What Defines Biblical Marriage?

Our society desperately needs us to support and defend Biblical marriage.” Or, so goes the widely-voiced claim from many Christians today.

But I’m intrigued by the fact that for an institution so absolutely central to human life, the Bible has shockingly little information about the ideal marriage. Hardly any of the examples about marriage fit our modern Christian definition of “one man, one woman, for life, with the blessing of the church and the state.”

Biblical Examples of Marriage – For Better or For Worse

Let’s consider some of the most obvious examples of marriage in the Bible.

Adam and Eve: no ceremony, no church or legal blessing on their union; they had no choice of partner. No information about the longevity of their relationship. But they are used as an example of marriage no less than four times in the Bible.

Abraham and Sarah: Not monogamous, and not a great example. For one thing, Sarai was Abram’s half-sister. Later, it got really ugly thanks to a messy situation with a slave girl leading to three thousand years of ongoing fraticidal strife between Jews and Muslims.

Isaac and Rebekah: maybe the one long-lasting Biblical union without recorded polygamy. On the other hand, they’re cousins once removed.

Jacob and Rachael: Jacob married his cousins Leah and Rachel, who were sisters and were daughters of his mother’s brother Laban, a wretched and manipulative father-in-law. Then Jacob also had two concubines. So his 12 sons, which formed the basis of the nation of Israel, came from four different women. The resulting jealousies and strife between the brothers set the stage for hundreds of years of tension within the nation.

Ruth and Boaz: the ultimate Bible romance, but hardly like today’s marital situation. He only married her to obey the “Levirate marriage” mandate that a dead brother’s name be preserved by marrying his widow and siring children in his brother’s name. And Ruth of course wasn’t in her first marriage, and may very well have seduced Boaz (“lie at his feet” is likely a euphemism about sex, not just staying warm). And as to Boaz, given his age, wealth, and high status in the local society, he most likely was already wedded when he agreed to marry Ruth. This was common for Levirate marriage.

David and Bathsheba: well, little needs to be said about this couple: David is hardly the model of a good husband, and their marriage isn’t started very well. And he had a ton of wives. Yet we read he was a man after God’s own heart.

Notably, David was not chastised for his adultery as such; instead he was confronted by the prophet Nathan for the manner in which he stole Bathsheba by murdering her husband. Not a word in Nathan’s charges against David addresses his original sexual escapade while Uriah was away at war – only the subsequent events trying to cover up her resulting pregnancy.

Solomon, considered the wisest man who ever lived: Having about one thousand wives and concubines makes this claim rather questionable. Certainly he’s not a good example of the Christian ideal.

Hosea and Gomer: another famous Bible couple. About the only thing we know is that she’s an active prostitute and adulteress that God explicitly instructed him to marry. Although Hosea is often quoted as a model of husbandly faithfulness, it’s not exactly a good example of how to start or maintain a successful marriage.

Joseph and Mary: we really don’t know much about them, other than how it all started. And of course that was rather unusual for that society. Joseph then disappears from the Gospels after a brief account of Jesus’ 12th year, and it is clear that Mary is a widow by the time Jesus concludes His ministry, when from the cross He instructs John to act as her son and John takes her into his home. At least Joseph and Mary could be considered a decent example from what little we know.

Ananias and Sapphira: well, they’re a famous Bible couple, all right, but we only know how their story ends: being dragged out the door, dead, for mutually lying to the apostles and God.

Put this all together, and it seems obvious that the Bible doesn’t show us many examples of what today we call “Biblical marriage.”

Biblical Verses Directly Addressing Marriage

In other words, nearly everything that modern Christians profess about “Biblical marriage” is added to what we see in the Bible, based on relatively few specific verses.

Genesis 2:24, as Jesus retold in Matthew 19:5 and Mark 10:7–8, and reiterated in Ephesians 5:31, is certainly about leaving and cleaving, but less than being about the proper form of marriage, it seems more directed at the ugliness of divorce, which had serious societal implications for a woman who would be unable to remarry and be provided for in her old age.

Many Christians claim that the example of Adam and Eve proves that God’s original intent was one man and one woman, precluding gay marriage. But that example is inherently shaped by the fact that there was ONLY one man and one woman in the picture. It’s a limited example in an incredibly limited circumstance. Nothing else in the Bible explicitly makes that singular example a mandate for all subsequent humans. It may be inferred, but it’s not explicit.

The Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17 talk about adultery, from which we reasonably assume that faithfulness to a spouse is important. However, it’s pretty clear that the definition of “faithful” at the exact time the Ten Commandments were written included polygamy, which tends to disrupt using that commandment to enforce the Christian monogamy ideal.

Speaking of the Ten Commandments, the great law-giver Moses had two wives. I wonder if he ever felt that polygamy violated the adultery commandment. At any rate, the law of Moses included explicit provisions for taking multiple wives, marrying females captured in war, and even divorce.

Malachi 2:14 is often quoted about “the wife of your youth” and marriage by covenant, but that reference is God talking to the entire tribe of Judah, not to a specific married couple. Also, that verse seems strongly directed at Jewish men marrying non-Jewish women, and violating God’s ideal of Jewish purity. It’s about being unfaithful in a very different sense than violating a covenant of monogamy. So it seems a bit stretched to directly apply this out-of-context Old Testament verse to define New Testament marriage.

We read about Jesus attending a wedding in John 2, but there’s literally nothing in that story about the nature of the relationship or its formative details or even the actual ceremony – other than that a lot of wine was involved. Ironically, that bacchanalian example is replicated well in today’s society – but not by most Christians, some of whom insist that the wine wasn’t actually fermented.

Jesus also told a couple of parables about marriage ceremonies, but those were limited to the ceremony details and social aspects, instead of marital commandments, and the details have little corollary in modern weddings. Ten virgin servant girls waiting until the wee hours of the night for their master to appear suddenly to take away the bride isn’t very relevant to modern Christian ceremonies.

Ephesians 5:25-33 has the longest Bible discussion of right practices for the marriage relationship. Interestingly, Paul concludes this passage with noting that his main point is to demonstrate the relationship between Christ’s servant leadership and the church’s submission. He’s using a human standard to illustrate the nature of the Kingdom, not the using the Kingdom to mandate the nature of the human relationship.

Revelation famously concludes with a brief description of the wedding of the Lamb, which is so spiritualized that it’s hard to draw any inferences about real-life weddings or marriages.

It’s claimed by many that the “husband of one wife” phrase in 1 Timothy 3:2 indicates that monogamy is the only acceptable form of marriage. But it’s worth noting that the verse is specific to what’s acceptable for overseers of a body of believers. Nothing in that verse says “all believers.”

Nowhere does the Bible discuss state involvement in defining or legislating marriage. (That came over a millennium later in 1164 AD.)

Nowhere does the Bible prescribe any ceremonial details. (That’s entirely traditional.)

Nowhere does the Bible explicitly reject polygamy. (But it does often show how polygamy goes awry.)

Nowhere does the Bible explicitly reject a covenental life-long relationship between two males or two females. It does celebrate the covenental life-long relationship between one man and one woman as a positive example – while simultaneously describing many dozens of marital relationships that don’t meet that model, without rejecting them either.

The takeaway here, from my perspective, is that Paul and other Biblical writers were probably not intending to establish policy or theology for marriage: they were trying to teach the religious faithful in the new church how to conduct themselves within a system of both secular and Jewish customs in a way that honored the Lord and brought esteem to the Kingdom. The difference may be subtle, but I think it’s important.

Post-Biblical Marriage History

It’s also instructive to look beyond the Bible to the history of marriage within Christianity since the Scriptures were written. After all, a lot of Christians point to the creeds to solidify their doctrine, and the creeds were written long after the Scriptures. So I think seeing how early church leaders addressed marriage is just as relevant as the creeds.

Early believers didn’t expect to be waiting long for the Lord’s return, so marriage was actually discouraged in the very early church. As time passed, and people got impatient, problems naturally arose, which is what some of the writings in the New Testament were actually addressing.

The earliest sense of Christian blessing of marriage ceremonies appears in the late 300’s AD. “At the Council of Carthage in 398 A.D., there was an assumption of a priestly prayer or benediction of the wedding ceremony. Early Church Fathers Ignatius and Polycarp both urged a blessing from both parents and clergy over a pending marriage. This is the first sign of any church ceremonial influence. But there is little else for many centuries.”

Some of the drive towards a Christian insistence upon monogamy actually dates from the dark ages, from about 500-800 AD, when the Catholic church was at odds with kings and feudal rulers who wanted to retain the right to multiple wives,
and possibly also in relation to concerns that the plague was spread by incest and polygamy (leading to the near-universal wedding ceremony question about “does anyone here have any objection to this marriage” which originally was a way of asking “can anyone here show that these people are related”).

It wasn’t until the year 1164 when the Roman Catholic church got involved in marriage as a official sacrament. Before that, the feudal system insisted that people obtain marriage permission from the feudal lord over a region, not from the church.

In some sense, because of the church assuming ownership (away from the state) of marriage blessings, the question of fornication became whether the secular relationship had been properly blessed by the church, not merely whether people were having sex or even whether a common law marriage existed. It was all about whether the relationship had been formalized as a religious wedding.

A good review of the history of Christian marriage, and the church’s involvement in the same, can be found on the Vatican’s website. The Catholic church is actually well-positioned to write this history, as the early church from about 300 AD until the late Middle Ages was effectively solely Catholic.

A different view of the secular origins of marriage, which long predates both Christianity and Judaism, can be found at https://werdsmith.com/genesology/eIOCT11oJ

Supporting Marriage as an Institution

Now, I’m not interested in tearing down the traditional Christian marriage model. I think it provides massive benefits to society, and its fading priority is not good for societal stability. I certainly do wish for my own children the blessings and joys and benefits that I’ve enjoyed in a solid 30-year marriage.

However, at the very same time, I think we need to recognize the inherent limitations of any claims that the Bible sets forth a very singular and specific model of marriage for Christians. In particular, the claim that the traditional Christian one-man-one-woman model mandates that gay marriage is invalid or ungodly falls flat on its face, by reading into the text many things that are simply not there. Yes, the monogamy/man/woman model is traditional in recent society. But as far as I can tell, from a careful and strict reading of scripture, it’s ONLY traditional, is driven largely by post-Biblical cultural and church institution practices and insistence, and is not Biblically-prescriptive.

With all that said, there are a lot of very careful warnings in the Bible about those who do enter into covenental relationships (whether monogamous or polygamous!), and how they should treat each other. For example, Malachi 2:14 would absolutely apply to a gay marriage just as to a heterosexual marriage. The warnings and proscriptions against abandoning one’s covenented spouse are intended to protect God’s people from abusing each other, in the sense of abandoning them to social and financial ruin. A couple of verses commonly cited against homosexuality in general are better read as strongly opposing mistreatment in an unequal sexual relationship (often considered to refer explicitly to pederasty and perhaps more broadly the sex trade, and especially in relationship to religious ritual, e.g. temple prostitution). And beyond this, all the general prescriptions in the Bible for how to treat fellow brothers and sisters in Christ apply to marriage just as any other Christian relationship. So absolutely, let’s do those things. They’re good and proper and right.

Wrapping It All Up

To summarize my thinking here, to cry “one man, one woman is how we’ve always done it, and it’s the only way that the Bible allows” simply doesn’t stand up to careful scrutiny. But it’s so deeply ingrained into modern Christian thinking that we rarely think carefully about where all these things come from. We insist they’re Biblical – but they’re largely an extrapolation.

Furthermore, it’s a logical error to claim that the Christian model (whatever of it actually exists) absolutely must apply to the rest of secular society as well. In fact, much of the Old Testament language regarding the law makes it clear that the intent of the law was to show the uniqueness of God’s people in the world, and how they were different from the nations around them. The same is generally true of the New Testament as well: “there must not be a hint among God’s people.” So even if one insists that a Christian model of marriage is Biblical, it’s a logical error to try to force that model on the surrounding culture.

It’s just fine to discuss the “right” way to do marriage. And it’s absolutely a Christian’s job to model Christlike behavior within marriage for a godless society to see. But let’s not claim that our traditions are explicitly Biblical, because that simply isn’t the case.

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