The Fraud of “Biblical Marriage”

August 1, 2013

Quick, name a happily married couple in the New Testament. Let’s make it easier: how about just naming any married couple in the New Testament?

While you are compiling your list, let me say a few words about why this question matters.

In these weeks after the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was declared unconstitutional (or at least the major parts of it), we are hearing frequent appeals to uphold ‘Biblical marriage’ from those who believe that marriage is simply and only between one man and one woman. They claim scriptural support for their view, but does that claim have a solid foundation?

For example, John Yeats says that despite the Supreme Court ruling, “Biblical marriage will remain between a man and a woman. This is the clear teaching of Scripture.”  Similarly, John Piper asserts that “Marriage is created and defined by God in the Scriptures as the sexual and covenantal union of a man and a woman in life-long allegiance to each other alone, as husband and wife, with a view to displaying Christ’s covenant relationship to his blood-bought church.” He cites four Biblical verses in support: Genesis 1:27-28, Genesis 2:23-24, Matthew 19:4-6, and Ephesians 5:24-32.

Time’s up; how many couples made your list?  How many married couples in the New Testament did you note?

If this question is a stumper, it is because there aren’t many.  Most of the people in the New Testament do not appear to be in marriage relationships.  Despite the repeated assertions that the Bible is clear about marriage, it is striking that so few of the people in the New Testament are seen in any kind of marriage relationship.

Despite the fervid imaginings of Dan Brown, Jesus wasn’t married. Paul may have been married, but he was not at the time of his ministry. We know Peter was married, because reference is made to his mother-in-law, but his wife makes no appearance.  About the other Disciples we just do not know. If any of the others were married, we can wonder at the state of their relationship after they left home to follow Jesus. Martha and Mary, the Bethany sisters of Lazarus, were not married.

Yes, there are couples in the New Testament we know were married.  We know Mary and Joseph were married, happily we suppose, even after a most unusual beginning to their marriage.  We know Elizabeth and Zacharias, the parents of John the Baptist, were married. There are Priscilla and Aquila, missionary followers of Christ, who are mentioned six times in Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 2 Timothy. But there are not many others.

There are more married couples featured in the Hebrew Testament, for example Eve and Adam, Sarah and Abraham, Rebakah and Isaac, Rachel and Jacob, Ruth and Boaz, Gomer and Hosea, and, supposing they were married, the unnamed couple in the Song of Solomon.

If we want to draw our image of marriage from the Hebrew Testament, however, we have to recognize that polygyny (one man/multiple wives) is a quite common feature of family relationships in those books of the Bible. One man/one woman is hardly a consistent theme. Levirate marriage is also a frequent obligation: the requirement that a man marry his brother’s wife if she becomes a widow.  Do we really want to take our bearings on marriage from the Hebrew Testament?

Look back at the four passages John Piper uses to support his claim that the Bible clearly defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Each speaks of couples that include a man and a woman and each celebrates the commitment each makes to the other, but none of the passages say that this is the only form marriage can take.  And two of the passages come from Genesis, written well before the commonly accepted practice of polygyny we see in subsequent books of the Hebrew Testament.

Next time you hear someone assert that marriage is clearly defined in the Bible, ask them – or ask yourself – where is that clearly said? And where is that clearly shown?


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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