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?’
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.’’
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.’
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). 
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.
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.
 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/.
 Michael Brown, Can you be Gay and Christian? (Lake Mary: Front Line, 2014) p. 87.
 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.
 For a detailed study of polygamy in the Old Testament with copious references to other studies see Davidson Chapter 5.
 Canon B.30 ‘Of Holy Matrimony.’