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The Bible and Culture

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            I have
watched the debate in our country about gay marriage rights for some long time
and indeed I have participated in the debate. Some things have gotten clearer
over time, and some things have become more murky, but what seems evident at
this point is that the majority of Americans are not in favor of changing the
normal and normative definition of marriage.  

 

That doesn’t mean that it will not
change in one state or another because of course we are a participatory
democracy, by which I mean that the majority does not rule, unless the majority
acts.  If the majority does not adequately
express its opinion through the vote or through other sorts of public actions,
then the minority often does and will rule. 
The squeaky wheel gets the grease says the old adage, and it is often
true.   The problem for legislators is
that they can only respond to the squeaky wheels they hear from.  The majority of letters sent to your
Congressman does not equal the majority’s sentiment, but there are few other
ways for an elected official to judge such a matter.

 

            Let me be
clear that this column is not about civil unions for gays and lesbians. They
already have that right in most states. 
Nor is this column about the debate about one’s ‘significant other’
getting companion coverage when it comes to health care.  We could debate that as well, but this column
focuses on the most important baseline issue— the definition of marriage from
a Biblical point of view. 

 

Of course it is true that many
Christians don’t agree with the Bible’s definition of marriage or at least don’t
agree that is what the Bible says.  In my
view this is an example of Christians ignoring the obvious or deliberately
disagreeing with the Biblical text.  So
let’s start with Jesus, as all too often we hear the canard that Jesus has
nothing to say about this debate about gay marriage and does not oppose
it.  Nothing could be further from the
truth.

            Listen for a moment to
Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ teaching on marriage and singleness—

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked,
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every
reason?”  “Haven’t you
read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male
and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother
and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no
longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not
separate.”

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses
command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her
away?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce
your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the
beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for porneia, and marries another woman
commits adultery.”

The disciples said to him, “If this is the
situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this
word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because
they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced
marriage
because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should
accept it.”

I take this passage, which has a close parallel in
Mark 10 and surely goes back to the historical Jesus in some form, as making a
clear statement of Jesus’ views on marriage and singleness.  First of all marriage is grounded by Jesus in
his creation theology.   God created
human beings male and female, not androgynous, not male and male or female and
female, but male and female. 
Furthermore, it is not just the fact that God created two genders that
tell us about God’s intent, it is that God plays the role of matchmaker in the
Genesis story bringing man and woman together for their own good and for the
propagation of the species.  Notice the
phrase “what God has joined together”. 
The implications of this are clear enough. God is not merely in favor of
heterosexual monogamy, this is the only relationship which he not merely
blesses but is actively involved in joining people together in.  Put simply, any other sort of arrangement is
not endorsed by God, and does not meet the criteria to be called a marriage. 

            Of course it is true that
all sorts of people, including God’s people, have practiced polygamy, Levirate
marriage, and various other sorts of arrangements.  This is irrelevant as there is no endorsement
of, nor divine instigation of these other arrangements.  Levirate marriage in fact was not seen as
real marriage. It was viewed under the rubric of the duty of a kinsman redeemer
to raise up an heir for a deceased male relative in a world where patriarchy
was king.  This was not God’s original
design or desire, it was, like so much of the legislation in the Mosaic Law, an
attempt to limit sin and deal with the effects of human fallenness effectively.

            What is important about the
debate between Jesus and the Pharisees, which is primarily a debate about
divorce and its grounds, not about the nature of marriage, is that Jesus says
that for his followers there will be no more allowance for hardness of heart.
Jesus is going back to the original creation order design and endorsing it and God’s
original intent, which was for heterosexual monogamy.  Jesus believed that God’s final saving
activity was being brought into the world through himself and his ministry, and
that now God’s original plans and intents, including God’s original plan for
marriage ought to be honored going forward.  
Clearly enough, the First Evangelist took this to be normative teaching
for his community as well.

            But there is more.  When the male disciples protest Jesus’ taking
away their privilege of divorce (which was almost always something only men had
the right to do in that culture), Jesus tells them there is one alternative to
heterosexual monogamy with one wife for life. 
That option is to be a eunuch for the Kingdom of God.  

Now anyone who has studied the role of eunuchs in Ancient
Near Eastern cultures will realize that Jesus is talking about someone who
engages in no sexual activity. Indeed, if they are either born eunuchs
literally or made eunuchs by themselves or another literally, they are
incapable of sexual intercourse.   In
essence what Jesus is telling his disciples is that they have exactly two
options if they wish to be his faithful disciples— either marry one wife for
life whom God has brought into your life, or remain celibate in
singleness.  

Fidelity in marriage or celibacy in
singleness.  This has for centuries been
the Christian standard when it came to appropriate sexual expression, and it
also has been the Christian standard when it comes to the appropriate
definition of marriage.  This definition
is grounded in what Jesus himself taught his first disciples. 

(N.B. I have deliberately not translated the Greek
word in the exception clause since there is so much debate about its meaning.  One thing is clear— it does not merely mean
marital infidelity.  A porne was a prostitute, so it is possible he is talking about an
exception for prostitution, but the other technical meaning of porneia is incest, and Jesus certainly
could have commented on incestuous relationships that were not proper marriages–indeed
his cousin John the baptizer lost his head for critiquing such a marriage–that of
Herod Antipas and Herodias).

            I could go on to talk about
how Paul’s view of marriage, as expressed in places like 1 Cor. 7 or 1 Thess. 4
does not differ from Jesus’ but that is a subject for another post.  Paul also believes there are only two
legitimate callings for Christians in this matter— fidelity in heterosexual
monogamy or celibacy in singleness.  

Here I want to comment on whether Christian views
of marriage should continue to be the standard for an increasingly
non-Christian culture in America.  This is a fair question, and here would be my
response. As it happens, the vast majority of Americans, Jewish, Christian,
Muslim or even of no religious affiliation at present agree that heterosexual
monogamy is marriage, and should remain the definition of marriage.  In a democracy we would and should expect if the
majority people get out and vote and express their views that that view would
continue to be the law of the land.

            Secondly, what about the
issue of justice and fairness? You often hear those terms thrown around loosely
in this debate.  Here is where I say that
redefining the definition of marriage is not an inherent right of anyone in America. It’s
not an issue of justice or fairness.  If
there is a justice and fairness issue at all, which I don’t think there is when
it comes to something like marriage, then surely the provision of the state for
civil unions satisfies that concern.  

No one has an inalienable right to tell the
majority of Americans “you must change your definition of marriage or else you
are being unjust”.   I am afraid that
this whole way of framing the debate is totally misguided.   That would involve not only a redefinition
of marriage but a redefinition of justice. 
And it is hard to doubt that much of this has come out of the increasing
clamor for and sense of entitlement that we hear from so many in our culture
who think that they are innately entitled to have life on their own terms.  I suppose this is where radical individualism
can lead, but as long as we are still trying to be “one nation, under God,
indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” 
we need to take the first five words in that phrase as seriously as the
last six.

            Arguing that a minority of
Americans should have a legal right to redefine marriage is rather like arguing
that a minority of Americans has a right to redefine what is and is not godly
love. And on that subject, the Bible most definitely has an opinion.  Holy matrimony is supposed to be a condition which
sanctifies the partners, not a condition in which we baptize, endorse, or
legalize someone’s sin and call it good. It’s not really marriage unless it can
be holy wedlock. 

            Consider for a moment all
of the huge hew and cry about Tiger Woods, and even the jokes now being bandied
about (e.g. that he should change his name to Cheetah Woods). Why do you think
it is that so many people are scandalized by his behavior?  The answer is simple— there are indeed
ethical standards of conduct when it comes to marriage.  Tiger should be faithful to his one and only
wife.  Playing the field whilst married
is immoral.  In other words, our country
does still care about fidelity in traditional marriage.  I am saying that there is no good reason to
redefine the meaning of marriage now, and many good and Biblical reasons not to
do so.    

In conclusion notice how I titled this essay–an Evangelical
Christian point of view.   I realize
there are other points of view even within the Evangelical community, and I am
willing to discuss them.  The discussion
should be civil, and it is not helpful to throw around words like ‘prejudice’
and ‘bias’  to try and settle the debate,
as if those terms could be trump cards.  
One’s man’s supposed prejudice in this debate actually turns out to be
another man’s ethical principles grounded in the Bible.   Think
on these things.      

 

 

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