Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Developing a biblical theology of marriage - not for you, but for me

Today I read a very helpful article by Robyn Whitaker. It outlines some of the biblical passages that some people think are important when considering same-gender marriage.

What I have found most unhelpful in the debate so far is that the comments seem to be about critiquing same-gender relationships. Not all same gender relationships involve physical intimacy or sex. Not all marriages involve physical initimacy or sex either. I suspect some of the conversation is impacted by our incapacity to talk about sex. I am no different. So, I am not going to start by talking about sex. Instead, I want to talk about marriage.

Every marriage needs a conversation about how we enter into it and understand it. Because marriage involves more than one, it requires communication and negotiation about values, purposes, commitments, goals and outcomes. For people of faith, there needs to be a further conversation about whether what is being entered into has a faith basis. For people of deistic faith, there is a further question about developing a theology of marriage.

My husband and I are both in the latter category. We both believe in God and have a shared faith that commits us both to a journey of shared discipleship. We follow Jesus. We try to reflect Jesus' teachings in our lives. We try to live into the calling of being a blessing for others.

Here are some of the passages I think of as informing my theological reflections about marriage:

I saw a wonderful painting by the artist, Frank Wesley, of Hagar and Ishmael. Rejected and cast-out, Hagar was punished for doing what was required of her. Abraham fell down on his responsibilities to her and their son. Sarah did not provide protection for her. Hagar's story points to the failures of Abraham and Sarah. Ordered to Go forth and multiply, they set up a permanent settlement. Both of their relationships with Hagar diminish their marriage. They (as a couple) are not a blessing to her or to Ishmael. God has mercy on Hagar and Inmael anyway. They had the opportunity to offer mercy and chose to withhold grace. This led to generations of global schism.

Families tend to seek marriages 'amongst their own kind'. Familial blessing or criticism of marriage is often connected with racism, classism, ethno-centrism... It challenges people's comfort zones to contemplate marrying outside of narrow expectations. There is default resistance to even talking about alternative expectations. The film, Guess who's coming to dinner, tells the story of families coming to terms with moving beyond intellectual assent to difference, to actually welcoming a marriage that moves beyond the expected.

How much of our theologising also defaults to fear of discussing 'the other'? How much may that impact on discussions about who we may or may not marry?

I was struck by this story of an arranged marriage. The values expressed prioritized family, ethnicity, culture, language and upbringing, OVER love. Rebekkah's response was connected to adventure, possibility, promise, faith and vision, OVER love.

Learning: Biblical marriage does not automatically place great value on heart-felt love as the foundation of the marriage relationship. However, there is value placed on preparation, commitment and vision.

  • Jacob's wives and Concubines (Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, Bilhah) Genesis 29
When I first read this passage I remember the relief that Jacob had a family like mine! My grandfather had four wives and several concubines. He was faithful to all of them. There were many children and many grandchildren. There was no expectation of the two parents, two kids and labrador household. For many of us, such a household is impossible! AND - it isn't even biblical!!!

Learning: Biblical marriage includes models we do not have here. Biblical models may be abusive and illegal. They may also be acceptable for good reasons in other places. E.g.1 Ensuring there is a large enough family to ensure a workforce for surviving in a place.

  • Familial destruction of marriage - withholding blessing (Dinah and Shechem) Genesis 34 and 46:15
I visited a Sunday School once when I was doing a sleepover at a friend's place. It meant that I didn't need to go to Chinese school that week. The Sunday School were "doing Joseph" - so we learnt about the colored cloak and lots of brothers.

Many years later I read about their sister. The one whose marriage they destroyed. Some translations claim she was raped. Others claim she was taken and then Shechem begged to marry her. This would have ensured her survival and future. It may also have been a loveless and abusive marriage.

Whatever the reasonings, Dinah's brothers conspire to deceive and murder, not just Shechem, but his entire tribe. It is the first biblical genocide - of people who had just committed to and covenanting with God (through circumcision). It was the missionaries murdering the new converts. The murderers justified themselves saying they were standing up for their sister, but, in fact, they sacrificed her future for their property and financial gain.

I have seen families reject brides or grooms. There are often concerns about property or financial security or possible abuse. Sometimes the families are acting in the protecting role with their loved ones. Sometimes they have self-interests that cloud other issues.

Learning: When it comes to marriage, people will make up their own reasons for supporting or rejecting marriage. It doesn't need to be logical and can be violent and emotive. Often the behaviors demonstrate how important marital assets are to a whole range of people other than the couple concerned.

  • Marital abuse victims and survivors (Esther and Vashti) Esther
Both Vashti and Esther were abused in their marriages. They lived with fear and daily possibilities of rejection and violence. They lived in political marriages, where "love" was misused as a substitute term for lust.

Learning: Even in abusive or political marriages there are questions about what can be accomplished in faith. Sometimes marriage is one-sided. This is not an endorsement, but it is a reality. There are both those who benefit from and blossom in marriages AND there are those who find marriage to be oppressive, dangerous and debilitating.

  • Familial rejection (no room for Mary and Joseph) Luke 2
Joseph was from the family of David from Bethlehem, so it was part of the Torah (Law) that his kin should have provided for Joseph and Mary and the new baby. They obviously didn't... because the baby was to be born "out-of-wedlock" (beyond the blessing of family)? Where is God's love in such judgmentalism?

Learning: Real families behave badly when they think they are being right or correct. Hospitality may be offered, conveying grace, or it may be withheld, conveying judgement.

It is just as well there are many rooms 'in my father's house' - as some of us might not like to share! The implication is that many different types of people may find their home in God. This leads us to believe that God can be inclusive, even when communities want to be exclusive.

Learning: God is generally more generous-spirited than most people!

  • Marriage and in-laws (Peter's mother-in-law) Matthew 8:14
Marriage is not just about spouses. It is also about in-laws and others - be they children or friendship or relational connections. There is Jesus generously healing his disciple's mother-in-law, but the story tells us more than that. It tells us about Simon-Peter's relationship with his mother-in-law, such that she serves her son-in-law's friend AND the friend does a healing.

Learning: Biblical marriage has implied relationships attached. Marriage brings different connections that lead to more connections.

If all marriage is off the table when it comes to heaven, we ought to ask more about what it means to be like angels? Most of us consider gender to be a key aspect of our experience of identity. Gender is not just related to sex, but is connected to how we relate, how we speak, how we dance, how we dress. Few of us can imagine being like angels. It is also something that hasn't really made it through to core beliefs for the faithful. After all, many spouses plan to be buried together. Yet, this doesn't make sense if there is no longer marriage in Heaven.

'Love one another' in the biblical sense is not 'know one another'. Yet there is much confusion about what biblical love (or knowledge) mean. When we think of knowing and loving someone, we think of loving them despite knowing the truth of them. Physical intimacy, however, is only a small part of truly knowing someone.

The unconditional love that is described in parts of the New Testament, does not ask for something in return.

  • Marriage and provision and security (Ruth) Ruth 3

Ruth and Naomi's story highlights that whatever the 'love aspects', marriage is largely about the security and future of women, including migrants and refugees. Expect a long study to come out on this one!

  • Bride and Bridegroom
The passages read at Terry's and my wedding were from Isaiah 62 and Revelation. They were featuring bride and bridegroom imagery about the relationship between God and the Church. They stand in stark contrast to the criticisms leveled at the 'faithless' who are often called prostitues for turning their attentions to other attractions, getting distracted from the true relationship that is for life and nurture.

Biblical reflection: Some marriages are about blessing, life-affirming, nurturing one another and impacting other relationships around them positively. Other marriages are more like the fickle relationships that are for use and profit, services rendered and temporary gains. Marriage should be measured and corrected with these two extremes in mind.

There are countless more texts to list and explore. I have started with these ones because they shape me. Others will identify other texts. Between us all, we could help each other in gathering resources for exploring a biblical theology of marriage.

If people are going to discuss Christian understandings of marriage, I suggest they start to share what shapes their own experiences and understandings. What biblical stories shape your thinking?


  1. There are indeed many instances of marriage in the Bible. Some are DEscriptive,others are PREscriptive, while yet others are PROscriptive.
    A good place to begin this blog Amelia would have been to look at the very first marriage in the Bible and see what God PREscribes and then follow it through with his other prescriptions.
    Marriage cannot be divorced from the sexual component because the two become "one flesh" from which children are born and nurtured in preparation for their entry into wider society ad so "fill the earth.
    Marriage was not only instituted so that Adam would not be alone (which was NOT good) it was also instituted for the propagation of the human race.
    This would have been a good place to start before looking at any descriptions or proscriptions as the human race fell further and further away from God.
    So my thoughts are that to improve your blog about marriage and the incidents found in the Bible, the best place to start would be at the beginning in Genesis, and then the other prescriptive passages along the way.
    And Jesus re-affirmed God's original intention for marriage in Mark 10:5-8 when it was falling into disrepair.

  2. Thanks Ron - nowhere does it say Adam and Eve were married. Therefore, the first accepted marriage would be Noah... but more useful to start with Abram and Sarai.
    The Mark passage is not about reaffirmation, but about noting that a legalistic approach to Mosaic Law (rather than a gracious approach) had been disadvantaging women and leaving them discarded and vulnerable. The Mark passage is therefore one of the highlight passages for feminist theolgoians.


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