Many conservative Christians are concerned about the redefinition of marriage as same-sex couples are included in the institution, and are calling for the upholding of the Biblical model of marriage. So what is marriage in the Bible, and what has it looked like in Christian societies throughout the centuries?
Here are the questions I want to ask in this section:
- What is the model for marriage we are given in the Scriptures?
- How has the church and surrounding society viewed marriage in the intervening centuries?
- What seems to be the ultimate purpose of marriage?
Marriage as described in the Bible
The Bible is a vast library (the word literally comes from Latin, Greek and Phoenician for the plural of“book”) of writings spanning many centuries and topics. There is not one text devoted to a complete and unchanging description of marriage, but there are many that give us insight at varying levels in into this social and spiritual institution.
Now, there are far too many relationships described in the Bible to go through all of them in this level of detail. We’ll pick out some major sections and descriptions, along with some summaries and bullet points. Let’s start at the beginning.
Looking at our two creation stories
There are two different creation accounts in the Bible. Even though I had read the Bible many times, I didn’t recognize thisuntil quite recently. There are different explanations Bible scholars propose for this, like one being a response to Mesopotamian myths and the other one later in response to Babylonian myths. It is important to recognize that they function both as independent narratives with their own focuses as well as parallel accounts that work together.
The first creation story: Genesis 1:1-2:4a
The first creation narrative in the Bible (Genesis 1:1-2:4a) moves from the beginning with God alone to the grand finale with humankind. There is no reflection on a specific pair of humans, nor on marriage, but we can see that humans are the focus and end goal of the creative act.
In the beginning when God began to create the heavens and the earth...
— Genesis 1:1 (NRSV variation from translation notes)
Some understand the phrase “the heavens and the earth” as a metaphorical description of “everything”, as Shakespeare writes in Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth...”. We may think of it as a spectrum, with everything on every plane of our world, every string-theory dimension of reality, and both physical and spiritual understandings originating with God, the “alpha and omega” (again an inclusive spectrum concept). Some call this a “merism”, a figure of speech used in law, rhetoric, biology, and Biblical poetry:
In rhetoric a merism is the combination of two contrasting words, to refer to an entirety. For example, when we mean to say that someone searched thoroughly, everywhere, we often say that someone searched high and low...
Merisms are conspicuous features of Biblical poetry. For example, in Genesis 1:1, when God creates “the heavens and the earth” (KJV), the two parts combine to indicate that God created the whole universe. Similarly, in Psalm 139, the psalmist declares that God knows “my downsitting and mine uprising’, indicating that God knows all the psalmist’s actions.
This grand, majestic and poetic account cumulates in the making of humankind in the image of God:
Then God said,
“Let us make humankind in our image,
according to our likeness...”
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
— Genesis 1:26a, 27
What do we know from this creation account? We know that all humans are made in the image of God, not God made in the image of humans. That all humanity is created in the likeness of God the one-and-three (“our”). That all humanity, the spectrum included in “male and female”, is created in equality without hierarchy and declared good:
God saw everything that he had made,
and indeed, it was very good.
— Genesis 1:31a
In creation everything is called good by the Creator. No matter what happens as the story of Scripture continues, that declaration of goodness remains God’s opinion about his creation.
Why could it be helpful to recognize a spectrum rather than a binary designation in the phrase “male and female”? Consider those who are born as Intersex (the “I” in the more complete acronym LGBTQIA) with inconclusive genitalia. Or some Transgender folks who have the physical genitalia of one gender, and the chromosomes and brain-structure of another. If we are all created in the image of God, and declared good, then maybe “male and female” is a non-dualistic container, a merism, of the variety of the good creation even while we recognize that the majority of people fit comfortably near each of the traditional ends of the spectrum.
Finally, note that the entirety of the first self-contained creation account is about “humankind” in general, with no mention of a named pair of individuals nor a description of marriage. Now let’s move on the second creation story, starting immediately after the first passage, to see what is shared and what is unique about its narrative and focus.
The second creation story: Genesis 2:4b-2:24
And Yahweh, God, formed the adam [human]
of the dust of the adamah [ground/humus],
and breathed into the nostrils the breath of life;
and the adam became a living being.
...and Yahweh, God, said,
“It is not good that the adam should be alone;
I will make a helper—a corresponding partner.”
— Genesis 2:7, 18 [author’s more literal paraphrase]
In the second creation narrative starting at Genesis 2:5, at first only one human is created: the adam (generic word for human, not used as a proper name until verse 20) from adamah (Hebrew for ground or humus). Then the Lord God remarks that it is not good for the human to be alone. There is no mention of the need for procreation, but rather of companionship and relationship. This is a love story, not a pragmatic way to fill up the world with children—remember, the command to “be fruitful and multiply” is part of the self-contained first creation story and does not seem to apply to this second story’s main point.
A corresponding companion is sought for the currently ungendered human among the animals. When this is not found, a suitable partner is made by drawing another human out of the first. While there is a very good argument from cross-referencing other verses that the traditional word “rib” is likely better translated “side”, regardless of the exact term it’s important to note how the origin was from a place of equality.
The KJV’s original translation decision of “helpmeet” has been often misunderstood to imply “assistant/lower partner” instead of “appropriate partner.” But if we cross-reference the text, we find that this Hebrew phrase is used for one who comes in support of another—often the stronger coming to the aid of the weaker, as in describing God or an army coming to reinforce someone in battle. Equality, equivalency and relationship are the primary emphases in this account.
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called ishshah [woman],
for out of ish [man] this one was taken.”
— Genesis 2:23
The passage concludes with the man and woman coming back together to make one flesh. The particular is subsumed in union.
In neither creation narrative is a marriage ceremony mentioned, nor are any other models of relationship described in negative or positive terms. To use these stories as prescriptive for every relationship seems to take the meaning beyond what is written. Since procreation was important to cultures at the time, and marriage understood in the context of inheritance and multiplying, heterosexual relationships seem to be the assumed model. If anything, it seems to me that there is a de-emphasis on the importance of being either male or female, and a focus on our shared humanity and need for relationship.
Marriage amongst the patriarchs
Before the Law was given at Mount Sinai, forming what we now recognize as Judaism, we have several very important figures in Jewish and Christian history: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Their marriages share little with the Christian ideal today.
Abram and Sarai and Hagar
Abram (later better known as Abraham) apparently married his half-sister Sarai (later Sarah), the daughter of his own father, as he describes to Abimelech in Genesis 20:12. This form of coupling is explicitly forbidden as cursed in Deuteronomy 27:22, yet the relationship between Abraham and Sarah is never condemned and can be seen as one of the best pictures of marriage in the Tanakh.
Later we see Sarai give her servant to Abram to produce a son for them, as she was barren. While we see family and ancestral conflict arise later from this decision, the typical ancient near-east practice itself is not clearly condemned in the Bible. The only aspect that is taken negatively is the lack of faith that action implies, not the method of conception itself.
After Sarah dies, Abraham takes another wife, Keturah, with whom he has six sons (and unspecified daughters, perhaps?). In the description of his distribution of inheritance, the “sons of his concubines”, apparently specified in addition to the sons of his wives, are given gifts (Genesis 25:1-6).
Isaac and Rebecca
We hear very little about Isaac compared to his more famous father and son. Our narrative in the middle of Genesis paints a very different picture of one who did not seem to have the same procreative drive as the typical patriarch. He appears to have no interest in marriage, as his father has to take the initiative to find him a suitable dynasty partner at age 40. They have one birth, of twins, and no further children are recorded whether from this marriage or from the concubines or other servants which were typically impregnated by the head of the household at the time.
Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah
Jacob gets the procreation narrative back on track with two official wives and two official concubines. All four women contribute to producing the twelve male legal heirs which lead to the twelve tribes of Israel. Again, while there is plenty of family rivalry to give us a dim view of the benefits of this arrangement, there is no suggestion anywhere in the story that God has anything against the multiple married and unmarried partners in the story. The great blessing promised to Abraham, of his descendants uncountable as stars in the heavens, appears to be on track because of, not in spite of, this depiction of marriage structure.
Judah and Tamar
We looked at the story of Judah and Tamar in more detail in the earlier chapter on Leviticus 20:13. This sexual relationship which seems so foreign and immoral to our modern ears is never condemned in Scripture. In fact, Tamar shows up as one of the few women honored as ancestors of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, along with Rahab the prostitute.
Marriage described in the Law
Old Testament accounts and ordinances given in the Law assume very different understandings of marriage and procreation than we’re used to today. Here are a few examples of practices regulated by the Law:
- If a man decides he does not like his new wife, and accuses her of not being a virgin, a trial is held. If she can prove her innocence, he pays money to her family. If she cannot, she is stoned to death. Deuteronomy 22:13-20
- A rapist who assaults an unengaged woman is required to pay her family for her and get married. The woman has no say in the matter. Deuteronomy 22:28-29
- If a man’s brother dies with no heir from his wife, he must marry his sister-in-law and provide a son for his brother’s line (known as Levirate marriage). Deuteronomy 25:5-10
Now, if we take the cultural context into account, and compare with other ancient practices and societies, these laws are often an improvement over earlier and neighboring cultures. We can still learn a lot from even these parts of the Law which we would never consider following today. However, it is very difficult to support our modern ideas of marriage by looking at Mosaic Law. Bear in mind that Deuteronomy repeatedly declares all these statutes and ordinances to be required by the Lord for blessing. They are found in amongst commands to love God, avoid worshiping idols, and kill off other tribes.
Marriages of the kings
In 2 Samuel 12:8 the prophet Nathan says that God gave Saul’s wives to David, and would give him more if he asked. Solomon’s multitude of wives and concubines seem to be a problem for idol-worship and political treaty reasons, not anything inherently wrong with the quantity.
The marriage most focused on the relationship between a single man and a single woman among the kings of Israel and Judah is the partnership of Ahab and Jezebel, not the best model of a Godly couple. It’s hard to make a case from these examples that polygamy on its own was considered to be a problem during this period of God’s chosen people.
Marriage according to Jesus
Once again, it’s difficult to see Jesus affirming the 1950s American ideal of the nuclear family. His ministry was about expanding our idea of what it meant to live in relationship and community, often calling out traditional arrangements as a barrier to discipleship.
Jesus on family
In the narratives of Jesus we find recorded in our four gospels, there is little celebration of the traditional family, and some apparent criticism of family obligations and constraints.
When Jesus is interrupted in his sermons by his mother and brothers, apparently with the intent to restrain him as an insane person, he rejects their claim of authority and relationship by replacing them with his disciples as his “family”, saying that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:31-35). This is in direct opposition to the commandment in the Law to “honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12), and he risks the harsh consequences of stoning to death for familiar rebellion (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). He clearly understood that his obligation to God’s rule superseded his family’s claim, and he modeled this for his followers.
Jesus clearly understood how radical and disruptive his teachings were to normal societal structures and expectations. He recognized the dramatic impact his words would have, that in following Christ his disciples would often have to give up their old relationships, their families of origin would reject them, and that their new “families” would be formed out of those who also followed Jesus, even including members they would formerly have considered enemies:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth;
I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
“For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;”
— Matthew 10:34-37
The parallel passage in Luke is even stronger: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Most LGBT Christians, and many of their straight allies, have experienced the pain of these truths in their own lives as they have followed Christ in ways which have brought rejection from their families and faith communities.
There are many other examples in the gospels where Jesus emphasized the new “family values” in the kingdom, warning his disciples that their cultural expectations of duty and love to their family members should no longer come first. They were to abandon their traditional family obligations (burying and even saying goodbye to family members—Luke 9:57-62) and pledge full allegiance to their new “family” made up of those who also followed Christ.
Jesus’s focus on the family in the kingdom of God is one that questions the traditions and assumptions of both his time and ours, dramatically redefining it in very uncomfortable ways.
Jesus on divorce and remarriage
One of the passages commonly used to affirm heterosexual marriage is Jesus’ teaching on divorce in reaction to a testing question by some religious scholars:
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”
They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”
But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
— Mark 10:2-12
First, it’s important to remember that this question and answer session is not about marriage, but about divorce. In context it does not appear to be meant to define the specific make-up of a relationship, but only speak to the reason for the uniting together of two individuals, and the ideal intention for lasting commitment. As we discussed in the earlier coverage of Genesis 2, “for this reason” seems to refer to the human need for companionship, not procreation or social expectation. If this passage was meant to define marriage as only valid between one man and one woman, I would expect to see teachings against polygamy as well, which is never condemned in Scripture.
As for divorce, Jesus is definitively rejecting the clearly laid out Law of Moses in favor of a more general divine principle. In defiance of accepted rhetoric and interpretive conventions, he uses a verse which doesn’t directly mention either marriage or divorce to override ones which do. This is an interesting precedence he sets for furture interpretions by his disciples through the centuries.
Once again, let’s take the context of Jesus’s words into account. In first century Judaism there were different interpretations of the Law regarding divorce. New Testament professor Dr. Gary Burge of Wheaton College points out three teachings by Rabbis of the time:
- Rabbi Shammai said only adultery justified divorce.
- Rabbi Hillel allowed that “a man may divorce his wife even if she burned his soup…or spoiled a dish for him.”
- Rabbi Akiba accepted divorce “if he should find a woman fairer than his wife.”
As was common with the questions asked by Pharisees and Sadducees in the gospels, Jesus was being asked which interpretive camp he belonged to. In the Mark passage he takes Rabbi Shammai’s teaching and runs with it even farther, allowing no valid reasons for divorce, even adultery.
There are four statements on divorce in the New Testament, three in the synoptic gospels and one from Paul. If we are careful to look at each one in its own context and analyze their logic directly, we may find some variation which makes our understanding of the teachings on divorce less certain:
- In the Mark passage—the first gospel written and likely a reference text for the other two synoptic accounts—divorce is given no justification, and remarriage is equivalent with adultery.
- Matthew takes this same statement, but softens it back to agree with Rabbi Shammai by allowing for divorce and remarriage in the case of adultery in the original marriage (Matthew 19:9).
- Luke omits the story about the testing and quotation of Genesis, and simply prohibits remarriage without directly condemning divorce (Luke 16:18).
- Finally, Paul seems to directly override Jesus’s instructions (“I and not the Lord”) to instruct the Corinthians that divorce and remarriage is allowed between believers and unbelievers (1 Corinthians 7:1-16).
As Jesus’s own disciples point out, the strictest of these teachings may act like a deterrent against marriage entirely. It’s interesting that there has never been a major church denomination which has fully excluded any possibility of divorce in all circumstances. Some scholars conclude that either this passage is hyperbole in the vein of “cut off your own hand if it causes you to sin”, or that Jesus had a dim view of marriage in his culture.
Jesus and Paul on celibacy and “eunuchs”
Instead, Jesus appears to prefer his followers to remain unmarried, and many of his subsequent followers agreed. Paul certainly made it clear that celibacy was his preference for the church.
In one significant passage recorded only in Matthew, Jesus answers the concern of the disciples about the unreasonableness of marriage without divorce by talking about counter-cultural concept of eunuchs:
His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
— Matthew 19:10-12
Jesus speaks of three kinds of "eunuchs"—men who did not marry women in the first century. Castrated men were often trusted in government positions at the time because they did not have divided loyalty with a family (we cover this further in the next chapter). Men who give up marriage for "the sake of the kingdom" are honored, in a way which seems to imply it was Jesus's preference for his followers. But there is a third kind of eunuch mentioned, those "who have been so from birth".
There are two explanations we could consider for what this description is meant to define.
First, according to Jewish tradition as passed down in the Talmud and Mishna, there is a description of a "seris hamah" ("sun eunuch", one who was a eunuch from the first time he appeared in the sun, a congenital eunuch). According to a recent analysis of ancient descriptions, the term is likely describing some forms of congenital intersex conditions wherein some kind of genetic or hormonal abnormality results in a child which does not develop sexually in a typical way.
Second, some scholars have found both Greek and Christian commentary from the first few centuries CE which appear to describe “natural eunuchs” (noncastrated) who are physically capable of procreation but have no interest in women. These men also could be employed to guard royal harems since they would have proven no interest in interfering with the king’s exclusive right to the women. While speculative, it’s possible that Jesus could even be referring to men who were born gay.
Regardless of the answer to this question, it is clear that Jesus is both affirming the value of remaining unmarried and both recognizing and valuing sexual minorities in his culture which would have been unusual for many rabbis of the time even if the men were not gay.
Marriage in Acts
The only two Christ-following couples we find described in the book of Acts—the recording of the early church life and practice—do not fit neatly into our modern concept of the ideal nuclear family.
The first pair is Ananias and Sapphira. In the early days of the church, the “whole group of believers” (Acts 4:32) are sharing their possessions in common, making sure that no one lacks for anything while others have resources to help. Yet this one couple is described as deciding to hold back some of their resources to provide for their own family, while claiming that they are contributing to the same level as others. This prioritization of the nuclear family above the greater community is strongly condemned and leads to the death of the couple.
The second pair are Aquila and Priscilla, Paul’s friends in Corinth. They also do not fit into the either the 1st century or modern conservative Christian formulas, being described as a migratory professional childless couple hosting a male bachelor instead of the typical multi-generational household of the time.
Marriage in the Epistles
Paul and the other writers of the epistles have much more to say on the subject of marriage than the gospels. It’s certainly a mixed bag, with a lot of idealization of celibacy and mixed messages on the roles of the partners in marriage.
The only mention in Scripture against polygamy are found in the letters of 1 Timothy and Titus, where bishops (overseers over local pastors) and deacons are recommended to have one wife. It’s unclear whether this has anything to do with divorce and remarriage, or if it’s only recommending against multiple wives at one time. Personally, I think polygamy treats women unequally, has great potential for abuse, and has much less positive to be said for it than same-sex marriage. But a ban on polygamy for all Christians cannot be found in a strict reading of the Bible.
There are instructions for equal rights within marriage, and there are instructions which place a wife under the authority of a husband. The co-existance of these directives in different epistles are both why some scholars think the epistles cover a wider range of time and teachings than conservative estimates, and why we have both complementarian and equalitarian camps citing Scripture as their authority.
Even in these more prescriptive books, precise forms of marriage do not appear as clearly described as we might like.
Marriage in Christian history since the 1st century
Since the completion of the canon of Scripture as we see it today, we also have volumes of teachings and interpretations of the Bible passed down through the centuries. It can be helpful to see how the Body of Christ has understood the Scriptural witness on the subject of marriage over time. While this topic could (and does) fill multiple volumes on its own, I’d like to touch on just a few periods which show how differently we have understood Scripture on marriage over the centuries.
Early church fathers
The attitude of theologians, bishops and pastors in the first few centuries of the church on the subject of marriage is in dramatic contrast to some of our modern positions.
Celibacy and abstinance from sex was considered the ideal for all Christians. It was even considered a heresy at one point to accept that marriage had equal value to celibacy.
Around the 4th century there were prohibitions on marriage once you were ordained in the the church. Some councils, for example the Spanish Council of Elvira (c. 305), forbid all bishops, priests and deacons to have sex or beget children with their wives on pain of losing their ordination.
While there were varying teachings, and the practice of them was also very loose at times, there was a consistent message from very early in the church that marriage was considered less holy than celibacy.
Marriage and sexuality in the medieval church
While there may be a perception that the Roman Catholic Church has always held marriage to be a sacrament and that ordained leaders must be celibate, this is not true.
The Western Church had no prohibitions against polygamy amongst clergy until the 8th century. It wasn’t until 1123 that priests were forbidden to have concubines and wives, and only in 1563 was marriage finally prohibited for all clergy in the Roman Catholic Church.
Marriages in the time of Christ and for much of human history were considered primarily to be economic contracts. During the collapse of the Roman empire in the 5th century the church took over marriage and redefined it as a holy union. It was declared as one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church in 1215, but it was not until 1547 that it was decreed to be performed in public by a priest before witnesses.
We can also find some scholarship which has pointed out evidence that attitudes toward gay couples were not uniformly negative in the church until the 13th century, around the time of the Inquisition. Until this point there seem to be some periods when same-sex relationships even amongst clergy were accepted or even celebrated. There are church liturgies for “spiritual brotherhoods” from the 12th century which looked remarkably like other marriages. There is still much scholarly debate about the practice of these same-sex unions though.
Marriage among the Reformers
As the Protestant Reformers reacted against some of the abuses and theological problems of their contemporary Church, one area they redefined was marriage. Beyond deciding that clergy could marry, and entering into this state himself, Martin Luther also rejected the idea of marriage as a sacrament of the church. He insisted that “marriage is a civic matter. It is really not, together with all its circumstances, the business of the church. It is so only when a matter of conscience is involved.” He taught that a marriage was based on the mutual consent of a man and woman, and that a couple which cohabited were automatically to be considered married.
John Calvin viewed government magistrates as ministers of God equal with clergy, and was very interested in the details of marriage law as a lawyer himself. He also saw marriage as a contract more associated with government than with the church. He emphasized mutal attraction in marriage and the removal of it as a sacrament as well.
Many variations on marriage emerged during the splitting of the Church into various Protestant groups, and teachings from Scripture became much more varied in interpretation.
Marriage in the 20th century American church
It was only in the 17th and 18th centuries that Enlightenment thinkers talking about marrying for love rather than wealth or status. It became one of the cornerstones of the modern “right to pursue happiness”.
Once the middle class began to grow, and our interest in innate human rights and privileges developed, our understandings and rules around marriage began changing rapidly. We now generally encourage divorce in abusive situations, women have equal rights before the law in marriage and divorce proceedings, just since 1970, and birth control has shifted our practice and understanding of marriage dramatically too.
Historians say that much of what the conservative Christian church pictures as the unchanging ideal for marriage comes out of a rose-tinted view of white suburban 1950s American with little understanding of just how novel that image is. For centuries marriage has looked more like economic contracts, polygamy, multi-generational households, and often seen by the church as less ideal than being single.
We should be careful in the church today to not put marriage on too high of a pedestal. It is a gift, but it can also be a barrier for many of our fellow believers to full fellowship in a church.
Even the conservative traditionalist pastor and author Kevin DeYoung, writing his argument against same-sex marriage, decries the modern “idolatry of the nuclear family”:
But, of course, none of this can be possible without uprooting the idolatry of the nuclear family, which holds sway in many conservative churches. The trajectory of the New Testament is to relativize the importance of marriage and biological kinship. A spouse and a minivan full of kids on the way to Disney World is a sweet gift and a terrible god. If everything in Christian community revolves around being married with children, we should not be surprised when singleness sounds like a death sentence.
— Kevin DeYoung, “What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?” (p. 119)
What is the purpose of marriage?
There are various arguments made in different Christian traditions about the purpose of marriage.
Some say marriage is for the purpose of procreation, and therefore any marriage which is not capable of generating children is not valid. However, this is both inconsistent with Genesis 2’s emphasis on companionship and it doesn’t take into account marriages which are barren or when partners marry late in life. It also makes a relationship about functionality rather than about love. This view of marriage was often used against barren women in Jesus’s time, justifying divorce if there were no children.
Others seem to emphasize sex, whether it’s explicitly stated or not. Growing up in the conservative church, there was a lot of focus on waiting for sex until you were married and hardly anything about other aspects of the marriage relationship. In conversations about same-sex marriage with conservative friends I’ve also noticed a focus on sex and lust. However, when I listen to my LGBT friends they have a broader understanding of the purpose of marriage. They do not focus on the satisfying of lust (marriage is not needed for that!), but rather on a desire for deep lifelong commitment, self-sacrificing love, and a recognition of the sacredness of the bond before their friends and the world.
When Jesus was confronted by those who saw the covenent of Israel to be about following rules rather than the gift of a good relationship with God, he sought to redefine their understanding of what the Law was for:
Then he said to them,
“The sabbath was made for humankind,
and not humankind for the sabbath”
— Mark 2:27
Just as Jesus asked about the purpose of the Sabbath, we may ask whether humans were made to fit into an absolute, unchanging institution called marriage, or whether marriage was created to help humans—perhaps including gay humans?—live wisely and well in this world.
I think the exact form of marriage we have been used to, emphasizing an independent nuclear family isolated from other family members, is a social construct from the 1950s. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s not a universal standard either if you research history. It used to be more focused on property rights and passing down lines than on love and chosen commitment.
For me, marriage is about covenanted commitment before God between two people, to care for and encourage the life and love of the other, in self-sacrificing love, which reflects the love of God for each one of us. I believe there need be no difference there for same-sex couples, if we can see it outside of our contemporary cultural biases.
Why same-sex marriage though?
It’s a good question—if we’re going to accept same-gender couples in our society, do we have “change marriage” to allow them there too? Can’t we just have civil unions or a different name?
Very briefly, here are a few things to consider:
- Marriage in general is being seen as less relevant or sacred by much of our society today, and certainly treated that way in practice by much of our church itself when we look at divorce rates. Shouldn’t we welcome those who are eager to enter into the institution?
- Same-sex marriage gives our gay Christian friends good role models of how to be gay, follow Christ, and have a healthy family relationship too. Giving it an equal footing removes the support for forcing gay people to enter straight marriages as their own option for marriage, which they have .
- It’s a sign of equality before God, as humans. Limiting it to “heterosexual couples only” implicitly denies equality. A policy of “separate but equal” is not something we want to return to, as it supported much abuse under Jim Crow laws.
- Access to marriage gives equal access to legal, political, and family rights. For those worried about adoption or foster care, studies have shown that two parents of any gender are better than one, and that we have great need of stable families to care for children in this country.
As we’ve looked at in this chapter, we’ve already seen many changes in the institution of marriage in recorded history. This latest redefinition is simply one in a long line of changes in this human institution, and does not have to be seen as an “attack”:
- Multiple wives and substitute servant partners were considered normal and expected in the Tanakh.
- Levirate marriage, mandated by the Law, expected a man to marry his sister-in-law when his brother died, and have more children for him.
- Divorces were granted for any reason from the man in Jesus’ time, and often because there were no children. Jesus had a big problem with this functional view of marriage. We may also assume that the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) had been rejected over and over because of infertility, and Jesus offered her life and acceptance with no condemnation even though he knew that she would be perceived with no value by others who knew.
- Marriages have been seen as primarily economic and political transactions in many cultures through the centuries.
- Arranged marriages have been the norm for most people in the world.
- American slaves were encouraged to marry by their Christian owners, but their marriages were not given legal status and the relationships and children were often ignored when buying and selling.
- Mixed-race marriages were strictly forbidden in most states in the US until 1948, and it wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court overturned the remaining 16 state laws that forbid intermarriage of all races. Appeals for permission to reinstate the bans continued until Alabama gave up in 2000 (note that Alabama is now back in the news arguing against same-sex marriage). Arguments from tradition and the Bible were often central in arguments against interracial marriage, exemplified by conservative Bob Jones University’s policies.
More discussion of how welcoming same-gender marriage can at the same time improve the institution for all of us can be found in Bishop Gene Robinson’s book “God Believes in Love”.
As we’ve seen in this chapter, “Biblical marriage” does not look very much like what we’re used to in conservative Christian ideals, and the institution itself has changed repeatedly over time. Maybe we can relax about prior definitions, and look to see how we can help our fellow Christians, and ourselves, to continue moving our focus toward providing life-giving and loving environment rather than following a set of rigid rules.