Arabs, Masai, Native Americans, Australian Aborigines etc. all, I’m quite sure, conceive of marriage in quite distinct and nuanced ways.
Marriage is polysemous. It has been defined and practiced in a host of different ways, in varying cultural contexts and still is. What Christians bring to this archive of varying definitions is one among many, it is particular to our history and narrative. This is important to remember. What will make our story compelling will be to what extent it can be seen to be true to reality.
More significantly, speaking of ‘traditional marriage’ and equating it with ‘Biblical marriage’ risks being anachronistic. What we bring to the defining marriage party (in regards issues, perspective and background) will be nowhere near the same as the baggage ancient Israelites of 4000 years ago(ish) who spoke and passed what they thought because of the Genesis 2 myth as well as the OT law. This holds even if we’re on the same page in numerical and genderal (sadly I don’t think this is a word) senses.
There is also a risk in thinking ‘Biblical marriage’ will have some sort of consistent manner of practice and definition in the pages of the Bible itself. Let’s be serious and say that we’ll encounter some trouble there if what we’re after is incontrovertible instruction or ‘evidence’ that tells us the exact way things have always been or should be done. I’m looking at you Isaac (Gen. 29:28; 30:9), Jacob (Gen. 31:17), David (2 Sam. 5:13) and Solomon (1 Kings 11:3) to name but a few men who had a number of wives, nevermind that OT law never found it necessary to forbid polygamous marriage. The sheer fact that attitudes change to this over time is no doubt more than, but definitely not less than, a sociological and context driven change marking developing notions of faithfulness and piety.The most significant point to underline is that the Bible is not a book of facts and evidences to derive propositional truth claims, it is the story of a people and their journey with (and without) God, so let’s stop ruining it for everyone by traipsing over it with big flat hermeneutic-feet! When we retrieve the nature of story and it’s unwillingness to play to our preconceived notions (re. ethics, morality and the like) we receive the space, given by the activity of God in the particular history and culture of Israel, for openness and change (see point 2 on Monday for more on this).
However, in recognising the diversity of marriage talk in the Bible I’m also quite happy to affirm that the emerging overture in the Bible is more or less favourable toward a one man/one woman paradigm as an ideal in marriage. I’m on board with recognising and appreciating that that is what is said, absolutely. I just don’t think it comes close to ending the discussion – and a historical, cultural and hermeneutically aware discussion is what is needed.
Hence why I think some additional distinctions and thoughts are vital.
1. Legal marriage is not sacramental marriage.
Yes the state has extended legal coverage to marriage as your religious tradition understands it, so what!? What you affirm as ‘Biblical marriage’ is the marriage of your church tradition not the state or the world at large. If you rely on the state and it redefines its understanding of marriage you will have an issue when it wants to get out of bed with you.
However, when it does change what it deems acceptable and legal for a marriage the church does not have to practice it – the state extends legal coverage and benefits, nothing more. The church plays a different game on the marriage card; stop trying to make the state play your game when they don’t want to. Christian marriage involves a couple making commitments before and to God, that does not need legal approval – it’s a sacrament!
[See the post on Monday for points 2 and 3 and a conclusion.]