Do We Have the Definition of Marriage Wrong?

The biblical definition of marriage has faced an incredible amount of attack from secularists lately, with the push for the legalization of same-sex marriage. But in a recent article in an Iowa newspaper, three professors—two of religious studies and one of history—claimed that evangelical Christians have the definition of marriage wrong. The authors on this article were Robert Cargill, assistant professor of religious studies at University of Iowa; Kenneth Atkinson, associate professor of history at the University of Northern Iowa; and Hector Avalos, professor of religious studies at Iowa State University:

As academic biblical scholars, we wish to clarify that the biblical texts do not support the frequent claim that marriage between one man and one woman is the only type of marriage deemed acceptable by the Bible’s authors.

Now, there is not a single statement in Scripture affirming polygamy, homosexual behavior, bestiality, and so on. These academics cite a number of instances of polygamy in the Old Testament as evidence for their point. And while it’s true that God-fearing men such as Jacob or King David practiced polygamy, God didn’t affirm their behavior. In fact, polygamous lifestyles inevitably brought hardship and judgment on them. (For a more detailed explanation of the biblical view of polygamy, see “What About Polygamy in the Bible?” and “Contradictions: A Man of Many Wives” by Roger Patterson.)

Polygamy was popular in many cultures, but that doesn’t mean God considered it acceptable. Divorce was allowed because of the hardness of the hearts of the Israelites (Matthew 19:8), but it was not part of God’s “very good” creation. The biblical standard for marriage is still one man and one woman.

Now, the article by these academics has since been promoted by the Huffington Post’s “Gay Voices” section of its website. Cargill explains in an interview in the article that the Bible also doesn’t prohibit same-sex marriage:

[Cargill] explained that it is obvious to scholars (and some religious leaders) that the Bible endorses a wide range of relationships. . . . Ultimately, said Cargill, a Biblical “argument against same-sex marriage is wholly unsustainable. We all know this, but very few scholars are talking about it, because they don’t want to take the heat.”

If it is “obvious” to Bible scholars that the Bible doesn’t prohibit same-sex marriage, then why are there so many scholars who believe it does? It’s not because they’re somehow afraid to admit that Scripture supposedly affirms homosexual behavior. No, it’s because Scripture is clear: homosexual behavior is a sinful practice (Genesis 18:20; 19:5; Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26–27; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:10). (For more on the Bible’s view of homosexuality, see “Pro-Gay Theology: Does the Bible Approve of Homosexuality?” by Steve Golden.)

But the question I always like to ask is what’s the real motive here? Why would these scholars claim that the Bible doesn’t actually say what it clearly does? Well, the answer seems to be that they don’t believe in the authority of Scripture as much as they believe in their own academic abilities:

“Most people aren’t dumb, they want to make an informed decision” on religiously charged questions, Cargill said. “If scholars aren’t talking to them, they have to rely on talk show hosts and pundits, and that’s not the most reliable source of information.”. . . Anyone who argues that “the Bible speaks plainly on one issue, especially something as complicated as marriage . . . haven’t taken the time to read all of it,” he added.

Basically, the Bible can’t be understood on its own terms—we need Bible scholars to explain it to us. Now, there’s certainly a place for Bible scholars with an understanding of the language, history, and culture surrounding Scripture, but that doesn’t negate the authority and perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture.

The Bible actually does speak plainly on many issues. Psalm 19:7 tells us, “The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.” How can we expect to understand the message of salvation through Jesus Christ if we need a PhD to explain it to us? Sadly, these academics are doing nothing but subverting the authority of Scripture and lifting man’s word up over it. It is ironic that three scholars in their fields who have completely misunderstood what the Bible says about marriage are willing to claim that, without them, people will not be able to make informed decisions about Scripture.

In response to these academics, no, we don’t have the definition of marriage wrong. In Genesis 2, the standard was that one man would leave his mother and father and cleave to one woman, his wife (Genesis 2:24). Jesus Christ reaffirmed this definition of marriage in Matthew 19:4–5. We can trust that what God’s Word says is true—and His Word can be understood whether or not we are Bible scholars:

And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:4–5)

Thanks for stopping by and thanks for praying,
Ken

*Steve Golden assisted in composing this blog post.