Other Voices

The Bible does not prescribe only one model for marriage

Supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage rallied in March at the Texas Capitol in Austin.
Supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage rallied in March at the Texas Capitol in Austin. AP

Hood County Clerk Katie Lang appealed to the Bible as the basis for her refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses. She is reported as saying: “I do believe that marriage is for one man and one woman because it did derive from the Bible.”

Reports indicate that other supporters have also appealed to the Bible.

Marriage, however, takes various forms in the Bible. The Bible does not offer a “one-size-fits-all,” single version of marriage.

In fact, marriages in the Bible often differ significantly from contemporary understandings of male-female marriages.

Certainly, biblical marriages can be marked by a husband’s love for the wife (Ephesians 5:22).

Copying societal norms of the time, marriages are to be marked by the wife’s submission to the husband (Ephesians 5:22-24). By contrast, many marriages today value the equality and partnership of wife and husband, rather than the wife’s submission.

Commonly, biblical marriages were arranged. A woman “is given” in marriage by her father (Luke 20:34). The arrangement was often motivated by allying households more than our values of individual choice, love or personal fulfillment.

Biblical marriage can also be grounded in violence. If a male soldier captures a woman in battle, he can marry her a month later after she has grieved. Her captivity and rape are named “marriage” (Deuteronomy 21:14).

An unengaged woman who is raped is to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Such scenarios of male-female biblical marriage surely appall us.

The Bible also refers to “spiritual marriage.” The couple cohabited but decided not to have sex.

Paul recognized a man’s challenges of living with a “virgin” (1 Corinthians 7:37-38). “Virgin” is the literal meaning of the Greek word sometimes mistakenly translated as “fiancée.”

Reflecting his male-centered society, Paul ignored the woman’s challenges. But he did not disapprove of their marriage.

Levirate marriage is another biblical form of marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Matthew 22:23-33).

If a man died without producing an heir, his brother was to marry the dead man’s wife so that she would bear a male heir. The heir continued the dead man’s name, line and property.

Presumably, if the brother was already married, he gained another wife.

Accordingly, another form of biblical marriage is polygamy, in which a man has multiple wives at the same time. Abraham, Jacob, Gideon and David are among those men with more than one wife.

The Bible does not record a woman having multiple husbands.

And there are numerous, possibly intimate, relationships in the Bible that are not recognized as marriage.

More could be said, but how does this brief summary of a complex topic relate to the debate over same-sex marriage, which the Supreme Court has now declared valid?

Clearly, it is inaccurate to make a sweeping appeal to “biblical marriage” as though the Bible sanctions only one marriage arrangement. It does not.

And we have to recognize that as a society, we have rejected some biblical marriage arrangements such as levirate and polygamous marriages.

Nor do we, thank God, legally require that captured and/or raped women marry their captors/rapists.

We have not, though, made a legal decision on “spiritual” or “sexless” marriages.

As a society, we embrace a form of male-female marriage comprising a freely chosen, loving, fulfilling partnership, not an arranged, male-dominated hierarchy (there are exceptions).

Now our society has recognized same-sex marriages.

The oft-quoted biblical passages against same-sex relations predominantly refer to relationships in the ancient world that differed significantly from present-day, loving, committed relationships.

The biblical texts commonly refer to same-sex relationships marked by exploitative power that abused younger males and slaves.

They do not refer to the committed, loving, fulfilling relationships that form the basis for contemporary same-sex marriages that the Supreme Court has declared legal.

Warren Carter is professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.