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Marriage Practice, Biblical Interpretation, and the Church’s Discernment

Monday, 2 November 2015  | Darrin Belousek

In a time when Western society is rapidly altering its image of marriage and in my country, the United States, the Supreme Court has legally recognized same-sex marriage, the church is pressed to decide: Should we follow suit?


The church is called to discern between the fading forms of this passing age and what is “good” and “acceptable” according to God’s will (Rom 12:2). Historically, the church has relied upon scriptural revelation, doctrinal tradition, rational wisdom, and communal experience to guide discernment. My own Anabaptist tradition acknowledges Scripture as “authoritative source” for the church’s discernment, the “standard” against which all other claims must be “tested and corrected” (Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, 1995).


Here, I venture to sketch the path that my thinking has taken thus far on the question of interpreting Scripture concerning marriage practice, in the hope that this might contribute constructively to the church’s discernment. I develop my reflections in two parts. Because the disagreement focuses around marriage, I think it reasonable to begin with marriage practice in the biblical canon. I then consider a second biblical angle from which the church might reassess the marriage question. In both parts, I consider the marriage question in analogy to other conflicted cases in biblical interpretation and moral discernment.


In presenting my thinking to the church, I do so cautiously, aware that this may elicit passionate reactions or touch pained places. I do so honestly, not pretending neutrality. I do so modestly, cognizant of necessary brevity and limited scope. I do so humbly, not presuming to understand matters perfectly or settle every question. I do so fraternally, as a fellow laborer in the Lord’s vineyard, inviting thoughtful consideration and faithful correction (Ps 141:5).


I. Biblical interpretation and marriage practice: Analogies to slaves and women

Comparisons are made that align the marriage case with the cases of slavery and women. Just as the church yesterday was wrong on slavery and women, some argue, so the church today is wrong on marriage. The church today denying blessing to same-sex union for biblical reasons is akin to the church yesterday giving sanction to slavery and patriarchy for biblical reasons.


This argument requires careful scrutiny. Are the cases actually parallel? How should we evaluate the comparisons? Here I follow the approach to biblical interpretation for moral discernment in conflicted cases that has been set forth by Willard Swartley in his classic study Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Herald 1983).

Concerning slaves and women, there are texts in the Old Testament (OT) that legalize and legitimate slavery or patriarchy and even some texts in the New Testament (NT) that might be interpreted to reinforce oppressive or patriarchal practices. At the same time, there are textual strands running through the biblical canon that counter, and thus point the church toward overturning, previous practices of oppression and patriarchy.


Regarding slaves: We can trace an arc of liberation from the Exodus narrative to Sabbath and Jubilee law (Lev 25; Deut 15) to prophetic critique (Jer 34:8-22) to gospel proclamation (Luke 4:16-21) to apostolic teaching (1 Cor 7:21; 12:13; Gal 3:28; Eph 6:9; Col 3:11; 4:1; 1 Tim 1:8-11; Philemon 15-17). Cumulatively, this canonical arc points toward abolition of slavery.


Regarding women: We can trace an arc of OT texts that teach “male and female” as made in God’s image and sharing “dominion” over creation (Gen 1:26-28), that honor women leaders in Israel (Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Judith), and that portray women as exemplars of covenant righteousness (Ruth and Naomi). This arc continues through NT texts that highlight women’s roles in Israel’s history (Matt 1:1-16), that honor women’s participation in Jesus’ ministry and leadership in the early church (Mary, Martha, Joanna, Tabitha, Lydia, Prisca, Junia, Phoebe, etc.), that affirm unity of “male and female” in Christ (Gal 3:28), and that call for mutuality between husbands and wives (1 Cor 7:3-5; 11:11-12; Eph 5:21-33). Cumulatively, this canonical arc points toward egalitarian practices.

In each case, there are voices (for slavery and patriarchy) and counter-voices (for liberation and equality) in the biblical canon. William Webb, in his book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (InterVarsity 2001), shows how we can discern the Spirit’s movement amidst the various voices in the biblical canon. Comparing the counter-voices to their canonical contexts and cultural backgrounds, and connecting them into a canonical arc, reveals a redemptive movement that can guide the church’s discernment. The church asks: How does that redemptive movement bear upon our situation? How can we act faithfully along that arc’s direction?

Taking the same approach in the case of marriage, we find that marriage practice throughout the biblical canon is neither simple nor static. Here, too, there are voices and counter-voices (mono/poly-gamy, for/against intermarriage, hierarchy/mutuality, etc.).


Yet, the intra-canonical dynamic is constrained within the boundary of male-female union. The implicit norm across the biblical canon—evident in origins narrative (Gen 1:26-28; 2:18-24); presumed in legal code (Lev 18), wisdom instruction (Prov 5-7), and pastoral counsel (1 Cor 7); apparent in poetic expression of erotic love (Song of Songs) and symbolic depiction of divine covenant (Hosea; Eph 5:22-32; Rev 21-22)—is that marital union is predicated on the created difference and sexed correspondence of male-and-female.


Now, some today argue that the canonical pattern of male-female union is normal but not normative­—and thus not restrictive of marriage practice in the church. Such arguments reinterpret key texts in Genesis.


Some argue that the Genesis story only describes what is, not prescribes what should be: “male and female” becoming “one flesh” reflects common cultural custom but does not present a normative model for marital union. This argument is advanced by Phyllis Bird in her article, “The Bible in Christian Ethical Deliberation concerning Homosexuality: Old Testament Contributions,” in the volume edited by David Balch, Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture (Eerdmans 2000).


Jesus, however, read the Genesis story as having prescriptive import with respect to marriage practice. That “from the beginning of creation” God “made them male and female” and joined them in “one flesh” (Gen 1:27; 2:24), Jesus interpreted, indicates God’s original intention for marriage, according to which Jesus judged the human practice of marriage (Mark 10:6-9; cf. Matt 19:4-6).


Others argue that the biblical emphasis in marital union is on similarity not difference: the man’s becoming “one flesh” with the woman (Gen 2:24) signifies the man’s union with a creature like in kind to himself (a human) not a human different in sex from himself (a woman). This argument is advanced by James Brownson in his book, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Eerdmans 2013).


The Genesis text, however, equally emphasizes similarity and difference. The paired lines of biblical poetry highlight both human kinship (“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”) and sexed correspondence (“this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken”) in becoming “one flesh” (Gen 2:23).


When we turn to the NT, moreover, we find that Jesus and Paul dispensed teachings concerning marriage and sex that are as restrictive as—or even more restrictive than—the OT. To understand NT teaching on marriage and sex within its historical-cultural backgrounds and biblical contexts, one would do well to read the recent books by William Loader, Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Early Jewish and Christian Literature (Eerdmans 2013) and Sexuality in the New Testament: Understanding the Key Texts (Westminster/John Knox 2010).


The OT prohibited adultery (Exod 20:14) but permitted divorce-and-remarriage (Deut 24:1-4). Jesus intensified the commandment, judging that coveting a neighbor’s wife (Exod 20:17) is adultery (Matt 5:27-28). Similarly, Jesus subordinated the human accommodation reflected in the divorce law to the divine intention revealed in the creation story, ruling that God meant marriage to be permanent such that divorce-and-remarriage is adultery (Mark 10:2-12; cf. Mal 2:13-16). Adhering to Jesus’ teaching, Paul prohibited divorce by believers and required divorcées to reconcile or not remarry (1 Cor 7:10-16).


Now, Jesus allowed divorce-and-remarriage in cases of unchastity (Matt 5:31-32; 19:3-9). Also, Paul permitted remarriage in the church in cases of abandonment by an unbelieving spouse (1 Cor 7:15; cf. v. 39). Yet, exceptions for divorce were not exceptions to the male-female pattern of marital union.


While the OT prohibited incest (Lev 18:6-16), a prohibition reinforced by Paul (1 Cor 5:1-2), it accommodated but regulated polygamy (Lev 18:17-18; Deut 21:15-17). Jesus’ teaching pictures marriage as an inseparable “two-become-one” (Mark 10:2-12; cf. 1 Cor 6:16; Eph 5:31); and Paul’s instructions restrict marriage to “one wife” or “one husband” (1 Cor 7:2; 1 Tim 3:2, 12; 5:9; Titus 1:5-6). These together arguably prohibit polygamy.

The major NT innovation concerns whether marriage and begetting are duties or even priorities. Apart from nazrite vows or prophetic vocations, celibacy was not a general option: marrying-and-begetting was considered both duty and blessing (cf. Gen 1:28; 9:1; Pss 127; 128). Jesus and Paul, celibate themselves, neither mandated marriage nor prioritized begetting. Jesus offered celibacy for the kingdom as an alternative to fidelity in marriage (Matt 19:10-12) and deemed celibates worthy of the marriage-less coming age (Luke 20:34-36; cf. Rev 14:1-5). Paul, anticipating the coming age and prioritizing the Lord’s service, commended celibacy over marriage (1 Cor 7:7-8, 25-40). Yet, the celibacy option did not alter the male-female pattern of marital union.

The NT thus presents four counter-voices concerning marriage practice: permanency, monogamy, mutuality, and celibacy. Concerning same-sex practices, however, the biblical canon speaks with a single voice.


The biblical attitude concerning same-sex practices is sustained consistently: across both OT (Lev 18:2-30; 20:13) and NT (Rom 1:18-32; 1 Cor 6:9-11; 1 Tim 1:8-11) canonical contexts; against both ancient Near-Eastern and Greco-Roman cultural backgrounds, each of which tolerated same-sex practices; regarding both male-male (Leviticus; Romans) and female-female (Romans) relations; and regarding both possibly exploitive (Corinthians; Timothy) and likely mutual (Romans) relations. The canonical assessment is univocally negative.


The redemptive movement throughout the biblical canon is thus always away from same-sex practices. Even were disputed texts concerning same-sex practices discounted, there would be no positive voice in the biblical canon that counters the male-female pattern of marital union. No law permits or counsel commends or story favors same-sex union—unless, by special pleading, one twists the text to turn David and Jonathan (or Ruth and Naomi, or Jesus and John) into erotic lovers.


Amidst various voices across the biblical canon, the marriage arc consistently evidences that marital union in the present age is predicated on the created order of male-and-female. Insofar as the church anticipates the coming age of renewed creation, the NT points beyond marriage-and-begetting toward celibacy, not same-sex union.


The case of same-sex union, therefore, is not analogous to the cases of slaves and women. While canonical arcs reveal redemptive movements pointing toward liberation of slaves and equality for women, no parallel arc points toward sanctioning same-sex union.


II. Marriage and membership: Analogy to Gentiles

If the church is to discern an affirmation of same-sex union, then we must derive from the biblical canon a clear reason that compellingly warrants diverging from the canonical marriage arc. That reason must answer this question: Why should the church follow the counter directions of the liberationist and egalitarian arcs but then diverge from the consistent direction of the marriage arc? We next consider such an argument for divergence.


There are various texts throughout the biblical canon that augur for reception of Gentiles, Samaritans, eunuchs, and other “outsiders” as members-by-faith of God’s people. We can trace this canonical arc from exodus narrative (Exod 12:38) to covenant code (Exod 22:21; 23:9) to holiness code (Lev 19:33-34) to festal law (Deut 16) to prophetic witness (Isa 56:3-8) to Jesus’ genealogy (Matt 1:1-16) to Jesus’ ministry (Matt 19:12; Luke 5:27-39; 14:12-24) to early church (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; 8:4-40) to apostolic teaching (Gal 3:27-28; Eph 2:11-22; Col 3:11; 1 Pet 2:9-10) to apocalyptic vision (Rev 5:9-10). This inclusionary arc reveals a Spirit-guided redemptive movement that should shape a receptive posture in the church today toward those formerly considered “outsiders” to God’s people, including sexual minorities.


Some today invoke the inclusionary arc concerning marriage practice. Might “outsider” inclusion in membership be a precedent for same-sex inclusion in marriage? Might the church thus judge that the inclusionary arc supersedes the marriage arc? Some argue that the church today should redefine marriage as sex-undifferentiated to sanction same-sex union in analogy to how the early church redefined membership as ethnicity-neutral to receive Gentiles.


Various versions of this argument have been advanced recently by several writers: Ted Grimsrud in his contribution to a conversation with Mark Thiessen Nation, Reasoning Together: A Conversation on Homosexuality (Herald 2008); David Gushee in his book, Changing Our Mind (Read the Spirit 2014); and Mark Achtemeier in his book, The Bible’s YES to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart (Westminster John Knox 2014). This argument deserves serious consideration.


“Outsider” inclusion did have an immediate implication for marriage practice: Gentile membership shifted the intermarriage boundary from Jew/Gentile (never addressed in the NT) to believer/non-believer (1 Cor. 7:12-16; 2 Cor 6:14-7:1). Yet, Jew-Gentile union was no exception to the male-female pattern. 


To redefine marriage in analogy to membership, moreover, would blur the distinction between belonging (who is “in” and on what terms) and behaving (acting as befits belonging). That distinction in the church’s discernment is evidenced in a key text along the inclusionary arc: Acts 15.


At the Jerusalem council, the apostles and elders discerned that the church should receive Gentiles on the same terms as Jews. Peter testified: “in giving [Gentiles] the Holy Spirit…and in cleansing their hearts by faith [God] has made no distinction between [Gentiles] and [Jews]” (15:8-9; cf. 10:34-35, 44-47). Nonetheless, the church made a distinction between Gentile members, who were received on faith by grace (15:11), and certain practices, from which believers were required to abstain (15:19-21).


Still, some argue that waiving the OT circumcision requirement and food rules for Gentile believers is precedent for waiving OT restrictions on sexual practice.

Let’s hear the apostolic decree: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality” (15:28-29). The Greek word translated “sexual immorality” (porneia) was a generic term that could refer to various forms of illicit sex (e.g., prostitution, fornication, incest, adultery).

Intended to facilitate Gentile-Jew fellowship, these “requirements” were, likely, derived from holiness laws pertaining to aliens residing within Israel. Those laws forbade idolatry, eating blood or carrion, and various forms of illicit sex, including same-sex acts (Lev 17:8-18:30). Or, possibly, these “requirements” were a version of Noahide laws derived from Genesis 9, which delineated God’s will for “the nations” and defined “righteous Gentiles” whom God would honor with a place in the age to come (e.g., Cornelius, Acts 10:1-2). Rabbinic tradition codified seven laws, which forbade idolatry, eating meat torn from living animals, and various forms of illicit sex, including same-sex acts. Either way, rather than rendering the OT obsolete, the Holy Spirit guided the church in discerning which laws should have continuing validity.


The apostolic decree reinforced canonical norms concerning sexual practice at the same time that it received Gentile members. The NT continued teaching consistently against “sexual immorality” and “impurity” across various contexts (Rom 13:11-14; 1 Cor 5:1-2; 6:9-20; 7:2; 2 Cor 12:19-21; Gal 5:16-24; Eph 5:3-5; Col 3:1-11; 1 Thes 4:1-8; Rev 19:2; 22:15). The early church taught likewise (Didache 2:2; 3:3; 5:1; Hermas Mand. 4; Ep. Barnabas 19:4).


Marriage, therefore, is not analogous to membership. The Jerusalem council, in redrawing membership boundaries to include Gentiles, did not redraw moral boundaries in any way that deviated from the canonical arc concerning marital union and sexual practice.



III. Marriage practice and church discernment

The apostolic decision at the Jerusalem council, which “seemed good to the Holy Spirit,” set an enduring precedent for the church’s discernment of what is “acceptable” to God. The council’s discernment worked along the inclusionary arc but without letting inclusion override moral norms or redefine marital union. Therefore, for the church today to honor the canonical precedent of the Jerusalem council, we must hold both arcs together in our discernment.


Two important implications follow. The inclusionary arc is not optional for church practice, contrary to the inclinations of some traditionalists. At the same time, the inclusionary arc cannot be pitted against or privileged over the marriage arc, contrary to the claims of some innovationists.


This canonical-arc approach to biblical interpretation thus yields these questions to guide the church’s discernment: How do the marriage arc and the inclusionary arc together bear on our situation with respect to membership inclusion, marriage practice, and sexual minorities? How might the church act faithfully along both arcs?


Jesus promised the church: “the Holy Spirit…will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you” and “will guide you into all the truth” (John 14:26; 16:13). Let us prayerfully seek the instruction and guidance of the Holy Spirit as we forbear patiently with one another in love, “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:2-3).



Darrin W. Snyder Belousek is a Mennonite scholar living in the United States. He is the author of Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Eerdmans 2012).


James K
November 12, 2015, 9:09AM
Thanks Darrin for a thought provoking piece. It is a mammoth topic and a single article has to be a selection of reflections. I appreciate the limitations of that.

Can I offer a couple of thoughts though?

With your conversation and overall argument grounded in the discussion about 'canonical arcs' that can be mapped through the entire scripture, it does raise some important considerations.

First: it implies that the Bible is not a consistent whole. To talk of slavery as being justified in scripture (and it is) and then to show an arc of "other scriptures" that point at something quite different (that slavery is bad and it is good to be rid of it) - and again, the scripture does do that too - you have shown that the scripture has contradictions and inadequate teachings in it. (I agree with that by the way: it is important to be honest with the scripture). The problem here is that many people will disagree with that and they want to keep the whole bible as "perfect in every dot and letter" and absolutely consistent and infallible.

Secondly: once we accept the inevitable: that there are contradictions and errors and mistakes in scripture (nothing too damaging to orthodox doctrine, I would add... just being honest about it) - once we accept that, we are then in the difficult situation of being allowed to find other inadequate, culturally limited, ignorant beliefs and statements in the text. (We reject the Biblical description of the universe, for example, in the light of greater human knowledge about the universe now).

Thirdly: once we go down that path (and again: I think we have to), we are now in more "grey" territory. Does more understanding about genetics and science and human biology and psychology, show that some other attitudes and practices (and rules and directives) in scripture were based on ignorance and "what was common understanding back then"? How do we avoid facing that issue?

Finally, whatever you think of those points, here is my real problem with your thesis: you are working on the assumption that if there is no "alternative arc" that can be found, to an overall teaching, then the overall teaching stands. I am not sure that is a sound starting point.

What I mean is that with slavery, you identify that the major material about slavery is clearly "it is okay, treat them well, but slavery is fine". But then you show with some other tests that there are "hints" and "nuances" that offer a different position - and those hints and subtle other texts TAKE PRECEDENCE over the more blatant and obvious texts. That is in itself questionable (though I do agree with it and do it myself). I certainly do it with both slavery and the oppression of women.

But then you assume that if there is a prevailing teaching on a topic in scripture, (say on homosexuality) and there is no alternative subtle arc of teaching that you agree is adequate (you ruled out the Gentile inclusion argument, for example) - then that leads to the conclusion that the single message from the dominant texts must be agreed to. That is a questionable assumption to be working from.

You rule out the Gentile argument based on your interpretation of some other texts like Acts 15. But other scholars rule out "treating women equally" and dismiss the verses that call for that, too. They feel that use of those other verses are equally inadequate and not a real "alternative arc".

But most importantly: If some blatant teachings of scripture, are overruled (and then ignored) because of an alternative more subtle arc of teaching, then that does not logically follow that a blatant teaching with no identifiable arc of alternative teaching HAS to be accepted as still true or relevant or Gods will for all time.

It seems to be working on the assumption that the only truth to be found is in the confines of the books and letters of scripture. And as wonderful and important as scripture is, such a starting point is impossible to sustain as we always apply more human knowledge to our scriptural knowledge. Sometimes, to the point of dropping the scriptural material (eg: their model of explaining the universe, for example). If God is Truth (with a capital T) then all truth is God's truth, after all.

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