New Testament scholar Greg Carey says a lot of people who advocate for “traditional family values” rooted in the Bible may not have much of an idea of what’s actually in the Bible on the subject of marriage.
It’s high time people came clean about how we use the Bible. When Christians try to resolve difficult ethical and theological matters, they typically appeal to the Gospels and Paul’s letters as keys to the question. But what about marriage? Not only did Jesus choose not to marry, he encouraged his disciples to abandon household and domestic concerns in order to follow him (Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:28-30; Luke 9:57-62). He even refers to those “who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:10-13). Whatever that means, it’s certainly not an endorsement of marriage. Paul likewise encourages male believers: “Do not seek a wife” (1 Corinthians 7:27, my translation) — advice Paul took for himself. If neither Jesus nor Paul preferred marriage for their followers, why do some Christians maintain that the Bible enshrines 19th-century Victorian family values?
Let’s not even go into some of the Bible’s most chilling teachings regarding marriage, such as how a man’s obligation to keep a new wife who displeases him on the wedding night (Deuteronomy 22:13-21), his obligation to marry a woman he has raped (Deuteronomy 22:28-30) or the unquestioned right of heroes like Abraham to exploit their slaves sexually. I wonder: Have the “biblical family values advocates” actually read their Bibles?
Christians will always turn to the Bible for guidance — and we should. If the Bible does not promote a clear or redemptive teaching about slavery, that doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn from Scripture about the topic. The same values that guide all our relationships apply to marriage: unselfish concern for the other; honesty, integrity and fidelity; and sacrificial — but not victimized — love. That’s a high standard, far higher than a morality determined by anachronistic and restrictive rules that largely reflect our cultural biases. Rules make up the lowest common denominator for morality. Love, as Paul said, never finds an end.