Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Biblical marriage part 2: What the Bible actually says about marriage in the Gospels and the Epistles

Today I return to my exploration of what the Bible actually says regarding marriage. The previous post examines marriage references in the Hebrew scriptures.  Part 2 of this series explores the Gospel writings (Matthew, Mark, Luke/Acts, and John), the Pauline Epistles, and the general epistles.

Once again, there is no real consensus on what constitutes "biblical marriage" and in fact, there are a variety of mentions of marriage.

Jesus rarely mentions marriage in the Gospels.  When he does, it is primarily in the context of discussing Jewish law pertaining to adultery and divorce. In Matthew 5:32, “But I say to you, anyone who divorces his wife except on the grounds of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”In a conversation with Pharisees about divorce, in Matthew 19:8, Jesus repeats what he said previously, which is a saying of Moses. This same conversation is repeated in Mark 10:2-12.

Jesus makes a very bold statement about adultery in John's Gospel, chapter 8, verses 1-11, Jesus meets a woman who was caught in adultery and brought before him by the Pharisees.  The Pharisees say, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now what do you say?”  Jesus responds in verse 7, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Jesus is far more concerned with other topics besides marriage, who is allowed to be married, and what happens once they are married.  He has many more exhortations to tend to the poor, to worship God and to love one's neighbors.  When Jesus does mention marriage, it is generally to point out the discrepancy between the laws of the world (in his conversation with Pharisees) and the mercy of God. Jesus tends to err on the side of grace.

Paul's letters to various Christian communities, and the other more general letters to Christian communities that do not have defined authorship, have generated controversy and have provided quite a bit of fuel for "biblical marriage" debates.

When reading this letters, there are a few things to keep in mind.  First, these letters are written to a specific community in a specific place and time.  There are often circumstances precipitating the letter.  It can be useful to view them as memos or social statements in response to a specific need or concern.  These letters are not the direct word of God, they are not the direct word of Jesus, and we are only ever going to be eavesdropping on their message because they were not written for us.  They were included in the Bible because of what they reveal about God and God's people.

Next, it is important to know that the metaphor of marriage is one used throughout sacred texts to describe the relationship between God and God's people.  This is not a new metaphor, but one that was used throughout Hebrew scriptures.  The concept of marriage that Paul describes was not really one of love, but one of property and inheritance.  Marriage was used to grow and strengthen families, businesses, kingdoms, and so on. It is probably more analogous to royal families in Europe throughout history than it is to marriage as known by Americans. Marriage was a covenant, a contract, also a familiar metaphor in sacred texts to the original audience.  Therefore, it has overtones of obedience, fidelity, and submission.  When Paul or other epistle writers reference marriage, it is important to hold all of this information in tension with what is stated.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he writes, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (1 Corinthians 7:4) He also writes, “to the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry.  For it is better to marry than be aflame with passion.” (7:8-9)  

Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church” (5:22)  He gives the direction of “husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:23).

In the letter to the Colossians, Paul writes, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the lord. Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.” (Col 3:18-19)

The other reference to marriage comes in 1 Peter, where it is written, “Wives, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives conduct when they see the purity and reverence of your lives (1 Peter 3:1-2).  This same passage cautions against braiding one's hair or wearing gold jewelry or fine clothing. Husbands are told, “show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex.” (verse 7). 

According to Paul, marriage was about obedience.  These verses have been used and abused to argue that women should be submissive to men, when Paul is attempting to make an analogy about obedience to Christ. The purpose of most of of Paul's letters are exhortations to stay faithful to Christ, so it is fitting that marriage would be used. The author of 1 Peter is disputed, and cannot be attributed to Paul, so it is not clear who is exhorting women to accept the authority of their husbands.  But while the Bible states this, it also argues against gold jewelry, so if you plan on adhering to standards of "biblical marriage" it is not compatible with wedding bands or diamond solitaire engagement rings. 

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