September 30, 2012

Biblical Marriage

Bible
Evangelical Christians claim that Americans should countenance only marriage on the model of “biblical marriage”—“one man and one woman,” as they like to put it. I suppose that most of my readers know that this position is simply the product of prejudice and ignorance, but it is helpful actually to say so occasionally.

Here’s an example of “biblical marriage” taken from the Book of Genesis: Jacob married four women, two of whom, Leah and Rachel, were his first cousins. He also married their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah. Jacob had children by all four women. So why don’t Evangelicals support one man-four women marriage? Alter all, that’s biblical!

8 comments:

  1. Evangelical men know they cannot handle four women? I am just thinkin....


    FWIW
    jimB

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  2. Sunday blessings, Lionel. I don't think anyone would deny that there are many different marriage arrangements shown in Scripture. Jacob, Rachael, and Leah, are only the tip of the iceberg, no question.

    The question is whether, or which of, those marriages are shown as consonant with the affirmation of our Prayer Book, "the bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation."

    The way an Evangelical might try to begin the question would be to go to the Author for a little light. So Jesus in Mark 10 provides an interpretive lens. ". . . in the beginning, at the creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and be made one with his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. It follows that they are not two individuals: they are one flesh. What God has joined together, man must not separate."

    Clearly the stories of the patriarchs and kings of Israel provide many examples of other kinds of marriages, not even to get into royal concubinage, etc. But if David was God's man, for example, that doesn't mean that the marriage of David and Bathsheba was the sort of marriage that God intended or blessed. As Jesus points out again in Mark 10, there is the reality of the closed mind, the hard heart, and so every example and every provision is not necessarily a model of the best and highest . . . .

    Bruce Robison

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    1. To paraphrase (with reservations) Charles Bennison, the church wrote the prayer book, and the church can—and I predict will—change it, probably long after the failure to do so has become an embarrassment. On what basis does the prayer book make the assertion that “marriage was established by God in creation”? If the assertion is true—it is unprovable, I suggest—God was certainly slow to make his will obvious.

      As for anything Jesus may have said, I would argue that Jesus spoke like a prophet or preacher, not like a mathematician. He spoke to his immediate audience, without qualifying his pronouncements in order to clarify all times and circumstances in which they might or might not apply.

      We have reason to think that Jesus was pretty clear about the inappropriateness of divorce, for example. Our church now allows divorce, but not in defiance of Jesus’ teaching, but in recognition that our own society is very different from his. (Women are now often seen as the beneficiaries of divorce, not its victims.) Furthermore, Jesus made it clear that the Holy Spirit would lead us into new understandings.

      “Marriage equality” was not a issue in first-century Palestine. Why would we expect Jesus to have offered an opinion about it? The Mark 10 reference addresses what had become the norm in Jewish culture in Jesus’ time. Jesus was not giving a lecture on all possibilities. Implicit in anything Jesus said involving the sexes, for example, is the assumption that there are only two sexes, but, today, we know that is not a valid assumption. I don’t think that that makes a person with an extra chromosome a non-person.

      Failure to approve an institution is not the same as explicit disapproval. Didn’t we recognize long ago that the radical Protestant notion that noting is allowed unless allowed in the Bible is nonsensical?

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  3. Sure, Lionel, and good morning this Monday. I was attempting a response to the question you originally seemed to ask, "where do Evangelicals get this idea of 'Biblical marriage'?"

    So, Genesis 2, Mark 10, Matthew 19, and a robust sense of the authority of Holy Scripture, is I think the beginning of a response, with a good deal of pastoralia from St. Paul to follow.

    It is of course the case that Christians with a different sense of the kind of authority that Holy Scripture holds may draw different conclusions. In any event the language of the 79 BCP service, "intended by God in creation," simply follows earlier BCP language, as per the 1928 address, "holy Matrimony . . . which is an honourable estate, instituted of God . . ." and espousal, "to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony." So if the notion is an error, it is an old and familiar one.

    Per the question of divorce, I think it's important always to begin that there isn't anything to suggest that the church has stepped back from the Biblical teaching that marriage is intended to be founded on a solemn and sacred promise that will continue "as long as you both shall live." When the marriage relationship is broken, it is a sign of the brokenness of our human condition, human sin.

    The changes we've tended to see in the church I think have been instead in the area of discipline related to the remarriage of persons previously married and divorced.

    In first century Judaism there was a debate (as we overhear in Mark and Matthew) between one school of rabbinic thought who taught that a decree of divorce for any reason or for no particular reason was permitted so long as the appropriate legal notice was given and another school that maintained that adultery or abandonment were the only permitted grounds.

    Jesus in Mark is clearly responding to reject the "no fault" position of the first group, and in Matthew seems to associate himself in some sense with the second. In the Matthew 19 passage Jesus seems to allow for remarriage in the context of narrower grounds (usually the thought is expressed that the offending spouse in a situation of adultery or abandonment is to be considered "as good as dead" from the point of view of the marriage contract), while in Mark, when the "no fault" divorce is discussed, that possibility isn't mentioned.

    Generally the churches in descent from the Reformation, and broadly "Evangelicals," have accepted the Matthean language, to permit remarriage of the "innocent" party when the other has proved unfaithful either through infidelity or abandonment, and in practice, understanding the complexities of relationships and the human heart, in our contemporary period we've acknowledged that "innocence" is in many cases a determination we are not equipped to make, and that "infidelity and abandonment" can be understood in a somewhat broader context. Thus we turn to and prayerfully trust the conscience of the individuals involved in an application for a remarriage. My own sense is that this is in good conscience congruent with Jesus in Matthew, though I think there is a reason for concern in a culture where divorce is so very common that the critical thread of God's loving purposes in marriage may not be clearly evident.

    Bruce Robison

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    1. Bruce,

      Thanks for your response. I don’t think we have a truly substantive disagreement. I do, however, object to phrases such as “biblical marriage,” the use of which is a disingenuous strategy intended to foreclose argument.

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  4. I would hope you would want to say that the use of phrases such as "biblical marriage" might sometimes be "a disingenuous strategy intended to foreclose argument." Marriage is in fact a topic of significant concern in Scripture, and the Scriptures are of great concern to Christian people.

    Bruce Robison

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    1. “Biblical marriage” does not have a clear and unambiguous referent. At the very least, it is unclear, even if the speaker (mistakenly) thinks otherwise. A neutral phrase would be something like “marriage in the Bible” or “patterns of marriage in the Bible.” Jacob’s marriages are no less “biblical” than what Jesus describes in Mark 10.

      By the way, I apologize for my statement about the prayer book. I suppose that Mark 10 could justify “marriage was established by God in creation.”

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  5. The statement in (maybe) Jesus's words does not say that the man had or will have no other wives. That has been simply assumed by later day persons seeking to affirm monogamy. The author of One Timothy (certainly not Paul, but perhaps Timothy himself?) does suggest that monogamy is a superior choice, as it is required for bishops. He does not say it is the only choice, especially for the rest of us.

    The fact is that if one considers the changes from Leah, et al to One Timothy what one sees is "Biblical marriage" changing as the society changes. What Jesus clearly affirms, especially in his comments on divorce, is reasonable, good treatment for the powerless (women) in the relationships. The author of One Timothy never explains why a bishop should be the husband of one wife, it may be that he was making a judgement about how hard the work is, not on morality.

    FWIW
    jimB

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