Biblically Married

The Bible says—. Fill in the blank. Go ahead, someone will believe you. The problem with biblical literalism is that it is often held by people who don’t read the Bible. Well, it is a gosh-darn big book—well over a thousand pages—do you know how much quality television watching time that represents? So many fundamentalists are surprised to find out how little the Bible has to say about marriage. In fact, it says almost nothing. There are no marriage rites given, and marriages are mentioned but not described in detail. So when modern-day readers want to find guidance about political policy they have to—to be frank—make a lot of stuff up.

Take North Carolina, for example. Next week they are scheduled to vote on an issue of defining marriage. The intent, apparently, is to bring the state in line with the Good Book. In comes Matthew Vines, an evangelical Christian who’s also gay. Being a Harvard student, he has immediately impressive credentials. He has an on-line biblical exegetical exploration of what the Bible says, and more importantly, doesn’t say, about homosexuality. The other solution, to actually read the Bible, is a little too much to ask. Another part of the problem is that the Bible was written in a very different context, and to understand the Bible’s view on anything, you need to fit it into its context. All this Bible reading—and context too? Better leave it to someone on the television to explain it all.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist that I’ve come to trust. His good sense comes through in all his work. In Wednesday’s column, he highlights Matthew Vines’ hour-long talk as an example of what happens when common sense meets the Bible. For those who bother to read it, it will become clear that the Bible nowhere defines marriage. It says nothing about sexual orientation. The few passages on homosexual acts have a narrow context (that word!) that must be considered. Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible nor the New Testament is marriage considered a religious matter. It’s simply what people do. So as North Carolina heads to the polls, Bibles clutched in hands, but not in their heads, it might do to watch Matthew Vines as homework. I haven’t seen the video myself. An hour is just too long to take from my busy television-watching schedule.

15 thoughts on “Biblically Married

  1. OK Steve. You’re right, the Bible does not have a whole lot to say about marriage ceremonies. However, it does have a whole lot of marriages in it. It’s possible to figure out a lot about good and bad marriages from the relationships portrayed within its covers, if that’s what someone wants to do. In several of the New Testament books there’s more direct passages about the specific roles for men and women as husband and wife. Some of us do still read the Bible.

    That being said,I think the whole brouhaha about same sex marriage would disappear if, instead of trying to spread the benefits traditionally enjoyed by heterosexual unions to every manifestation of family unit, those benefits just disappeared and weren’t given to any union. It would make the whole tax/insurance/welfare/etc. process simpler and less costly – not to mention more fair.

    I guess that’s just too easy.

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      • The Bible goes a step further – not just live and let live, but do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and that’s a little more proactive. I can’t endorse everything that my coreligionists do, (or have done when you take all of history into consideration) but I’ve yet to find any group who hasn’t made mistakes and the longer they are around, the more mistakes they make. Humans are humans. The Bible and my faith in the Triune God seem to enrich my life and make me a better person than I would be, left to my own devices.

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        • Thanks, Jane. I think you would be a fine person even without religion. But then, I’ve always considered people as basically good. Thanks for the comment!

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  2. Steve, steve steve. Where to start with responding to your post? The reality is that some things in life are complicated. Your comment about not watching too much TV to have time to read the Bible or watch that video suggest you will lack the time to gain the knowledge to make an informed position on things like same-sex marriage.

    Facts:

    * The Bible DOES mention relationships, including marriage quite a bit. It mentions them enough times to be clear that the New Testament definition of marriage is a heterosexual one. From a Biblical perspective, marriage IS a religious matter, as indicated in various passages EG Matthew 19:3-11, 1 Corinthians 7, 1 Timothy 3:2, Ephesians 5, Collosians 3, 1 Peter 3 …

    * Matthew Vines is NOT about common sense. Much of his presentation is based in the meaning of Greek words and ancient perspectives on sexuality. Deep, intellectual, biased, but not common sense.

    * The Bible DOES refer to sexual orientation. In Romans 1 it refers to lusting after the same gender. Those people were obviously homosexually oriented, or at least bisexual.

    Please dont be lazy. Have a bit of a review of both sides of the debate, perhaps including the following critique of the video:
    http://stasisonline.wordpress.com/2012/04/10/homosexual-marriage/

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    • Dear Stasis,
      Thanks for turning off the set and taking the time to respond. Your “facts” don’t convince this poor soul who holds three degrees in Bible. Knowing what we do of the ancient world, sexual orientation was simply as much a part of their worldview as cloning or stem cells were. They were products of their time and their culture and their worldview simply doesn’t translate to ours. Otherwise, if you’ve ever worn a cotton-poly blend you’ve violated biblical precepts just as much as someone who’s committed a homosexual act. Convince me that anyone in the ancient world knew about the sub-conscious mind and we may have a starting point to discuss recognition of sexual orientation in antiquity. The Bible, culturally conditioned, does condemn some sex acts, but it says nothing of orientation.

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  3. Hi Steve,

    I have no degrees in the Bible, so I guess Im unlikely to convince you of much! Perhaps you can help me understand then? I accept that those in the first century were not as refined as us today in terms of understanding the subconscious etc. But is sexual orientation really too complicated for them to understand? Do we not underestimate these people? Flavious Josephus, in section 25 of Against Apion Book II, in the context of marriage, raises the concept of male to male relationships, saying they are rejected by Jewish society. Philo, in The Special Laws III, writes of pederastic relationships where they abandon the idea of having children, and where some voluntarily undergo castration in order to feminise themselves. It seems clear to me that there were males in that era who dedicated themselves to same-sex relationships. Whether they had a phrase that corresponded to “sexual orientation” or not, how can you claim they did not have a reasonable grasp on the concept?

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    • Thanks for taking the time to follow up, Stasis.

      There is little doubt that homosexuality has existed throughout history. It is evident in the animal world as well, and is clearly a natural phenomenon. Ancient societies knew of same gender relationships and generally did reject them–the Bible shares in this viewpoint. They in no way understood this as an orientation because their worldview simply could not admit such a concept. Not knowing the causes for such relationships, often they condemned them as sinful, although, in some ancient societies they were expected and considered normal. In the ancient world male-female pairing was considered normal and all else an aberration. The difficulty is that they had no concept of sexual orientation to explain what is quite natural. Left without an explanation, they called it sin and gave the modern world a faulty interpretive framework. Many aspects accepted by modern people as perfectly normal were condemned by biblical people as sinful. An example would be that the brother of a man who has died without children is commanded to have sex with his brother’s widow until she conceives a child. This is a biblical ordinance. In that society it made perfect sense. Today, if the widow’s brother-in-law is married, it is considered adultery and is against the law in many states/nations. We can’t simply transfer biblical preferences to our own society without understanding their worldview first. Because they did not understand orientation, they had little recourse but to condemn what they saw as unnatural behavior. We know better, and are accountable for our understanding.

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  4. Hi Steve, and thanks for your reply. I feel like you are repeating a mantra though. When you say “they had no concept of sexual orientation” what do you mean? You seem to recognise that they recognised that some people were sexually attracted to the same sex, and some people were not. I thought that is what is basically meant by sexual orientation? When you say that “they had no concept of sexual orientation”, do you mean they did not know of it’s cause? And/or do you mean they did not know of it’s effects? IE Im interested to know what you mean by that statement.
    Thanks so much.

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    • Hi Stasis,

      Let me use an analogy. The Bible contains no science. That means that the Bible has no concept of science and has really no interest in applying it to the natural world since the world was not “natural” to them. They explained many things as coming directly from divine action–weather for example. Now that doesn’t mean that scientific laws did not exist, just that the explanatory world of the ancient did not include it. The language of the Bible has no word for “science” and they did not seek to explain their world scientifically. The same applies to sexuality. To get a concept of sexuality in the Bible, do a search for “sexuality” on this blog. I’ve written about the topic a few times. Given their views of sexuality, “orientation” had nothing to do with it. Today we recognize that as a crucial part of human sexual experience. It is a matter of trying to understand their world as they saw it. The Bible doesn’t give much instruction about marriage simply because they had no interpretive framework to do so. They had not explored the question scientifically, but we have.

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  5. Thanks Steve,

    Ive searched your blog for the term ‘sexuality’ but the result looked like it possibly brought up endless posts. I had a look at some, but none directly spoke to my question unfortunately.
    Ive considered your analogy, but it doesnt make sense to me. You claim that “The Bible contains no science” and that “they did not seek to explain their world scientifically”. I dont see reality in these claims. Certainly I agree that the Bible is not a book of science, and the understanding of science on the part of the authors, was very limited. But I dont relate to how you appear to perceive science as something unattainable even to simple people, as though it’s a binary situation of either having it or not having it. Were you trying to simplify the analogy to in an effort to make it easier to grasp?
    The people of the Bible did not spiritualise absolutely everything. If you look up the definition of science in a dictionary, and then consider passages such as Song of Songs 2:11, 1 Samuel 30:12, Mark 4:4-8, you can easily see science in the Bible. Noticing that food gives a person energy, is a simple yet scientific discovery. Finding that some parts of the year tend to have more rain than others, and that this pattern tends to repeat annually, is scientific progress. Sowing crops using knowledge of which grounds are more suitable for seeds to grow, is implementation of scientific knowledge. That’s science reflected in the Bible. Not advanced science of course, but basic elements of science; observation, drawing conclusions about cause and effect, developing theories of how things work.
    And their limited science was not just about nature. In neighbouring lands great pyramids were being built, and in the realms of basic psychology, consideration was given to emotion, attitudes and how the human personality worked, as found in the Book of Proverbs.
    Sorry if Im just being dumb, but as you can hopefully see, Im struggling to make sense of your analogy. Perhaps we are best to go back to my previous question? IE what aspects of sexual orientation is it that you claim they did not understand?
    Thanks again for your patience.

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    • There is so much here to unpack–these are the kinds of issues I used to take a whole semester to explain. Given the limitations of a blog, and of time itself, suffice it to say that sexual orientation is an idea that we are only beginning to grasp. The idea did not exist in biblical times because they did not have any scientific frame of reference for it. I used to tell my students that no one born in today’s culture can possibly understand what life was like before the telephone. It is ubiquitous and pervasive in our culture. In biblical times you would have to have framed communication on an entirely different set of propositions. The Bible is a product of its time. The same applies to sexuality. Their concept of sexuality included nothing like orientation. This applies not just to sexuality, but to much of life. Check Proverbs on this–no one is born dumb, but they choose to be dumb. We know that is simply not true. In the biblical world it was. Today we start to understand that sexuality is complex, and that it is not just for reproduction (look at nature)–something the ancients had no way to assess. To them, the choice of a man to have sex with a man was just that, a choice. It was not an orientation. Orientation is based on a more scientifically developed worldview. Choice is not. Without the worldview of science, they could not select scientific explanations.

      The issue of science is central to the whole topic. Yes, they knew to explore their world and to plant crops in the right season. What they lacked was a scientific understanding of causation. A flat earth cannot tilt alternate axes toward the sun it is revolving around on a seasonal basis. The Bible declares that God sends the sunshine and the rain. That is not metaphor. Today even a scientist who is a Christian does not understand causation in that way. Underlying causes can prevent a worldview from being scientific, such as the biblical worldview. It is unfair of us to impose our worldview on the ancients and expect their outlook to make sense. Otherwise I’m sure Peter would have telephoned Paul in the first century to sort our their differences before their disputes became public in the Bible.

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  6. Thanks Steve. But unfortunately I still struggle to grasp your arguments.

    In your second paragraph, you seem to be correctly saying that the people of that era attributed many aspects of life to the hand of God, rather than to natural causes. But then you write that “Underlying causes can prevent a worldview from being scientific, such as the biblical worldview.” I agree that overall, their worldview was skewed away from a scientific perspective. But lets talk specifics. I think we have already established that they knew that if they planted seeds on rocky ground, the resulting crops were not as plentiful as if the seeds were not planted on rocky ground. They grasped cause and effect in the natural world, and they did not attribute absolutely everything to the hand of God. To some degree they were able to think scientifically. If they can think scientifically about growing crops, I see no reason whey they cant think scientifically about sexual orientation.

    You claim that in Biblical times they had no frame of reference for the idea of sexual orientation, and therefore the idea did not exist. Could we likewise conclude that because they had no detailed notion of chemistry and didnt realise that air is comprised of oxygen and carbon dioxide, they therefore didnt understand that they needed to breathe? I dont think so. They had a frame of reference for breathing – life experience. IE it would have been uncomfortable not to breathe, and would have resulted in death, as would have been apparent from drownings and near-drownings. Likewise they had a frame of reference for sexual orientation – life experience; some people were attracted to the same sex and some people were not.

    What basis do you have for your claim that “To them, the choice of a man to have sex with a man was just that, a choice. It was not an orientation.”? This argument conflicts with the fact that some were lusting after the same sex and some were not. It also appears to contradict the perspective of Clement of Alexandria when he wrote in approx the second century, in Stromata, Book III, that “Some men, from their birth, have a natural sense of repulsion from a woman; and those who are naturally so constituted do well not to marry.” (http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/clement-stromata-book3-english.html)

    I dont see how you can claim that the ancients had no way to assess that sexuality is not just for reproduction. Infertile couples who continued to have sex for enjoyment, would have indicated that sex was still useful for non-reproductive purposes, would it not?

    I ran a search for ‘dumb’ in the Bible, but there was no listing that matched your description, in either the NIV or KJV for the Book of Proverbs. Were you referring to Pr 28:9?

    Again you imply that they had no science, when you write “Without the worldview of science, they could not select scientific explanations.” What about what I wrote in my previous reply? Im happy to discuss this topic further, but I think we need to try and make more progress. Can I suggest that you acknowledge whether the people of that era grasped a few basics of science, and if you do acknowledge that, then could you stop making black and white statements that imply they knew absolutely nothing of science? And I suggest that you using analogies to illustrate lack of understanding on their part, is not furthering this discussion. I accept that there were things that they did not understand. What I dont grasp, is your claim specifically that they did not grasp the concept of sexual orientation.

    You write that “It is unfair of us to impose our worldview on the ancients and expect their outlook to make sense.” But the strange thing is that their outlook does generally make sense to me, and to most people. In contrast, it’s your outlook that I struggle to grasp.

    Thanks again for your time so far – it’s appreciated.

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    • Science can not be said to have existed in any sense before Aristotle. In any modern sense, science did not exist before Isaac Newton. The principles worked, of course, but “science” as an explanatory concept did not exist.

      Sexual orientation did not exist before the twentieth century as a explanation for why some people engaged in same-sex relationships. We cannot insist people living twenty centuries or more before a concept was ever even considered should understand it.

      Anyone can breathe air without knowing its chemical composition. That does not mean the chemicals are not there. It is telling that the Bible uses the same word for “spirit” and “breath.” That was their worldview.

      “Dumb” is my translation for “fool.”

      Ancients knew nothing of science as empirical method, based on entirely natural causes. Their views of the active intervention of deity in the world on a regular basis clearly illustrate that. Otherwise the sun could not hold still for an entire day so that the Israelites could kill more Canaanites.

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  7. Thanks Phil,

    I ran a search for the word ‘dumb’ in the Book of Proverbs, but the passage was still not found. Not that it matters. At present my guess is that the author of proverb you are thinking of probably defines dumb/foolish not as being “of low intellect”, but rather of “having a tendency to make lazy choices or decisions that are not well-considered, especially for the long term”, as tends to be indicated in the other proverbs . But anyway, Im not engaging in this discussion to broadly defend the Bible. Im just interested in their concept of sexual orientation, or lack thereof.

    Your claim that science can not be said to have existed in any sense before Aristotle, would appear to contradict David Boersema’s textbook on the philosophy of science, which has a “Brief Chronology of Western Science” starting with the “Pre-socratic natural philosophers.” Even then, the illustration doesnt in my perception, state that there was no science before that point. I suggest that any statement that sets a specific date for when science may have begun to exist, is to a degree, arbitrary, so long as that date is within the period that human kind has been able to think and reason.

    I think we are making some progress in this discussion though. I still perceive you as heading towards your previous tendency to portray all this in black and white, but I can see some acknowledgement now of the reality of the colour grey – thank you! IE your comment that “Anyone can breathe air without knowing its chemical composition. That does not mean the chemicals are not there.” Yes, exactly! See, the ancients could function and make a limited sense of the world, without knowing the level of scientific detail that we do. Yes, you are making sense.

    And yes, I guess you are right, when you say “Ancients knew nothing of science as empirical method, based on entirely natural causes.” But hopefully you will agree that a religious person working today as a scientist, can still grasp and practice many aspects of science, just as well as an atheist. And if you agree with that, and you at least agree that Aristotle had some science, then surely those in the first century, despite their religious inclinations, could still grasp a few scientific principles, and use them, and make some sense of the world with them. No?

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