Why the Bible is clear about marriage – a response to Martyn Percy

In the latest addition to the ‘Does the Bible really…’ series published on the Via Media. News website on 31 May 2019, Professor Martyn Percy addresses the question ‘Does the Bible really… Give us a clear definition of marriage?’[1]

Given that this is the question that his article is supposed to be addressing, it is unfortunate that he never gets around to answering it. In his article he explains why he thinks we should not adopt a ‘fundamentalistic’ approach to the Bible, highlights the problems, as he sees them, of adhering to a traditional ‘biblical’ view of marriage in practice, and stresses that a loving marriage is a ‘sacramental token of love.’ However, none of this answers this question of whether the Bible gives us a clear definition of marriage.

The nearest Professor Percy gets to answering this question is when he claims, without any further evidence or explanation, that ‘Scripture does not lay down one pattern of marriage’ and that ‘The Bible offers several patterns of marriage.’

What are we to make of this claim that the Bible does not offer us one pattern of marriage, but several?

In one of my favourite Christian novels the hero declares ‘the good stuff is in the details.’ In terms of our approach to the Bible what this means is that we cannot rest content with the sort of unverified generalisations that Professor Percy offers us in his article. Rather, we have to consider the details of what the Bible says on any given topic. If we do this in relation to marriage we discover that what Professor Percy says is misleading for a number of reasons.

First, the Bible restricts what it says about marriage to marriage between people of the opposite sex. It is simply not the case that there are two patterns of marriage in Scripture, one heterosexual and the other homosexual. As Michael Brown writes ‘Every single reference to marriage in the entire Bible speaks of heterosexual unions, without exception, to the point that a Hebrew idiom for marriage is for a man ‘to take a wife.’’[2]

Secondly, the Bible is also silent about polyandry. There are no examples in the Bible of a woman with multiple husbands.

Thirdly, what this means is that the only two patterns of marriage to which the Bible does refer are heterosexual polygyny (one man with multiple wives) and heterosexual monogamy.

If we look at polygyny first of all, what we find is that there are no references to polygynous marriages in the New Testament. All the references to marriage in the New Testament, without exception, are references to the marriage of one man with one woman.

There is polygyny in the Old Testament. However, it is very rare. As Richard Davidson notes: ‘In the OT there are thirty-three reasonably clear historical cases of polygamy out of approximately three thousand men recorded in the scriptural record.’[3]

These rare cases of polygyny are almost entirely restricted to the period of the Patriarchs and to the judges and kings of pre-exilic Israel. There is only one instance of an ordinary Israelite being in a polygynous marriage (Elkanah in 1 Samuel 1:2).

Furthermore, when polygyny is referred to it is always referred to negatively.

  • It is something engaged in by people who have turned away from God, as in the cases of Gideon in Judges 8:30 and Solomon in 1 Kings 11:1-8. Conversely when people turn back to God, as in the case of Jacob and David, they also turn back to monogamy.
  • It something that is forbidden to both the people of Israel in general, and specifically to their kings, by God’s law in Leviticus 18:18 (where ‘sister’ means another woman rather than someone with the same parents) and Deuteronomy 17:17.
  • It is something that is depicted as leading to family conflict, as in the cases of the families of Jacob in Genesis 29:15-30: 24, Elkanah in 1 Samuel 1:3-8 and David in 1 Samuel 16 -1 Kings 2.
  • It has its origins after the fall. In Genesis 4:17-24 we have a genealogy of the descendants of Cain and in this genealogy the seventh and concluding figure in whom the descent into sin reaches its climax is Lamech, who is described not once, but three times, as having two wives (Genesis 4:18, 23a, 23b). In this account Lamech’s sinfulness is demonstrated not only by the fact that he is addicted to a life of violence and revenge, but that he has departed from the monogamous form of marriage established by God at creation (a point highlighted by the three references to his polygyny). [4]

If we ask how we know that monogamy has been established by God at creation, the answer is that we have been told this in the creation story in Genesis 2 which fills out what is said about God’s creation of human beings as male and female in Genesis 1:26-28. In Genesis 2 God creates the woman, Eve, as the suitable partner for the man, Adam, and brings them together (Genesis 2:18-23). The narrator then goes on to explain that by doing this God established a pattern for all subsequent marriages: ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24).

What we have here is a normative pattern for marriage, upheld by Jesus himself in the Gospels (Matthew 19:3-6, Mark 10:2-9), that sees marriage as a freely chosen, permanent and exclusive sexual relationship that is between one man and one woman and is outside of the immediate family circle. Moreover, as Genesis goes on to make clear through the subsequent story of Adam and Eve (Genesis 4:1, 2, 25, 5:3), it is through marriage that the divine command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ in Genesis 1:28 is to find fulfilment.

The reason that the New Testament is silent about polygyny (as about polyandry and same-sex marriage) is that it holds that Christians are called to live with within the pattern of marriage thus established by God at creation and by so doing reflect the eternal marriage between Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5:21-33).

The answer to the question posed in Professor Percy’s article is thus that the Bible really does give us a clear definition of marriage. Marriage is what God says it is in Genesis 2. The Church of England is thus justified in saying that:

… marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.[5]

This statement reflects the teaching of Scripture and so for the Church of England to depart from it either by changing its theology or its practice would mean departing from what God has laid down, something which it is not authorised to do.

[1] Martyn Percy, ‘Does the Bible really…Give us a clear definition of marriage’ athttps://viamedia.news/2019/05/31/does-the-bible-really-give-us-a-clear-definition-of-marriage/.

[2] Michael Brown, Can you be Gay and Christian? (Lake Mary: Front Line, 2014) p. 87.

[3] Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), p. 210. In context what he means by ‘polygamy’ is specifically polygyny.

[4] For a detailed study of polygamy in the Old Testament with copious references to other studies see Davidson Chapter 5.

[5] Canon B.30 ‘Of Holy Matrimony.’

10 thoughts on “Why the Bible is clear about marriage – a response to Martyn Percy

  1. Thank you for this – not least, note of Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), new to me! Having no immediate access to it, with respect to the New Testament, could you address the “mias gynaikos” of 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6, and with respect to the Old Testament, what the Lord God of Israel says by way of Nathan in 2 Samuel 12:8, “And I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things” (KJV)?

    • Dear David

      Thanks for your comment. ‘Mias gynaikos’ is a Greek formula which in context does not refer to monogamy rather than polygamy, but refers instead to the requirement for Christian leaders to be sexually faithful to their wives. The Greek and Latin trope ‘wife of one husband’ was used to praise a virtuous wife who remained loyal to her spouse (think Penelope in the Odyssey) and the novel point that is made in the New Testament is that husbands need to be equally loyal to their wives (see Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016, pp.166-7). On 2 Samuel 12:8 the words used by Nathan ‘does not speak of marriage but simply indicates that all of Saul’s estate/possessions came under David’s care and keeping’ (Davidson p.205).

      All best wishes


  2. Thank you for this. While I’m certain, with you, that Scripture does indeed affirm only heterosexual marriage between one and and one woman (de jure), there is the instance of the Levirate marriage law that is to be followed regardless of the number of wives one has (Deut 25) prescribed by God himself. Thus, polygamous relationships are not always negative if they’re within the bounds of God’s law and are intended as a provision for the widow who had no other economic means. See William F. Luck’s book Divorce and Remarriage: Recovering the Biblical View for details.

  3. Firstly if you’re contrasting polyandry with a husband having more than one wife polygyny is the word you’re looking for. Polygamy is any form of multiple marriage.

    Secondly, you say that polygamy (polygyny) is always portrayed negatively but you do not address the parts of Leviticus which just accept it as something about which there are rules. For example what to do if your eldest son is the son of the wife you love less.

    Thirdly, what is the evidence that David and Jacob return to monogamy when they return to God?

    • Thanks for your comment on polygyny versus polyandry. I have corrected the text accordingly. For the other two points take a look at Davidson who covers them in detail.

  4. The great patriarchs – Abraham and Jacob – have wives and concubines. Moses may have had two wives at the same time, or maybe he only married the Cushite woman (Numbers 12) after Zipporah had died, though there is no mention of her death in the OT. David has many wives and Solomon more. Levirate marriages, as mentioned above are another model which is not monogamous. While monogamy predominates, I think it is stretching the point to suggest that polygamy is “always referred to negatively”. The examples of Abraham, Jacob and David are presented in their polygamous glory: Nathan does not challenge David for having more than one wife, nor is having many wives the sin of Solomon, the problem (1Kgs 11:2) is that they are foreign. And they turned away his heart after other gods (v4). How we read the practices of the patriarchs or kings, and how they are described against the instructions within the “Law” is a hermeneutical challenge.
    Logically if A is presented as normative it does not mean that anything which is not-A is wrong, and within Scripture we might need to decide what was presented as normative, what was presented as the norm, and what is simply described as normal. That is a different hermeneutical challenge. It is made even more complicated if we also accept that our Scriptures are culturally bound, written into and from cultures which are different from our own. That is a third hermeneutical challenge.

    • Good point and I agree about the various wives and concubines.
      Early on in Genesis one might say that this was a cultural norm, and when the people of Israel decided they wanted a king ‘like other nations’, multiple wives and concubines were included in the package. Occasionally God reprimands individuals, but I see nothing much said about King David’s marital arrangements. Perhaps because societies were more ‘physical’ then (man stronger than woman, man striving with man over territory and water etc. there was a concomitant need for plenty of progeny to keep a man’s line going? Obviously for example Abraham loved Sarah, Isaac loved Rebekah, Jacob loved Rachel and so on, but the man’s need for sons outweighed exclusivity of relationship with one woman. Those same women offered their handmaids to their husband! However in the New Testament it definitely is all about one man having one wife, as endorsed by our Lord’s teaching referring back to Genesis.

  5. Have just read this, it was referenced by Stephen Noll on Anglican.ink. Thank you for posting it, clear and concise as it is. May I copy it?

  6. Pingback: ++YORK ON INTERPRETING THE BIBLE: Moral Equivalence and Moral Equivocation – Stephen's Witness

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