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What is ‘biblical marriage’? a reply to Steve Blow

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Bride putting ring on groom - Kingston Plantation - North Myrtle Beach (Credit: Ryan G. Smith via Flickr)

Steve Blow is one of Dallas’s favorite columnists, a fellow Christian, and a friend of many years.  He and I don’t always agree, which is not surprising.  As the saying goes, “If two people always agree, one of them isn’t necessary.”

However, my disagreements with his latest column go beyond personal opinion.  Because he is a Christian with a large following, his June 27 Dallas Morning News article endorsing same-sex marriage has the potential to confuse many fellow Christians.  Thus my response, which will seek to clarify the theological facts in question.

Steve’s argument

First, let’s understand Steve’s reasoning.  His article, “Beliefs about marriage evolve, even in the Bible,” seeks to demonstrate that marriage in the Bible evolved over the centuries.  As a result, he concludes, the Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage is not in conflict with the biblical standard, since there isn’t such a standard.

To make his case, Steve cites Old Testament examples of polygamy, arranged marriages, what he calls “marriage by rape” (Deuteronomy 22:28), and marriages resulting from war.

He then concedes that the New Testament provides “clear instruction that marriage should be between one man and one woman.”  However, he states that “the Bible isn’t all that hot on marriage at all,” citing Paul’s statement, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do” (1 Corinthians 7:8).  And Steve notes “just how subservient a wife should be to her husband, per the New Testament’s varying guidance.”

Next he cites a historian of marriage who states that marriages have typically been arranged through history.  She also notes that laws repealing the husband’s right to abuse his wife were slow in coming, and that laws banning marriage between people of different races stood until 1967.  Steve claims that “those laws had also been defended as ‘biblical marriage.'”

His conclusion: “marriage’s many changes have trended toward the good.  Even the Bible’s.  Even Friday’s.”

My response

Is Steve right?  Is there no such thing as “biblical marriage“?  Five theological facts help clarify the confusion.

One: God intended marriage from its inception to be a monogamous union between one man and one woman.

Marriage is discussed first in Genesis 2, where “the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him'” (v. 18).  The Lord’s intention for marriage was clearly stated and never changed.

Two: the Bible does not prescribe everything it describes.

Scripture describes David’s affair with Bathsheba, but clearly forbids adultery (Exodus 20:14).  It describes idolatry, but forbids it as well (Exodus 20:4-6).

In the same way, Scripture describes polygamous relationships, but never endorses them.  It expressly forbids polygamy for kings (Deuteronomy 17:17).  When a man violates God’s intention by taking another wife, Scripture requires that he provide for her as he did for his first wife (Exodus 21:10).  But it never endorses the concept.

The same with marriage resulting from war—described, not prescribed.  Scripture clearly forbids rape, but provides for the woman by requiring that the man marry and support her; otherwise she would have no husband or support.

And let’s note that the Bible nowhere describes, much less prescribes, same-sex marriage.  The biblical writers knew of this concept and had numerous opportunities to endorse it, if it was within God’s will.  To the contrary, they forbade homosexual unions wherever they referred to them.

Three: the New Testament interprets the Old Testament.

It is a foundational principle of biblical interpretation that God’s word is progressive, building on previous revelation.  As Steve admits, the New Testament clearly teaches a monogamous union between one man and one woman.  This is “biblical marriage,” the standard against which we should measure the Supreme Court ruling and any other redefinitions.

Four: like all literature, the Bible should be interpreted within its context.

Steve cites Paul’s statement, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do” (1 Cor. 7:8).  However, anyone who reads the apostle’s statement in its context can see that Paul is referring to those who are called to celibacy for the sake of serving God.  He immediately endorses marriage in the verses which follow.

Steve’s claim that a wife should be “subservient” to her husband is again taken out context.  I assume he refers to Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord.”  “Submit” translates the Greek word hypotasso, which describes the voluntary decision to support another person.  It speaks to the fact that a husband needs his wife’s encouragement and respect before he needs the support of anyone else.  And it is preceded by verse 21, stating that we are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

I am at a loss to explain Steve’s assertion that “the Bible isn’t all that hot on marriage at all,” since Scripture endorses marriage numerous times.  The Bible compares the marriage relationship to the union between Christ and his followers (Eph. 5:25-27).  Jesus’ first miracle was to bless a wedding (John 2:1-11).  Scripture likens our celebration when Jesus returns to a marriage supper (Revelation 19:7-10).  In the larger context of Scripture, marriage is indeed celebrated by God and his people.

Five: some Christians do not speak for all Christians.  Those who unfortunately defended laws forbidding interracial marriage (a small minority of the Christian community) did not invalidate the concept of “biblical marriage.”  From Moses to today, God has often led people of different ethnicities into marriage.  Minority opinions do not nullify objective truth.

In conclusion: the monogamous union of a man and a woman is the biblical standard. Christians have understood marriage in this way for 20 centuries.  God endorses this definition of marriage, and no other.