Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On Biblical Marriage: Part 2, The New Testament

(Note: Though these posts are on “Biblical Marriage,” I am addressing the issue of same-sex unions as well as traditional marriage because in today’s environment we can’t seem to talk about one without including the other.  I think that one problem the church has had is that it has failed to have a strong “theology of marriage.” These posts are a very small beginning on that task – one which I hope to do much more thoroughly over time.)

In the Gospels, Jesus doesn’t speak about marriage often. However, what he does say (first in the Sermon on the Mount and later to the Pharisees) affirms that marriage is between one man and one woman.  Interestingly, Jesus quotes both Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24 in the passage from Matthew 19, bringing together the two creation stories. He also adds that God has joined the man and woman,  and no one should separate them.

Matthew 5:31-32   31"It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 19:3-9  3Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?" 4He answered, "Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' 5and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? 6So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." 7They said to him, "Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?" 8He said to them, "It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery."

Jesus is not quoting law here; he is talking about the nature of God’s creation. He sees the creation of male and female and the marriage of the two as somehow at the heart of creation (a concept I will explore more fully in the next post).  The law provided for divorce because of the brokenness of the world, but that is not the way that God intends for the world to be.  

In addition, Jesus radically redefines adultery and thus redefines marriage. 

Matthew 5:27-28   27"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  

In the Gospel of Mark, in particular, we see that Jesus makes adultery a sin against a woman as well as a sin against a man and by doing so shows the woman is an equal partner in the marriage.  

Mark 10:10-12  10Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;  12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Though many argue that the silence of Jesus about same-sex unions means that he must not have disapproved, Robert Gagnon shows the foolishness of that position: “If Jesus had wanted to communicate affirmation of same-sex unions he would have had to state such a view clearly since first-century Judaism, so far as we know, had no dissenting voices on the matter. Without a clear statement none of his disciples would have made such a logical leap.”  Gagnon, Robert A (2010-10-01). The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Kindle Locations 3829-3831). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

It isn’t just a leap, it is a huge jump across a chasm!  In a sense Jesus strengthened the laws having to do with sexual purity and marriage.  It makes little sense to say that he would have totally abrogated the one on homosexual unions.

It has also been argued that Jesus was interested in love; that the loving relationships between same-sex couples are equivalent to a faithful, committed marriage between a man and a woman. Once again, there is no evidence for that.  

This would probably be a good time to say something about divorce. I often hear the argument that “The church permits divorce; why not permit same-sex marriage? Are we not being hypocritical to allow one and not the other?”  Yes, we do permit divorce in the church; in fact, I have even counseled people to consider divorce, particularly in cases of abuse. No one should stay in a marriage where they are abused.  It is not the “Christian” thing to do. “Turn the other cheek” was not meant for abused spouses.  If your husband (or, for that matter, your wife) is abusing you, they have broken the marriage covenant already.  

However—and this is a large however—we do not teach that divorce is a happy and wonderful thing. We do not teach that divorce is a sign of the kingdom. We teach that divorce is the result of a broken world. And I don’t know anyone who has had a divorce that is proud and happy that their marriage failed. 

I suppose it would be possible to argue that same-sex marriages could be seen the same way. That it is better for a same-sex couple to marry than to “burn,” as Paul put it.  That, even though marriage would ideally be between a man and a woman, in some cases, due to our imperfect, broken world, some people are born with a “natural” same-sex attraction and should be able to be in the best relationship possible, even if it is not ideal.  Well, one might argue that—but, of course, that is not the argument.  What the LGBTQI coalition argues is that same-sex marriage is perfectly normal and acceptable. And the Christian side of the coalition wants to argue that same-sex marriage is just as representative of the kingdom as traditional marriage.  They want to say that same-sex marriage is all about love and faithful commitment and God smiles on their (sexual) relationships.  

Back to the Bible . . . 

When we look at the works of Paul we see a much more complete understanding of marriage.  Paul’s most extensive writing about marriage is found in 1 Corinthians 7.  Let’s look at it fairly carefully.  Paul is evidently writing in response to a question from the Corinthians about whether or not marriage is acceptable. He responds in the affirmative, believing that immorality would result from forbidding marriage.  What is fascinating about this passage is that Paul gives the same advice to the man as to the woman.  The man cannot deny his wife her “conjugal rights,” and the woman cannot deny her husband; unless, of course, they agree on it. And when Paul says “the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does,” a statement that sounds very patriarchal and traditional, he follows it with, “And the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does!!” (exclamation points are mine) The mutuality that Paul calls for really is extraordinary. Yes, Paul goes on to say that he wishes everyone were like him (celibate) because he is happy with his state and the fact that it allows him to focus on and serve the God that he adores. But he is fully aware that this is a gift from God.  

Paul continues his statement by insisting that believing spouses should not separate from unbelieving spouses if those unbelieving spouses wish to remain together.  Believers can “sanctify” the unbelievers, making them holy – presumably because they are “one flesh.”

I think I know what the response will be: all of these things could be true of same-sex couples as well as they could of male-female couples.  Isn’t it better for a same-sex couple to marry than to be involved in immorality? Doesn’t Paul acknowledge that marriage is itself a concession, so that same-sex marriage would just be another kind of concession?  I might agree except for the matter of Romans 1.

So let’s just address it now: what do we do with Romans 1:26-27?  I know the arguments here as well:

  • Paul was not talking about a faithful, committed, monogamous same-sex relationship.
  • Paul was talking about an exploitive relationship between men and boys.
  • When Paul mentions “unnatural” intercourse he is failing to take into account same-sex orientation, which is natural for homosexuals. 
 All of these excuses assume that Paul was unaware of orientation and committed relationships. However, the scholarship that I have read (by LGBT supporters, I might add) insist that homosexuality was well-known in the Roman empire and that same-sex relationships (male-male) were well thought of in Greek society and at least tolerated in Roman society.  If this is true (and who am I to argue with the likes of John Boswell and Louis Crompton?) then Paul was in exactly the same situation that we are in currently and was very clear on where he stood.  

I have not used a number of the “clobber passages” (as they are called) in this essay, because I don’t think they are necessary to make the case.  (My readers are, of course, free to disagree with me.) I don’t think that it is necessary to talk about homosexuality as an abomination or to argue the point about what the Greek terms ‘really’ mean.  When we come at the issue of same-sex ‘marriage’ by first looking at what the Bible says about marriage, we don’t have to demonize. And, I might add, we don’t have to require that those outside the Christian faith abide by our understanding.  While I believe that Christians need to vote their consciences, we may not have the majority.  That should not stop us from holding to our own point of view and teaching and preaching what we believe.  If we are the ones demonized because we don’t agree with the views of the greater society, then so be it.  Our call is always to approach people with love and grace, especially those with whom we disagree.


  1. Why would you begin the topic of marriage in the NT?
    It begins in Genesis with a profound statement .

    “But for Adam no suitable helper was found“.

    In one very brief sentence we can see the work of creation is almost complete.
    God examines all that he has created and knows something is missing.
    Man is in need. Creation is not complete.

    “It is not good for the man to be alone”

    The picture painted is God is examining, searching, and thinking about all that He has created.
    That would include all the heavenly bodies and all creatures large and small.
    In all of the heavenly bodies and on all of the earth nothing yet created could fill mans need. Then there was Eve.

    This is where marriage begins.
    This is why we say God is the designer of marriage. The union of one man with one woman who become one. Woman is designed and declared to be the only suitable mate for man The woman is God inspired and God created. The woman would not come from the dust of the ground as Adam but would be made of and from man. Woman’s creation would be like no other before her and she would be created to become the perfect mate. Woman would become one with man.

    Adam declares;
    “This is now bone of my bones
        and flesh of my flesh;
    she shall be called ‘woman,’
        for she was taken out of man.

    We get a peak into Gods mind. What God thinks. What God sees and the fruit of Gods labor.
    A scene of beauty.


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