Shifting Views of Christians
Two out of every three white mainline Christians (68%) in the United States support same-sex marriage. Same for Catholics (67%), and 44% of black Protestants do, too, according to a June 2017 survey by the non-partisan Pew Research Center.
Support for same-sex marriage among the Christian sub-group many consider most conservative—white evangelical Christians (most Baptists, members of Churches of Christ, etc.)—has nearly tripled, from 12% in 2006 to 35% today.
Who Is Ignoring Parts of the Bible?
Some Christians assert God defined marriage as “one man and one woman, only.” Many of them think those who support same-sex marriage ignore the Bible.
Other Christians disagree, arguing that God’s approval of one man marrying multiple women (polygamy) shows “one man and one woman, only” was never God’s definition of marriage; thus, they contend, it is wrong to exclude same-sex couples from it. Many of these other Christians think those who oppose same-sex marriage are reading the Bible selectively and choosing tradition over people.
The next three posts address the “Biblical definition of marriage,” continuing a series on what Christians on both sides of the issue say about scripture.
This post describes some of what Christians say about Old Testament scripture, alternating the view between both sides—between what some Christians who reject same-sex marriage say and what some affirming Christians say. The post reflects a hypothetical conversation between them.
The Main Scripture and its Context: Genesis 1 and 2 describe God creating humans. God creates Adam and then creates Eve out of part of Adam’s side. Adam responds,
“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.”
Genesis 2:24 says “this is why” or “this explains why” or “therefore”:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
Some Non-Affirming Christians Say: Genesis Defines Marriage as “One Man / One Woman Only.”
From the beginning, God defined marriage as only between one man and one woman. The sole arrangement described in 2:24 as “one flesh” is between one man and one woman.
Genesis describes Adam needing a “helper” (not helpers), a man and a woman would be “one” flesh (not multiple ones), and a man would hold fast to his “wife” (not to wives or another man).
Since God defined marriage from the beginning as only between one man and one woman, all Christians should oppose same-sex marriage.
Some Affirming Christians Say: God Approved of (and Even Required) Polygamy, So God’s Definition of Marriage is Not “One Man / One Woman Only.”
Polygamy was approved by God from the beginning. Thus, from the beginning, God did not define marriage as limited to “one man and one woman.”
Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David, Solomon, Gideon, and lots of others in the Bible had more than one wife. Polygamy was common in ancient Israel. It was not condemned by God.
Indeed, God expressed rules for polygamy, telling Moses and the Israelites:
- “If [a man] takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.” (Exodus 21:10)
- “If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked. …” (Deuteronomy 21:15)
- “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.” (Deuteronomy 25:5)
Not only did God make rules for polygamy, God gave King David multiple wives and said he would have given him more:
- [God said] “I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.” (2 Samuel 12:8)
Thus, God approved of polygamy.
Indeed, God required polygamy when “brothers dwell together” (live in the same area) and one of them dies and leaves a wife with no children. (Deuteronomy 25:5)
Stating God defined marriage as only between one man and one woman is plainly false.
Non-Affirming: The Orthodox View Is “One Man / One Woman Only.”
God recognized that polygamy was occurring, so God made rules to protect the other wives. This does not mean God approved of it or included it in the definition of marriage. The command to marry the widow requires the living brother to do so only if the brothers “dwell together,” i.e., live in the same household, so presumably the living brother did not already have a wife.
The traditional, orthodox view, expressed by many Christian leaders, is “one man/one woman only.”
The Family Research Council explains Genesis 2:24 “sets forth the biblical pattern as it was instituted by God at the beginning: one man is united to one woman in matrimony, and the two form one new natural family.”
Franklin Graham says “God is clear about the definition of marriage in his Holy Word”: God “defines marriage as between one man and one woman.”
Many others also say Genesis 2:24 provides God’s sole pattern and definition of marriage: one man and one woman only.
Anyone who advocates a different interpretation is a heretic.
Affirming: Ignoring Most of Genesis is Wrong Even If Some Christian Groups Do.
Pattern? Definition? A single sentence, Genesis 2:24, does not make a “pattern.” And 2:24 is not worded as a definition.
2:24 is worded as expressing something that happens (a man leaves, holds fast to a woman and becomes one flesh with her) and noting a reason why it happens (“Therefore”), referring back to verse 2:23’s description of man and woman once being one flesh.
Marriages described in the rest of Genesis are as much a part of any “pattern” or “definition” as what is described in 2:24. God expressly approved of polygamy in Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament.
Ignoring scripture indicating God defined marriage broader than one man and one woman, although done by lots, is wrong.
Since it is not “one man / one woman” only, same-sex marriage fits within the Biblical concept of marriage.
There are plenty of Christian groups and leaders that believe it is acceptable, including the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Society of Friends (Quaker), and the United Church of Christ (UCC).
And of course “dwell together” is not in the same house, as, remember, the man leaves his mother and father. To claim that Deuteronomy 25:5 applies only when the other brother is unmarried is both to read something into the passage that is not there, to claim contrary to the orthodox Jewish view, and to claim something that undermines God’s purpose in requiring the other brother to marry the widow (the other brothers would usually be married when such things occurred).
Non-Affirming: One Man / One Woman was God’s Original Plan; We Should Follow Only It.
The definition of marriage in Genesis 2:24 was given first, at the time of creation of humans, before polygamy, and sets the standard for all time.
Polygamy is described later in the Old Testament. But only a marriage between one man and one woman was originally approved by God, in Genesis 2:24.
Thus, “one man / one woman” is the sole pattern and definition for marriage for all time.
Affirming: God’s Original Plan for Marriage in Genesis Mentioned Polygamy Almost as Often as One Man / One Woman.
To figure out any original plan, one has to look at more than a single, ambiguous sentence, 2:24.
And, again, the Bible does not express 2:24 as a definition. It says something that happens (man leaves, etc.) and why. It does not say it is the only thing a man and woman do, it does not say what it means to become “one flesh,” it does not say that one man and two women or two men and one woman could become “one flesh,” etc. It is man-made doctrine to declare this the sole definition of marriage.
And polygamy was originally approved by God and practiced regularly from the very beginning. Two pages over from Genesis 2:24 the Bible says “Lamech took two wives.”
Genesis describes marriage between one man and two or more women almost as often as it describes marriage between one man and one woman (see, e.g., Gen. 4:19, 16:3, 26:34, 31:17). And it does so without condemnation.
If the Bible gives a “pattern” or “definition” of marriage, then one man and one woman obviously is not it.
Non-Affirming: Polygamy is Presented Only as Bad in the Bible.
Polygamy is never mentioned positively in the Bible. Only problems with it are presented. For example, Lamech had troubles, as he killed another man.
This confirms it was not part of God’s good plan. Its negative consequences shows it is wrong and clearly not part of the Biblical definition of marriage.
Affirming: It is Wrong to Call Something Bad When God Approved It and the Bible Calls It Right.
It is wrong and not true to ascribe only negativity and problems with polygamy, particularly when it is something approved of, commanded, and given by God.
There are no more problems presented in the Bible with polygamous marriages than there are with monogamous marriages. Monogamous marriages are described in the Bible with plenty of problems, too. Think about Adam and Eve. Negative consequences!? And Jesus’s lineage includes multiple polygamists, certainly not a negative consequence.
Indeed, David took multiple wives, and 1 Kings 15:5 explains “David did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.”
Each side says more, of course.
There are relevant passages in the New Testament, too, and the next two posts will discuss some of them.
My aim here was to continue introducing differing views among Christians regarding scripture relevant to same-sex marriage. You can find more discussion in the sources below.
Read the next post regarding the Biblical definition of marriage in light of what Jesus said or read the first three, which address what the Old Testament says about homosexual activity and whether it applies to us now.
(Picture is of the main scripture passage.)
Sources and Notes
See full source list used throughout this series in the first post and:
Survey: http://www.people-press.org/2017/06/26/support-for-same-sex-marriage-grows-even-among-groups-that-had-been-skeptical/ Margin of error of the survey is 2.3% for the full sample and ranges from 2.7% – 7.3% for racial sub-groups.
” … returning … to ‘one flesh.'”: See, e.g., The Harper Collins Study Bible, Revised Edition, New York: HarperOne (2006), page 9, note 2.24-25.
Deuteronomy 25:5: See The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Nashville: Abingdon Press (2003), page 283 n.25:5-6 (“relates to a polygamous social setting”); Telford Work, Deuteronomy, Grand Rapids, Michigan: BrazosPress (2009), page 225 (“[t]his provision for polygamy”). Marriage described in 25:5 is often called “levirate marriage.”
“… living close …”: Dwell together likely implies living close by, not necessarily in the same house or tent. See, e.g., Genesis 13:6 (Abram and Lot dwell together); Psalm 133:1. Commentaries on BibleHub differ: Compare, e.g., Benson Commentary (“In the same town, or, at least, country. “); Pulpit Commentary (“not necessarily in the same house, but in the same community or place”); and Matthew Poole’s Commentary (“Strictly, in the same house or family; which is not probable, because the married brother may be presumed to have left his father’s house, and set up a family of his own. Or, … More largely, in the same town or city, or, at least, country.”) with, e.g., Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible (“Not only in the same … town, or city, but in the same house; … and now one of them being married, as the case put supposes, they that were unmarried might live with him”).
“Lamech …”: Genesis 4:19.
“Abraham (Genesis 16:3), Moses (Exodus 2:21, Numbers 12:1), Jacob (Genesis 29:23, 28; 30:4, 9), David (1 Samuel 18:27; 25:39, 42-44; 2 Samuel 3:3-5; 5:13; 12:8, 24), Solomon (1 Kings 11:3), Gideon (Judges 8:30) … more than one wife.”
“Polygamy … common in ancient Israel.”: See, e.g., Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3, New York: Abingdon Press (1962), page 280.
“… other Christian groups believe same-sex marriage is acceptable …”: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/12/21/where-christian-churches-stand-on-gay-marriage/
Some cite 1 Corinthians 7:2 as prohibiting polygamy: “But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.” (NIV) But saying each man and each woman should have sexual relations with their own spouse is like saying, in this context, each person should drive their own car. This is not commanding that each person have only one car, but that if the person must or wants to drive, they should drive and when they do they should drive their own car and not someone else’s. One can see that 7:2 is indicating that people should have sex if they must or wish to do so, but when they do they should have sex with their own spouse and not someone else’s.
This can be seen when reading in context. 1 Cor 7:1-7 (NIV): “Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”
Scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version except where otherwise indicated.