Church: Biblical Marriage

As a person who seeks to be a responsible student (notice I did not say “expert scholar”) when exploring topics of interest and importance, the recent sanctions of the Episcopal Church USA by the Primates of the Anglican Communion has necessarily brought me back to yet another consideration of the phrase “biblical marriage”–a phrase not used in the actual document produced by the Primates, but certainly implied in it, and used in various responses to the document.

Hopefully, I am stating the obvious when I say that no Christian is in favor of unbiblical marriage.  But what is not so obvious is that the term “biblical marriage” is not as singular and clear cut as some allege.  A look at Scripture bears this out, as does the subsequent Christian tradition.

The Bible has eight models of marriage in it.  I cannot describe them in a blog-length post, but in brief they are: man/woman; man/brother’s widow; man/woman (or women) & concubines; rapist/victim; man/woman & woman’s slaves; male soldier/prisoner of war; man/multiple women as wives; and male slave/female slave. [You can Google “types of marriage in the Bible” and see them for yourself, as well as where they are mentioned in the Bible] 

The point I am making is simply that there is no one model of marriage in Scripture.  And, furthermore, godly people in the Bible are married in different ways.  It is also true that every model could be violated.  The model is not determinative; how the model is honored is.

In history, the variations multiply over the earth over the course of time.  These variations became significant (and problematic) as Acts 1:8 became fulfilled “to the ends of the earth.”  And once again, we see Christians lacking a singular mind on every occasion when the meaning of marriage was up for discussion.  This was particularly true with respect to polygamy. A few examples suffice to illustrate this fact.

Paul’s words (1 Tim 3:2, 3:12 & Titus 1:6) were taken by some to be pervasively prohibitive, while others pointed out he was applying the principle only to leaders.

Additionally, Martin Luther, on one occasion, condoned polygamy while continuing to advocate monogamy as the norm.

Even the Anglican Communion reveals the historic struggle in (1) Bishop John Colenso’s excellent and extended 1855 treatise on the subject as the Church of England moved further onto the African continent, and (2) the Lambeth Conference of 1988–Resolution 26 .  Both examples uphold monogamy, while acknowledging there are occasions when people in polygamous marriages can become Christians.

What emerges from the witness of history is that the Church came to reject models of marriage which were non-consensual, the result of abuse (e.g. rape), and more recently marriages that ascribe to women a status of lesser worth than men.  At the same time, the Church has never based the meaning of marriage in “romance,” reproductive capacity, or any other concept that lacks commitment.

Again, the point is that the Church has had to discern the meaning of marriage from among the options presented in Scripture itself and represented in a variety of religions and cultures over time.

The question is, “How did the Church do this?” The answer is, through the concept of Covenant, the all-encompassing bond, established by God, that defines the God-human relationship and the related human-human and human-all creation ones.  Covenant principles are non-negotiable: sacredness, fidelity, and permanency. [I personally believe church history shows that monogamy can be added as a fourth (New Covenant) principle]

This use of Covenant established a crucial distinction between “normative” and “definitive”–a distinction that gets lost when only the term “biblical marriage” is used.  To be sure, the one-man/one-woman model is normative–no doubt about that.  But Scripture and tradition reveal that this model is not definitive–Covenant is definitive.  We even sometimes today call marriage the “covenant of holy wedlock.”

If we are to move beyond the intense controversy (even impasse) in the Christian community regarding the meaning of marriage, we must recover the historic Church’s willingness and ability to make the distinction between normative and definitive–with Covenant being definitive, not a particular model of marriage.  No marital union can be called “Christian” if it lacks sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permanency. [That’s why even some one-man/one-woman marriages are not actually Christian]

If we follow the example of the Church over time, we will preserve the foundation of Covenant as the definitive element, recognizing that one-man/one-woman marriages are normative–as evidenced by historical data itself.

But when using Covenant to define marriage, we will also join with historic Christianity in recognizing that there can be other marriage models which honor and bear witness to Covenant: sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permanency.  And with the foundation of Covenant in place, we can bless and/or solemnize the union of any two people who intend (and pledge through the making and keeping of vows in the presence of God and Christian witnesses) to live in Covenant love toward God and toward each other, and to make their home a haven of blessing to all who enter it.

This is the reason (rooted in Scripture and tradition, not cultural capitulation or a Supreme Court ruling) that many Christians and ecclesial bodies believe that same-sex marriage is legitimate–whenever and wherever it honors and reflects Covenant.

I do not offer this blog naively.  I know it is not the view held by all Christians everywhere.  But that fact only illustrates the reality the Church has had to deal with when considering (re-considering) the meaning of marriage.  Our challenge is to recognize, as the Church has recognized in the past, that times like ours call for conversation, not censure. 

Without that, the term “biblical marriage” (a term we are all for) will be an ecclesial volly ball batted back and forth over a net of confusion, caricature, and contradiction–leaving us vulnerable to being less “Church” (i.e. unloving, judgmental, arrogant) than God would have us be.

If, however, we are willing to engage in holy conferencing, we may find (as the Church has found in the past) a way through what too easily seems to be an impasse–as the Holy Spirit leads us beyond our wilderness wanderings to “a new land” that God has made and will show us–a land that is ahead of us–a land only grace can create (Jeremiah 32:27).

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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7 Responses to Church: Biblical Marriage

  1. Mike Tupper: I have contacted all five. Still waiting to hear back from everyone, so I cannot say or predict what the response will be to the appeal.

  2. Nick says:

    Thanks for leading us to discover new angles of the issue, Steve. So helpful.
    And please: don’t give up! (Yeah, I already know you won’t.) We need you and your courage.

  3. Carl says:

    Good post, Steve. Thanks!

  4. Jack Harnish says:

    Nine kinds of marriage in the Bible? Whew…Thanks for an excellent insight.

  5. John Powers says:

    Well stated, Steve. Thank you.
    John Powers

  6. Jeff Blake says:

    I appreciate the way you keep prayerfully chiseling away like a great artist does to create an awareness of where we may experience the all encompassing love of God.

  7. jimharnish says:

    Thanks, Steve. Very helpful!

    Sent from my iPhone


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