Biblical Marriage and Biblical Interpretation

Today I want to do some more foundation work on looking at the Bible to discern how God intended us to live our marriages.

When we study the Bible it’s important to know the audience to whom things were written. One huge factor is old testament (or covenant) versus new. While God didn’t change, our relationship with Him did change. What’s more, many of the rules that were imposed on the Jews of old don’t apply to us. I can freely eat shrimp, pet a dog, shave my beard, or mow the lawn on Saturday (the Sabbath) whereas those under the old covenant were forbidden from doing any of those things.

We are told that marriage is an example of God’s relationship with us. If our relationship with God changed because of what Jesus did, does that mean there are changes in how husbands and wives are supposed to relate? If the example changed, it seems likely what was based on the example might also change. I’m not saying it proves anything, but it should make us consider the possibility.

Did any of God’s rules or expectations for marriage change when Jesus came? Absolutely. Jesus said that divorce for any reason was never God’s will, that He only allowed it because of the hardness of men’s hearts. The “new” rule is that divorce followed by remarriage is only valid when done because of sexual sin. Beyond that, Jesus made sexual sin a much bigger category when He talked about lusting for a woman we see as adultery of the heart.

Biblical Marriage and Biblical Interpretation

I offer these examples as proof that we can’t blindly apply what the OT says about marriage to our lives. If something appears in the old testament but not the new that doesn’t mean it’s no longer valid, but it does mean we need to do some digging.

Another issue is the fact that the Bible often narrates a story without making any comment on what happens. We are told, for example, that Lot’s daughters got him drunk and had sex with him so they could get pregnant. Nowhere are we told what they did was wrong. Some of what we read about how men treated their wives in the OT may be the same thing, the narration of something without pointing out it’s wrong.

Then there is the reality that culture is a major factor. Certain things in the Bible were done for cultural reasons rather than because God said they were to be done. In some cases, these were not contrary to God’s will, so there was no problem. But that does not make them things God commanded. Other things might have been allowed by God because of the hardness of heart issue, but they were not His will.

Culture can also result in a rule that is necessary and good in one place and time, but not in another. When the Bible was written, and especially during the time of the Old Testament, women had it hard. Without a father or husband to care for and protect her a woman’s only real options for making money were begging and prostitution. What’s more, a woman without a father or husband was looked down on. She was also at much greater risk of being taken advantage of or raped. None of this was God’s will, it’s just the reality of being female in those times. The Bible actually provides far more protection and rights for women than most contemporary non-Jewish women had.

None of this is to say we can just ignore what the Bible says because we don’t live in the same time. But ignoring how culture coloured what was written is not wise either. Understanding the times and the audience can really help. It also helps to see who said something in the Bible and if they claimed to be speaking God’s truth. At least once Paul made it clear he was giving his opinion, rather than a command from the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:12 & 25). Certainly Paul’s “judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” is valuable, but it might be something that was valid then but is not now.

One last thing for today. Much of what Paul wrote was in answer to questions he had been asked. Sometimes he gave a reminder of the question asked (1 Cor 7:1 for example) and other times he does not. This is a lot like seeing one side of a text conversation, and it makes it easy to misunderstand. Imagine, for example, that a friend sent me a text asking if I felt it was a good idea for his daughter to go to the prom with a fellow who seems rather questionable for a number of reasons who drove a motorcycle. If I texted back “Don’t let her go to any dance with mister motorcycle,” that answer out of context could be taken as me saying no one should ever go to a dance with a guy who owns a motorcycle. I think this is the reason for some of the confusion over verses that seem to say conflicting things or seem to say something other than what the Bible as a whole says. (Last Sunday I gave the Matthew 25:31-46 example of how a passage taken out of context can be used say something contrary to the Word of God.)

Of course, none of this is to be used to try to negate a verse that we don’t like. The goal is to use the tools to find what the Bible says and then live that. What makes that difficult is we all have beliefs that are set in stone, and we are usually blind to things that bring those beliefs into question. This is especially true of human doctrines with many years of history behind them.

All of this is going to come into play as we move forward the next few weeks. I wanted to get it out there before it comes up. You are of course free to disagree with me, but most of this is standard exegesis and hermeneutics. The arguments come from how those tools are applied to scripture!

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14 Comments on “Biblical Marriage and Biblical Interpretation

  1. Well reasoned and well thought out Paul. I tend to disagree that expectations of husbands and wives changed because Jesus came to earth, but I look forward to specific examples in future posts of what you think changed. The divorce example isn’t valid in my opinion because it deals with how to end a marriage as opposed to how to be in a marriage, but I could be wrong. One problem with comparing marriage from the Old Testament to the New Testament is what you referenced. We have very little information on what God expected from husbands and wives and mostly just narrative of what husbands and wives did. I’m very interested to see what you have to say.

    • @Brian – It just seems to me a change in if and how one could end a marriage would mean a change in how marriage looks.
      The lack of specific commands does make it difficult in places. Too often we build a theology based on something that was not a command.

      • I’m definitely not saying that what God intended marriage to look like didn’t change. I’m just of the opinion that it might be might be stretching things a little to say that because Jesus gave specific commands about when divorce is ok, that the nature of what God wants marriage to look like also changed. In a way, Jesus didn’t change what God intended for divorce anyway, which Jesus clearly says. It’s clear that God never wanted divorce and Jesus mearly sets the record straight on when it’s acceptable without being adultery.

        You’re very correct about theologies being built on things that weren’t commands. I’ve seen this myself. Too many times someone will look at the actions of someone in the Bible and determine that because that person did something that it’s exactly what God wanted and that anyone who doesn’t do those things is sinning.

        • @Brian – I agree, the nature of what God wants marriages to be didn’t change. What we see now is a better understanding of what God wanted.
          Some of what was in the OT was because of the hardness of men’s, and women’s, hearts. Some of it was because of the culture and times. Changes to those things would mean some things necessary or wise in the past are no longer necessary now.

          As for your last paragraph, it works both ways. God punished Moses severally for striking a rock with his staff in anger. Imagine if I used that passage to say it is a sin for anyone to strike a rock with a stick. Some of the rules I’ve seen folks try to put on others are exactly like that. One person was punished for disobedience that was expressed with certain action, so we should call those actions sinful. Not only does that create a sin that does not exist, it also fails to deal with the heart attitudes that were the real sin issue.

  2. Thank you Paul for your insight. Can’t wait for the rest of the lessons. You set my mind to thinking about what the Bible says about marriage and relationships just like our Pastor does.

  3. Making meaningful comparison of marriage 5000 years ago to one today is quite the leap. Even marriage at the time of Jesus, 2000 years ago, is quite the stretch to 21st century western civilization. Ancient Jewish customs look a whole lot more like Islam, than they do evangelical Christians living in the US. I think that you can distill general themes, like treating others well, but trying to apply specifics such as what role men and women have in “god’s plan” is a real stretch.

  4. A few push backs that are sort of already said above. First, Paul, you say that God gave marriage as an example of what our relationship is supposed to be like with him… that is one step, but that’s not the ultimate telos of marriage. Paul says that the man is the head of the wife, like Christ is the head of the church, and that the Father is the head of Christ. (1 Cor 11). Ultimately, marriage is a picture of the Trinity. That’s why complementarianism is a big deal–if you get marriage wrong, it means that you’re getting God wrong. You run the risk of following “another Christ.”

    Additionally, as stating above, the nature of marriage (or divorce) did not change when Jesus came. Jesus came to fulfill the law not replace or change it. The intent of marriage has always been one man, one woman, and one lifetime, but Moses allowed divorce because of hardness of heart. The rules in the OT were put in place a protection for woman her were divorced (and there was a bit of shaming of the husband embedded in the rules). Jesus further sets in place protections for women in divorce and further clarifies restriction on whether or not a husband can remarry. There is an implicit acknowledgment that divorce will happen. Just like Jesus says, “when you sin against your brother….” Sure, his intention is that you not sin, but this side of eternity it will happen. Similarly, the intention is that there be no divorce, but this side of eternity, it will sometime happens, so when it does, “here are the rules…”

    In general though, we need to get away from flaw dispensational thinking. The God of the OT is the same God of the NT. Jesus has always been Jesus. The only way that anyone is saved, its through Jesus’s work on the cross. That goes for us today, people who are born next year, and people in the OT. The only path to salvation ever and always was/is/will be Jesus. One of the biggest problems facing the modern church is lack of a robust understanding of scripture’s coherence, completeness, agreement, and inerrancy. It’s a red letter Christianity that says Jesus’s words carry more weight than the others… the problem is the that entire scripture was written by Jesus and about Jesus. Every word is has red letters and we need to stop seeing the OT and NT as somehow different.

    • @Jon – NO argument on the first paragraph.
      On the second my understanding is Jesus came to complete the law, and we are no longer subject to it. The law was impossible to keep, and that was the point. I fully agree with you on the rules about divorce and why.
      As for the OT and NT they go with the old covenant and the new. Jesus made it clear that when a woman’s husband dies she is no longer under his authority. Humanity was under the law. Jesus death ended that. We are no longer under the law, we are under Christ. According to Jesus we can’t be under both, only one.

      • @Jon

        Dispensationalism does not teach that God has changed but the way he deals with humanity changes. Most dispensationalists would agree that marriage is one man for one woman for one lifetime and that has not and will not change with a new dispensation. Most of what the Apostle Paul taught about marriage was simply a clarification and re-statement of Old Testament doctrine. But the Apostle Paul was approaching headship and submission from the perspective that it was no longer enforced by Jewish law and custom but from the power of the Holy Spirit indwelling the husband and wife. The law was now able to be written on their hearts. The commandments to the husband to love his wife as Christ loved the church and to the wife to submit to her husband in all things were more about the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about these changes in their hearts rather than being rigidly enforced by external pressure.

        • This seems exactly right. What God wanted for marriage didn’t change, just the fact that we aren’t under the Law changed. Well put.

  5. As I read through the replies, I am so excited to follow this topic and dive deeper. I didn’t grow up knowing many of the words y’all are using, so when people ask me something, I often don’t have the correct terminology to tell them. I’m really looking forward to learning more.

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