The most tiresome argument I hear against gay marriage is that it is incompatible with the Biblical definition of marriage.
Quite apart from being irrelevant in our largely secular society, the argument that “the Bible defines marriage as between a man and a woman” is a lazy one. It also entails a lot of problems from a Biblical perspective, because marriage as practised by the Church* today differs wildly from that of Biblical times. At various points in the Bible, women are sold or traded as property, forced to marry their rapists and remain married to abusive husbands; and they lack autonomy throughout.
There are good arguments for these changes, from both a secular and a religious point of view. Few people would argue that we should go back to those archaic laws, and few would maintain that allowing marriage between people of different ethnicities ‘damages the institution of marriage’.
Peter Atkinson, the Dean of Worcester, has spoken up in support of equal marriage on the basis that marriage is not an institution. In Halesowen News, he describes how marriage, far from remaining unchanged for the last two thousand years, has evolved:
My loyalty is to her, not to a thing (let alone an institution) called marriage.
The idea of marriage has evolved, and it continues to do so.
Today we take it for granted that a marriage must be formally celebrated, whether in a religious or a civil ceremony, but no formality was required in England until 1753.
Until relatively recent times, it was agreed that a wife was subject to her husband, but we have seen a social revolution here.
Few would argue for a return to the days when a husband could sell off his wife at a fair (as happened late into the 19th century).
This seems to me to make a lot of sense.
To illustrate how ridiculous the ‘Biblical definition of marriage’ argument is, with the help of Bible Gateway I’ve collected together a few passages which illustrate the ways in which marriage has changed within the Church since the Bible was written. For the sake of consistency, all passages are taken from the NIV**.
Why defending “the Biblical definition of marriage” is inconsistent with what the Church practises today
“Marriage is between a man and a woman”: Polygamy and extra-marital sex
Conservative Christians often protest that marriage is “between a man and a woman” – ie. one man and one woman. It is also widely accepted that sex outside of marriage constitutes adultery, which violates the Biblical institution of marriage.
2 Samuel 3:2-5 says that David had sons in Hebron with Ahinoam of Jezreel, Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel, Maakah daughter of Talmai king of Geshur, Haggith, Abital and his wife, Eglah. That’s not all, though.
After he left Hebron, David took more concubines and wives in Jerusalem, and more sons and daughters were born to him. 2 Samuel 5:13
Nor was David the only one.
Rehoboam loved Maakah daughter of Absalom more than any of his other wives and concubines. In all, he had eighteen wives and sixty concubines, twenty-eight sons and sixty daughters. 2 Chronicles 11:21
[King Solomon] had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines 1 Kings 11:3
Subordination of women
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Ephesians 5:22-33
Women as property
Women are often described in the Bible as the property of either their husband or their father. There are several examples of women being traded as part of a bargain or ‘won’ as the spoils of war:
Then Boaz announced to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelek, Kilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite,Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property, so that his name will not disappear from among his family or from his hometown. Today you are witnesses!” Ruth 4:9-10
David took his men with him and went out and killed two hundred Philistines and brought back their foreskins. They counted out the full number to the king so that David might become the king’s son-in-law. Then Saul gave him his daughter Michal in marriage. 1 Samuel 18:27
Then the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. He went down to Ashkelon, struck down thirty of their men, stripped them of everything and gave their clothes to those who had explained the riddle. Burning with anger, he returned to his father’s home. And Samson’s wife was given to one of his companions who had attended him at the feast. Judges 14:19-20
Marriage between believers and non-believers/interracial marriage
King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. 2 They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry.” Kings 11:1-6
Some Pharisees came to [Jesus] to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? [a reference to Genesis 2:24] So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. […] I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Matthew 19: 3-9
If a man takes a wife and, after sleeping with her, dislikes her and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, “I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,” […] [and the accusation is found not to be true], the elders shall take the man and punish him. They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the young woman’s father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives. Deuteronomy 22:13-20
Virginity and capital punishment
If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, 21 she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. Deuteronomy 22:13-20
Death of a spouse
In the event of a husband’s death, his brother must marry his widow:
Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” Genesis 38:8
If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. 6 The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. Deuteronomy 25:5-6
If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. Deuteronomy 25:28-29
*This is written mainly with reference to the Church of England. I am aware that in some conservative branches of the Church, some of these ideas are still upheld. A certain amount of generalisation has gone on here, but will be applicable to most ‘mainstream’ Christians, including many of those who oppose gay marriage.
**It’s been pointed out to me that the NRSV would be better because it uses inclusive language, so if I do another Bible-related post that’s the version I’ll use in future.