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Biblical Marriage: A Bad Source For Debate

Vaughn RosteNote: The son of two Lutheran pastors, Vaughn Roste is a Canadian who has worshipped and worked in Episcopalian, Presbyterian, United and Christian Reformed Churches, but his current employment is teaching at a United Methodist College. He has visited five continents and lived on four of them, holds three degrees in two different areas (theology and music), and has written one book: "The Xenophobe's Guide to the Canadians," available at

We've heard a lot about "biblical marriage" lately, largely as a defensive reaction against same-sex marriage. I read one letter to the editor written by a Lutheran pastor that claimed that "the Bible clearly teaches that marriage is the God-ordained covenantal union of one man to one woman." How very applicable to the contemporary situation, I thought. If the Bible really teaches that (and in such modern language too!), then we all should be paying the Bible a lot more heed.

So I picked up my Bible and looked up all the passages that have anything to do with marriage (I had help: I used a concordance). I examined the scriptural use of all the words I could think of related to marriage: marriage, marriages, marry, marries, married, wedding, weddings, wed, husband, husbands, wife, and wives.

All told I looked up over 800 references. Exempting the references which are narrative (e.g. "Adam named his wife Eve" Gen 3:20) or metaphorical (Christ's marriage to the church, Rev 21:9), I was able to distill those 825 verse references into 12 general principles: 12 Biblical "rules" or guidelines regarding marriage which encompass the gamut of scripture. I hereby present the list, with the applicable references.

12 Biblical Principles of Marriage

1. Marriage consists of one man and one or more women. (Gen 4:19, 4:23, 26:34, 28:9, 29:26-30, 30:26, 31:17, 32:22, 36:2, 36:10, 37:2, Ex. 21:10, Judges 8:30, 1 Sam 1:2, 25:43, 27:3, 30:5, 30:18, 2 Sam 2:2, 3:2-5, 1 Chron 3:1-3, 4:5, 8:8, 14:3, 2 Chron 11:21, 13:21, 24:3).

2. Nothing prevents a man from taking on concubines in addition to the wife or wives he may already have. (Gen 25:6, Judges 8:31, 2 Sam 5:13, 1 Kings 11:3, 1 Chron 3:9, 2 Chron 11:21, Dan 5:2-3).

3. A man might chose any woman he wants for his wife (Gen 6:2, Deut 21:11), provided only that she is not already another man's wife (Lev 18:14-16, Deut. 22:30) or his [half-]sister (Lev 18:11, 20:17), nor the mother (Lev 20:14) or the sister (Lev 18:18) of a woman who is already his wife. The concept of a woman giving her consent to being married is foreign to the Biblical mindset.

4. If a woman cannot be proven to be a virgin at the time of marriage, she shall be stoned. (Deut 22:13-21).

5. A rapist must marry his victim (Ex. 22:16, Deut. 22:28-29) - unless she was already a fiancÈ, in which case he should be put to death if he raped her in the country, but both of them killed if he raped her in town. (Deut. 22:23-27).

6. If a man dies childless, his brother must marry the widow. (Gen 38:6-10, Deut 25:5-10, Mark 12:19, Luke 20:28).

7. Women marry the man of their father's choosing. (Gen. 24:4, Josh.15:16-17, Judges 1:12-13, 12:9, 21:1, 1 Sam 17:25, 18:19, 1 Kings 2:21, 1 Chron 2:35, Jer 29:6, Dan 11:17).

8. Women are the property of their father until married, and their husband after that. (Ex. 20:17, 22:17, Deut. 22:24, Mat 22:25).

9. The value of a woman might be approximately seven years' work. (Gen 29:14-30).

10. Inter-faith marriages are prohibited. (Gen 24:3, 28:1, 28:6, Num 25:1-9, Ezra 9:12, Neh 10:30, 2 Cor 6:14).

11. Divorce is forbidden. (Deut 22:19, Matt 5:32, 19:9, Mark 10:9-12, Luke 16:18, Rom 7:2, 1 Cor 7:10-11, 7:39).

12. Better to not get married at all - although marriage is not a sin. (Matt 19:10, I Cor 7:1, 7:27-28, 7:32-34, 7:38).

How many of these Biblical principles are followed by Christians today? Not a single one [with the possible exception of number 3 - some Christian women may still have no choice in their marital partner]!

Nowhere in the Bible does it say that "marriage is the God-ordained covenantal union of one man and one woman;" in fact, it says explicitly to the contrary! The Bible lists at least 15 polygamists (not including Herod, who is known from the historical - but not Biblical - record to have had 9 wives), and in not a single place does polygamy carry with it any sense of opprobrium. Unfortunately, the pastor mentioned above would have been far more correct to say that "the Bible teaches that marriage is a covenantal union of one man to as many women as he might want and can afford."

So the next time your favourite politician or preacher claims to use the Bible in support of traditional marriage, ask him or her which of these 12 principles he or she is actually advocating. Probably none. Anyone who claims to use the Bible in support of a strictly monogamous union of one male and one female based on love, mutuality, and commitment will be hard pressed to find 2,000 year-old Bible verses in support of that very modern position. In fact, I daresay they cannot. The Biblical view of marriage is not monogamous: it is not necessarily based on love, nor on any amount of mutuality.

Most Christians would consider these Biblical principles of marriage to be misogynistic and repulsive - and judging by today's standards, they'd be right. Views have changed since Biblical times, as has our concept of marriage. Some would claim that this is the result of the Holy Spirit working in our world; most agree that just about all of the changes are a good thing. But if we concede that our concept of marriage has evolved, is it not potentially arrogant to summarily discount the possibility that marriage should continue evolving, or even that it might be God's will that it do so?

From the looks of the above list, it's a good thing our perspectives have changed from the Biblical model. Thus as we continue to dialog and prayerfully discern God's will in the area of same-sex marriages, we obviously cannot consider 2,000-year-old statements made in other cultures and contexts to be all that is important.

Please do not misinterpret that I am claiming that the Bible is not important - of course it is. It is central to my faith, as it should be for any Christian. But to rely on solely the Bible is to dangerously ignore two millennia of progress in the areas of science, technology, and human rights, a sin which we dare not let ourselves commit if the church is to remain relevant to contemporary society at all.

To rely solely on Scripture for church policy is to ignore the possibility that the Holy Spirit has been active at all in the sixteen centuries since the canon was closed in 405 CE. Indeed, we need to consider that the Holy Spirit may be actively encouraging us today to move beyond a literal reading of the Bible and to refuse to become modern Pharisees.

While of course the Bible is integral to who we are as Christians, we do ourselves, the church, and yes, God a disservice if we ignore even the possibility of a revelation more recent than 2,000 years old. While we cannot and would not want to ignore the Old and New Testaments, we also cannot ignore the Now Testament. Praise God that, consistent with the spirit of almost every Biblical narrative, God even today continuously and patiently calls us ever forward.


Thanks to Steven Spencer for additional fact-checking.

This article was based on an in-depth examination by the same author, of the Sola Scriptura Philosophy as it relates to Lutherans. It can be found at Contra Sola Scriptura

by Vaughn Roste
Jan 23, 2004