Conservative Evangelicals across the blogosphere have posted their responses to this week’s cover story from Newsweek. Their treatment of the article theologically and politically will far outweigh any attempt of mine to do the same. What I would like to respond to is Ms. Miller’s opening statements concerning the Bible’s treatment of marriage.
Let’s try for a minute to take the religious conservatives at their word and define marriage as the Bible does. Shall we look to Abraham, the great patriarch, who slept with his servant when he discovered his beloved wife Sarah was infertile? Or to Jacob, who fathered children with four different women (two sisters and their servants)? Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and the kings of Judah and Israel—all these fathers and heroes were polygamists. The New Testament model of marriage is hardly better. Jesus himself was single and preached an indifference to earthly attachments—especially family. The apostle Paul (also single) regarded marriage as an act of last resort for those unable to contain their animal lust. “It is better to marry than to burn with passion,” says the apostle, in one of the most lukewarm endorsements of a treasured institution ever uttered. Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple—who likely woke up on their wedding day harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender equality and romantic love—turn to the Bible as a how-to script?
In her article, Miller asks her readers to consider the marriages of Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon as the basis of biblical marriage. This is the wrong question to consider if you are looking for the Bible’s prescription of marriage. To see God’s one, right intention for marriage, you must go back farther than even Abraham. In Genesis 2, God gives the one, right way for marriage to occur.
18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” 19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found.
21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. 23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” 24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. 25 The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
Verse 24 is the most quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament; it is recorded in Matthew 19.5 and Mark 10.8 that Jesus quoted this verse when discussing marriage and divorce. Paul quoted this verse in his treatments of marriage in his letters to the churches in Corinth and Ephesus (1 Corinthians 6.16 and Ephesians 5.31). It is clearly stated in the Bible that God’s plan for marriage is to be between one man and one woman for life.
While that is the prescribed treatment of marriage, the Bible is not a record of perfect people doing exactly what they are to do. The Bible is the record of a loving and merciful God and His dealings with a sinful and rebellious people. We cannot necessarily look to the lives of the “heroes” in the Bible as the “how-to” manual for life. What we can see is a collection of imperfect people who chose to break the law and heart of God. So let’s consider the lives of Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon—not as examples of biblical marriage, but as tragic examples of what happens when we stray from the ideals of God.
Abraham (you can read his story in Genesis 12-25) had been promised by God that he would become the father of a great nation. But when as he grew older and he and Sarah still had no children, Abraham decided to take matters into his own hands and he slept with Sarah’s servant Hagar. Hagar got pregnant and she had a son, Ishamael. This story does not prescribe polygamy as a biblically mandated form of marriage. This story instead describes the tragic consequences of what happens when we quit trusting God and begin trusting ourselves and our plans. By brining another woman into his bed, Abraham created an environment of jealousy and mistrust within his household. He created a division in the unity of his marriage, and he spawned an unhealthy competition between both women and their sons. The effects of this decision are still felt today—Ishmael is the father of the Arab nations, Jacob is the father of the Jewish nation. If you’ve read the news any time in the last 4,000 years, you know there’s still tension in that relationship.
Jacob (Genesis 25:19-50:26) repeated the mistake of his grandfather and there were similar results. His choices led to tension, jealousy, hatred, family infighting, and competition between the children of his various wives. Again, his life and choices concerning his relationships are an example of what happens when we choose to abandon God’s way and then do things our own way.
David (1 and 2 Samuel) was described as a man after God’s own heart, yet he made choices concerning women with tragic results. David took more than one wife, and the results were fighting and bloodshed. He actually lost four sons as a direct result of his extra-marital affairs. Again, this is not God’s prescribed state of marriage.
Same thing with Solomon (1 Kings 1-11) occurred when he chose to go against the will of God and take many wives. Those wives became his undoing as they led him away from God and toward their foreign gods. They took his attention away from ruling and worshiping and placed it square on themselves. Solomon was the last ruler of a unified Israel.
God told His chosen people Israel in Deuteronomy 10 that He commanded them to follow His statutes “for your own good.” The laws that God prescribes are from a loving Father who desires what is best for His children. The stories recorded in Scripture are those of a rebellious people who choose to stray from their loving Father. God’s prescription for living is the best way to live. The descriptions of the lives of people lead do not always follow the prescription given for right living.
So in one way, Lisa Miller was right. Her description of marriage as she sees the Bible is certainly not one that anyone would prescribe. But the Bible’s prescription of marriage is one of mutual love, trust, respect and submission between one man and one woman, under the headship of Christ. Any other arrangement is against the prescription of God, mandated for our own good.
What most people fail to see is that any straying from God’s perfect design goes against the ways of God. Evangelicals do not support serial heterosexual marriages, or adultery or premarital sex. In the eyes of God, sin is sin and they all separate us from Him. The problem is not that God has changed His mind concerning His perfect plan for sex and marriage. The problem is that the church has refused to define and then defend marriage and its purpose as a picture of the relationship between Christ and His church. When the church begins to equally take a stand against all relationships that violate the mandates of God, supporters of gay marriage may no longer feel as though we are picking on them.