Thursday, October 18, 2012

Pondering marriage from a biblical perspective

For several weeks I have been preparing for two forums I'll be leading this weekend to address the question, "What does the Bible say about marriage?"  Across Minnesota in anticipation of the proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman, churches are posturing with all the subtlety and grace of politicians as they campaign for one position or the other.

A word about the political debate: The amendment, which simply defines marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman, will not immediately change anything in Minnesota.  Homosexual "marriage" is legal in Iowa, just to our south, but Minnesota currently has a law on the books that prevents homosexual unions being classified as "marriages" in Minnesota.  The amendment is designed to make it harder for Minnesota's judges or legislators to legalize changes to our marriage laws without voter approval.  A constitutional amendment would make it necessary for voters to approve or disapprove any proposed changes directly.

So basically, a "no" vote means you want to leave the way open for Minnesota's courts or legislature to lay down rulings or pass laws that legalize homosexual "marriage".  A "yes" vote on the amendment means you would rather have our state constitution define marriage as between one man and one woman, so that in the future any proposed changes should be voted on directly by the people of Minnesota.

Given the debate raging in Minnesota about the "Marriage Amendment," it seems like Jesus-followers should be approaching questions about marriage -- or any question, for that matter -- by asking, what does the Bible say about this?  In this political context, it seems prudent for our church to provide people a time to reexamine what the Bible says on the definition of marriage.  That's why we're hosting these two pastor's forums this weekend.  These forums will take place at Central Lutheran in Elk River this Saturday, October 21, 9-10:30 am, and Sunday, October 22nd, 12:30-2 pm.

Sadly, almost all the discussion around this proposed amendment begins with the question, "Do I think homosexual people should be allowed to get married?"  This question leads naturally to an examination of people we know or have "met" in the media who are homosexual.  Like most people, they are generally good.  Personally, my friends who happen to be homosexual are articulate, creative, bright, loving, delightful people.  (Otherwise, why would they be my friends?)  So when I begin with these friends in mind, it seems natural to want them to be happy.  Since we believe (without good evidence, I might add) that happiness means getting what you want, we say, "If that's what they want, they should be allowed to get married!"  We think at this point that we have settled the question.

As I have been preparing for these forums, I'm impressed by the depth and consistency of the Bible's attitude toward marriage.  The Bible does not begin with the question of, "What do you think?" or even with the question, "What do you want?"  On the contrary, according to the Bible both of those questions will get me in deep trouble.  Instead, the Bible begins with the question, "What does God want?"  We begin to get a glimpse of what God wants when we look at the design he implemented in his creation, and we read the Bible in order to understand his intentions regarding that creative design.

Two conditions come into view immediately when we take this approach.  First, there are some things we can say are God's intention.  An incredible diversity in the created order, for example, is part of God's good intention.  Humans acting sovereignly over creation in ways that reflect the loving, servant nature of God is another part of God's good intention.  There are other things we can say are not part of God's original intention, but are rather evidence of the brokenness of creation.  Violence of one human being against another is an example of this sinful brokenness.  Humans acting as tyrants over creation, exploiting it for our own greedy ends provide another example.

Therefore, just because we see something present in creation does not mean that God intends it that way.  What we see may be evidence of the brokenness of creation.  This is one reason we need to return to the Bible again and again, because without it we cannot distinguish God's original intention from the brokenness of creation.  We may look close-up at an oil slick on a pond and see a bright rainbow of color, beautiful swirls of purples and oranges that could make a striking photograph.  Until we back up and see the oil slick in its context and the damage it does, we might think it was an example of beauty and health.  The bodies of the dead birds and animals on the shore are an indication that our sense of "beauty" in this case might be misguided.

In the same way, the Bible takes us beyond our own context, our own wisdom, and gives us perspective to judge rightly.  One way it does this, for example, is by clarifying things we might rather leave unclear.  So the Bible says clearly that divorce is not God's intention.  In fact, Jesus says that Moses included provision for divorce in the law only "because of your hardness of heart"(see Mark 10).  Yet we have created a culture in which divorce seems like an easy way out of a difficult relationship.  Viewed close up, we may see in divorce the possibility for freedom and a new start.  Only looking at it through a biblical lens can we see the breaking of a covenant, the destruction of a one-flesh relationship, and lifelong wounds and grief that will ensue.  I recognize that in some cases divorce is regrettably necessary.  However, its prevalence in our culture has to lead the Jesus-follower to ask, how are we so far from what the Bible describes as God's intention for marriage?  Only through this lens are we led to a deep sense of repentance and a desire to stand for marriages that truly provide a life-giving core for stable families.

So what does the Bible say about marriage?  That could be a lengthy book, but let me offer a few highlights for your pondering.  We will dig into these ideas in more depth on Saturday and Sunday at the forums, as well as taking time to discuss how these apply to our understandings of marriage today:

1. In Genesis 1:26-27, male and female are named together as part of what it means for humans to be created "in God's image."  By itself this wouldn't mean much, but later on the Bible says a lot about the way a marriage of a man and a woman reflects the nature of God and God's relationship to his people.

2. Genesis 2:18-25 is without doubt the most significant biblical text on marriage, laying out a pattern for God's intention for marriage.  In this text, among many other things, God says it is not good for man to be alone, that he needs a "helper" fit for his needs (see next point for more on this), and a basic pattern for marriage relationships is laid out in 2:24-25.

3. The much-maligned "helper" (or "helpmate" which is an inaccurate translation of the words "help meet for him", the King James Version's way of saying a helper fitting for him) is a powerful word.  In the Bible the Hebrew word "ezer" (helper) is applied only to God as the one who helps us, with one exception.  The word is applied to a human only in Genesis 2, specifically referring to the woman God created out of Adam.  So the idea of Eve -- or any woman -- being an "assistant" or a lackey is absolutely NOT what the text is talking about here.  The relationship described is a relationship between people of different physical structure, different gifts, different identity, but of equal value.  It is only in this context of complementarity that the statement in 2:24 that these two "become one flesh" makes any sense.

4. Within the culture of the Old Testament nation of Israel, cultural practices around marriage diverged from this original pattern laid out in Genesis 2.  Polygamy, Levirate marriage, concubines, and sexual relationships in the context of the worship of other gods (notably Baal and Asherah) were all common practices in the Old Testament, but the Bible does not endorse -- and in most cases strongly rejects -- these other contexts for sexual relationships.  The Old Testament also recognizes divorce as a reality, but clearly states that it is not God's intention.

5. The New Testament reinstates the Genesis 2 pattern of God's intention for marriage.  Jesus reasserts this pattern, most strongly in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, by quoting Genesis 2:24 and expounding on it. Jesus also goes even farther than the Old Testament in stating clearly that divorce violates God's intention for marriage.

6. This final point is perhaps the Bible's clearest teaching about marriage, yet it is the one that gets the least press and the least preaching time.  Throughout the Bible, the marriage relationship between a man and a woman is held up as a preview or metaphor for the relationship between God and his people.  For example, the entire Old Testament book of Hosea uses this metaphor in vivid ways.  The New Testament makes this metaphor explicit in Ephesians 5:21-33 and Revelation 19, among other places.  This understanding of marriage as a "window" into God's relationship with us is one of the most important biblical perspectives on God's intention for the marriage relationship.  Far from being about "me and what I want," marriage is about God communicating his desire for relationship and the dynamics of that relationship in a concrete way.  As we look at marriage between a man and a woman, we begin to understand that though we are radically different, we can enjoy an intimate, life-giving relationship.  This relationship requires us to go beyond ourselves, to abandon our own self-focused desires to serve and enjoy one who is radically different from us.  The nature of the marriage relationship points us to the intimate, life-giving relationship God wants with us, even though he is radically different from us.

Enough for now.

By the way, it is instructive that one of the Bible's harshest indictments of the Israelites in the Old Testament comes at the end of the book of Judges.  The Bible says that "all the people did what was right in their own eyes" (Judges 21:25).  In a democracy where each individual chooses to vote his or her own conscience, we have to be careful not to make that same mistake.

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