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?