Marriage, Scripture and some things to think about

by Andrew Foreshew-Cain

The following talk was given by Fr Andrew at the Rainbow Church event at St Stephen’s, Bath on Saturday 18 May 2019. In it he looks at marriage in Scripture, approaches to reading Scripture and issues in interpretation.

Andrew Foreshew-Cain photoThank you for the invitation to speak to you this afternoon. My intention is to explore with you a little bit about marriage and a little bit about Scripture.

My intention is to do two things. The first is to illustrate that marriage is not, and never has been, a fixed ideal that is immune to change and therefore incapable of expanding to include gay and lesbian couples. So much of the argument against marriage equality is based on the idea that we are wanting to change something that has been given by God and is therefore incapable of change. The claim that marriage can only be for one man and one woman because Scripture tells us so and the Church has always said so is false.

My second intention is to look at Scripture and how we use it. In the debate about marriage equality those of us who are arguing for inclusion are often called revisionists and accused of wanting to abandon the Bible and replace it with the views of wider society. Now, like Marcus Green, I am happy to be called a revisionist, because it suggests the possibility of re-visioning the future of the Church, and that to me is hopeful, and what each of us is called to do. Without a vision for the future the Church will die. But as Christians we have to reject the notion that we are not interested in the Bible. It is our foundational text and without it we are cast adrift from our ancestors in the faith and from contemporary Christians around the world who read it as we do every day.

The struggle for the future of the Church of England on this issue cannot be allowed to be perceived to be between those who ‘believe the Bible’ and those who think it is out of date and want therefore to change things because of what we have learnt from science and modern medicine. Yes, science and modern medicine and psychology tell us things that our ancestors in the faith could never have imagined or known. It is also true that the culture and world view within which they lived which formed their thinking and to which the authors of our Scriptures wrote is vastly different from our own. But none the less we are people of the Book and we must be able to say:

Holy Scripture, inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, and written, compiled and handed down by generations of the people of God, is central to Christian discipleship. We do not contest this claim. [1]

What we are doing is disputing the idea that there is one simple, uncontested and plain sense of Scripture on this subject. In that process we have to, as Dr Loveday Alexander has said,

… stay with the Bible, but we have to find a way of making sense of it in a world that is very different from the world (or rather worlds) in which it was written. [2]

Marriage in Scripture

Despite what some might have us think, Scripture does not present us with one single universal model of marriage, and certainly not a model that we might recognise as the modern Hallmark edition of a happy man and woman, with their children, living in perpetual harmony.

The Hebrew Scriptures present us with a series of models, many of which we would find shocking and unacceptable, often immoral, and in some cases illegal in modern society. Each of those models is simply presented as a given, and though there is a move from widely accepted polygamy towards a perhaps more recognisable form of monogamy, there is very little exploration of what is driving that move beyond the simple description of what was found and done in the societies of each passing age.

What does remain constant, of course, was the ability, for the man at least, to dissolve the marriage at will.

To start with, and perhaps rather shockingly, much of the Hebrew Scriptures do not require sexual exclusivity or indeed permanence. Marriage is essentially a dynastic financial transaction which could be boiled down to the simple rule that if a woman was paid for by a man then she became his concubine, but if he was paid to take her away, she became his wife.

Various other forms of marriage were known, including what is called Levirate marriage, which we known about in Christian Scripture from the exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees, who wanted to know whose wife a woman would be if she had been passed down a succession of short-lived brothers (Matthew 22:23–32).

Rape and war could also result in a woman becoming the wife of her abuser, and she may or may not be subsequently disposed of depending on various rules, emphasising what is very clear throughout the Scriptural record – that the modern idea of marriage which we fondly imagine to be equality and mutual comfort is not seen in the marriages of the Bible. Marriage was structured through the lens of a society in which male dominance was the accepted norm.

Above all the woman is her husband’s property, as is clearly reflected in the Ten Commandments when the men are told ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’ The presumption throughout the Hebrew Scriptures is the dominance of the men while the women have no rights of their own.

Old Testament marriage is light years away from the happy nuclear family of modern popular imagination and Brides magazine.

In the New Testament things are not much better for modern advocates of the sort of marriage showcased by the Stepford wives. True, Jesus did famously attend a wedding, but his general and consistent attitude towards family and marriage is almost universally hostile. It is all too easy for us to fail to see the radical nature of Jesus’ words on this subject because we are so familiar with them, but in his words he is suggesting, demanding, a loyalty to the Kingdom in a way that supersedes and replaces that of the traditional family and clan loyalties of his, and perhaps every, age.

Remember how he refused to get involved in disputes about inheritance (Luke 12:13–14), and how he taught that in the world to come no one would marry or be given in marriage (Matthew 22:30). There is absolutely no evidence that he himself married, a radical enough stance given the cultural expectations of his time. He proclaimed that his message would divide families whilst at the same time he deliberately and harshly distanced himself from his own biological family, when they came looking for him, by saying:

‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ (Matthew 12: 48–50)

‘Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’ is the message of Jesus.

As if to emphasise that the Kingdom that he was bringing in, the new community, was utterly different from that in which he and his followers had been raised, he declared that ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10:37)

Jesus was clear: family and marriage are nothing – loyalty to the Kingdom and his message was primary. Jesus himself was simply not interested in marriage except where it interfered with his message and its acceptance.

Now, you might quickly point out that Jesus does refer to marriage in his dispute with the Pharisees about divorce in Matthew 19:3–6:

Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one 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”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

But despite the delight of conservatives who love to point to this passage as being the divine imprimatur on both heterosexual exclusivity with a side order of complementarianism, it is worth noting that this isn’t a discussion about marriage. It is about divorce, and Jesus’ words are descriptive of marriage in his society at the time, not necessarily prescriptive of marriage for all time. It is highly unlikely that Jesus was thinking about twenty-first century concerns about faithful, stable, monogamous gay relationships when he faced down the Pharisees and their love of rules. And as has been said elsewhere:

Many find it odd that a church which has found it quite possible to ignore a hard dominical saying on divorce (on which Jesus was quite explicit) struggles to accommodate same-sex relationships on which Jesus says nothing at all. [3]

Marriage is a provisional institution with its roots in creation, and like the Sabbath it was created for people and not people for it. So marriage is rooted in a story in which Eve is created not for sex, but primarily to answer Adam’s need for companionship. It is not good to be alone, said God in Genesis, and that fundamental principle applies to everyone, regardless of sexuality.

St Paul is hardly much better, and his attitude can be summed up in the rather grudging acknowledgement that to be married is better than burning with lust (1 Corinthians 7), though he would have preferred men to refrain from having sex with women. Now, that’s not signalling an invitation for men to have sex with men nor is it a suggestion that women can indulge with other women. It is a simple recognition that for Paul marriage and family life are of as little importance as they were to Jesus; both men were focused on the emerging Kingdom and within it radically new sets of relationships that replaced those of the old order.

To summarise – Scripture gives us a variety of models of marriage, some that seem superficially like our modern conception of marriage, many of which are alien and abhorrent. To both Jesus and Paul marriage and all that goes with it were of secondary secular importance, that is they belong to the world and belong to the age that is passing away. The disciples and the people of God are to focus their minds on the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness. One of the reasons we struggle so much with these issues is that Paul certainly, and Jesus very probably, didn’t expect the world to last much longer so a detailed exploration of the relevance of marriage and all that goes with it was simply not their concern.

Marriage in Christian tradition

Of course, the world didn’t end. Despite what Paul may have thought, the years have continued to roll on and the Church has had to accommodate itself to that perhaps disappointing reality.

Following on from Jesus’ and Paul’s example the early churches regarded marriage as nothing to do with the institutional Church. There were no marriage liturgies to fight over and no blessings to be given or withheld. As the Church settled and grew it simply adopted the practices and attitudes of the society in which it was situated. A couple simply followed the local form and that was it, often simply by stating that they were married, and moving in with each other. The principle that a couple form a marriage by stating their intention to be married has remained the one unchanging element of marriage across the centuries to this day.

Now, marriage for Christians was in some ways very different from that which had gone before. St Paul set out in 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5 a standard for Christians’ marriage which suggested a mutuality and respect that was out of step with its age. His words suggest an attitude of mutual respect that was undoubtedly radical for its time. It would take many centuries for those words to seep into the gradually evolving ideas of the Christian view of marriage and to lay the bedrock for one of the fundamental shifts in the perception of marriage that has taken place – the rise of the idea of marriage as a partnership of equals. St Paul didn’t himself challenge the basic assumption that formed the bedrock of all relationships in his age. Patriarchal dominance remained the expected form in any household and the idea of marriage as the union of equals simply didn’t exist either in the mind or the reality of the Church for centuries.

The Church did of course think and do theology about marriage – mostly because of the imagery of the Church as the Bride of Christ that Paul supplied in his writings. But Paul’s ideal, based on his profound belief of an ordered household under its inevitably male leader has little to do with the ideal of marriage put about by some modern conservatives with their insistence on sex difference, reproductive capacity and a particular approach to penetrative sex as the only form of sexual activity that is acceptably Christian.

St Paul’s understanding is based on the idea of incorporation into Christ and being part of the household of faith. Its foundation is self-giving sacrificial love, modelled by Christ, and of belonging to Christ in the same way that, Paul believed, a wife belonged to her husband. But being grafted into the new Kingdom does not require a difference in sex. It is a mistake to over-sexualise St Paul’s imagery of marriage: it is about forming households, not about complementarianism or sex-difference.

Alan Wilson, in his book More Perfect Union, has explored the twists and turns in the development of marriage, and if you’d like more details, I recommend it to you. It is a long history of slow changes shifting marriage from dynastic and property-based transaction to the more modern understanding of marriage as being a personal partnership of equals. In the process women have gained freedom from being treated as property, contraception has severed the link between sex and reproduction, marriage alone has ceased to be deemed consent to sex and divorce has become commonplace. When my marriage became possible in 2014 conservatives of all sorts across the country declared that it was against tradition. Very few of them are aware of just how different marriage is today for everyone from that witnessed by Jesus in Cana of Galilee and scorned by Paul a couple of decades later.

Which brings us, finally, to Scripture

It is worth noting straight away that there is no such thing as ‘the plain sense of Scripture’. All Scriptural exploration is about interpretation and translation.

Each generation brings to the work of Scripture unconscious influences from wider society and from the conceptions of the world that we hold to be normative in our age and time. In the debate over Scripture there is a significant difference in what shapes those background interpretative frameworks for conservatives and progressives. As a result the conclusions we reach appear mutually incompatible.

Those differences are the result of the importance we place on two differences between the ancient and modern world view – the fundamental understanding of what it is to be human in relation to another human being, and related to this and following on from it concepts of sexual orientation.

As Matthew Vines and many others have demonstrated, in the ancient world it was assumed that to be male represented the peak of human existence. Women were inferior, lesser forms of humanity, with children below them, and slaves below even the smallest free child. (Babies were not considered fully human at all, and exposure was a common way of controlling family size, disposing of unwanted, usually female, children and the disabled.) The ‘natural’ order was expressed in this patriarchal and vertical hierarchy. This is the social context of all the New Testament writers.

As Jonathan Tallon has argued, in the Gentile world this social structure led to attitudes to sex and sexual freedoms very different from those in our time:

‘A freeborn man was expected to have intercourse with his wife, his slaves and prostitutes, and as the active partner to demonstrate his virility and masculinity by this irrespective of the sex of the slaves or prostitutes.’ [4]

Following on from this the ancient conception of sexuality was very different indeed from that we have come to accept in the world today. In our world if a man sleeps with another man, or a women with another woman, they are gay; if they have sex with someone of the opposite sex then they are straight.

In ancient Rome, sexuality wasn’t defined by who (which sex) you had sex with, but whether you were either the dominant, active partner, or alternatively the submissive, passive one. So long as a freeborn man was the dominant partner, little else mattered so long as no-one else’s honour was affected – and slaves and prostitutes had no honour to affect (see Williams, Roman Homosexuality 2010, 3). Sexuality was not tied to orientation, but to action – to be the active partner was to be virile and manly. To be a passive partner was to be weak and effeminate. [5]

And what is more, and perhaps more shocking to us, is that the male sexual activity that was accepted was that between a grown man and a younger boy, more usually a teenager. There is much evidence that pederasty was widely accepted in both Greek and Roman literature, and Latin, the Roman language, has two words for boys who were kept for just this purpose.

Once this is recognised, we have to then come to St Paul, and how he and others like him responded to what they saw going on in the world around them.

St Paul was a good Jew, and though he may well have accepted that men were the superior form of humanity and all else beneath them, as a good Jew he could not and did not accept what went with that in the Gentile world. Sexual activity was strictly regulated in Jewish society. Leviticus 18 and 20 place a number of sexual practices out of bounds for God’s people, as an outward sign of the fundamental relationship between God and his people.

You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statues. My ordinances you shall observe. [6]

St Paul shared the moral perception of other Jewish writers of his day that male on male sexual activity was a specifically Gentile vice, and was fundamentally an expression of the failure to acknowledge and worship the one true God. The Wisdom of Solomon (Wisdom 14:22–27) traces all the corruptions of Gentile society, including its sexual corruption, to the basic sin of idolatry.

As Marcus Green has observed:

‘St Paul is describing every Jew’s caricature of the entire idolatrous Gentile world. It’s ancient Egypt, it’s ancient Canaan, it’s Babylon, it’s Corinth, it’s certainly Rome’ [7]

Romans 1 is often pointed to as a passage that is clear and unambiguous in its condemnation of homosexuality. In Romans 1 the words St Paul uses talk about male on male sexual activity, not that between two men. In the wider context of Roman society what St Paul is referring to is pederasty. But as we have seen, St Paul would have no concept of sexual orientation as we know it today, and he is writing in a culture in which the adult male sexual activity with a younger (slave) male such as he described, and condemned, would be equally condemned in our society.

For many of us reading Scripture in the light of these differences in understanding leads to very different conclusions to those reached by fellow Christians who underestimate the importance and influence of these differences.

Ian Paul, and other conservatives, argue that the biblical view of what it is to be human, its anthropology, must be given primacy because it is the biblical view, St Paul’s view:

‘Scientific understandings have their own assumptions about what it is to be human… and a proper theological understanding of the issue will want to consider how biblical anthropology offers a critique of this.’ [8]

Following on from this approach, conservatives challenge the concept of sexual orientation. Ian Paul writes in his essay ‘The biblical case for the traditional position’:

‘Something needs to be said about scientific “facts” in this area. There is, at present, no scientific consensus on the cause of “sexual orientation”, and in fact no consensus on what it actually means… Any view formed by science or contemporary values is neither neutral nor (necessarily) controlling.’

For those who accept the primacy of biblical anthropology and refuse to accept that being gay is a simple reality, is it easy to see how it is possible to find nothing but condemnation for same-sex relationships in the Scriptures written from within that world-view. What is seen is simply people who are choosing to do something that goes against what the Bible says is ‘natural’, and as a consequence ‘God gave them up to degrading passions’.

But as Dr Lovejoy Alexander has said:

‘Ethics and anthropology are inextricably linked. St Paul’s condemnation of homosexual acts is a logical consequence of his construction of sexuality – and that construction is derived from his own first-century cultural world. Sever the connection, and the moral condemnation is without foundation.’

Like her, Matthew Vine and others have argued that, given that the modern world no longer accepts the foundational anthropology of the text, it is possible, even necessary, to reject its condemnations. We do not view an epileptic in the same was as they did in the first century, our view of medicine has changed. We would not therefore treat them in the same way, as someone possessed by an evil spirit and needing exorcism. So, we should not expect to find a response to the question of gay and lesbian lives in texts for which we do not exist, and where our relationships and loves are not just unknown but framed in a way that we would reject with the same moral outrage and disgust as our heterosexual friends would.


What is clear is that marriage is not and never has been immune from change and that it is possible to take the Bible seriously and come to conclusions that revision the Church in a way that opens it up to a wider inclusion.

A group of us have recently launched the Campaign for Equal Marriage in the Church of England, or Equal for short. We are seeking a change in the practice of the Church of England in respect of marriage – to allow gay couples to marry in their local parish church, to stop the discrimination against clergy who have married their same-sex partners and to respect the conscience of all sides in this debate. No one who disagrees should be made to officiate at a same-sex marriage and equally no one who believes in them should be prevented from celebrating one.

Two hundred years ago a small group of Christians were working for change in the Church of England. The Clapham sect were fiercely opposed to slavery and used the Bible to argue against it, even as those around them used the Bible to argue that is was part of the natural order. In 1807 they managed to get the slave trade banned in the British Empire, and in 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act brought freedom to all the slaves in the Empire, even though all the bishops in the House of Lords opposed it.

Change is coming to the Church of England once again.

[1] Andrew Davison, Amazing Love, p. 38[2] Dr Loveday Alexander, ‘Homosexuality and the Bible’, in Grace and Disagreement, 2014

[3] Dr Loveday Alexander, ‘Homosexuality and the Bible’, in Grace and Disagreement, 2014, p. 35

[4] Jonathan Tallon, ‘Does the Bible say anything about homosexuality as we understand it today?’, Via Media, 17 May 2019

[5] Jonathan Tallon, ibid.

[6] Leviticus 18:3

[7] Marcus Green, The possibility of difference

[8] Ian Paul, ‘The biblical case for a traditional position’, in Grace and Disagreement