The Myth of a Biblical Definition of Marriage

I received a sincere question on my Facebook page that I want to address here:

“Why does the Bible make it so clear about it being 1 man and 1 women the times it talks about marriage? I’m hoping your study has produced an idea that I can chew on.”

“Marriage is between one man and one woman.” This is a popular definition for those who would exclude same-sex couples from the institution of marriage. Where in the Bible are these words found? Nowhere. The phrase, “marriage is between one man and one woman” is a modern, non-affirming definition that is not found in the Bible. I’ll argue that it’s also not supported by the Bible.

The Bible Describes, but Doesn’t Define Marriage

Genesis 2:24 is usually cited as a Biblical definition of marriage. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (ESV). Jesus also quotes this verse when he is asked about divorce. But even within scripture, this phrase was not interpreted as a restrictive definition.

Saying what will happen is very different from prescribing the only thing that can happen. “For this reason a man will leave…” No one disagrees that men leave their families of origin and marry women. Those of us who advocate for the legitimacy of same-sex commitments aren’t preventing men from marrying women.

The question is not whether men will keep marrying women, but whether that is the only option. Making a restrictive definition out of this text is stretching it too far.

For example, no one has a problem with a man not marrying at all. But if these words are to be taken as prescriptive, a man who never marries has also fallen short. Calling this verse a definition of marriage is a way to cleverly side-step this problem. But it does not say “marriage is…” It says “a man will.”

So why are some people comfortable with two men who never marry and remain celibate, but uncomfortable if those two men decide to marry each other? Either way they haven’t done what this verse says should be done. They have not chosen to “hold fast” to a wife. It’s inconsistent to make an exception for singleness, but not for same-sex marriage.

Men will marry women. On that we agree. It is a gift from God. But not all men will marry women. And that’s okay.

Biblical Examples Defy the Modern Conservative Definition

Polygamy was widely practiced and widely affirmed in the Old Testament. There are indications in the narrative that it isn’t a good idea. The first person to marry multiple wives was a guy named Lamech, and he was a horrible man who bragged about murder (Genesis 4:19-24). Multiple wives also caused endless problems for Jacob and his family (Genesis 37-44) and other families in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, elders are restricted to one wife (1 Timothy 3:2; 1 Timothy 3:12; Titus 1:6).

Still, polygamous marriages were marriages. No one was putting them in air quotes. No one was saying “so-called polygamous marriages.” They were legitimate, with full social and legal status (Exodus 21:10; Deuteronomy 21:15-17). In certain situations polygamy was even required by the law of God (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). Jacob, David, Solomon, Moses, and many others had multiple wives. In short, polygamous marriages are also biblical.

Yet these biblical marriages are in contrast to the one-man-one-woman definition that is popular among conservatives today. Our western understanding of marriage has changed, and our legal code excludes polygamy. This isn’t a restriction in scripture, but it makes sense to us today.

The Bible Doesn’t Exclude Same-Sex Marriage

We restrict polygamy when the Bible allows it, because it’s a good and healthy restriction. Why not allow something that the Bible never restricts?

The handful of texts that restrict same-sex sexual acts refer to exploitation and depersonalized lust. Love, marriage, and commitment between people of the same gender was never addressed in scripture, because it wasn’t a question asked in their society. So there is no restriction placed on same-sex marriages in the Bible.

We regular make decisions about things the Bible never addresses directly. The Bible gives no advice on voting, on whether or not healthcare should be universal, on the use of contraceptives, or on bullying in social media. Yet we do have all the information we need from scripture if we apply the values at the heart of scripture.

This is where the discussion should take place. Catch phrases about the biblical definition of marriage are more rhetorical than theological. The Bible speaks about marriage in ways that are more complex and culturally conditioned than what is represented by traditional, non-affirming churches. We prefer simple answers. We prefer a biblical definition that can fit on a protest sign. But that’s not what the Bible gave us.
So, what if same-sex marriage makes the lives of LGBT+ people and their families better? What if queer people can contribute more to society if they aren’t shamed and excluded? What if they can provide much needed families for foster children? What if they can be life-affirming, life-giving, and holy representations of the love of God? Who are we to deny these good things to queer people when the scriptures do not?


    1. Anything that is not forbidden in Scripture, not opposed to the major values of scripture, and good for people and society. I’m ok with that.

      1. Starting off simply…Doesn’t God show his desired design in the simple commandment Honor Your Father and Mother? If He is God and all knowing – knowing that people of same sex would be falling for each other, wouldn’t he have just said “Honor your parents? why did God specify gender in the 10 commandments? why is the church referred to as the bride of Jesus? Why is there a repeated theme of husband and wife symbolizing Christ and the church? Why was that gender specific? If the Bible is the word of God and God comes before us and surpasses us, wouldn’t he have known people of the same sex would desire each other and if he was ok with that, wouldn’t he have made a more general statements regarding marriage? There is definite evidence of people having loving same sex relationships in Jesus’s time (Plato’s symposium among other written pieces of literature)…Jesus (being God in the flesh) was well aware of that. If he was all for that, wouldn’t he have protected those relationships and said something more along the lines of not being so gender specific in his statements about marriage? And wouldn’t God have made our bodies where we were able to procreate with either gender? He could have easily done that, but he chose to make one type of body (male) fit with another type (female) doesn’t that show his original design and desire. There’s so much more to marriage than who we are attracted to. When God mentions love in the Bible, he doesn’t talk about sex. He says “there’s no greater love than this, than to lay one’s life down for another” …”love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, etc”. What if God’s design was for us to fall in love with Him first, then each other as brothers and sisters in Christ (pure Godly love) and then afterwards united in marriage as he suggested. But so often we put the sexual desires first as if those desires define our true nature. I don’t trust my true nature because it is fleshly. I’m a recovering alcoholic and I hsed to desire to drink all the time but that desire is no longer running my life. It no longer owns me. I own it. It’s a thorn in my flesh but I rarely think about it now…today I have victory over it because I have tasted the fruit of walking with the spirit and I don’t ever want anything less than that now. I was also in the lesbian life for several years. Today I’m happily married to a Godly husband and we have a beautiful son. The more I live in this world the more I see the deception in the world I once lived in. Paul says let us not be conformed by the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewing of our minds. It’s important we discern what God’s will is through His word and not through our thoughts. My thoughts and emotions can deceive me and have many times. the closer I get to Him the more clear His will is in my life and the more I desire His will because I have tasted and seen. I have to disagree with your theology. I myself researched like a mad woman and your arguments have flaws.for Example, your argument about the verse “man will marry his wife etc” and say that it shouldn’t restrict LGBT because that would be the same as restricting single men is pretty far out there. And Paul speaks about single men and how it’s good to remain single if you can so that your time can be devoted to the lord, but if you are burning with passion then marry (men marry a woman)…Paul, nor Jesus never address same sex partnerships. And there is controversy Over if the same Greek word in the new is the same Greek word meaning in the old (in Leviticus) regarding same sex relations where God forbids it…but there’s no reason to believe that the word would be of different use here. If you can give me a good argument on why the meanings are different please tell. Because it is my understanding that arsenokoitai is a Greek compound word. Arsen means “male” Koitai means “a man who sleeps with” you put the words together and you have a man who sleeps with a male. The Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek just before the New Testament was written. Guess what the GREEK writers used to translate Leviticus 18 and 20? Yup…you shall not have sex with (koiten) a man ( arsen). Paul put the words together in the New Testament and repeated the sexual ethic of the old. There was the moral law that transcended into the New Testament because it is reiterated by Paul and Jesus and the other disciples. That moral law consisted of sexual relations. So we know God’s will and design for marriage. Paul said we were born into sin. This same sex attraction struggle is a spiritual/fleshly struggle. It’s 2017 which means Every sin that could be committed has Happened and because of the fall of man we are all going to be dealing with the ramifications of sin. And this is one of them. And there IS VICTORY over it! that’s the good news! Let us throw off the old and put on the new…we are a new creation in Christ. And by saying all this let me also say that I understand the pain of the LGBT community because I once lived as a lesbian for years. I was marching in the pride parades and convinced that’s who I was. There’s no one more shocked than myself that I sit here defending the word of God’s stance on marriage. I have many LGBT friends that I was close with while living as a lesbian and I am Friends with them now that I am no longer a part of the LGBT community. We agree to disagree. I love them too much to allow their sexual preference to separate us in friendship. But they know where I stand. If you took the time to read this I would like to say thank you and I hope you will consider replying. Thank you for your time. P.S. I guess I’m that .1% Allan chambers, the president of exodus international, missed. I attended exodus and I don’t understand why that statement he makes is credible to you. It makes no sense to me. He’s just throwing a number out a.k.a. opinion.

        1. Hi Christy,

          Wow! So much to respond to. It’s great to have someone who’s studied these issues. I’m really happy to hear that you have found resolution to your sexuality in a way that is life-affirming for you. Allan Chambers said in his autobiography that his reason for giving that number is that he only knew one person, a former lesbian, who had ever consistently and openly said that her orientation had changed. But she’s since married a woman. That doesn’t mean I question you. Your story is your story, and I’m so glad you’ve come to a good and healthy place. There are a lot of people who die trying to get what you have. There stories are very different from your and just as valid.

          Also thank you for commenting and for your thoughtful questions. I totally get where you’re coming from, I’ve had the same questions myself. But I’ve realized these types of questions could be just as easily asked from the other side. Here’s what I mean:

          Since God knew that people of the same gender would fall in love and want to get married, why not just say that marriage is only for a man and a woman? Why not actually say in scripture “marriage is one man and one woman” if that’s what God intended? Further, if God knew that monarchies were bad for society, why not just say so? If God knew that we would eventually develop birth control and abortion technology, why not just lay out a nice clear statement for us in scripture about it? The answer, of course, is that the Bible isn’t that kind of book. It doesn’t anticipate every moral question of the future and answer it for us ahead of time. That must mean God trusts us to apply the principles of scripture in our changing world.

          As far as arguments from design, those can be turned around as well. If same-sex attraction is wrong, couldn’t God have designed us in such a way that no one would fall in love with people of the same sex? If God never intended for people of the same sex to fall in love, why did he make sexual intimacy between people of the same gender satisfying? In the case of male anatomy especially, it’s easy to see how they could have been designed to be incapable of mutual satisfaction. Why design us in such a way that it works? Also, sexual minorities are just that: minorities. And a small enough number that especially in the modern world we are perfectly capable of having enough babies even if some people are celibate for life or marry someone of the same gender. Arguments from design are way too flexible.

          As far as Plato’s Symposium, I’m assuming you are referencing Aristophanes parable. People often say that same-sex marriage was common in Greek culture and then they always reference this if they have any reference at all, because it’s the only one. A few problems though, Aristophanes was the comic relief in the Symposium. Just look up the symposium and search for his name. The telling of the parable is also very comic in nature and meant to be absurd, not instructive. No one treated it as a serious argument. On top of that, the work is more than 400 years before Jesus. You wouldn’t get your understanding of modern concepts of sexual orientation from Romeo and Juliet, certainly not from a comic work of that era. I don’t think of Louis CK’s jokes about bestiality as having any instructive value about modern concepts of sexuality, certainly not of the concepts they will have 400 years from now.

          In terms of arsenokoitai, I fully agree with your interpretation that it points back to Leviticus referencing the Septuagint. Most interpreters agree as well since it wasn’t a word that was in use at the time. Paul probably coined it. Please check out my articles on the Torah and I think you’ll be able to see why this connection significantly bolsters the affirming theology in my reading of the text.

          Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog and leave such a thoughtful comment.

  1. Thanks for your blog I enjoy reading it. The closest verse to man and one woman would be the one about a deacon or bishop has to just have one wife 1 Tim 3.12. But the fact it defines this implies there were other kinds of marriages. Also if we follow this passage by the same rules only deacons who are married, only deacons with well behaved offspring and a supportive family and the highest values. But then for those born intersex or gender undefined etc it is a grey area. It also doesn’t apply to the female deacons and apostles listed by Paul Titus speaks of them needing to not gossip etc but does not define a female deacons relationship status so technically us female deacons and pastors either don’t have that rule or if we were being cheeky are supposed to marry one wife too 😉

  2. Some people just have to live by the letter of the law, and where the letter doesn’t quite exist, it must be invented, e.g., one man – one wife, etc. Attempting to make the Bible say what it doesn’t say has always been a favorite activity of the extreme right, fundamental, conservative “Christian.” As a denomination, we have never “officially” taken the position of the “word inspiration” of the Bible, but many of us have tended to do so anyway, taking many of its words and phrases too literally or twisted their meanings to our own purposes, much to our chagrin, embarrassment and inadvertent deterioration of whatever spiritual leadership we may once have had in the world.

  3. The prevalence of polygamy in the OT is an indication that marriage is more of a cultural custom than a closely defined relationship. There are many biblical examples of God meeting people where they are and working with them to bring them closer to understanding Him. In our world today, there are many different situations in which we find ourselves that are not like those of the first humans (if, indeed, the biblical creation story is accurate), and I believe God is there for us in our real-life situations, helping us to find the best solution to our individual unique circumstances.

  4. If that is the case, Where do you live all those who had experienced love and God’s transformation? I have heard a lot of powerful testimonies of ex-gays and ex-trans and they have felt God’s mercy and infinite love in their lives which transformed their lives! And one case in particular this ex-trans boy said he didn’t even ask God for a change, he just surrendered to his love without any pressure. If what you are saying is truth God doesn’t need to perform his wonderful job of transforming the heart of anyone who decides to follow him, you are limiting God’s power with what you are saying.

    1. Most people from the ex-gay movement ended up divorced and often in relationships with someone of the same gender down the road. You should read about it in Justin Lee’s book Torn. There are also a lot of books published on the topic. Bottom line, there is a reason why Exodus International closed its doors and the president said that in 99.9% of cases, orientation never changed. It’s a myth perpetuated by testimonial evidence and mountains of contradictory evidence that must be denied. All of us prayed to be changed. Many, like myself, did what we believed was right in ignoring that part of ourselves for many years. Thank God, He’s bigger than our expectations of who He is and what we must do.

      1. The cases that I am referring to are happily married with children. We should not judge if their experience with God is genuine or not, however, as far as I can see is genuine and they are very happy, we should not limit God’s power because he is the God of the impossible.
        I am not an expert on the topic but I want to learn more.
        Thanks for your response and for sharing your views and thoughts on the topic, we need to talk about this topic in our church.

  5. Sound like a man must leave his family and marry a woman. Perhaps, if we’re following the old Testament, a man who does not marry is not following God’s commands and won’t be in heaven. Not sure what the original text said but if you believe the bible IS the word of God and is infallible, you have to do what it says. Using modern examples of bachelors doesn’t excuse one from being required to follow the rules; “a man WILL”.
    Curious of your thoughts on drinking. Jesus saw the party was dying, made more wine. Clearly not that upset with people getting drunk. When drunkenness is discussed (Gal 5), I’m guessing it has to do with alcoholism or excessive use. Same with drug use, “witchcraft”, in NIV; pharmakeia=drugs, heeeyyyy!!!
    Also, I think you’re gay, not bi… we’ve been friends a long time and you’ve never made a pass at me. Come on, we all know I’m really good looking and you never tried to get on this… in a few years, you’ll just realized you only really like women. Sure, you might find some guys attractive, but you’ll only really be into women. Love you!

  6. One Question that I have is: “How does affirming Theology connect the past imperatives and custom to the present while calling us to more holiness and a higher moral plane ?”

    In and of itself telling solely telling people that they should go down the path that feels right to them doesn’t sound very narrow.

    1. Past imperatives? Are you speaking of a specific verb that is in the past tense and an imperative? Or are you referring to biblical commands? As I’ve stated, the definition of marriage given by non-affirming Christians is not found in the Bible. I do think that requiring something extremely difficult of about 5% of the population which doesn’t even apply to everyone else is narrow, but not in the way Jesus meant. Jesus wants us to be concerned for the marginalized and love all people as His creation. He cares deeply about the suffering of LGBT people and wants to empower us to live lives with as many good things as our straight brothers and sisters. That, I would say, is the narrow path.

      1. Thank you for answering.

        Yes I was referring to biblical commands and calling them ‘past’ under your assumptions that these laws don’t precisely address our modern questions about same-sex relationships. But I talk not only about imperatives but also about customs that the Bible does not outright call sins but that we no longer practice.

        For example with Polygamy I can see how one can justify condemning the Ancient Near East complacency by appealing to a higher Moral ground.

        I’m just not sure how we can start from even the most minimal and circumscribed interpretation of Biblical “male-female” sexuality and get to modern affirming theology feeling backed up by Jesus’ call to higher Moral standards.

          1. Let me clarify I might have made things confusing, sorry.

            “I’m just not sure how we can start from even the most minimal and circumscribed interpretation of the Biblical discourse on non “male-female” sexual activity and get to a modern affirming theology while feeling backed up by Jesus’ call to higher Moral standards.”

          2. I think the idea that male-female is the minimal definition is an idea of convenience for political reasons. The way we get there is by noting that there is no prohibition, no actual definition of marriage anywhere, and these prohibitions are causing significant harm while same-sex relationships are fully capable of fulfilling the biblical understanding of marriage such as commitment, fidelity, honesty, love, sacrifice, family, etc. just as well as opposite sex marriage.

          3. I guess my concern is that if we agree with Paul that “All things are lawful; but all things are not expedient. All things are lawful; but all things edify not.”

            Don’t we need a little bit more than just finding that the specifics of what is desired is not in the words of the biblical text ?

            What makes that argument more difficult to hinge on is the ubiquitous presence of a Biblical kind of Hetero-normativity that never seems to shed a shred of a positive light on anything remotely close to the matter at hand (at least that I know of).

            I mean saying that concluding the contrary is harmful sounds to me like a non-sequitur. I mean correlation is not causation. And to be honest I’m always weary of the ends justifying the means.

            I pray you stay blessed, Hopefully I will get to continue and interact with you some other times in the future.

          4. Who is saying this is about “what is desired”? This is not a matter of I want it so I should get it. It’s a matter of compassion because a teaching of the church is causing serious mental health problems for an entire group of people. It’s also a matter of affirming what is good and holy. Same-sex partnerships are an incredible picture of the love of God. I have been privileged to observe many.

  7. It is clear that you make the simple, complex, to justifiy your personal position, your personal desires, your denial to surrender to the clear word o God, not only in the bible but in the conscience and the Holy Spirit guidance. One thing is that you want to live your life, independent from God and other different is that you encourage others to do so, this is the way to complete apostasy, I pray for you that you can surrender to God and recognize how wrong you are before is too late.

    1. Hi Ricardo, you speak as if you know me and understand my inner thoughts, but you don’t even appear to know the struggle and heartbreak I have walked through in the process of coming to a different understanding on these matters. I have not chosen the easy path, nor one that has taken me away from God. Your judgement is unjustified and uninformed. What makes scripture seem simple is when we read it in such a way that affirms what we already believe, and simply call everything else complicated. It does get complicated and difficult when we begin to allow scripture and the movement of the Holy Spirit to change our preconceptions.

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