Is Conservative Theology on Marriage Clear or Queer?
This is part 1 of a series on what the Bible has to say about marriage and homosexuality.
Christians that hold to a conservative interpretation of what the Bible says about marriage and homosexuality are often labeled as backwards, archaic, and on the wrong side of history. Is this the case? Or are conservative Christians correct when they say that their reading of the Biblical texts about marriage and homosexuality are timeless and not subject to social evolution?
What Does the Bible Say About Marriage?
The first mention of the institution of the family mentioned in the Bible is found in Genesis where God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make a companion for him who corresponds to him” (Gen 2:18, NET).
The Hebrew expression כְּנֶגְדּוֹ (kÿnegdo) that is translated as “corresponds to him” literally means “according to the opposite of him.” Translations such as “suitable [for]” (NASB, NIV), “matching,” “corresponding to” all capture the idea. (Translations that render the phrase simply “partner” [cf. NEB, NRSV], while not totally inaccurate, do not reflect the nuance of correspondence and/or suitability.) The man’s form and nature are matched by the woman’s as she reflects him and complements him. Together they correspond. In short, this prepositional phrase indicates that she has everything that God had invested in him (1).
Marriage, according to the Bible, was a creation of God. Marriage was not instituted by government, nor was it developed by a social organization. God had a plan (“I will make…) to provide a “companion” or, as other translations say, a “helper” for the man. The word for “companion” is עֵזֶר (’ezer) and is used elsewhere to describe God (Exodus 18:4; Psalm 121:1, 2). The implication here is that the wife, like God, is someone who does for the man what he cannot do for himself. In other words, the wife meets the needs of the husband. It also logically follows that the husband meets the needs of the wife. The two are an indispensable pair. This was God’s plan.
Then God gave Adam a job:
He brought them [the animals] to the man to see what he would name them, and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man named all the animals, the birds of the air, and the living creatures of the field, but for Adam no companion who corresponded to him was found (Gen 2:19b-20, NET).
The point of the animals on parade is clear: none of the animals could meet Adams needs. A special creative act was required. So God made Eve. She was equal, but different. She was complementary. When Adam saw Eve, he knew she was perfect for him:
This one at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one will be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man (Gen 2:23, NET).
And then, Moses, the writer of Genesis explains this entire scene by telling us “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and unites with his wife, and they become a new family” (Gen 2:24, NET).
Here we find God’s definition of marriage: one man, one woman, for life. Heterosexual monogamy is the only approved marriage relationship in the Bible.
Jesus affirms this view. He actually quotes the words of Moses mentioned above. Matthew 19 records:
The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”
And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt 19:3-6, NKJV).
The only kind of marriage that Jesus endorsed was the same kind of marriage that was initiated at the beginning: one man, one woman, for life. Again, heterosexual monogamy is the only approved marriage relationship in the Bible. The Pharisees did go on and ask about Moses and his allowance for divorce, and Jesus again went back to the creation account and states, “from the beginning it was not so.” Jesus’ emphasis on the original intent of the Creator on the issue of marriage clearly shows that He would not have endorsed or condoned same-sex marriage. The very concept would have actually been unheard of in Jesus’ time. Although homosexual practice was normal and accepted, it was done for recreational purposes. Even the pagan Romans understood that marriage was and ought to be limited to a man and a woman.
The entire scene from Genesis of the creation of the man and the woman would have been incredibly radical at the time that Moses recorded it. No other ancient eastern religion honored the female as an equal partner to the man, and no other ancient eastern moral code commanded sexual fidelity for a husband and wife. In fact, the very opposite was the case. By the time the Torah was given to Moses and the Jews, religions taught unbridled sexual activity as worship to their gods. In Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Cyrus, Canaan and others, temple prostitution and ritualistic sexual acts were part of their laws and history. This practice became the norm in almost every religious system. The Babylonian goddess Ishtar had seduced a man. The Egyptian god Asiris had an incestuous relationship with his sister. Krishna, the Hindu god, was a polygamist. Zeus married his sister Hera.
Also contemporaneous with the early Jewish religious law was the practice of homosexuality. Gender, when it came to sexual activity, was a non-issue. This can be seen in the laws of Leviticus 18 where God warns the Hebrews against sexual immorality:
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. According to the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, you shall not do; and according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you, you shall not do; nor shall you walk in their ordinances. You shall observe My judgments and keep My ordinances, to walk in them: I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them: I am the Lord (Lev 18:1-5, NKJV).
They were obviously very familiar with the sexual practices of the Egyptians and would see the same things happening in the land which there were about to enter.
This is the historic and cultural context into which the Torah entered. And it was this kind of thinking that God was trying to get the Hebrews to unlearn. In the Hebrew religion, man was not conceived in a sexual act, but created in a supernatural one. Sex is not recreational activity or worship to their deity, but a sacred act reserved for a matrimonial union. Thus, any sexual activity outside of heterosexual monogamy was prohibited. This was contrary to the aforementioned religious ideologies and shows that the Judeo-Christian God is countercultural, and therefore not just some idea conceived in the mind of man.