Us Too: Why Christians Should Man Up and Embrace Feminism

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This one goes out to all my Christian friends who don’t feel like they can quite get on board with feminism, who can’t help but feel that feminism is some kind of affront to God, and that to embrace it would mean bowing just a little bit to the idols of this world. This is for all the Christians who, whenever they hear yet another woman getting on the #MeToo bandwagon and talking about sexual harassment in the workplace, they just get a little annoyed for some reason. This used to be me. But not so much anymore.

Let’s talk about it.

Christianity and Feminism have a very complex relationship. On one hand, original 1st century Christians championed the cause of women. Jesus and his followers treated women with a dignity that had not been seen before in that part of the world. They broke down all kinds of social barriers, including those between the sexes. They treated women as equals and included them fully into the community. On the other hand, over history, many Christians, or people who saw themselves as Christians, have partaken in and even invented new systems of oppressing and subjugating women. Today, I often hear (not from all Christians but from more than you might think) Christian pastors and teachers (male and female) say that feminism is a worldview that is at odds with Christianity. And whenever they say this, I have to wonder what exactly they mean.

Part of the complexity of the relationship between Christianity and feminism comes from the fact that “feminism” can mean so many different things. Feminism is a diverse system that has significant internal disagreement. Two people who call themselves feminists may not agree on peripheral or even central things. There are “sameness” feminists who want to emphasise that women can do all the things men can do, and there are “difference” feminists who want to emphasise that women and men are different and these differences should be taken into account in society. Some feminists kind of seem to hate men, at least at a glance. Most are less radical. But feminism has become so broad that we have to ask, when a preacher says that feminism is anti-Christian, what do they mean by the word, “feminism”? Often when someone villainises feminists, they attribute to feminists a set of beliefs that most feminists wouldn’t subscribe to at all. Feminism seems so hard to define, and thus even harder to have a debate about.

However, at this point in recent history there seems to be emerging into mainstream popular culture a more clearly defined version of feminism than ever. And that is thanks to the #MeToo movement. #MeToo has started a conversation that has brought feminist issues into the foreground in such a way that, from what I can tell, there has never been an easier time to tell what “mainstream” feminism is – what it believes, what it wants, and what it looks like. It isn’t extreme to the point misandry, but neither would you call it moderate, if “moderate” comes with any connotation of acquiescence. Women around the world are uniting around a clear message that is educating and changing the mindsets of many men, but also pushing the wrong buttons of many others. It is this mainstream, popular feminism exemplified in the #MeToo movement that I want to commend to Christians as something we should wholeheartedly embrace.


The Male Objection to Feminism

Leaving Christianity out of it for the moment, why do so many men find the kind of feminism behind #MeToo so objectionable? Well, every version of feminism will make two basic kinds of claim. A prescriptive claim (a claim about values – how things ought to be) and a descriptive claim (a claim about facts – how things are). At its core, feminism has always been routed in the prescriptive value judgement that women intrinsically are, and ought to be treated as, equal to men. Today there are very few people in western society who would dispute that claim. Most people who say they oppose feminism would still agree that women should be treated with equal moral worth and dignity to men. This prescriptive claim is not really where the disagreement lies. Almost everybody agrees on the way things ought to be. What nobody seems to be able to agree about is the way things are. See, in addition to making a prescriptive claim about how things should be, feminism additionally makes the descriptive claim that things are not that way. That things are not as they should be. And it is this claim – that women are currently not enjoying freedom, opportunity, or safety equal to that of men – that some of us really seem to find offensive. In fact, for the most part, it is this description of the world that differentiates the various kinds of feminism from one another. Feminisms agree that there should be gender equality, but they disagree regarding the extent to which inequality exists and the nature of that inequality. It is the versions of feminism that depict the greatest extent of inequality in the world that are seen as the most extreme and, concordantly, the most objectionable to many men.

I think it is quite clear why many men take issue with the idea that women are currently not enjoying gender equality: We take this notion as an attack on ourselves. It is as if feminism is women making an assessment of the world, and finding it lacking. Making an assessment of all the men of the world, and finding them lacking, not enough, that they haven’t done a good enough job of taking care of women, and that they are to be blamed for all of women’s problems. The poorer the feminist’s assessment of the world – the more extreme the version of feminism – the greater failure the man is claimed to be. And the #MeToo movement is precisely this – a very poor assessment of the current state of affairs. It is men getting a bad grade. It is women claiming that things are very much not okay. It is women claiming that they are the the victims of more aggression at the hand of males than we would like to think. That there are aspects of our common culture, in the workplace and in the home, that are contributing to this. It is a claim that can often be reduced to, “You know that thing that you do all the time that you think is normal and harmless? It’s actually sexist in a subtle but powerful way.” Continue reading

Further Reflections on Same-Sex Marriage


Excessively Long Introduction:

One year ago, I wrote a blog post explaining why I intended to vote “Yes,” to the then upcoming postal survey regarding the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia. I was overwhelmed by the response. While there were certainly some Christians who responded with what I’d describe as excessive harshness (who called me a heretic and had no desire to listen, etc.), the response was far more predominantly positive from both Christians and non-Christians alike. I even received a message from a gay, formerly Christian man I’d never met who said that reading the article had caused him to reconsider Christianity, and even to pray for the first time in years.

While I was pretty amazed at how many people read the post, I kept wondering whether it was having a genuine impact on the actual voting outcome of the Christians who read it. While I’m sure it did change some people’s decisions on what to vote, the most common response I got from Christians was something like, “Thank you for writing this. I think I’m still going to vote no, but you have changed the way I think about this issue.” Most people didn’t change their vote through reading the article but it caused them to be humbler in their decision and more aware of the complexities, both theological and relational, of the issue. To me, that is a deeply encouraging victory. I knew as I set out to begin this conversation that I probably couldn’t change what people think. But hopefully I could change how they think – something far more important, I believe. If I couldn’t sway the outcome of the postal survey, at least I might be able to help Christians think differently about it, so that in their subsequent conversations with other Christians, with non-believers, and with homosexual people, their priorities would have changed.

Having said all that, I also wished I could have been more persuasive and more clear. Due to the complexity and multi-dimensionality of the issue, I found the article incredibly hard to compose. The 8,000 word document that I posted had had a lot of argumentation cut out of it. It was a painful compromise between comprehensiveness and readability. With so many reasons that different people were objecting to SSM, it was hard to know which ones to focus my energies on refuting, and I had to be selective. The problem is, beliefs work in such a way that, when you’re challenging ways of thinking that have been held by your community for generations, which have been seen as the default position the whole time, it takes a great deal of intellectual energy to move one’s beliefs up and out of the groove that continued defaulting and repetition have engraved. It’s very hard to see the alternative, not necessarily because it’s unreasonable, but because it’s unfamiliar. It is universally true that it takes more work to believe a new thing than to continue to believe an old thing. Thus great imagination and the willingness to scrutinise one’s own beliefs is required of the hearer of the new idea. And from the presenter is required not only some very clear thinking, but also usually a sheer volume of content big enough to compete with a lifetime of community influence. (If you don’t think your beliefs – and mine too – are influenced by community, you’re just not paying attention.)

I knew that there was only so long an article that people were going to read, and so there was only so much one guy can do. But at the same time, as I look back I wonder if I cut out some of my more persuasive pieces of argumentation from that article. Who really knows. I know I did my best and I trust God to use what I gave. But then this other annoying thing happened: It was in the weeks following my posting of that blog that I actually thought of what I think are the clearest and most compelling theological arguments in favour of the legalisation of SSM that I’ve come up with. But by the time I would’ve had any chance to write any of these further thoughts up into something formal, the vote had already happened. So I felt that the show was over, and there was no need to further defend a Christian “Yes,” to SSM.

But now, a year on from the postal survey, and 11 months into the institution of SSM in Australia, I think it might be valuable for the Church to continue to reflect on and challenge how we think about this new law of the land. Because, although the issue of SSM has been decided by the nation and is here to stay, the Church has an ongoing decision to make in how we live with that reality moving forward. Now, in addition to an open mind, and high exposure to well argued new ideas, one of the other things that’s usually required in changing long-entrenched beliefs is time. Minds don’t change overnight, especially regarding long-held views on very complex issues. When enough time has passed – a few years, decades, or generations, I suspect that most Australian Christians will view the legalisation of SSM in the same way as we currently view the decriminalisation of homosexual activity: a no-brainer. It’s easy for us today to see the distinction between the moral question of homosexuality and the legal question of it. But back when it was a debate, this distinction may not have been so easy for the average Christian to see. And I suspect and hope that with the issue of SSM, a similar transition will take place in due course.

But, as I was recently rereading Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, I was reminded of what he said about time:

“It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively … We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

While I hope that we will transition in our attitude to SSM, I fear that this may not happen automatically. If we are passive, who knows what the next generation will believe. And not only that, but I don’t want the church to learn to accept the legality of SSM in Australia merely by acquiescence to the culture, but rather by genuine theological reflection, and a deeper, more accurate understanding of God’s revelation to us. And so in wake of this very long-winded introduction, I wish to do some of that theological reflection, to use the time creatively, to try to convince more of us that the legalisation of SSM is something we as Christians should accept with gladness.

What I want to do here is not build an entire case from the ground up. I did that in the last one. Here I simply want to add to the arguments I’ve already made by making some points I didn’t make in my original post because I either cut them out or hadn’t thought of them yet. So in this article I want to lay out two arguments in particular. Here they are:


1. God Legislated Immorality in the Torah

One of the most common objections made to me in response to my decision to vote yes to SSM was that in doing so I was condoning sin. That for the state to sanction SSM is inherently an affirmation or celebration of homosexuality. That in legally recognising same-sex relationships as marriage, the state is necessarily affirming and condoning those relationships. If God doesn’t affirm it, why are you voting to allow it?


Well. The thing is, God has a track record of not only allowing, but even commanding and instituting things that he personally finds disgusting. Namely, there are certain Old Testament laws in which God permits or even commands things that he ultimately doesn’t like. One of them is slavery. Moses’ law has a complicated relationship with slavery. If you read Exodus 21, Leviticus 25, and Deuteronomy 15, to name a few, you’ll find that God most certainly permitted slavery among his covenant people of Israel. In fact, the Law regulated slavery in some detail, laying out the circumstances under which slaves could be taken, the way they were to be treated, and the circumstances and manner in which they were to be freed.

There is no question as to whether slavery was lawful according to the Torah. But let me ask you this question: Does God hate slavery? He most certainly does. At the meta level, the very story of the birth of Israel begins with God hearing the cry of an oppressed and enslaved people: “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their suffering.” (Exodus 3:7) God sets free an oppressed people and takes them to be his own free nation, meanwhile he judges Egypt and Pharaoh for having enslaved them. Later on, when Israel breaks their covenant with God, his punishment for them is that they become slaves again in a foreign land. Note, this is a punishment – not something he considers a happy state of affairs. After eventually restoring Israel back from exile, he turns his eyes on those nations that enslaved the Israelites and brings judgement on them for their injustice.

Thus, it makes sense that in the laws about slavery in Exodus we get clauses like Exodus 21:16 where God categorically forbids the kidnapping of people to make into slaves. The only lawful kind of slavery in Israel was voluntary (even if reluctant). Slaves were also only to serve 6 years and then to be given the option of freedom. And Deuteronomy 15 commands that a master was not to let him go free empty-handed:

“You shall furnish him liberally from your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today.” – Deut 15:14-15

This section even ends with God commenting that a slave owner shouldn’t complain about this law, since their slave has just served them for “half the cost of a hired worker” (15:18). I can’t help but read that comment with a slightly taunting overtone, as if God is underhandedly critiquing the fact that they’ve held a slave in the first place.

None of this reads as a God who is happy about the practice of slavery in Israel that he is permitting. Rather, it reads as a God who is making a compromise between what’s morally ideal, and what’s socially, economically, and culturally viable. God’s legislation about slavery wasn’t a simple case of, “Well, slavery is wrong, so slavery shall be illegal.” Nor was the reason for its legality because God thought it was right. It was a more complex, nuanced approach, which took into account many other factors. God hates slavery, and yet he allowed it in the law for his people.


But it doesn’t stop there. We have to discuss polygamy. Does God like Polygamy? No, of course not. So why does he not only allow it, but effectively command it in Old Testament law? Deuteronomy 25:5-10 commands a man, if his brother dies without children, to marry his brother’s widow in order to provide her with children. This necessarily amounts to polygamy in all cases where the brother-in-law of that widow is already married. Why did God command this? To God, the ideal is monogamy. But God knew that he wasn’t dealing with an ideal society. He was dealing with one where there were very few economic protections for women, such that the only real economic security most women had was marriage. And thus when navigating the world of marriage people had to consider not only love and relationship, but also financial and social factors. And so, in spite of his aversion to polygamy, God saw it necessary in certain cases in that society. Even in the theocracy of Israel, under his immediate rulership, God allowed and even commanded a sexual and marital practice that he abhors.

Hermeneutics of the Law

This is very important in general for our hermeneutic of Old Testament Law. Because maybe, if you were told, “God in the Old Testament Law commanded and permitted certain things that he hates,” you would have thought that this is impossible, contradictory, inconceivable. That God’s Law was the perfect expression of his wishes. How could God command something that he is against? But laws like these demonstrate unequivocally that we simply cannot read Mosaic Law as a timeless list of everything God approves of and everything God disapproves of, as a list of sins and virtues. We cannot consider Mosaic Law to be identical to “God’s universal moral law”. We cannot unconditionally define “sin” as “disobedience to Mosaic Law”, and we cannot have a Christianity in which our failure to live up to Mosaic Law is the thing for which we have been forgiven. And this isn’t because the Old Testament Law got things wrong – it got things right for Israel in that time and place. But, as literature, the Torah is a more legal than purely moral entity. And thus it is full of compromises and concessions to make the best of complex social and economic circumstances. Mosaic Law isn’t God’s universal moral law in written form; it is the product of God applying the principles of his universal moral law to a particular national group, facing particular issues, at a particular time. We are not ethically subject to Mosaic Law. We are subject to the moral realities that produced Mosaic Law.

But more relevantly to same sex marriage: If God in Israel was willing to allow and even command practices that he actually abhorred, why should any aversion to homosexual practice on God’s part mean that he is automatically against the legalisation of homosexual marriage? The fact is, God’s moral disapproval of the sexual relationship just doesn’t necessarily preclude a legal recognition of it. We have real-life, Biblical precedents of our God choosing to institute laws that allowed or even required people to do things that he didn’t like. If God thought that an absolute “no slavery” law would have been better for ancient Israel, he would have given that law. If God thought a “no polygamy” law would have been better for ancient Israel, he would have given that law. But he didn’t give those laws because he didn’t think they would have been better laws for that society. He thought these compromises were worth making. In his literally infinite and perfect wisdom, he thought that things would be better if he allowed slavery and polygamy.

The need for SSM in our society

Isn’t it conceivable, then, that God could prefer, all things considered, in our current society, for the state to recognise certain non-heterosexual relationships as marriages? Not because he likes it when people take sexual partners of the same sex, but because of numerous social factors in the society that make it necessary to legally recognise such unions? I wrote in my previous article about what these social factors are. One is the fact that many of these same-sex couples have children. You can say all you like that homosexual relationships are, by themselves, incapable of producing children. But gay couples generally aren’t by themselves; they are parts of communities in which they have various means of becoming the joint legal parents of children in those communities. Given that gay couples are raising children, it makes sense for the state to come in and recognise these relationships as marriages, bringing the force of law to the unity of these families. This is especially true given that their connection to children is the main reason cited for why the state should recognise heterosexual marriages in the first place. Another social factor is that SSM is legally the simplest way – without all the linguistic gymnastics of “civil unions” – of ensuring those real same-sex couples in real, existing relationships all the legal rights that marriage endows one with, from hospital visits to matters of succession. Another is the social exclusion felt in the gay community by not being included in the institution of marriage. Before SSM, homosexual relationships were the only sexual relationships in Australia that were at the same time legally permissible and also not able to be recognised as marriages. It was a unique kind of relationship in our society – allowed but not acknowledged – a relationship equivalent to second-class citizens. And it came with a mental health toll on the gay population.

A different kind of social factor is the relationship between the Church and the gay community. I wrote at length in the last article about how the Church’s constant opposition to SSM has been a stumbling block for gay people to hear about and receive Christ as their Lord. What is gained by our efforts to oppose SSM is nothing in light of what is lost. A world without SSM isn’t worth a Heaven without gay people in it. It’s just not worth fighting for. And when you combine all of these things with the fact that there are actually no tangible, foreseeable, practical negative consequences inherent to SSM… well, as write this paragraph I struggle to even remember why we ever opposed it. If they wanted it that bad, and it actually has no inherent negative consequences, why not let them have it? If God, under his own direct theocratic rule, was willing to allow slavery and polygamy based on social and economic considerations, then surely we can consider same-sex marriage on similar grounds.

Now, of course, you might say, “Sure, all this is a great reason to have civil unions for gay couples, but why call it marriage?” Well, for one thing, a civil union doesn’t solve all of the social problems that SSM is intended to fix: Marriage is not just a legal but also a social construct that carries not only legal but also social force. It’s the social force of the word “marriage” that is partly needed to keep families with gay parents together for the sake of their children, as well as to foster the sense of inclusion that SSM is intended to create. Another question I’d ask is, why not call it marriage? And at this point, hopefully you’ve found what I’ve said so far persuasive enough that you’re in a position to find what I’m about to say next a little more palatable…


2. The Bible Doesn’t Define Marriage

Well that’s a bold claim, isn’t it. What on earth am I talking about? Now I’ll warn you: This is going to get somewhat complicated and nuanced. So you’re going to have to read me carefully and thoughtfully to understand what I’m really saying.

We all know how much this debate has centred around the assumption that Christianity, and the Bible, have a definition of marriage, and that same-sex marriage is an idea that defies this Christian definition. This Christian definition of marriage is, of course, something to do with the lifelong union of one man with one woman to the exclusion of all others, etc.

Is this true? Does the Bible put this forward as a definition of marriage? Is a conversation about the definition of “marriage” one that the Bible has something to say about? I have come to think that the Bible has little to no interest in polemical questions of the definition of marriage. See, I think we’ve been putting a lot of words in the Bible’s proverbial mouth.

Redefining a debate

Here’s what I think has happened, and I genuinely think this: One day, some gay people started saying that they wanted to be able to marry their gay partners. The first thing Christians thought was, “That’s wrong and immoral and bad, so we shall oppose this in the public forum.” But very quickly we Christians realised that the world we’re living in has a radically different understanding of sexuality to the Christian one, and so there was no traction to be had with arguments against SSM that were premised on any kind of moral objection to homosexuality itself. And so we had to change our approach, and we started to come up with all sorts of other arguments that might be more palatable to the homosexual community. One of these arguments amounted to, “It’s not that it’s wrong. It’s just that it’s not what marriage is.”

This has been one of the key arguments used in this debate, and I think it’s caused all sorts of trouble. This argument changed the rhetoric and reframed the whole debate from one about what people are allowed to do and not do into a debate about what the definition of a certain institution is. It changed it from a debate about values to a debate about meanings and semantics. And it did this so that Christians could say what we wanted to say without having to actually say it. We were able to say we were against gay marriage without saying why. While sidestepping the whole issue of the moral value of homosexual relationships, we still sought to prevent our society from placing value on homosexual relationships. It was essentially an attempt to win a moral battle by means of a semantic loophole. And I believe, as far as I can tell, that it is this argument that is the origin of any notion that the Bible presents a definition of marriage as a matter of sacred truth.

In reality, I don’t think the Bible itself tries to do this at all. Of course, the Bible has plenty to say about marriage. It has much to say about how a marriage ought to look. But I don’t see anywhere that the Bible wants to argue for a particular definition of the word “marriage”, such that there would be some communities out there have their definition wrong. Actually, I think the Bible is far less interested in whether a relationship is a marriage than whether a relationship is good. It’s not as interested in categorisation and definition as it is in evaluation; not as interested in the semantic question as the moral question. And these are not the same thing. The Bible seems quite content with the idea that there are many relationships that might be called marriage, some of which are godly, and others of which aren’t.

The Wives of Solomon

Why do I think this? Mainly because of Solomon. As the Bible tells us in 1 Kings 11:3, Solomon had 700 wives, as well as 300 concubines. If I’m not mistaken, this Biblical definition of marriage that we have received from the Bible is something like, “the exclusive lifelong union of a single man and a single woman.” Polygamy does not fit this Biblical definition of marriage. In fact, if I’m still not mistaken, I recall many politicians and clergy making the argument that, if we broaden the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, there’s nothing stopping us from broadening it further to other things like… the legalisation of polygamy. But it seems that the Bible was perfectly okay with calling all of Solomon’s 700 wives, well, “wives”. If the Biblical author was adhering to the correct Biblical definition of marriage, he would have said that Solomon had 1 wife, and 699 fake wives. But instead, not only does the author describe all 700 of these women as his wives, but he even makes a distinction between these “wives” and the other 300 “concubines” that Solomon had. So there is a line between a wife and a mere sexual partner, but the author draws that line way, way after bigamy, trigamy, etceteragamy… Why does he draw the line where he draws it? Probably because that’s where the culture of the day drew the line, and the author wasn’t trying to pick a fight about the definition of marriage. Because, if the Bible was operating under some sort of deeply held conviction about the definition of marriage, surely the author of 1 Kings would have demonstrated a bit of that backbone in his narration of Solomon’s love life.

“But Lachlan,” you say, “The Bible is critical of Solomon’s practice of polygamy here, and points out how it led to his downfall.” Yes, that’s precisely my point! The Bible here condemns Solomon’s marital practice, but still calls it marriage. “But Lachlan,” you say, “Polygamy is still heterosexual. The idea of a man having more than one wife doesn’t contradict the Biblical definition of marriage; it just multiplies it. Every marriage is still one man and one woman, it’s just that a single man is involved in multiple simultaneous marriages.” Well I have to say that if you were to make that argument to me it would strike me as somewhat ad hoc. Here we are, defining marriage as the lifelong, exclusive union of one man and one woman, and now you want to say that the exclusivity isn’t part of the definition, but the heterosexuality is. That is arbitrary. For thousands of years the Church hasn’t allowed people to get married if it is found that they are already married to someone else. For some reason, we don’t tend to say that for someone to be married simultaneously to several people is inconceivable; we simply say that it is wrong. And yet when it comes to the idea of homosexual marriage, we say this is inconceivable. If we were to be consistent with our conviction that the Bible has this particular definition of marriage, then we must either say that A) neither homosexual nor polygamous marriages are logically conceivable, or B) they are both conceivable, but immoral practices.

Jesus, Genesis, and God’s design

But what about what Jesus said? Of course. Often Jesus’ quoting of Genesis’ creation account has been cited as a case of the Bible, and Jesus himself giving the “definition” of marriage. In Matthew 19, Jesus was asked whether it’s okay for a man to divorce his wife for any reason he likes. Jesus responds by quoting Genesis’ account of God creating male and female:

Jesus answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)

What was Jesus (and the author of Genesis) saying? Well, it’s important to understand that he was not having a conversation about what does and doesn’t constitute a marriage. That wasn’t the question Jesus was answering. The nature of the conversation was not semantic, but ethical. No one in that conversation (or in any other conversation in the entire Bible) was talking about what marriage is, but rather how to do it. And, as with any topic in the Bible, in the absence of any explicit intent from either Jesus or Matthew to address the definition of marriage in this passage, if anything can be concluded about that topic it is not without at least one layer of interpretation. Nothing Jesus says here automatically, before several interpretive steps are taken, tells us how he would deal with an explicit conversation about the definition of marriage. This should simply give us pause, and humility. But I do think there are things we can ascertain from the passage about how God thinks about marriage. In answering an ethical question, Jesus, like any good Bible scholar, responds by appealing to the creation narrative of Genesis. From his telling of this “origin story” of marriage, and the way he argues from it, I think we can draw out the following: 1) Marriage is somehow predicated on the maleness and femaleness of humans, 2) Marriage involves some kind of separation of its participants from their family of origin, 3) Marriage involves a man and wife becoming “one flesh”, 4) Marriage involves God joining the two participants, 5) Married people should not be separated.

So, this much is clear: there is a thing that God designed. We can call it marriage, and it is the lifelong, romantic and sexual union of a man and a woman. And yes, it seems that polygamous and homosexual unions (and presumably all manner of other ones) were not part of the fabric of this creational design for human relationships. The problem is that, from this reality, many Christians have been inferring more than is actually implied. Namely, they have been inferring that, because God designed humans to join together in a particular way, God has some kind of particular interest in the name or the categorisation that is given to this as opposed to other unions. It is not implied from this or any other passage in scripture that, because God designed us to be sexually joined together in a particular way, that it is somehow important that society holds a unique kind of recognition for this relationship as opposed to other kinds of relationships. It is not implied that God is concerned to ensure that the kind of union he designed be linguistically set apart from all other kinds of union, and that the same word not be used to describe it as well as another. And it is certainly not implied that the weight of God’s objection to polygamy or homosexuality has something to do with their falling outside of the boundaries demarcated by a semantic definition.

God, and semantics

There is no indication from anything Jesus, Moses, or any of the prophets or Apostles said, that God is interested in this philosophical and semantic conversation about what is and isn’t a marriage. In everything the Bible says, in the Torah, the Prophets, and the New Testament, about the myriad of ways that humans can practice immoral sexual relationships, never once is the problem with them framed as being that “they are not marriage.” The problem is simply that they are not good. Never is the point of it that they are some kind of fundamentally different entity to the kind of union that God designed. Because in reality, from an amoral point of view, polygamy and homosexuality and all manner of other kinds of relationships actually bear many similarities to traditional marriage. The ultimate difference is not one of categorical description but of moral prescription – only one of these is good. Thus it is hard to see that Jesus would have made a point of arguing against someone who wanted to say that a homosexual or polygamous relationship was some kind of “marriage” in some sense of the word. It is hard to see that, if Luke were penning a chapter for the Book of Acts, and he featured an episode where Paul came to some obscure city where they had the practice of “same-sex marriage”, that Paul in his conversations, or Luke in his narration, would have made an issue of that city’s use of the word “marriage” – that out of some sort of religio-semantic conviction, they would have refused to go along with the culture of the day in calling these same-sex couples as married. Nowhere in the Bible do we ever find this kind of definition polemics. And if we were going to find it anywhere, we should find it in 1 Kings’ divinely inspired narration of Solomon’s marital life, but instead the author follows the language of the culture quite happily.

There is no Biblical reason to think that God wants to be involved in some divine campaign to set society’s definition of the word marriage, or even generally to control the naming of anything. Note that never is any attention drawn to the name that is given to any immoral sexual relationships in the Bible – read Levitical laws on sexual practice; it describes unlawful sexual acts, but never names them. Because what God has to say about all the possible relational arrangements out there is not what they are but whether they are good. God doesn’t appear interested in going around categorising and defining relationships, telling us what we ought to call them. What a trivial thing that is, when compared with the tangible human experiences of all these different relationships and their deep and lasting consequences – for good or for ill. God is far, far more concerned with what people do, whatever it gets called.

Because the fact is, while these other unions are not part of the fabric of God’s design for sexuality, they do bear enough similarities to marriage that one can see why it might be useful to call them all by the same name – and what do you know, the author of 1 Kings did exactly that. You can have a philosophical and semantic conversation about the boundaries of what does and doesn’t constitute a marriage if you want to. The point is, don’t fool yourself into thinking that this is God’s work, that it is part of the divinely mandated Christian mission, or that it is something the Bible shows concern for, or that it is anything more than an interesting philosophical discussion. There are many interesting things that are not very important. And there are even many relatively important things that are not as important as the work of the Kingdom of God. Semantic debates about the meaning of marriage do not fall into the category of Kingdom importance. It is just not a conversation that God has shown interest in.

Man was not made for marriage

See, it’s just not about semantic categories for God. God isn’t going around saying, “Don’t do that; that’s not marriage.” He’s saying, “Don’t do that; it’s not good.” We must remember, humans were not made for marriage. Marriage was made for humans. God didn’t make humans to fit into this neat institution he had come up with called marriage. He made marriage to fit into and live up to the needs of our humanity. Thus the problem with these alternative unions is not that they are not marriage; it’s not that they fail to live up to the definition of marriage; it’s that they fail to live up to what it is to be human.

And here’s where this gets important: in failing to live up to the needs of our humanity, polygamy and homosexuality do not differ from divorce, or adultery, or marital abuse, or any other relationships that are dissonant with humanity’s design. It’s not that some of these are a corruption of the ideal marriage, while others are fundamentally something else entirely. All of them are an adulteration of the same good thing, all of them in their own way fail to express and enjoy the fullness of God’s good design. This is why the definition of marriage can be an irrelevant and unhelpful distraction. Because if you’re asking which relational arrangements fall within the definitional bounds of “marriage”, your question will get an answer that includes many relationships that are not pleasing to God, because an abusive, or adulterous, or loveless marriage still counts as a marriage. But if you ask which arrangements live up to the fullness of God’s good purposes for humanity, you will find no distinction between homosexuality or divorce or polygamy or abuse, since they are all united in falling short of this.

If you ask the question of whether a relationship counts as a marriage, you’re asking a question that God just isn’t asking. Because the only thing he is asking of our relationships is whether they are right, and good, and just, and loving – not whether they live up to the mere definition of marriage, but whether they live up to the purpose marriage was intended for in the first place.