To be honest with you, I don’t really care where you get your chicken sandwich. The thing that interests me the most about the whole Chick-fil-A, marriage equality discussion is wrapped up in the phrase, “the biblical model of marriage.” It interests me because there are assumptions being made about a “biblical model” that simply does not hold water. The Bible does not have that much to say about marriage, and a great deal of what is said does not fit the assumptions.
It is always important to understand the time and culture in which writings, even sacred ones, are written. By and large the Bible was written in a time when women were still thought of as property and to some degree, breeding stock. Many of the references to marriage in the Hebrew Bible have to do with to whom a woman is “given.” Marriage was a way to preserve cultural and ethnic purity.
Any serious conversation about a biblical model has to include plural marriage, common in the biblical narrative. Deuteronomy grants a husband authority to dismiss his wife if she fails to please him while at the same time granting authority to sexually exploit slaves and those captured through military conquest.
It was biblical to take a second wife if the first failed to produce a male heir (see Abraham and Sarah), and it was the obligation of a man to marry his brother’s widow.
It is important to see these models rooted in their historical and cultural context. There is an evident development in the Hebrew Bible from a primarily tribal God, like the one that made the sun stand still in the sky so that the slaughter of the Canaanites could continue, to a God more interested in justice than law (check out Micah) to a God whose love is so great that no effort is spared to rescue the beloved. The entire book of Hosea is a metaphorical representation of God’s relationship to the people, even when they are unfaithful.
The New Testament model of marriage is also primarily metaphorical. Marriage is used to describe the relationship of Christ to the church; Christ is the groom and the church is the bride. That whole thing in Ephesians about women subjecting themselves to their husbands isn’t about marriage; it is about the Christian community, being accountable to Christ, the same Christ who freely surrendered his life for the sake of the church. Because it is so misunderstood, I do not include that passage in weddings although no one has ever asked for it.
There is no biblical evidence that Jesus married and Paul was not only single, but encouraged others to remain so; both very unusual for rabbis of the time. Our cultural understanding of marriage is evolving; there is no single “biblical model.” Monogamy has become a widely held cultural norm; shared authority and the end of gender-defined roles have relatively recently emerged.
While the Bible has little to say specific to marriage, it does have a great deal to say about relationships. Social, cultural and spiritual boundaries are frequently challenged for the sake of humanity and justice. Members of the community are encouraged to see each other as members of one body, performing different tasks, yet each having an individual value and dignity. When keeping the law damages the person, we are encouraged to put the person first; honoring each other as children of God rather than exploiting or dominating.
The question for us now is how relational values can fit into relationships that look different than the current cultural norm, but that hold open the possibility of shaping culture to be more just and compassionate. It is not shaking our fists at God, who asks us to do justice and love kindness, to ask such a question.
• Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.