Biblical marriages

A popular infographic claims to present interesting, even shocking, information about “biblical marriage”. This biblical marriage infographic is unhelpful.

Biblical marriage infographic

Facebook does not seen good at giving attributions, so I don’t know who produced biblical marriage infographic, if it was you write to me and I’ll gladly attribute it :)

I’ve seen several people, including Rowland Crowcher, post this “infographic” on Facebook. Since I’ve spoken quite a bit on “Family in the Bible”, and am due to speak to a leaders group from the NZ Christian Network on the “Theology of Marriage” really soon it makes me hopping mad!

In one sense the graphic is “true”. The Bible does present all these, and more (some arguably worse) patterns of marriage. It is also true that God chose to work in and through many of these. Just looking at Abraham (the “father” of the three monotheistic religions) or Jacob (aka “Israel”) makes it clear that God does not turn aside from some convoluted and perverse human arrangements in choosing who to use as a channel of grace.

But, do any of these represent “a biblical view of marriage”. Hell no! It is time for some stakes in the ground. In terms of the teaching of Scripture it is clear that Gen 2 is a privileged text (Jesus and Paul both cite it when discussing marriage). This passage, and the teaching of Jesus and Paul make some basics clear:

Marriage:
  • was ordained by God
  • is the union of a man and a woman
    • produces and nurtures the next generation
    • provides necessary partnership

However, in this (as in everything else) human sinfulness warps and twists God’s intent. All of the “biblical” marriages listed in the graphic reflect this.

See some of my earlier posts for background to this one:

I am aware that some people will understand what I have written in the very short and angry post as endorsing particular views on the currently hot and vexed topic of “Gay marriages”. It does. Gay marriage is perhaps an oxymoron if marriage the partnership of a man and a woman, and is intended to produce as well as nurture the next generation. However, the view endorsed above says nothing about either Civil Unions, or about the possibility of blessing (or even solemnising) them in churches. As far as I am concerned that seem to be separate issues, and ones on which my view of marriage does not entail any particular position. I wish that we (Christians of all stripes, marriage activists of every opinion, and especially the authorities of both states and churches) would just sit back and separate the two things and issues.

Teaching theology to children

The workshop Barbara and I did for the NZ Baptist Gathering in November is now available as a video (along with other sessions). It is here. Do make any objections, ask any questions, or whatever :) it’s a topic we care about!

Reading the Bible: seeking teaching on family

Previous posts about biblical teaching on family ( What is a family? and Does the Bible present a preferred pattern of family) led to lively discussion. How do we use the Bible rightly to establish teaching on family? This post addresses two aspects. The Bible uses different sorts of text to teach different ways. We also need to discern the direction or thrust of the Bible as a whole.

How the Bible teaches

The Bible is made up of many different sorts of text, and they do not all “work” the same. We understand a law from Leviticus differently from a Psalm, and both are read according to different rules from a proverb…

Some sorts of biblical passage intend to teach us something. Paul’s letters for example sought first to teach the early churches how to live, and so they also seek to teach us about Christian living.

A narrative does not teach in this direct way. When 2 Samuel 11ff. tells us about David’s adultery with Bathsheba, and subsequent executive murder of her husband Uriah. The purpose is not to teach the moral “adultery is wrong” nor even “murder is wrong”. It does want us to identify with David, and learn about temptation, sin and punishment from his mistakes. So when we read Ps 51 we will learn even more (but about God and ourselves rather than about “morals”).

Epistles and History are told in different ways and teach differently.

Narrative reaches deeper into our being, but we need to be more cautious in identifying its “teaching”. Epistles by contrast teach directly. When reading such direct teaching (and much of Jesus’ speech in the Gospels is like this – direct teaching) we need to be cautious about making the Bible say something different from what it intends. Using Jesus’ teaching about trying to fit a camel through the eye of a needle (Mat 19:24 etc.) to teach about the folly of over loading a beast of burden is simply a way to avoid what Jesus says “wealth is dangerous to our spiritual health”!

Western Christians seek to avoid Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage by turning it into “safe” teaching about families.

I am saying two things here:

1. When reading a Bible passage that “teaches” we should be very cautious of making it teach something more than it sets out to teach – avoid the temptation to make the Bible say more than it does!

2. When drawing teaching from a narrative text we should be careful. Scripture is not seeking to teach ideas to readers of such texts. 2 Sam 11ff. is not merely a warning to murderous adulterers. It is a warning to all of us about following our desires and becoming faithless people.

The thrust of biblical teaching

Granted that much of the Bible (especially most poems and many stories) does not set out directly to teach, we need a way to confirm what we suspect the Bible may be teaching us.

We are so used to hearing people quote Bible verses (and seeing this – as I did above!) that we forget that we need to look at the whole sweep of biblical teaching. I’ll use quotes from the comments to the previous article to try to explain what I mean. (The quotes are in italics.)

Matthew interprets Hosea 11:1 in “messianic” fashion in Matthew 2:15 and gives a meaning to the text that is not evident in its original context.

This use by Matthew of Hos 11:1 is a really good textbook example of some of the issues involved in Christian reading of the Old Testament. At first glance it seems as if Matthew has “played fast and loose” with the biblical text. “Out of Egypt I called my son.” In Hosea the son is Israel, who as the following verses show was less than faithful to God. Matthew says that Jesus “fulfills” this. What does he mean? He uses the verb “fill, make full”(as do other New Testament writers) to point to a relationship between Jesus and Scripture. What the NT means by fulfil is something like: What Israel was intended to be, Jesus is fully. So Jesus was intended to be God’s son, called from Egypt to reveal God. Israel failed at this task, but Jesus (as the rest of the Gospel will show) fills the calling fully. In other words Matthew is not making Scripture say something it did not intend, rather he points to a consequence or conclusion drawn from comparing this text with the experience he has of Jesus.

Similarly: “In 1 Corinthians 9:8-9 Paul quotes from Deuteronomy 25:4 and gives it a meaning that was clearly not intended in its First Testament context.” Paul is also drawing a principle out of Scripture, that even an animal that works deserves to benefit from their labour – and as Paul says how much more a human!

In Matthew 22:32 Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6 as proof to the Pharisees that there is a resurrection. The text he quotes in its original context has nothing to do with resurrection.

It is true that the Scripture Jesus quotes is not about resurrection. Though it is about the nature of God, and God does claim to be the God of Abraham, not to “have been” his God. He refers to a present reality. Here Jesus points to a hint that is already present in Scripture. A hint that the NT again fills out, fulfills for us. God’s self-revelation in the Bible is not static and timeless, but incarnate first in the story of Israel, and then fully in Christ and in the NT witness to what his coming means.

As you point out I did the same thing! Taking what was merely a hint in the Old Testament and recognising its fullness in the revelation of God in Christ, and even in the later doctrines that the Church developed to understand him!

In your first article Tim you say “Already the “preface to the Bible” expresses the equality, and complementarity, of men and women. Through the parallelism of Hebrew poetry we see that together they are “in the image of God”. Through this union of difference, human marriages picture the union of difference that Christian theology calls Trinity”. You of course are reading a ‘trinitarian’ meaning back into the Genesis text that can hardly be said to be intended in the original context. I’m quite comfortable with your approach however because it is consistent with broader themes within the unified canon of scripture.

So, at times the New Testament goes beyond (but builds on) the Old. Because God’s self-revelation in the Bible was “incarnate” like a human being it grows and develops. But the new builds on, and fills out, the old. So that there is a direction or trajectory of Scriptural teaching.

I do not see this happening with the topic of family. This is a surprise to me, I would have expected clear teaching on such an important topic. When Scripture is silent then I am cautious of claiming more than I read… What I think is going on (and here I am merely expressing a feeling, not claiming to teach with authority ;-) is that on this topic God recognised that human cultures are different. Different cultures would have different family and child rearing patterns. So the Bible does not impose one pattern (e.g. the Mediterranean “household”). Rather it shows and teaches us the virtues that we need to strengthen our families.


This piece, like: What is a family? and Does the Bible present a preferred pattern of family was first published on the Vision network site, but changes of URL have lost it there, so I am reposting it here.

Does the Bible present a preferred pattern of family?

This is a follow-up to the article “What is a Family?” This follow-up asks whether the Bible presents a preferred pattern of family. Discussing Mat 19:3ff; Mk 10:2ff; Gen 1:27,28; 2:18-24; Colossians 3:18-21; Ephesians 5:21-6:4 and 1 Timothy 3:1-4 (cf Titus 1:6) as possible biblical bases for a model of “family”.

Part of the discussion between Sean and me (BTW Sean thanks for a stimulating and useful set of responses!) after my article “What is a Family ?” related to the question of whether the Bible presents a preferred pattern of family. I had used a number of examples to argue that the Bible takes families as they are and presents a set of values or virtues that go with “family”.

Sean however lists:

A number of passages however suggest that at the core of a preferred or normative family form/life are a husband and wife who are mother and father and are committed to the hesed that brings wellbeing of their children (This is not to say that in a broken world the God of grace does not accept and bless other family forms ).

Let’s look at these passages in turn (the introductory italicised material quotes from Sean’s comment):

Mtt 19:3ff; Mk 10:2ff Jesus affirmation of marriage between one man and one women can also be said to be an affirmation of the preferred context in which children are to be nurtured. By prescribing the form of the institution of marriage one would think he is also prescribing the core preferred form of family life.

Gen 1:27,28 Affirms not only the nature of the marriage relationship but the nature of the context in which children are to be raised ie “Be fruitful and increase in number”. It is the man and the woman, the husband and wife who are given the responsibility to nurture the fruit of their union.

We need to look at what is going on here and what Jesus is discussing. Because when interpreting the Bible it is vital that we identify the topic and do not use scriptures to teach about things that they are not “about”.

The topic is set by the Pharisees, “divorce” (Mat 19:3, Mark 10:2),  and Jesus addresses this topic, teaching from Genesis 1 and 2 that marriage is intended to be a lifelong commitment of a man and woman to each other and that therefore divorce spoils God’s intention in creating humans (Mat 19:4-6, Mark 10:6-9). This is teaching about divorce, not about family or childrearing. Marriage and children are evidently closely related, but as the example of African matrilineal societies shows not necessarily related in the way we modern Westerners assume.

Gen 1:27f. And Gen 2 are similar, they address the relationships between men and women, and they address marriage, but they do NOT set a pattern for family.

Colossians 3:18-21; Ephesians 5:21-6:4 Affirm the core relationships at the centre of family as husband, wife and their children.

These passages, by contrast, are about family, they tell of virtues we should show in our family relationships: love, faithfulness, submission, obedience… However, notice that in both cases the “family” is not a contemporary nuclear family, in each case it is assumed to include “slaves” too (Col 3:22ff.; Eph 6:5ff.). We can debate whether these “servants/slaves” (the Greek is doulos) were usually slaves or whether they were often junior members of the wider biological wh?nau. Whichever or both, they are members of the “family” being discussed, so we should not argue for our pattern of family as being “the” biblical pattern from these passages!

1 Timothy 3:1-4 Highlights key family relationships of the church leader and explictly mentions husbands, wives, fathers and children (cf Titus 1:6)

These passages discuss the qualities needed to be a leader in the community, and they focus on family values (as I have discussed them). Leaders should be monogamous (and – I’d assume but will not argue here – faithful) and bring up “their children” well, but these qualities are part of a much wider list: “Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money.” (1 Tim 3:2-3) Here too we are given a glimpse of the sort of people God wants us to be, including how we should behave in marriage and towards “our children”. But we are not presented a model family to which we should seek to conform – it seems God is happy to work with and in families as they are rather than propose one shape to fit everyone!

<Related digression>
I think one of the reasons this recognition comes hard for us is that over the centuries we have come to accept the idea that the Bible is a law book, or a “maker’s manual”, when really it is more like a series of sermons. The Bible much more often exhorts us to live better and more Godly lives, it seldom lays down rules. Just think what Paul had to say about “the Law”.
<End digression>


This piece was first published on the Vision network site, but changes of URL have lost it there, so I am reposting it here.

What is a family?

Family in the Bible

Social change (high rates of separation and divorce, legislation like the Civil Unions Act last year, some impacts of the much older Privacy Act…) together with the strong Christian tradition of “defending family values” combine to make it really important that as Christians we think through what we mean by “family”.

The primary paradigm (or ideal picture) of “family” in the Western world is a mum, a dad and an ever decreasing number of children. However, among Māori and Pacific cultures the paradigm begins with whānau – a much wider concept.

Before Christians can discuss family or family values we need to look closely at the Bible and hear what God has to teach us. In this short article I will try to suggest some starting points for developing a biblical view of family.

Words translated “family”

In the NT (although a large number of words express various sorts of kinship relationship: e.g. daughter-in-law, tribe…) most places where English translations use “family” a Greek word related to “oikos” (household) is used. In the other cases “family” means something more like tribe, since all are descendants of one often distant ancestor, e.g. “the Christ will come from David’s family” (John 7:42).

OT usage is similar, but with a stronger focus on the larger units. Mishpach (clan) is the commonest term, though beth ‘ab (father’s house) is also used. The beth ‘ab was not at all a “nuclear family”. It included slaves and servants, as well as married children and their children, and possibly a widowed aunt as well. A mishpach was made up of a number of households and could be as small as a village or as large as a tribe. Hapu or perhaps whanau seem the nearest equivalents in contemporary NZ to a biblical “family”.

A model family?

The Bible nowhere presents an “ideal family” that we can use as a model for a biblical view of “family”. Firstly no family is presented as a model, and secondly few were even close to ideal. Think of the families the Bible does present. Here is a sample with some comments:

  • Adam/Eve – a two parent nuclear family par excellence which produced the first murderer.
  • Abraham/Sarah (and Hagar) – a ménage à trois with dysfunctional power relationships.
  • Jacob/Leah and Rachel – polygamy producing a dysfunctional family.
  • David and his women – this time polygamy combines with executive murder and adultery…
  • Esther/Ahasuerus – Esther is selected in a beauty contest to replace the disobedient queen Vashti.
  • Timothy who has a mother and grandmother who were believers, but his father was a pagan (he is called a Hellenos, a Pagan Greek, not an Hellenistes, a Greek-speaking believer).

Even Jesus’ family – whom Christians sometimes call “the Holy Family” – left Joseph as step-father. However good a father he may have been (and we simply do not know since the gospels tell us almost nothing about Jesus’ relationship with his parents or brothers) few people argue that step-parenting is God’s ideal!

This surprising apparent lack of biblical teaching on the basic unit of society even allows the growth in the USA today of groups like truthbearer.org an “organization for Christian polygamy”.

Biblical Family Values

If the Bible has no model family structure to propose, it does identify and promote a clear set of virtues associated with families and living in family. These virtues are vital in constructing a Christian understanding of family today.

Typical or normative?

However, we need to be careful here. Some Bible passages describe how ancient Israel, or Christians of the first century, lived. Others prescribe how God wants us to behave. On some issues of social structure and organization Christians are clear that biblical patterns are descriptive not prescriptive. So Christians today no longer defend slavery as “biblical” (despite considerable potential textual support for the kindly keeping of slaves!), few either demand that biblical economic prescriptions be applied (returning land within a generation of purchase and interest-free loans are only the start)!

Even prescriptive texts (e.g. Proverbs) come to us carrying the baggage of the social organisation of Ancient Israel or of the Roman Empire. Most Christians accept that the spirit or principles of these prescriptions still apply, but few seek to follow their letter. The same may be true of families and family values! So Proverbs 13:24 may not so much be counselling us to beat our children as to discipline them (while heavy beating was a common form of discipline in the ancient world – see Ex 21:20 – it is no longer acceptable). Paul’s injunctions (e.g. Col 3:21; Eph 6:4) may be felt to better express the normative biblical view of discipline.

So, what does the Bible as a whole present as normative for our understanding of family? Here is one (certainly incomplete) list:

Family images God

Biblical pictures of what God is like, and of humanity’s relationship with God, are mainly drawn from either royalty or family life. (These were the two predominant institutions in the ancient world).

God is (to give just a partial list):

  • father – e.g. Dt 32:6; Ps 2:7; Mat 6:6
  • mother – e.g. Dt 32:18; Is 49:15; Mat 23:37
  • redeemer – e.g. Ex 15:13; Ps 73:2; 77:15 (this is very much a “family” word as a look at the examples of human “redeemers” shows, interestingly though the verb is used the noun is absent from the NT)
  • husband – e.g. Jer 2:2; Hos 2; Rev 21:2

The chosen people are:

  • son or daughter – e.g. Gen 42:5; Ex 1:1; Is 22:4; Heb 12:7
  • household – e.g. Ex 16:31; Num 20:29; Hos 1:4; Eph 2:19
  • wife – e.g. Ez 16; 23; Rev 19:7
  • adopted stray – e.g. Ez 16 cf. Ps 2:7 & Eph 1:5
  • slave – e.g. Dt 5:15; Josh 24:17; Micah 6:4; James 1:1

If families help us understand what God is like, then God shows us what families should be like!

Marriage is a one-to-one partnership

From the Genesis account of the creation of humans, to Jesus’ own teaching and its NT outworking, a biblical understanding of marriage is centred on the claim that God made women and men as different-but-equal partners, who need each other, not only for procreation but also by their very natures. When a woman and a man marry they become “one flesh”. Because of this, marriage is the lifelong partnership of one man and one woman. This partnership is total, including the spiritual, mental, physical, and even the economic. It is expected to produce children (when, in the Bible, this is not the outcome of marriage it is a special tragedy, from which many biblical characters prayed to be delivered).

Gen 1:27:

So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

Already the “preface to the Bible” expresses the equality, and complementarity, of men and women. Through the parallelism of Hebrew poetry we see that together they are “in the image of God”. Through this union of difference, human marriages picture the union of difference that Christian theology calls Trinity.

In Gen 2:18:

The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

God expresses humanity’s need to be completed by a complementary partner. The word for “helper” (‘ezer) is most often used to describe God as humanity’s helper(Gen 49:25; Dt 33:26 etc.)! A few verses later the man concurs with his creator’s opinion of this complementary equality saying (2:23):

This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’, for she was taken out of man.

That this partnership of equals is the point of the story – and that it speaks of marriage – is confirmed when this episode ends with the words:

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (2:24)

It is this teaching that Jesus confirms when asked his views about divorce (Mat 19:3ff.; Mark 10:2ff.) “what God has joined together, let man not separate.” His teaching goes on to assert that human law (Moses) allows divorce – in case of adultery – on account of human sinfulness.

The epistle to the Ephesians takes the same OT text to teach on the “profound mystery” of Christ and the church, and of how we are the “body of Christ”.

Loving-kindness (hesed): a family word for God’s love and care

God’s faithful and dependable loving care for us is often described using a Hebrew word that is difficult to render in English. “His hesed endures forever!” is a refrain in Psalms 118 and 136 and the word is used in many places to describe God, but does it mean love, mercy, faithfulness…?

This Hebrew word hesed describes the virtue expected in relationships (like family and covenant). It is a dynamic virtue that we see exemplified in God’s loving and enduring relationship to Israel. It is often associated with words that express grace and love as well as fidelity. It implies the mutual support and protection that family members are expected to offer one another. It may well be the Hebrew thought behind John’s affirmation that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).

Since hesed is used to describe actions like paying off a cousin’s or a nephew’s debt it clearly suggests that in the Bible family is not based on “love” (particularly not erotic love as the Western world defines family) but on reliability and dependability. When one party is stronger or more capable hesed involves protection and support. Yet it is mutual and not one-sided.

Families: a God’s eye view?

In the Western world today family is all about marriage and children. Marriage is all about love (understood as socially acceptable lust). Both family and marriage are discussed in terms of “rights”. Increasingly, even parenting is seen as a “right”.

The biblical view is different at every point. Family is much wider than a marriage and the children it produces. Family is about faithfulness and solidarity; about obligation, protection and trust; not about rights. Marriage does not make a family, but marriage widens the circle of existing families. While love is important, it is not the making of a marriage, loyalty is. Parenting is a gift and a blessing, not a right.

Our world likes models to which people can conform. The Bible takes families as they are, and proposes appropriate virtues: trust, loyalty, mutual dependence, faithfulness. Families that manage to show these virtues are indeed the backbone of society, and an echo of how God relates to us (children adopted into the divine family).