Does the Bible Really…Give Us a Clear Definition of Marriage?

by the Very Revd Prof Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford

Martyn Percy

‘We all know that love is the answer’, opined Woody Allen, ‘but while you’re waiting for the answer, sex raises some pretty good questions’ (Interview, New York Times, December 1, 1975).  Questions, indeed.  And before we even begin to answer that question – “does the bible really give us a clear definition of marriage?” – we might want to ask this: “what kind of book is the bible, and how should we read it?”.  The answer to that question will help us navigate the issue of “biblical marriage”.  So, let us begin at the beginning, and with some words from Dan Brown’s bestselling 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code:

Teabing smiled.  ‘Everything you need to know about the Bible can be summed up by the great Canon Dr. Martyn Percy.’  Teabing cleared his throat and declared, ‘the Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven…the Bible is a product of man, my dear.  Not of God.  The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds.  Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations and revisions.  History has never had a definitive version of the book…More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only [four] were chosen for inclusion…The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great…’.  [2003: Chapter 55]

Like so much else in Dan Brown’s novel, this is not quite right.  But speaking as the person quoted above, I’ll try and clarify my views a little.  It is true that ‘the Bible is not a fax from heaven’ is a quote correctly attributed to me, although to the best of my knowledge, I have only ever said this in lectures, radio, TV and a newspaper interviews – and always in connection with how to understand fundamentalism.  Furthermore, behind the slick sound-bite, there is a fairly sophisticated theological point.  So let me explain.

Views about the authority of Scripture cannot be directly resourced from the Bible itself.  The bible has no self-conscious identity.  As a collation of books and writings, it came together over a long period of time.  Indeed, the word ‘bible’ comes from the Greek biblos, simply meaning ‘books’.  Equally, the word ‘canon’ (here used in relation to Scripture, not as an ecclesiastical title) simply means ‘rule’.

So the Scriptures are, literally, ‘authorised books’.  The authorisation of the compilation took place sometime after the books were written.  When Paul wrote ‘all Scripture is inspired by God’ (2. Tim 3.16) in a letter to his friend, Timothy, he could hardly have had his own letter in mind at the time.  The conferral of canonical status on his letter came quite a bit later – and some would say much later.

Views on the authority of the bible cannot be solely resourced from the bible.  The bible needs to be held and understood in a particular way, independent of its content, in order to have any authority.  For some (I’m thinking here of fundamentalists), the power of God must be mediated through clear and pure identifiable channels or agents.  This guarantees the quality of that power: it is unquestionable and unambiguous.

But for others – usually of a more mainstream, broad persuasion – God acts and speaks through channels and agents that are fully themselves.  So God works through culture, peoples and history, not over and against them.  The almighty power of God is only ever known on earth partially (not absolutely); it can only be encountered ‘through a glass darkly’, and not ‘face to face’. Yet.

So although the power of God may be pure and absolute at source, God always chooses to mediate that power through less than perfect agents (such as language, people, times and places).  And this is because God’s primary interest is in disclosing love in order to draw us into relationships, and not in unequivocal demonstrations of power, which would leave no room for a genuinely free response, and merely obedience in the face of oppression.  So we have the burning bush for Moses – but he covers his face.  And although Jesus is the light of the world, ‘the darkness comprehends it not’, according to John.  What is revealed is still ‘hidden’ to those who are blind.

So, some Christians believe that Scripture has come from heaven to earth, in an unimpaired, totally unambiguous form – like a ‘fax’.  Such views are fundamentalistic: the bible is the pure word of God – every letter and syllable is ‘God breathed’.  So there is no room for questions; knowledge replaces faith.  It is utterly authoritative: to question the bible is tantamount to questioning God.  So the bible here is more like an instruction manual than a mystery to be unpacked.  It teaches plainly, and woe to those who dissent.

But to those who believe that Scripture is a more complex body of writings, the authority of Scripture lies in the total witness of its inspiration.  Thus, the bible does indeed contain many things that God may want to say to humanity (and they are to be heeded and followed).  But it also contains opinions about God (even one or two moans and complaints – see the Psalms); it contains allegory, parables, humour, histories and debates.  The nature of the bible invites us to contemplate the very many ways in which God speaks to us.  The bible is not one message spoken by one voice.  It is, rather, symphonic in character – a restless and inspiring chorus of testaments, whose authority rests upon its very plurality.  The Scriptures are like sausages – delicious, nourishing and tasty – but you really don’t want to see how they are made.

Yes, the bible is revered Holy Scripture. But blind obedience to all of Scripture is not practised by any group of Christians known to me, or who have ever lived.  Few Christians abstain from eating black pudding on scriptural grounds (Acts 15:28-29).  Few Christians follow the Levitical texts on dress codes to the letter, if at all.  I do know of Christians who object to clapping in worship (it is of the ‘old covenant’; i.e., not mentioned in the New Testament).  I know of other Christians who object to most kinds of dancing on the same ticket. Then there is slavery. Whilst not exactly praised to the hilt in Scripture, it is condoned, and never censured – a fact not lost on the Confederate Christians who fought in the American Civil War.

Indeed, the recent HBO television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) gives us a rich and interesting insight into what ‘biblical marriages’ cab look like.  In Atwood’s fictional Republic of Gilead, set in some future dystopia, the adult female population is divided between handmaids, Martha’s and wives.  The function of the handmaids was to bear children to the master of the house. Martha’s are there to serve. Wives are to submit.  This is a ‘biblical marriage’ pattern, of sorts.

Abraham thought he and Sarah could not have children, and so they turned to Hagar, their Egyptian handmaid (Genesis 16).  Is this a biblical pattern of marriage? It is to such questions that the author Rachel Held Evans turned her mind some years ago in her bestselling and also rather controversial 2012 book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. 

Evans, intrigued by the traditionalist resurgence that had led many of her friends to abandon their careers to assume traditional gender roles in the home, Evans decided to try it for herself, adopting all of the bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible – embarking on a radical life experiment, namely living a year of biblical womanhood.  She grew her hair, adopted a “gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4), covered her head, abstained from gossip, rose every day before dawn, made sure she “praised her husband at the city gates”(!), remained silent in church (of course), and also slept outside the family home during menstruation.

I have a hunch that the phrase ‘biblical marriage’ is similar to ‘nuclear family’.  It sounds biblical enough.  Yet neither of these phrases is found in the bible.  Perhaps that is why in 2014, my wife (Emma) and I responded with such alacrity to an invitation to write an introduction for the NRSV Wedding Gift Bible.  It was a joy to write together, but in sending off the final text, I included a note to the publisher. I said that in the spirit of the NRSV translation, we had avoided using gendered pronouns for God, where possible. And we had also done the same for the individuals who were getting married. So you could give this bible to any couple. Yes, any. So two women, or two men, could receive the gift of Holy Scripture to celebrate their marriage. The bible is for everyone, after all.

I hold that each marriage is unique; each partnership distinctive; no two unions are the same.  Two individuals make solemn vows of commitment to each other.  It is the beginning of a journey in which each commits to being the faithful travelling companion of the other. God promises never to leave us; to accompany us and abide with us. Journeying is central.  From Abraham in Genesis through to Paul in the New Testament, we read of men and women who have journeyed – trusting that God is their unfailing travelling companion.

The Scriptures give us stories of better times in which blessings abound and individuals and communities know what it means to be loved and cherished by God. But they don’t spare us the hard roads either. The Scriptures also give us variety: pleasant places and rocky terrain; gentle rises and steep slopes. The goal of marriage is not merely to live life ‘happily ever after’.  But that rather, together, we commit to enjoying each other in the ups and downs that life brings – in faithfulness and love.

The bible, as the word of God, and as a single book, is a collection of Scriptures that speak to us in many different ways about God, love and life.  It is not one voice, but many; yet though many, one.  And that one message is this: that God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them (1 John 4: 16).  So the bible itself is a covenant sign.  It is a marriage – a union of Scriptures – that can only be understood in the totality of its witness. And that is partly why I am so committed to same-sex marriages. I see no reason why such unions cannot reflect the love of God, and bear testimony to God’s grace, truth and power.

I am always wary of groups or individuals who claim to be ‘biblical’, because in my experience, this kind of exclusive, tribal claim is exactly the kind of thing the bible doesn’t offer us.  In fundamentalist worlds, it is never the bible that rules; it is always the interpreter.  So that’s why we read Scriptures together – because this is a shared journey of adventure and discovery in which the simple can confound the wise, and the foolish outwit the clever.

I know it is not easy for some Christians to see God at work in a same-sex marriage, and may never be able to.  But these days a growing number can and do: they see all marriages as something to celebrate. They see that Scripture does not lay down one pattern of marriage, like an instruction manual.  Rather, marriage, like Scripture, is a mystery to be unpacked over time.  In ongoing contemplation and appreciation, it can be a real sign of God’s love and grace.

So Scripture – like art, music poetry, symbols and signs – invites us to sit awhile and contemplate how God is revealed.  The burning bush of Moses has no single meaning, and never could. The bible offers several patterns of marriage.  A loving marriage is a sacramental token of love, and an invitation to pause and attend, stepping through the gate of mystery that God gives to us.

On the question of same-sex marriage, we may need reminding of one thing. God did not send us a fax.  Instead, God chose to speak through Jesus – the body language of God – to remind us that God is ultimate love, and that those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. Sex raises some interesting questions, for sure. But so far as God is concerned, love is always the answer.

About the Author

Martyn Percy

The Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy (BA, MA, M.Ed, PhD) is the 45th Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. Educated at the universities of Bristol, Durham, London and Sheffield, Prior to this Martyn was Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxford (2004-2014) and has served as Canon Theologian at Sheffield Cathedral, and is a Canon Emeritus of Salisbury Cathedral.

Martyn is a member of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oxford, and also tutors in the Social Sciences Division and the Said Business School. He is Professor of Theological Education at King’s College London, a Professorial Research Fellow at Heythrop College (University of London) and Visiting Professor at the Centre for the Study of Values, University of Winchester, and for the Centre of Theologically-Engaged Anthropology, University of Georgia.

This entry was posted in Does the Bible Really Say, Guest Contributors, Human Sexuality, Martyn Percy. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Does the Bible Really…Give Us a Clear Definition of Marriage?

  1. Nathan AM Smith says:

    I love this. What a beautiful reflection on marriage. As a gay Christian myself, I so appreciate this support and believe these words need to be heard! 🌈


  2. jeremy1marks says:

    What a brilliant article. Indeed a beautiful reflection on marriage and the Christian life.


  3. cateedmonds says:

    Wow what a wonderful, helpful, accessible reflection needs wide distribution.


  4. The headline says “Does the Bible Really…Give Us a Clear Definition of Marriage?” But nowhere in the article does it mention what is actually said about marriage in the different parts of the bible. Yes it mentions the actions of Abraham and Sarah, but doesn’t address whether there is a critique of that action inherent in the narrative. After that, there seems to be little what sections of the bible put forward as the aims and ideals of marriage.

    Did I miss something? Or is this a case that the headline is only tangentially aligned to the purpose of the article?


  5. David Baker says:

    How strange that an article tackling the question “Does the Bible give us a clear definition of marriage” fails to engage with, or even mention, the teaching of Christ on this subject.

    Matthew 19v4 Jesus said, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’a and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’b ? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

    Apparently the answer to Jesus’ question, “Have you not read…?” is, in the case of this particular article, “Er….. whoops!”


    • Pete Jermey says:

      But Jesus interpretation of that passage is not to define marriage, but to speak against divorce.

      I think you are not actually quoting Jesus. You are quoting Jesus quoting someone else, but then ignoring what he has to say on the matter.

      Liked by 2 people

      • David Shepherd says:

        Christ’s rejection of divorce “for any cause” (despite the later provision of Moses’ Law) is based on the principle “it was not so from the beginning”.

        By way of contrast, Christ’s rejection of what “was not so from the beginning” established the principle for His affirmation of what was so from the beginning” as God’s unrevoked intention for marriage.

        The notion that Christ’s principle is solely applicable to breaching the permanence and monogamous nature of marriage (but not another aspect that might contradict the beliefs of LGBT advocacy groups) does not bear serious scrutiny.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Pete Jermey says:

        David, Christ’s words in this passage *are* related to divorce. He is silent on whether the gender difference in the passage he quotes is a law from God that humans must obey or whether it is ordinary heteronormativity.

        The passage he quotes from is in itself pretty clear that Adam became the partner of Eve because he was attracted to her and not because God commanded him to it against his attractions.


      • Ian Paul says:

        The passage Jesus quotes portrays that God formed the woman as the ‘suitable companion’ for the man, and then asserts that this explains the institution of marriage.

        Liked by 3 people

  6. David Baker says:

    (1) The view of the Bible that here is dismissed as fundamentalist is, of course, the widely held mainstream position of most major Christian denominations…

    “Christians believe that the Bible is inspired by God – that is, they believe that the texts that make up the Bible were composed by the help of the Holy Spirit and that they communicate God’s will perfectly when they are taken together and read in the context of prayer and worship…
    The Bible is, we believe, a book that speaks with one voice about God and his will and nature; but it does so – to use a popular Christian image – like a symphony of different voices and instruments of music, miraculously held together in one story and one message about God, a story whose climax is Jesus.” (Rowan Williams, text of a lecture given at the international Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan, Wednesday 23 November 2005)

    “All of the church’s teaching and preaching must be nourished and regulated by Holy Scripture. Other groups besides Christians possess and revere collections of religious literature, but the distinguishing characteristic of the Bible is its divine inspiration. Acting as the principal Author, God moved (“inspired”) the human authors of the Scriptures to understand and freely will to write precisely what He wished them to write. Being God’s word in this unique fashion did not keep the Scriptures from being cast in a rich variety of literary forms ranging from intricate and mystical psalm prayers to highly interpretative and often poetically formulated styles of religious historical narratives. Though common in the ancient near east and as accurate as our contemporary equivalents, these literary forms can at times be very enigmatic to modern readers. Yet, because it is divine as well as human, the Bible achieves the varieties of communication peculiar to each of these forms free from any error regarding that which the divine Author wished specifically to express. The divine traits of inspiration and inerrancy have been recognized and taught by the people of God since even before the Bible was completed…” (The Teaching of Christ: a Catholic Catechism for Adults)

    “The Bible is the main written source of divine doctrine since God Himself inspired its writing by His Holy Spirit (see 2 Tim 3:16 and 2 Pet 1:20). This is the doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible, namely that men inspired by God wrote the words which are truly their own human words… but which nevertheless may be called all together the Word of God. Thus, the Bible is the Word of God in written form because it contains not merely the thoughts and experiences of men, but the very self-revelation of God.” (From the website of the Orthodox Church in America)

    (2) As for the statement “But blind obedience to all of Scripture is not practised by any group of Christians known to me, or who have ever lived” the answer is: of course not. Most people find Fee and Stuart’s “How to read the Bible for all its worth” a helpful place to start.

    Hope that helps clarify a few oversights in the article! All good wishes.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. David Shepherd says:

    “But these days a growing number can and do: they see all marriages as something to celebrate. They see that Scripture does not lay down one pattern of marriage, like an instruction manual. Rather, marriage, like Scripture, is a mystery to be unpacked over time. In ongoing contemplation and appreciation, it can be a real sign of God’s love and grace.”

    Well, there are certainly a variety of marriage situations in the OT. But, it would require an inter-generational prevalence before they might be understood as a pattern. Furthermore, such patterns would require evidence of divine approval (not just toleration) before they could amount to a divine prescription.

    For example, the Mosaic provision for a bill of divorcement was an accepted pattern of dissolving marriages. Yet, Christ is recorded in the gospel as harking back to what He saw as the unrevoked divinely ordained pattern from Genesis.


    • Pete Jermey says:

      Hebrews 11 might not be divine approval of these relationships, but it certainly demonstrates that the individuals in them were not damned for doing so.

      I wonder how many people in Hebrews 11 would be considered acceptable by today’s bishops?

      Maybe, just maybe, the bible is about faith in Jesus and following him and not about marriage at all.


      • David Shepherd says:

        In the Bible, there’s no basis for treating “faith in Christ and following Him” and marriage as mutually exclusive.

        This is borne out by the fact that, in response to a question about how marriage might be dissolved, Christ reinforced the enduring applicability of the Genesis archetype: “It was not so from the beginning.”

        If following Christ has nothing to do with marriage at all, then, surely, when questioned, Christ would have had nothing to say in relation to marriage or its dissolution.

        Thanks for engaging.

        Liked by 2 people

    • williambuggins says:

      Both the books of the Old Testament and the pastoral letters of the New Testament make it clear that God has an order for mankind. That is that men and women are attracted to each other that they may become “one flesh”, make love, have children and bring them up in the fear and nurture of the Lord..
      Absolutely the same in the (mammalian)animal kingdom; a male and a female mate, produce offspring and raise them with varying degrees of involvement by the male partner.
      In general the female is the nurturer and the male may be a defender or provider.
      Genesis 19:1-11 Judges 19:16-24 1 Kings 14:24 2 Kings 23:7 Romans 1:18-32 1 Corinthians 6:9-1 1 Timothy 1:8-10

      Just think, if our Lord Jesus wanted to show His acceptance and approval of same sex couples, could He not have included a parable or saying to say so? Could not the writers of the pastoral letters done the same? But there are no examples of approval; only condemnation of all forms of sexual immorality.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. christrolleyes says:

    I get that you’re an ally of LGBT people, but i just don’t understand this insistance that marriage must be two people. What about those who identify as polyamorous? What makes you think your religion is allowed to tell people that they’re in the wrong? As you say above, “love is always the answer” and there are lots of interpretations of the bible any way. Why does it have to be an exclusive two people?

    Liked by 1 person

    • williambuggins says:

      Because a) God says a man and a woman become one in marriage, and b) the vast majority of people can only cope with one spouse..


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