Thursday, August 6, 2015

Marriage - What If We Really Took Paul Seriously?

The Purpose of Marriage for Paul

In the debate about same-sex marriage, one of the more popular arguments is that the definition of marriage has remained unchanged for thousands of years as evidenced in the Bible. Of course, what people really mean by "Biblical marriage" is "New Testament marriage" because there is no one standard for marriage in the Bible. But that point aside, if we want to follow a strict New Testament model for marriage then it seems to me we should turn to the source to see what marriage was really all about. Jesus certainly makes reference to marriage, but our clearest reference to the purpose of marriage comes from the same author who gives us so much red-meat for anti-gay rhetoric - Paul. Paul gives us the purpose of marriage very clearly in 1 Cor. 7.

The text is long, so I'm going to pull pieces instead of reprinting all of it here. In a nutshell, it all has to do with sex. Paul starts by quoting an apparent letter to him that said, "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman" and clarifies that it is OK in the context of marriage. Importantly, though, Paul's justification for marriage is "since sexual immorality is occurring..." (7:2)  In other words, people are already having sex. Since that's happening regardless, we should sanction sex in a restricted, morally acceptable marriage. The purpose of marriage for Paul is as a vehicle for safe, morally acceptable sex.

In case we missed this, he says the same thing in different ways in verse 5 ("Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent for a time") and 9 ("If the y cannot control themselves, they should marry..." and 38 (So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.") Because marriage is intended only as a means to control what would otherwise be sin, Paul advises those who are not married to stay unmarried.

If you agree that the sole, or even primary, purpose of marriage is to have sex - please note that Paul says nothing about procreation here, he is simply talking about avoiding sexual sin - then you can stop reading right now. You agree with Paul and will have issues reading and obeying what he says. But if it occurs to you that there may be other reasons to marry - procreation, love, stability, building of community, etc. - then I hope you read on.

The Context for Paul

Now you might ask yourself "with so many other reasons for marriage, including many reasons that the Bible itself gives, why would Paul advocate that we only marry if we feel like it's the only way to avoid sin?" That's a good question! And there is an answer! It's all about context.

Paul is clearly writing at a time when he believed that Jesus would be returning soon (see especially 7:26, 29). Read in that context, Paul's words make complete sense. Just think of the traditional line of conversion-by-fear "If today was the last day of your life would you be ready to meet Jesus?" If Jesus is returning any day my first priority is to get my house in order. My second priority is to let others know. My third priority is details like whether or not I'm married.

That is not the same context that we live in today. Admitting this does not need to diminish the authority of Paul's teaching. For example, Paul's lessons on sex outside of marriage, mutuality within marriage, and caution of priorities of those who are married may all still be completely appropriate. But we are living in a different time today. To refer back to the previous section, procreation, love, stability, building of community, etc. are all valid purposes of marriage. In other words, we should take Paul seriously when he speaks of marriage, but we need not apply what he says word for word to our current context.  And, in fact, we don't apply what he says word for word. If we did then you would have stopped reading after the first section of this post.

So What's that Have to Do with Same-Sex Marriage?

I'm glad you asked! In short, when we look at the "gotcha" passages in the New Testament, we find Paul. And when we find Paul, or any other writer, we have to think of the context in exactly the same way that we just have with marriage more generally. What is Paul really saying to first century Greek speaking readers of his letters? Given that context how does what he says still speak to us today? (Note the question is not whether it speaks to us, but how it speaks to us. Scripture is still authoritative.) Sarah Ruden, Matthew Vines, and James Brownson have been especially helpful for me in answering those questions.

There is one reference in the Bible to Paul's writings. In one of the last books written (we know this because, well, it refers to Paul!) 2 Peter 3:16 says, "...[Paul's] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction." It's certainly possible that I'm one of those distorting Paul's words. If I am I will humbly ask for forgiveness when the time comes. But I'm glad for Peter's admission that Paul's words can be hard to understand. That means we can't just simply read them at face value. We have to discern with prayer and humility. Whether you agree or disagree with this post, I hope we can at least agree on that.