St. Peter's Blog 'Is there a biblical definition of marriage?' from St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church – North Wales, PA's Blog

Is there a biblical definition of marriage?

Image Thursday, Nov 5, 2015
Author: Pastor Andreas Wagner

Some people may be surprised about the question mark next to this topic. It is often assumed in Christian circles that there is a biblical definition of marriage. People will say that marriage is "defined in the Bible" as the union between a man and a woman. But is there really such a thing as a "definition" for marriage in the Bible?

In the strict meaning of the word there is no definition of marriage in the Bible. What we do when we try to define the biblical view of marriage is really interpretation, Bible exegesis, deducting meaning out of the sources that we have, often weighing one against the other. The better part of the Bible is storytelling and the stories naturally reflect the morals and mores of their own time. When we deduct teachings and ethics from those narratives, we have to be very careful not to overreach by turning the original cultural setting into the divine standard bearer for all times. It is interesting, for instance, that the polygamous practices of the early patriarchs and kings of Israel are described mostly without any judgmental sentiment in the Bible. They were accepted practices at the time. Are we therefore in favor of polygamy? Probably not. These practices are neither condemned, nor are they endorsed, nor do they "define" marriage, nor are they accepted in later biblical writings. They were simply part of that particular cultural setting.
 
Instead of using the word "definition," which probably comes out of a desire to settle the argument once and for all, we can safely say a few things about marriage in the Bible. For one, there is a certain trajectory within the Bible itself that led to an understanding of marriage as a monogamous covenant relationship between two people. The word covenant is used in the Old Testament for the sacred promises between God and his people. In Malachi 2:14 it is applied to marriage for the first time. The literature of the prophets is full of marriage analogies (Hosea in particular); God is frequently compared to a cheated husband speaking out against Israel's (his bride's) unfaithfulness. This language clearly assumes that faithfulness in an exclusive, monogamous relationship between two partners was already then the cultural norm and expectation in Jewish life. Monogamy is further supported by Jesus' strict comments about divorce and his interpretation of the creation story. In the pastoral letters, specific expectations are suggested for the choice of a Christian bishop: "Therefore an overseer (bishop) must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach..." (1. Timothy 3:2)   
 
We can also safely say that the only known and widely accepted model for monogamous marriage in biblical times was the union between a man and a woman. Is therefore marriage "defined" in the Bible - and for all times - as the union between a man and a woman? Again, I would strongly suggest to be careful with the word "definition."
 
The God who created Adam and Eve, the God who is revealed in the stories and teachings of the Bible, has been known to change his mind a few times and tends to defy human definition. In the Bible itself, people have moved on from an understanding of an eye for an eye to turning the other cheek; from an understanding of God as a national protector to creator of the universe; from law to gospel; from an exclusive to an inclusive religion; the list goes on and on. There really is an evolution of our understanding of God and ethics that is clearly reflected in the biblical writings. Actually, in my opinion it tells us more about the spiritual evolution of the human species than it says about God. And that evolution is not finished. Jesus said as much when he talked about the Holy Spirit in the gospel of John. At one point he made this remark: "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come." (John 16: 12-13)
 
In our times we have learned a tremendous amount about the complexities of human sexuality. We have learned that sexual identity is not a matter of personal choice and is not a moral/ethical decision an individual makes. We have also become acquainted with same-sex partnerships that have all the marks of a marriage relationship: love, fidelity, shared responsibility, parenthood, etc. The question for all of us modern Christians is  this: does the spirit ask us to make room in our traditional concept of marriage for same-sex unions? Is God asking us to break open our definition of marriage to include people from the LGBT community? For some this will be just as shocking as when the Apostle Peter, a devout Jew, was asked to slaughter and eat unclean animals (Acts 10).
 
In my conscience I have come to the conclusion that God is asking us to take this step. I fully respect other points of view as long as people have actually wrestled with the issues. As we move toward a decision to include same-sex marriage in our policy at St. Peter's, I 'd like you to know where I stand.
 
Pastor Andreas Wagner

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