Monday, June 4, 2012


A recent article in The Week magazine (6/8/2012) entitled “An Ever-Changing Union” – (on-line entitled “How Marriage has Changed over Centuries”) got my attention, especially since I have been leading an adult Sunday school class on man/woman relationships in the book of Genesis.  Beneath the title was a line, “Critics of gay marriage see it as an affront to sacred, time-tested traditions.  How has marriage been defined in the past?”

The article went on to discuss the fact that marriage has been evolving since the beginning, which the writer tells us was in the Stone Age.  The article goes on to describe different marriage customs down through history, including the fact that “the ancient Hebrews … engaged in polygamy,” citing of course, the Bible’s statement that King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.  (They didn’t note, however, that Solomon was not a typical “ancient Hebrew.”)  We are told that polygamy has been, and still is practiced “in cultures throughout the world,”

The real kicker and apparent thesis of the article is “The idea of marriage as a sexually exclusive, romantic union between one man and one woman is a relatively recent development.”  Wow!  We “traditionalists” are really non-traditionalists!  We’re the odd ones.

The article describes briefly the history of marriage and marriage contracts, secular and sacred.  It even informs us that “male-bonding ceremonies were common in churches across the Mediterranean” up till the 13th century.

We are also informed that “for most of human history” love and romance had little, if any role in marriage, that love in marriage was even frowned on in many ancient cultures, and that the idea of marrying for love and/or romance was a product of Enlightenment thinking (the “pursuit of happiness”).

The article concludes by telling us “for better and for worse, traditional marriage has already been destroyed … and the process began long before anyone even dreamed of legalizing same-sex marriage.”

The article, I believe, pretty much got its facts straight, though some of its generalizations and conclusions were painted with a pretty broad brush.

I took the article with me on Sunday and read excerpts from it to my class.  Besides a considerable amount of eye-rolling, it also generated a stimulating discussion.  Most of the discussion took us back to matters we had already been studying in Genesis.  We soon left the article behind, however, so I felt that I needed to say a few more things about it.

As a Christian who takes the biblical claims literally and seriously, I have to say that I basically agree with the article’s conclusion; traditional marriage is, if not destroyed, in deep trouble, and this has little to do with whether or not same-sex marriage is legalized.  And this is not some recent phenomenon; it has been going on since the beginning.  And an honest study of the Scripture would verify that claim.

I believe that there are different ways of looking at, even of defining marriage.  I also believe that we need to distinguish the differences, and that we Christians often confuse them; for instance “traditional marriage,” “legal marriage,” “biblical marriage,” are not all the same.

If the article is correct, then “traditional marriage” is as stated, “an ever-changing union.”  Multiple partners, arranged marriages, even same-sex unions have all been, at one time or another throughout history, considered “traditional.”  We would do well to cease our advocacy of traditional marriage.

What about “legal marriage”?  Throughout history, and in many nations today, marriage was and is simply a civil union whatever it is called.  It affords legal protection to the partners and can be entered into and exited through legal means.  And of course, this is the issue today regarding gay marriage.  We may disagree about its morality and we may emphasize that it is not biblical.  But if it is legitimized, it would afford homosexual partners the same rights (and problems) that heterosexual partners have.

As a Christian, as a follower of the Scripture, I am not bound by “tradition” or by someone else’s legal status; I am bound by the Word of God.  And it is my obligation to do my best to ascertain what the Word teaches about marriage.  That is not my aim here; it would take (and has taken) volumes and volumes.  There are a few matters in this area, however, that I believe need clarification.

First, as I have often pointed out to my students, we must distinguish between “description” and “prescription.”  The Bible, as any other good history, describes all sorts of human behavior, often without making any moral pronouncements at all.  This does not necessarily imply that the behavior is approved by God, and it certainly does not imply that it is prescribed by God.  Case in point:  polygamy.  Though it was practiced very early on in biblical history, it is nowhere, to my knowledge commanded or even approved of.  The reference in the article to King Solomon and his multiple wives, does not mention that these marriages are said to have been a leading cause of his moral downfall (1 Kings 11:1-9) or that in this case he was acting in direct violation of specific commands in the Law (Deuteronomy 17:14-17).

Another matter is the Mosaic Law itself.  The Law was not given, as some claim, as a perfect expression of God’s will.  It was given, among other reasons, as a system of regulating the behavior of a redeemed but very sinful, hard hearted people.  So its regulations on multiple marriages, regulations on divorce were not meant to show approval of these acts any more than regulations on sheep stealing.

“If a man takes a wife and marries her, and if it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes … and he writes her a certificate of divorce …” (Deuteronomy 24:1, 2).

“If a man has two wives …” (Deuteronomy 21:15).

“If a man steals a sheep …” (Exodus 22:1).

Jesus when questioned by the Pharisees regarding His position on divorce, took them to the one man/one woman union established by God at creation (Matthew 19:3-6; Genesis 1:27; 2:24).  When they referred to the Mosaic Law of Deuteronomy 24:1ff, Jesus answered them, “Because of your hardheartedness, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not thus” (Matthew 19:8).

By the way, as far as romantic love being some sort of a Johnny-come-lately on the marital scene, perhaps we should look at the story of Jacob and Rachel, which occurred around the 19th century BC and was recorded around the 15th.  [Even those critics who desire to date these writings much later are still stuck with a recorded date of nearly 3,000 years ago.]

“… Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful of face.  And Jacob loved Rachel …  And Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they were in his eyes as a few days because of his love for her” (Genesis 29:17-20).

                  WHAT IS LOVE?


Canadian Atheist said...

In Canada, same-sex marriage is already legal. Churches aren't forced to marry same-sex couples but many do anyways.

This is sort of a sore point with me. It's one of the few subjects that make me pretty emotional because I see bigotry against the LGBT community in the same light as I see slavery or racism.

However, I just wanted to point out that there was no smiting of Canada and most people aren't effected by same-sex marriage in the least. People need to get out of other peoples bedrooms.

Bill Ball said...

CA: Would you be surprised if I agreed with you? See my comment on my previous post.

King's Scribe said...

I keep wondering too.

Anonymous said...

"As a Christian, as a follower of the Scripture, I am not bound by “tradition” .....

Actually, if you are a Christian, you are bound by tradition. Scripture tells us so in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle." KJV

Bill Ball said...

Anonymous: Paul was speaking of the traditions that HE had handed over. Notice 2 Thes. 3:6. Jesus spoke very strongly against holding to "the traditions of men" (Mark 7:8).