Monday, July 8, 2013

On Biblical Marriage: Toward a Theology of Marriage

Part 1
Part 2

Now that I have briefly discussed some of the passages in the Old and New Testaments that deal with marriage and sexuality, I will tackle the deeper issue of what marriage signifies in the biblical text.  Here I go back to Genesis, Chapter 1, which bears looking at in some detail.

How it was meant to be

Genesis 1:26-28   26 Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."  27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  28 God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."

God makes humankind (literally adam) in God’s image; male and female together are in God’s image.  Now one way to read this is simply to say that both men and women are made in the image of God, and I certainly agree with that.  We are all image-bearers in that sense. However, I think a part of the sense of this is that both men and women are necessary to encompass the full image of God.  We see that affirmed in the New Testament as well: both men and women are necessary for the body of Christ to be complete. I would argue that the text suggests that we take this even further: that man and woman in relationship are reflective of the creative, generative, and governing aspects of God. We can only bring life into existence together; we can only be fruitful together; we can only appropriately care for the creation together.  The first of those statements is obvious to all – we need a sperm and an egg to make a new human being.  But the last two statements are just as important. In order to be truly fruitful in all ways, women and men must work together.  In order to rule creation wisely, men and women have to rule together.  This is the basis of the covenant of marriage – the fulfillment of the image of God.  

Does that mean that single people cannot be fully in the image of God? No!  Every person carries the image of God.  But we are created for relationship and the relationship that is expressed in  the marriage covenant is a sign of God’s covenant with God’s people.  Ideally, it reveals to the world how God cares for the world. 

In Genesis 2 we see another way of understanding the relationship between male and female. Here the adam (the Hebrew word for human, either male or female) is made from the adamah (the Hebrew word for “earth”).  When the breath of God turns this little “earthperson” into a nephesh, or a being full of passions and desires and “selfhood,” God looks at the person and realizes that there is a problem: the person is alone.  God says for the first time, “it is not good.” What God is wanting for the person is an ezer kenegdo—a fit helper.  In the King James version of the Bible this was translated as a “help meet” which conjured images of one who was subordinate. However, the word ezer  (whether as a noun or an adjective) is most often referring to God, as in   Psalm 30:10 Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! O LORD, be my helper!” A helper is one who encourages, protects and saves. A helper is life-giving. 
 When the story tells us that God took the person and used the rib or side of the person to make (or build, as the Hebrew says) a woman, the words now used are that God built an ishah  (Hebrew forwoman) out of the ish (Hebrew for man).  I think what we are to learn from this story is that men and women have a special relationship in the created order.  

Unfortunately, in the next chapter the woman fails in her job as helper when she gives the apple to the man who is standing with her.  The man fails in his job as helper by failing to speak up in her conversation with the snake.  But the failure in the story should not blind us to the intent in creation.

Marriage as a sign of God’s love for God’s people

The image of marriage as a fundamental sign of God’s love for God’s people is found throughout the Old and New Testaments. 

One way in which we are shown in the Old Testament the sacredness of marriage is that it is used as a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel.
Jeremiah 2:1-2 The word of the LORD came to me, saying:  2 Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the LORD: I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.
Isaiah 61:10  10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
Isaiah 62:4-5   4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.  5 For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

The analogy becomes even more forceful when used to speak about the unfaithfulness of Israel.  The people of God are called adulterous; they are named whores when they follow after other gods. This is offensive language.  I think it is intended to be offensive to give an indication of the offensiveness of seeking other gods. 

Malachi 2:11   11 Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the LORD, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god.

Jeremiah 3:1-3  NRS Jeremiah 3:1 If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man's wife, will he return to her? Would not such a land be greatly polluted? You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me? says the LORD.  2 Look up to the bare heights, and see! Where have you not been lain with? By the waysides you have sat waiting for lovers, like a nomad in the wilderness. You have polluted the land with your whoring and wickedness.  3 Therefore the showers have been withheld, and the spring rain has not come; yet you have the forehead of a whore, you refuse to be ashamed.

If you want more see Ezekiel 16:23-49 and the whole book of Hosea.

When we get to the New Testament, we in the Gospel of John that Jesus is seen as the bridegroom explicitly:
John 3:26-29  26 They came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him."  27 John answered, "No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.  28 You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, 'I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.'  29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled.

Jesus also uses this metaphor for himself:

Matthew 9:14-15   14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?"  15 And Jesus said to them, "The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.

In addition, Jesus uses the image of marriage in some of his parables to describe the kingdom:
Matthew 25:1-13  NRS Matthew 25:1 "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.  2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;  4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.  5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  6 But at midnight there was a shout, 'Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.'  7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.  8 The foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.'  9 But the wise replied, 'No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.'  10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.  11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.'  12 But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.'  13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Finally, Revelation has extensive references to the bridegroom (Jesus) and the bride (the church). See for example: 

Revelation 19:7 Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready;

Revelation 21:2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Now let’s look at that passage in Ephesians 5 that Baptists seem to love and United Methodists seem to hate:  
Ephesians 5:21 - 6:1  21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.  22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.  23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.  24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.  25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word,  27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind-- yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish.  28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church,  30 because we are members of his body.  31 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh."  32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.  33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband. 

First off, it is important to start reading in verse 21 where it says to be subject to one another. So what follows can be understood as a fuller explanation of how to be subject to one another, not how the woman should be subject to the man.  This is often read as saying that the woman should be “subordinate” to the man. But that would contradict both Genesis 1 and 2 and the rest of this passage. The job of the man, after all is to sacrifice himself for the woman and to encourage her sanctification.  [Full disclosure: I am blessed to be in a marriage where my husband has made a lot of sacrifices to enable me to be a pastor because he believes that is allowing me to be all that God made me to be.  He is fulfilling the role that Paul lays out here.] In fact, I would argue that the focus in this passage is on the relationship between Christ and the church.  The marriage, the relationship between the man and the woman is a sign of the much more important relationship.  

So why does only a male-female marital relationship reveal the relationship between Christ and the church?  Why wouldn’t any marital relationship—male/male, female/female or male/female—do this equally well?  I can understand how it possible to argue that they can, as a matter of fact. But I think a stronger argument is that only in the male/female relationship is there a relationship between those who are significantly “other.”  We’ve all heard lots of jokes about the difficulties in men and women understanding each other.  Most of those jokes are just silly; but there is some truth to them.  I will never completely understand the male perspective, because I am not male.  Some of you don’t think that matters; I do. 

One of the things that bothers me about Gay and Lesbian relationships has to do with the issue of leaving out the “other.” I don’t see relationships between two men or two women as a full expression of the relationship that God intended.  While two women or two men can love each other dearly and intimately, they can never be “one flesh.”  They can’t reflect the relationship between Creator and created who are very different but meant for one another.  

In Closing – A personal plea

This is a very brief overview of how I understand marriage on the basis of the Bible. I know this will not “convince” many people to change their stance.  But I deeply dislike simplistic views of scripture from both camps and I am trying to be faithful to a reasoned and faithful view of scripture. 

In all honesty, I would rather hold a different view of gay and lesbian relationships.  It would be simpler and people would not hate and ridicule me.  I could go along and get along. I could affirm the love that I know is very real in GL relationships without having a problem with certain aspects of those relationships, and therefore would not be in conflict with some wonderful people. I could present myself as modern and relevant and it would be a lot easier to reach out to the “nones.”  However, because I read the Bible as I do, and because I understand it to be authoritative for my life (see Excursus in Part1), it would be hypocritical of me to present myself as totally accepting of open marriage (and ordination) and I don’t think that would appeal to the “nones” either.   I maintain that I can love people with whom I disagree and I will keep trying to do that.  I hope that those who know me will try to love me back.   


  1. A post of remarkably fresh courage and nuance...

  2. You will not be surprised to learn that I disagree with a number of points. Here are three:

    First, I tend toward the patriarchal view of the passages you cited. I do not see how you can interpret that Ephesians passage the way you do. It seems pretty clear that women are supposed to be subordinate to their husbands. After all, it compares husbands to Jesus and wives to the Church. Are Jesus and his followers equals? I think the answer is clearly no. And I have a sneaking suspicion that husbands "sanctify" their wives by claiming them via lawful marriage so that no one stones them for having sex. You know, the virgin/whore dichotomy.

    I don't think this contradicts Genesis at all, since the interpretation of "helper" is apparently so open.

    Second, I don't disagree at all that the bible is on the unfriendly side when it comes to gay and lesbian relationships. Of course it is. The bible is classically patriarchal. Patriarchy is very concerned with the regulation of sexual behavior, allowing only that which will allow the patriarchal society to grow quickly (or, as you might put it, be fruitful and multiply), i.e., reproductive sex.

    Third, and perhaps this argument will make the most sense to you, if marriages are not about sex, then why is sexual difference so much more important than every other kind? Perhaps a biracial, bireligious, or bicultural lesbian or gay couple involves enough differences. It's not as though gender is the only difference human beings can have.

    (Hint: if you say it's because married couples are supposed to be fruitful and multiply, I will say, "Ha! So it is about sex after all!")

  3. Did I say marriage is not about sex? Of course it is about sex – that’s what “one flesh” is about. But it is also a representation of the relationship between God and God’s people. In fact, the latter is the reason I have such a high view of sex.

    I don’t think that married (male/female) couples have to have children in order to have a valid marriage, but the nature of their sexual relationship is one that has the character or capability of being “fruitful,” i.e. reproductive. I would say that is a part of the very definition of marriage – which is why I don’t consider a relationship between two men or two women “marriage” no matter how loving. The sexual relationship between two men or two women can never lead to reproduction.

    My whole point about the word “helper” in Genesis is that the King James version got the translation wrong (mainly because the translators of the period simply did not know as much about the Hebrew language as we do now), not that the definition is unclear or open. Interestingly enough (well, to me) the New King James version says: “I will make him a helper comparable to him” which, although still not quite right, is certainly much better. Of course any translation is an interpretation – that is the nature of translation.

    I disagree that the bible is “classically patriarchal.” While it does reflect the culture in which it is written, it also challenges that culture, particularly with respect to patriarchy. A good example is Genesis 2:24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. What actually happened in the culture was that the woman left her family and went to the man’s household. Not because of patriarchy, but because the woman’s skills were movable whereas the man was tied to the land. This contradicts the patriarchal view that the older generation has precedence and indicates that the man’s first concern is now his wife, not his parents.

    And no, Jesus and his followers are not “equals” exactly, but Jesus was a sacrificial servant toward the church. This servanthood is supposed to be reflected by the man in the marriage. And, once again, verse 21 clearly says that they should be subordinate to each other.

    Yes, clearly (no shock here) we disagree. But I thank you for a reasoned and reasonable disagreement!

  4. Your thoughts are brave, and I admire that in the current atmosphere in the US. But most importantly, your posts capture the truth of the word of God, His essence, and illustrate the love we MUST have for all people in proclaiming the (difficult, currently unpopular)message of the Bible. Why would we endorse a manipulation of His plan for humans in order to avoid conflict? To me, it's a matter of loving people enough to speak the truth, rather than elevating man's "wisdom" or scratching the itching ears. After all, God's plan is to prosper, not destroy.

  5. Myre does a pretty good job and she certainly put a lot of work into it.
    She does say the piece is brief and that is true.
    Little is said about the spirtual nature of the christian marriage and the sacredness of the union that is only bestowed by God.
    I think it would be a good idea if we stopped apologizing for the positions held concerning the exclusive nature of marriage.


  6. Very well written. Makes me curious- are there really a lot of gay people who want to get married "under god" rather than in a civil ceremony? are there really some that would like to be a ordained as a Christian leader? Can you explain why they would want to? Thanks!

    1. All I can tell you is what others tell me - that many gay and lesbian couples would like to be married in the church. I have met some of those couples. I believe them. And yes, there are a number of folks who are gay or lesbian and living in same-sex partnerships that want to be ordained. I assume that they feel called.

  7. This is a wise and charitable consideration of these texts and subject. I appreciate your real struggle and pastoral heart Martha. I too have that conflict. I wish the Gospel didn't cause division, but Jesus demonstrated that it did and promised it would. May you find grace and peace in the arms of the Father.

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