Over half of U.S. Christians now support same-sex marriage, according to a survey conducted in June 2017 by the non-partisan Pew Research Center.
How does this support or lack of support relate to scripture? Today’s post concludes a series of three posts considering an aspect of that question, the Biblical definition of marriage.
Some Christians assert that God approved of polygamy in the Old Testament and thus the Biblical definition of marriage is not limited to “one man / one woman.”
Others respond that the New Testament says all men should have “one wife” and thus the definition is only “one man / one woman.”
This disagreement is relevant to same-sex marriage because if the Biblical definition of marriage is not only “one man / one woman,” then it leaves open the possibility that it includes those of the same sex.
Today’s post describes some of what Christians say about two sets of relevant New Testament scripture, alternating between both sides of the issue—between what some Christians who do not affirm same-sex marriage say and what some affirming Christians say. Like prior posts in this series, this post reflects a hypothetical conversation between the two.
(1) Context of the First Set of Scripture:
The New Testament books of Timothy and Titus are letters. In them, a writer claiming to be the Apostle Paul gives advice, including on qualifications of those who can fill certain positions within a church.
The First Set:
Any bishop or elder in a church must be “the husband of one wife.” (1 Timothy 3:2)
Deacons of a church must be “husbands of one wife.” (1 Timothy 3:12)
An elder in a church should be the “husband of one wife.” (Titus 1:5-6)
All three verses set out other qualifications bishops, elders, and deacons must meet (“hospitable,” “self-controlled,” not “arrogant or quick tempered,” and others).
Some Affirming Christians Say: The Apostle Paul Did Not Write These; Besides, They Address Church Leaders With Certain Titles, Not Others.
First, most scholars recognize that Paul did not write the books of Timothy or Titus. They were written by someone falsely claiming to be Paul a long time after his death, probably in the second century—someone concerned with making sure church leaders are respected in their community.
At that time, polygamy was rare in those communities. Indeed, it was banned by law for Romans in 212 C.E. (Jews were excepted) and for Jews in 393 C.E. The non-polygamous qualification, like the others, were focused on having the church leaders be viewed as upstanding in that community and culture.
Second, the letters do not represent that these qualifications regarding bishops, elders, and deacons are commands from God.
Third, in any event, these verses address leadership positions in a church. They do not declare polygamy or other relations a sin for others.
Some Non-Affirming Christians Say: Paul is the Author; Since We All Must Strive for Holy Conduct, We Should All Seek to Meet These Qualifications.
There is no proof that Paul is not the author. The books are in our Bibles, so they must be followed.
1 Peter 1:15 says everyone should “be holy yourselves in all your conduct.” The qualifications for bishop, elder, and deacon in the quoted scripture are attributes of holy conduct.
Thus, we all must meet those qualifications to be holy. For men, this includes being “the husband of one wife.” Thus, the New Testament clearly teaches polygamy misses God’s mark of holiness and is a sin.
Affirming: The Bible Does Not Require One Wife to Be Holy; Abraham, Moses, etc., Had Multiple.
Nothing in the Bible says one must have only one wife to be holy.
Frankly, it is ridiculous to say so when some of the holiest men ever to live, including Abraham, had more than one wife.
Indeed, the qualification “husband of one wife” excludes not only polygamous men but also men who are re-married (after being widowed or divorced) and men who are single. Are these things unholy acts and sins? Of course not.
Non-Affirming: Even Abraham and Moses Were Not Perfect.
Even Abraham and Moses fell short of the mark sometimes. Having more than one wife was one of those times. We should all strive for better. Besides, things changed in the New Testament, and it sets the standard for us today.
(2) Context of the Second Set of Scripture:
The books of Ephesians and 2 Corinthians are also letters. In them, a writer claiming to be the Apostle Paul writes to the church at Ephesus, a city on the coast of modern-day Turkey, and to the church at Corinth, a city on the coast of Greece.
In Ephesians, Paul describes a Christian household, including aspects of husbands and wives. In 2 Corinthians, Paul briefly addresses some issues of sexual immorality when responding to questions that are lost to time.
The Second Set:
“[T]he husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.” (Ephesians 5:23)
“‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.” (Ephesians 5:31-33)
“‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman.’ But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” (1 Corinthians 7:1-3)
Some Affirming Christians Say: Paul Did Not Write Ephesians, Either, and the Writer Was Not Addressing Polygamy.
Many scholars say someone falsely representing themself as Paul wrote Ephesians. Regardless, the writer says in both Ephesians and 1 Corinthians that he is writing to a church with which he is familiar, so he knew whether the men had one wife or multiple wives.
Most likely, they each had one. Polygamy was uncommon in that culture at that time, and he was addressing their particular situation, so he did not need to address polygamy. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians Paul is responding to a question from a particular church, a question we do not have.
In any event, none of these verses address polygamy.
Some Non-Affirming Christians Say: Paul Wrote It, and These Clearly Say Each Should Love His “Wife,” Not “Wives.”
The evidence that Ephesians is not from Paul is not as strong as many say. Regardless, it is in our Bible and must be followed. Plus, nearly everyone agrees 2 Corinthians was written by Paul.
Ephesians 5:31-33’s statement that “Each … should love his wife” is a clear command that a man should love one wife, not multiple wives. Thus, the New Testament says polygamy is a sin.
Ephesians 5:23 says the same, stating that the husband is the head of “the wife” rather than of “the wives.”
It is the same for 1 Corinthians, too, which says each husband should have “his own wife” (not wives) and each woman “her own husband” (not husbands). These are all singular, expressing that polygamy is banned and is a sin.
Affirming: Saying Take Care of Your “Car,” Does Not Mean You Should Have Only One Car.
First, these phrases are like saying “take good care of your car.” It does not mean that you should have only one car or take care of only one car. The sentiment is applicable to “your car”—each of your cars—whether you have one, two, or five.
Second, these statements by the letter writer are not some universal command for everyone. They are letters to particular churches. The use of “each,” for example, is directed at those church members, not everyone, everywhere, for all time. And, as I said, the writer was familiar with their situation and whether he needed to say “love your wives” or just “love your wife.”
And this kills your argument: there are other verses that refer to “wives” (plural): Ephesians 5:25 says “Husbands, love your wives ….” Likewise, Colossians 3:18 says “Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.”
The same mode of reading the word “wife” to ban polygamy would mean that God commanded husbands in Ephesians 5:25 and in Colossians 3:18 to love “‘wives” (not just one). In other words, if you read those other verses to ban polygamy, you must read these latter two to say all husbands must be polygamous.
The main point is that no one should read too much into the use of “wife” (singular) or “wives” (plural) in Ephesians, 1 Corinthians, or Colossians. These verses do not address polygamy and are, at best, ambiguous on the question.
Non-Affirming: These Scriptures Say Anything Besides “One Man / One Woman” is an Affront to God.
Ephesians 5:31-33 says that it is applying the concept of Genesis 2:24 to Christ and the church. The church is the bride. There is only one church. Thus, this is telling us that anything besides one man and one woman in marriage is an affront to God.
Affirming: These Verses are Not Commands from God, and if God Intended to Alter God’s Long-Time Approval of Polygamy, It Would Be Much Clearer Than This.
Note that the Ephesians writer (pretending to be Paul) says “I” am applying it (5:32), not that God commands it. So, this is not a command from God.
And the church is made up of multiple people, so this is a poor and unpersuasive analogy for trying to reject polygamy. These scriptures are analogies by the writer of Ephesians given to make theological points that have nothing to do with polygamy.
Simply put, there is no way that God would alter his thousands-of-years-old approval of polygamy with some ambiguous sentence, particularly one in which the letter writer says it is by the letter writer rather than saying it is a specific command from God about polygamy. None of these scriptures address polygamy.
Non-Affirming: These Verses Are From God and Excludes Polygamy and Same-Sex Marriage.
This scripture is in the Bible, so it is from God. It reinforces the Bible’s definition of marriage, which is one man and one woman, only. Thus, polygamy is excluded from God’s definition of marriage.
Likewise, since God defined marriage as only “one man and one woman,” same-sex marriage is excluded from God’s definition of marriage, and we should oppose changing it.
Each side says a lot more about these issues.
My aim with this post was to continue introducing differing views among Christians regarding Biblical passages relevant to same-sex marriage. You can find more discussion about this subject in the sources listed in the first, second, and fourth posts and below.
This is my sixth post on the topic of both sides view of homosexuality and same-sex marriage in the Bible, the third post in another group of three.
Click here to read the first three regarding scripture related to homosexual activity in the Old Testament.
Click here to read the second three regarding “the Biblical definition of marriage.”
I am going to take a break from this series and address other topics before returning to it.
(The picture at the top is of the main scripture in one of my hard-copy Bibles.)
Sources and Notes
1 Timothy and Titus authorship: “[M]ost scholars today regard them as pseudepigraphical (… ascribed to [Paul], but not actually written by him …), [but] there is not complete unanimity on the question.” The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3d ed., New York: Oxford University Press (2001), page 349 NT. “The very existence of the offices of bishop and deacon indicates a second-century date, since the offices did not yet exist at the time of Paul.” Women’s Bible Commentary, 3d ed., Carol Newsom et al., eds., Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press (2012), page 599. See also Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (2006), page 250-251.
1 Timothy: “The requirement that bishops be married only once, lit. “husband of one wife,” excludes polygamists (who were rare in that culture anyway), remarried widowers, and remarried divorced men. It also excludes unmarried men and all women.” The Harper Collins Study Bible, Revised Edition, New York: HarperOne (2006), page 2018-19. Some translate the passages in Timothy and Titus as “married only once.” Ibid. “The use of the singular in discussing the husband-wife relationship should come as no surprise in the writings of Saint Paul. … [T]his is a normal biblical way of talking about marriage which, in the socio-cultural context of the Jewish people, could be either monogamous or polygamous.” Eugene Hillman, Polygamy Reconsidered, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books (1975), pages 164–165. See also Risto Saarinen, The Pastoral Epistles with Philemon & Jude, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press (2008), page 62 (the phrase is “not clear in its meaning”).
Laws banning polygamy: George W. Knight III, Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (1992), page 158.
Ephesians authorship: “[M]any scholars hold that Ephesians was written in the late first century by a Jewish-Christian admirer of Paul …. A minority of scholars hold the author to be Paul ….”). The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3d ed., supra, at page 321 NT.
“… familiar … he knew …”: See, e.g., see Ephesians 1:15. “Paul supposes monogamy” in 1 Corinthians 7. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Nashville: Abingdon Press (2003), page 2045 note 7:2.
“… responding … question …”: 1 Corinthians 7:1.
1 Corinthians 7: David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic (2003), pages 246-266.