative consequences in his family. Jacob was tricked into marrying the sister of the woman he loved, and his resulting plural marriage was thereafter fraught with favoritism and conflict. These men loved God to be sure, but we must not assume their marriage practices were condoned by God.
2. Old Testament marriage guidelines are not necessarily prescriptive for Christians.
The fact that something is commanded in the Old Testament doesn’t imply that it is binding for Christians today. This is very clear in the New Testament in reference to dietary laws (Mark 7:19, Acts 10). Christians are not called to disregard the Old Testament, but we should allow the New Testament to help explain the Old Testament to us.[i] The Old Testament Law was good, and was given for a specific purpose during a specific time.
This New Testament priority is not arbitrary, and we don’t listen to the New Testament simply because we are more comfortable with what it says. This New Testament priority is reflected in Scripture and has been historically practiced by the Christian church. All Scripture is important and useful, but not all Scripture is applied in the same way. New Testament teaching on marriage is the final word and helps clarify what God intends for marriage to look like for believers today.
Still, many of the biblical marriage practices are troubling to us. The Old Testament includes instructions about marrying a captive woman (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), marrying the wife of a dead brother – called levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), and even the marriage of a man to a woman he raped (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Each of these situations deserves a great deal of discussion, but a few comments should be made now. Firstly we must understand these situations in their cultural context. The Old Testament was written during a period of time where women were afforded few rights. Did the Old Testament Law seek to completely overturn society and instantly create equality? No, but even in the midst of a culture with poor attitudes toward famales we see a biblical pattern of concern for women who found themselves in these horrible situations. It is right to respond with disgust to the cultural norms of this time, but it is not fair to say that Scripture was seeking to establish abusive practices when the actual intent of these commands was to provide some protection to women suffering under an abusive cultural norm. Hebrew women were given greater protection than in other societies of the time, and Scripture, when taken as a whole, unequivocally speaks to the worth and value of women.
Many Old Testament marriage practices are not worth repeating. We must see these practices in their cultural context and look elsewhere in Scripture for further clarity on God’s plan for marriage. If we merely studied Deuteronomy to establish our marriage paradigm we might be left scratching our heads, but God never intended to leave us there. The regulations of the Old Testament were merely a shadow preceding a better and fuller reality. The Old Testament Law was an imperfect guide for a deeply flawed people. The imperfect covenant (Hebrews 7:18), put forth in the Law, would soon be replaced with a better, though more demanding covenant. This brings us to our third principal.
3. The New Testament reaffirms and builds on God’s original intent for marriage.
While many Christians are aware of the wide ranging discussion of marriage and singleness found in First Corinthians seven, fewer are aware of another important marriage passage. Perhaps the most significant New Testament discussion of marriage occurs after Jesus is asked a troubling question about divorce. “Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matthew 19:3)
The question was a landmine; the Pharisees wanted to see if Jesus would concur with marriage tradition or reject it. Jesus’ reply caught everyone off guard:
4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)
Many would have expected Jesus to reference the Law of Moses to substantiate his perspective on marriage, but Jesus chose to go even farther back, citing Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to describe his marriage paradigm. He argues that Genesis, not Deuteronomy was intended by God to serve as the primary prescriptive passage for marriage relationships. In the Garden of Eden, before sin had entered the world, God established a pattern of marriage that involved a man and a woman uniting together. This unity was sexual and spiritual. These individuals were now considered to be one. Unlike under the Mosaic Law, this union was intended to last until death. A man could not abandon his wife.[ii] This declaration of Jesus elicited immediate protests from those listening. They asked: Why did Moses allow divorce if it was wrong?
Jesus then spoke about a truth that helps us understand why God allowed non-ideal marriage practices in the Old Testament. “Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”” – Matthew 19:8. This shows us that at least in this instance, God allowed a marriage pattern that did not reflect his original intent. He did this because of the hard hearts of his people, not because it was best.
Old Testament marriage practice undoubtedly fell short of God’s best, but God’s original plan was still in place. This plan involved a man and a woman in lifelong commitment to each other. Jesus said that any past exceptions to this policy were now invalid. No longer would diversions from the original plan be ok for followers of God. While some like to claim that Jesus was relatively liberal on sexual issues, this passage points to the opposite conclusion. Jesus was raising the sexual and relational standard. He was calling people back to God’s original plan for marriage.
This was the pattern for Jesus. At numerous junctures when addressing questions of the Law Jesus goes deeper and asks more of people. Merely following the letter of the law would no longer suffice. Jesus seeks to illuminate heart conditions, not just control behavior. He declares that the sin of adultery is one that starts in the heart as lust, and that the sin of murder is first experienced through hatred (Matthew 5). The new law given by Christ offered greater freedom, and greater responsibility.
In fact the entire tone of the New Testament is one of increased commitment to God. No longer must followers of God restrict their diet arbitrarily, but they must now consider the impact their eating choices have on those around them (1 Corinthians 8). No longer must God’s people offer an endless stream of animal sacrifices. They are instead called to offer their entire selves as living sacrifices out of love for their Savior (Romans 12:1). No longer were husbands merely commanded to physically provide for their wives, they were now required to love them sacrificially – even to the point of being willing to die for them (Ephesians 5:25-28). The standard was raised and the commitment was deepened as God called his people back to his original plan.
We could continue by looking at other passages in the New Testament that further outline God’s incredible plan for marriage, but we will leave that for another time. The important point here is that while culture and hard human hearts distorted God’s plan for marriage through the years, God’s intent for marriage has always been the same. I am not sure I could sum up this point any better than Trillia Newbell does:
“For Jesus and Paul and for the Church, sexual and marriage ethics (and biblical womanhood) are not based on the historical sins against women that are recorded in the Old Testament, but from the pre-fall monogamous union of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2.”
At this point we have seen that God’s plan for marriage has been consistent through time. From the beginning marriage was intended to be an enduring physical and spiritual union between a man and woman. While some would have us believe that the Bible’s perspective on marriage is confusing or contradictory, we have clearly seen that God’s Word points toward one prescription for marriage. I do not expect non-Christians to share my convictions about the authority of the Bible, and I certainly don’t expect them to willingly submit to its moral teachings. But I do hope the intellectually honest will acknowledge that Christians have internally consistent, biblically grounded reasons for advocating and practicing a particular form of marriage.
The Words we Use about Marriage Matter
So what then are we to say then about “Biblical Marriage”? I believe when most Christians say biblical marriage they are referring to God’s intended practice of marriage. The term is unfortunately somewhat inexact. It can be misunderstood by those hear it and misrepresented by those who desire to do so. Certainly, many different types of marriage are described in the Bible – even if they are not intended to serve as examples for us. Perhaps our language needs to be more precise. Not all biblical marriages were honoring to God. Christian marriage, however, is the unique practice of God’s people.[iii]
Christian marriage should not be confused with Old Testament aberrations or modern day distortions. It is the unique, divinely ordained practice of God’s people – laid out compellingly in Scripture. It is radical when compared to Ancient Near East practices, and it is radical when compared to the modern American understanding of marriage. It is more demanding, more serious, and more profitable than any other expression of marriage. Christian marriage is a gift from God to his people, and those who seek to practice it will be blessed.
The words we use are so important. This fact has been incredibly clear in the recently public debate over gay marriage. It sounds much more compelling to say that you are for marriage equality than it does to say that you support legally changing the definition of marriage. Let’s publically talk about marriage, but let’s also commit ourselves to using words that accurately communicate our meaning. This is why when I talk about God’s intent for marriage I seek to use the term Christian marriage – because I believe it better reflects the truth I advocate.
[i] For more helpful information on the question of the Old Testament authority in the life of a Christian please read Tim Keller’s helpful thoughts. http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/07/09/making-sense-of-scriptures-inconsistency/
[ii] A couple situations are given where divorce is allowed for a Christian. These two cases are marital infidelity (Matt 19:9), and abandonment by a non-believing spouse (1 Cor 7:14). In all cases, divorce should be evaluated soberly. There are doubtlessly other situations, such as abuse, where one spouse would need to separate for their safety or the safety of their children.
[iii] I am indebted to Bryan Kammerzelt for suggesting this shift in terminology. http://www.critiquebycreating.com/2011/04/the-most-eligible-christian-bachelor/