This is part 5 of my ongoing series on the Bible and homosexuality. In part 1 I set up my project, and parts 2 – 4 have so far covered the first 5 of my 7 categories of biblical passages which address homosexuality. For the record, my thesis is that the Bible does not condemn either homosexual acts or homosexual people.
- The Definition of Marriage
There is no clear definition of the proper moral Christian marriage anywhere in the Bible.
By saying that I realize that I have already alienated some of my readers but I am not making an idle statement here. The fact is that there are various definitions, types, and situations which are called “marriages” depending on which parts of the Bible you read.
The Old Testament gives details of multiple marriages, polygamous relationships, marriages based on rape, marriages of political convenience, marriages based on religion, and even marriages that took place completely outside of any religious context. It would also be a gross oversimplification to say that despite these variances there was one form of marriage which was always presented as perfect, ideal, and moral, as opposed to all of the immoral marriages.
One rather complex example of how marriage worked is to be found in 2 Samuel 11-12, which details the story of David’s rape of and marriage to Bathsheba, as well as David’s murder of her husband Uriah. Nathan, a prophet of God, rebukes David for his sin but strangely the evil for which David is convicted is the murder of Uriah, and the theft of his wife. Nathan even mentions that David had other wives, plural, but this is not taken to be a sin, nor is the addition of a wife taken to be a sin. Indeed the rape of Bathsheba is also conspicuously glossed over. Had Bathsheba not been a married woman, and had David not killed Uriah it is not even clear that he would have done anything wrong by the moral standards which Nathan brought against David.
Thankfully the New Testament contains a much clearer and much simpler vision of marriage, and the Christian idea of marriage as monogamous and heterosexual comes to us from the New Testament.
So first let’s consider what Jesus has to say about marriage. In Mathew 19, and Mark 10, Jesus responds to the questioning of some religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees, who are asking him about the morality of divorce. They determine that the Old Testament Law, according to Moses, allowed for a Man to divorce his wife. Yet Jesus adds on to this account and quotes the book of Genesis back at the Pharisees. Jesus says in Mark 10:6-9 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,8 and the two will become one flesh.’So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (NIV)
This passage is generally taken to be the argument in favor of marriage being for 2 straight people. Any time you hear a Christian espousing the rhetoric of One Man for One Woman they are generally referring to this teaching which they take to be a clear sign from Jesus that marriage is supposed to be monogamous and heterosexual.
Yet this reading is a bit hasty because the passages of the Old testament, which Jesus is quoting, do not actually say this. Genesis 1:27 says that God created humans male and female, but this is also in the context of him creating every kind of species to be male and female. That there are 2 sexes does not say anything about the assumed proper function or relationship of the 2 sexes. That is why you also need the creation account in Genesis 2. That account claims that the male was created first and the female was made from the male. However, the sexist notion that this implies the inferiority of the female, because she was made to be the helper of the male, is not present in the text. Instead all that we get from the notion of the term “helper” could also be translated “companion” this does not imply any necessary hierarchy of male and female.
The more problematic text is in Genesis 2:23-24 where the man sings to the woman and names her woman according to the idea that she came out of his flesh. In this sense the man is the maternal and the woman is born from Man, with God acting as the midwife for this birth. Then the Bible mythologizes and says that for this reason, that woman was taken out of the flesh of man, then a man leaves his parents and is joined, in the sense of a sexual act, with his wife, the woman.
However what you must understand about this passage is that this is an explanation, rather than a bit of moralizing. The language of Genesis 1 and 2 is designed to explain the fact that there are male bodies, and female bodies and that they are capable of procreative sexual acts with each other. It does not, nor could it even attempt to, define proper sexual relationships. That is what the Old Testament Law, in all of its glorious complexities, is designed to do. In other words, Jesus raises this issue to remind people not of the proper sexual function, but of the supernatural authority placed on the social institution of marriage.
What is going on here is not Jesus defining marriage as straight, but rather Jesus is forbidding divorce. Though what he is actually doing is forbidding divorce in a social context where men could divorce their wives and abandon those women for any reason the men saw fit. This kind of one-sided sexist institution designed to degrade women was the thing that Jesus was arguing against. He wanted to deny these men the self-righteous satisfaction of treating women in their society like worthless property to be thrown away. Jesus had compassion for women, as evidenced in numerous other places, and as such he wanted to destroy the social institutions of marriage and divorce that existed in his society.
So the conclusion for the passages that Jesus cites and what he says himself is this: It is wrong for a man to abandon his female spouse because this places her in an impossible social situation where she loses all of her status and all of her protection. Because society is evil and broken divorce, of this sexist kind, had been allowed, but Jesus wants to destroy the social institutions of marriage and divorce in this social context. I might even go so far as to say that Jesus is not overly fond of the social institution of marriage at all, but he does reinforce that people should keep their commitments (just like the passage in Romans)
Of course Paul also discusses the social institutions of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, and in Ephesians 5. Now the passage in Ephesians is famous because it is the passage where Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands. Yet it is not entirely relevant for our purposes, because there is nothing in Paul’s language which defines the proper limits and restrictions of marriage. Rather Ephesians is all about the rules of conduct within a marriage that is already established.
Now in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul does issue some similar commands for the conduct of marriage, but he also issues some commands about the instituting of marriage, and so it has more relevance to this discussion. One of the issues raised is the idea of whether or not Paul, in this passage, declares that marriage is for one man to have one woman, and one woman to have one man. That is a troublingly confused translation however, since the Greek actually gives the idea that a husband should have sex only with his wife, and a wife should have sex only with her husband. So again Paul is making a moral case against adultery if anything.
The really telling passage is 1 Corinthians 7:8-9, where Paul encourages single people to stay single, regardless of their gender. Yet he also says if they burn with sexual passion, aka they want to have sex, it is better to get married than to simply burn with sexual passion. Of course he does not say that men should only marry women or that women should only marry men, he just says they should be married. In his social context the only real option was heterosexual marriage, but this does bring me to an interesting point.
The writers of the New Testament do not oppose Gay Marriage. Now they do oppose any kind of sexual activity which takes place outside of a marital context, though to be fair what exactly is meant by marriage is not the same thing as our own social and political institutions of marriage. In their social context marriage may simply be the idea of a socially committed couple who have identified as together before their community. Certainly some ritual may be involved, but it was not the legal thing that it is for us. That is, one’s marital status was only significant if one was female. A male could be married or unmarried and lose nothing. Yet a woman needed to be married because in their social context, women were owned.
That being said, the only thing wrong with sexual immorality, fornication, or adultery is that it happens outside of the context of a committed relationship which has received the social and religious blessing of one’s community. Thus sexual activity which takes place between 2 married people is both moral, and approved. So what do we make of this?
Christians should be encouraging gays to marry. They should want gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered identifying people to engage in sexual activity within a marital context.
The Bible does not actually ever say that it is immoral to marry someone based on their sex or gender identity. It is not even always so clear on the matter of incest, although in general incest is considered an immoral grounds for a marriage. All it actually does is encourage people to become married and to remain faithful to their committed marriage partner.
Conclusion to the passages written by Paul: Paul has a lot to say about how married people should interact, but he does not really say anything about who is allowed to marry or not marry. Paul would support gay marriage since it would remove the sin of fornication and adultery from the lives of a couple who are engaged in sexual activity.
Conclusion to 6? : The Old Testament has no single set of clear rules and moral instructions which apply to all marriages and which define who may or may not be married. The New Testament writers have a lot to say about what married people should or should not do, but they do not clearly define who is and is not allowed to marry. The gender identities of marital partners are given in a descriptive and explanatory sense, not a moral or prescriptive sense. Paul would have supported Gay marriage, and Jesus seems to think that the social institution of marriage which gives one group all the power and denies it to another is an immoral and broken thing.