Biblical testimony on marriage—some final comments

February 1, 2011

I must apologize to you my readers for neglecting this blog for a while. I have been working on a project on my other blog, Through the Flaming Sword (a Quaker blog), publishing segments of a book I’m writing on Quakers and Capitalism. Now I plan finally to wrap up this series on marriage in the Bible.

I started off by saying that folks who use the Bible to defend “the institution of marriage” in its “traditional” form against the perceived threats of secularism, popular culture, trends of social decay, and, especially, “the homosexual agenda” assume a biblical testimony on marriage that does not really exist. There is no biblical testimony on marriage. Rather, forms of marriage in the Bible have evolved over nearly two thousand years (as you might expect—it would have been very weird if they hadn’t), and the Biblical “testimony” on what the proper form marriage of marriage is has evolved in response to these changes.

This is typical of the Bible: writers in the biblical tradition have always written their books (or their sections of books) in response to some change, crisis, or threat to the tradition they are defending. Ezra was fending off the threat of “foreign influence” on pure Yahwism that intermarriage seemed to represent. Paul was trying to protect his flocks from cracking under the strain of living in two worlds at once by keeping their focus on the world to come and accommodating their lives in their Christian communities to the pressures of the pagan world they lived in and worked in and ran their households in—at least in those areas he deemed nonessential to their salvation.

Unique among all the prophetic voices on marriage and family life in the Bible is Jesus. His teachings were less a defense of a form of marriage against perceived threats and more a truly creative and revolutionary alternative to the status quo. In fact, he seemed to be reacting to traditional marriage as a threat to entering the kingdom of God. He redefined the worshipping community as family household and he redefined the household as worshipping community. In these ‘household churches’, as the literature sometimes calls them, he elevated the status of women so radically that it seems they may have been equal to men, at least in some ways. He deconstructed patriarchal leadership, explicitly prohibiting his followers from calling church leaders “father” as a term of veneration (Matthew 23:9). He repeatedly insisted that leaders be servants, rejecting, for instance, the request from the mother of James and John that they be given positions of power in the kingdom as the objectionable practice of “the gentiles.” In his own ‘household’, the itinerant band that travelled with him in his ministry, the only names we have are those of women. And it was to women that he first revealed himself as the risen Christ.

Even more challenging to our ideas of “traditional marriage,” Jesus seems to have openly rejected the obligations of his own nuclear family. Something was clearly wrong with his relationship with Joseph, his putative father. He spurns his mother, brothers and sisters and claims his followers as his true family. He redefined the family as “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 12:50 and par).

One final word about defending the “traditional” family and the “institution of marriage.” The culture war over family and marriage, in its moral dimension, reflects two competing moral frameworks and these approaches reflect, to large degree, differences in the way men and women approach morality. Here I am building on the work of Carol Gilligan in her groundbreaking book, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. This deserves a post all to itself, so one day I’ll get to that. In the meantime, I have to apply a conclusion without much of a supporting argument.

Because of the way men and women are differently socialized, Gilligan claims, men tend to approach morality as the defining of rules and their just application and adjudication. This approach has so permeated our culture, especially our legal culture, that we take it for granted as not just the norm, but the only approach there is. Women, on the other hand, perceive moral problems in more personal terms, with priorities focused on relationships. They ask, who is going to get hurt? What course of action will protect the relationships involved. Thus women tend to say, why are your rules more important than me and our relationship? Men tend to say, why are you trying to change the rules?

In the debate over “family values,” men are often defending a set of rules that they see are not just being flouted, but are actually being destroyed. They are focused on the institution, not the people who are living the institution. Today, strictures against divorce, contraception, same-sex unions, and so on protect an ideal; they protect an idea. They don’t necessarily protect real people.

Jesus seems to have cared more about people than about institutions. He seems to have changed the rules so as to protect the vulnerable and undermine the powerful, rather than insisting on a return to tradition and the just application of the rules. One only has to think of the episode in which he intervenes in the stoning of an adulteress (John 8:3-11).

Meanwhile, the rules about marriage were changing anyway throughout the thousands of years covered in the Bible. They are always changing. We no longer practice polygamy. In the modern period, marriage has increasingly become a matter of personal choice based on love rather than a social and economic arrangement between families. The conflict between these two approaches drives much of the dramatic tension in the novels of Jane Austen. Two hundred years later, the plight of her female characters seems unutterably oppressive. But people still suffer under the prevailing rules.

Which matters more—the people or the rules? The Bible has mixed messages on this question. Ezra pushed the rules and destroyed who knows how many families. Jesus defied the rules and seems to have broken families, also, starting with his own, replacing them with a new definition of family. When it comes to marriage and family, turning to the Bible for help doesn’t really help very much, when you think about it.

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