The term ‘biblical marriage’ is tossed around a fair bit these days. I think the phrase refers to a real, God-designed, and beautiful reality; but examining the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of biblical marriage is not really the purpose of this article. I am writing for one reason: to clarify what people, who hold to an historic evangelical view of Scripture, mean when they use the term. I think this needs to be said, primarily because a number of people who actually hold the same view as I do on Scripture seem to be paralyzed by an imbecilic argument on this subject. Someone lobs a relativistic grenade of ostensible biblical forethought in your direction and it leaves you shaken and stirred, and not in a good way. You think back to everything you know about the Bible, and the things you’ve read in its pages, and you think, “Great Scott! I have no leg to stand on here.”

I have heard this jab one too many times. Normally my response is simply to roll my eyes, shake my head, and breath in a sigh of deep frustration as I click off my Facebook feed. I will click off no longer. This needs to be said. Though feelings are all the rage these days, facts matter too.

Hear me out: I’m not overly concerned about you having an argument to throw at your atheist friends. That is not my purpose here. But if you believe the Bible and don’t know what to think when faced with this specific argument, maybe this will help. And for those who actually perpetuate the fallacious line of ‘reasoning’ below, please stop it.

Though feelings are all the rage these days, facts matter too. Click To Tweet

Person A and Person B both claim a traditional evangelical view of Scripture. They both claim to take the Bible seriously as God’s word. They really want to believe and hold fast to the truth. But they are engaged in a tense debate. Here is how it unfolds:

Person A:
“I’m talking about biblical marriage.”

Person B:
“Biblical marriage?!”

Person A:
“Yes, marriage as God has created and designed it. Marriage as the Bible teaches it.”

Person B:
“As the Bible teaches it? Well that’s problematic. Have you read the Bible? You know what biblical marriage looks like? It looks like a guy having 2 or 3 or 100 wives. It looks like Benjamites stealing women in a vineyard and forcing them to be married to them. It looks like a king having multiple wives, but then stealing another man’s wife, impregnating her, and killing her husband. That’s what you’re arguing for?”

Person A:
“Um. Well…” (Looking confused and disillusioned) “I suppose, well…” (Feeling the sudden deep ache that accompanies a lack of assurance) “Oh, hmmm… Well, that’s not… ummm… hmmm…” (Sighing deeply, realizing that they are at the end of their hermeneutical capacity) “I don’t know what to say.”

Person B:
(Sly self-aggrandizing smirk beginning to form as the realization that they just bested their fundamentalist friend with such a savvy Bible-block)
“Yeah, biblical marriage, biblical shmarriage.”

Person A, take heart, Person B is actually way more ignorant than they appear. Don’t let it get you down. Your crusading friend, who just recently read a whole slew of new books on what the Bible really says, actually doesn’t know a whole lot about what the Bible really says.

Here’s the issue:

Person A is using the term biblical marriage to refer to marriage as prescribed in the Bible. Person B is using the term biblical marriage to refer to marriage as described in the Bible. Person A is using the term correctly. Person B sounds really informed, but they are actually trafficking in gross misinformation.

To understand what the words in a certain text mean you need to understand a basic interpretive framework called “context.” To discover what a biblical text means in context you ask some basic questions. Here are a few:

1) What type of literature is this?
2) What is the author claiming here?
3) What does this reveal about God?
4) What does this reveal about humanity?
5) How does this text relate to the rest of the biblical book it is in?
6) How does this text relate to the whole of Scripture?

When you approach the text in context, you find out that some texts of the Bible describe things, while others prescribe things. This isn’t code for a subjective framework that arbitrarily adopts the areas it wants to keep as prescriptive, while writing off other areas as descriptive. It’s really not that complicated.

When you approach the text in context, some texts of the Bible describe things, others prescribe things. Click To Tweet

To examine Person B’s arguments:

When Lamech takes two wives in Genesis 4 (the beginning of plural marriage in the Bible) his decision there and his character overall are clearly seen in context as radically depraved and corrupt. He’s in the line of Cain. This is sinful humanity venturing East of Eden, post Genesis 3, fleeing further and further from God and his design.

When David sins with Bathsheba and kills Uriah, the narrator of the story clearly says, “The thing David did displeased the Lord.[1]

When men from the tribe of Benjamin grabbed wives from the vineyard at the end of the book of Judges, it’s one of the last narratives in a long line of stories in a book where the major idea is “There was no king in Israel, everyone did what was right in their own eyes.[2]

This could go on an on. For every example of people in the Bible being idiots as it relates to marriage, there is clear context that shows that the reader isn’t being called to follow their example, or to adopt their approach to marriage as prescriptive.

The point is not “those are Old Testament stories that don’t apply.” The point is that those are descriptive events that happen to include the word ‘marriage’ in them, not prescriptive commands from God on how it is supposed to function. This is not hard to comprehend. The Bible reveals God’s character and plan, and humanity’s design and downfall. The human characters in Scripture aren’t propped up as ideal role models who lived life the way we’re all supposed to live it. They are sinful human beings whose dirty laundry is aired and who are seen in their blatant depravity in order to magnify the grace of a God who saves sinners.

The Bible reveals God’s character and plan, and humanity’s design and downfall. Click To Tweet

If you want to find “prescriptive” teaching on marriage in Scripture, you can start with the very first page of your Bible. After God creates man and women in his image, he marries them and the author of Genesis reports: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” This is an obvious prescription, not only because of what is says and how it says it, but because this prescription for marriage is repeated by Jesus (Mark 10 and Matthew 19) and Paul (Ephesians 5), and serves as both the biblical definition of marriage and the foundation for the Christian ethic on marriage and sexuality. This is an example of something that is prescriptive, repeated and expounded upon all through the pages of Scripture as God’s design.

This is what people mean when they use the term “biblical marriage.” Biblical marriage means marriage as the Bible prescribes, not marriage as the Bible describes. Person A, take heart. Person B, please stop it.

Biblical marriage means marriage as the Bible prescribes, not marriage as the Bible describes. Click To Tweet

[1] 2 Samuel 11:27

[2] Judges 21:25