Tag Archives: marriage

Jesus and “Family Values”

American Jesus is all about marriage and family values. For generations Christian leaders have linked the mission and legacy of Jesus with the health and centrality of the married couple and the nuclear family. If you grew up in an American church, especially in a conservative or fundamentalist tradition, you most likely learned a lot about “biblical” dating, marriage, sex, manhood, womanhood, parenting, etc. The impression is that Christian faith, while rooted in the person and way of Jesus, is most chiefly concerned with and most legitimately expressed in the life and home of a family. In this version of the religion, single adults are often viewed as deficient or suspicious, and cultural changes related to sex and marriage are viewed as threats against “traditional” marriage and values, dangers to the integrity of the gospel, and affronts to God.

There are, however, two realities which complicate these abiding assumptions. First, there is the fact that when the Bible does speak of marriage and family, it does so with a set of ancient cultural presuppositions which often do not match our own. Levirate marriage, polygamy, and primogeniture (favoring the firstborn) are commonplace in the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, and largely unknown in the modern first world. This does not necessarily preclude those texts from being read and interpreted fruitfully, but it does mean that they cannot and should not be read as instruction manuals for our own family lives. At the very least it ought to keep us mindful of the inevitable fact of cultural and societal change across the generations and the globe.

More pertinent to this discussion, however, is the complicated and even dismissive attitude of Jesus toward family and marriage according to the gospel accounts. In fact, an honest assessment of what Jesus apparently believed and taught about “family values” can be downright unsettling. The subject doesn’t come up as often as you’d expect, but when it does the words of Jesus are almost always shocking. Consider:

  • A curious episode in Mark 3 where Jesus’ own family, including his mother, accuse him of being “out of his mind” and try to drag him back home. Jesus ignores them and asks his followers, “Who is my mother?” He answers that “anybody who does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (The later gospels revise or omit this bit, and scholars of all stripes have wrestled with Mark’s depiction of Mary in this scene. Remember that Mark does not provide a birth narrative for Jesus!)
  • In Matthew 8 a new follower asks for Jesus’ permission to “first go and bury my father.” Jesus commands him, “Follow me! Let the dead bury their own dead.” Disciples of Jesus are expected to abandon their families and responsibilities.
  • Later in Matthew 10 Jesus describes how his gospel announcement will result in fathers betraying children, and children rebelling against their parents. He famously adds that he “didn’t come to bring peace – I came to bring a sword! I came to divide a man from his father, a daughter from her mother.” And further, “If you love your father or mother more than me, you don’t deserve me.” This is rhetoric, to be sure, and it actually affirms the importance of familial bonds by challenging them. But challenge them it does.
  • Jesus’ argument with Pharisees about divorce in Matthew 19 is typically used by today’s Christians to demonstrate Jesus’ affirmation of “traditional marriage” (especially verses 4-6). In the context of the passage, Jesus’ point is that divorce should be seen as a concession for cases of adultery rather than a loophole for men who tire of their wives. But it is Jesus’ private conversation with his followers after the argument that is seldom discussed. Disappointed in his teaching about divorce, the disciples ask “given this, wouldn’t it be better for a man not to marry?” Jesus apparently agrees, and his cryptic response in verses 11-12 seems to indicate that marriage itself is a concession and a compromise of the kingdom ideal of celibacy.
  • Along similar lines, Jesus engages with another Jewish sect in Mark 12 and Matthew 22 on the topic of resurrection. The Sadducees were the conservative elites of Jerusalem, who rejected the relatively new notion that God’s people would be resurrected at the coming of the kingdom. They mock Jesus regarding the logistics of marriage among the resurrected population of New Jerusalem. If, they ask, a woman marries several brothers after each one dies, to whom is she married after the resurrection? Jesus responds with the bombshell that there will be no marrying in this kingdom, and that current marriages will apparently be dissolved. This detail is not featured in many sermons about heaven.

Kingdom Values Are For Humans, Not Just Families

The takeaway is not that Jesus hated families or disapproved of the institution of marriage. However, given what we read in the gospels, it is virtually impossible to argue that family and marriage were the foundation or even tenets of the movement which Jesus started. Quite the contrary, since at every turn Jesus challenged the common obligations of family and matrimony as distractions from the real mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of God. To be sure, Jesus preached fidelity and compassion in all human relationships, but he did not prescribe a particular lifestyle or family configuration (though he was apparently keen on celibacy).

In conclusion, I want to say two things: 1) Despite the radical apocalyptic origins of the religion, marriage and family came to be inextricably woven into the fabric of Christianity. This is a strange tension, and it’s something we could actually stand to wrestle with a bit more than we typically have. But I do not think we ought to feel conflicted or guilty about loving and cherishing our families, whatever they look like, as good gifts from God. This seems self-evident. 2) At the same time, Christianity has a built-in defense against those who would beat the drum of “family values” and “traditional marriage” as if these were the things most precious to Jesus, most essential to his message, and most likely to anger God if we get them wrong. The sorts, names, shapes, and sizes of families and communities change with the centuries. Fidelity, selfless love, and empathy are always the same, and these are the heart of the gospel.


5 Things St. Paul Believed That Most Christians Do Not

Why write a post like this? Not to be negative or contrarian, but to get us thinking. Modern Christians, especially conservative Protestants, tend to consider Paul the authoritative voice on Christian theology and church life. His letters have been read by each passing generation as if they were explicitly directed at that time, place, and audience. It’s easy to forget that Paul inhabited a unique ancient world of thought and practice, that he did not think like us or understand the universe like we do, and that he assumed his audience shared his worldview. We are not smarter or better than them, but we simply cannot imagine that we have the same interests and presuppositions as any Bible author or ancient person.

And so, five things that Paul asserted or taught in his letters which reflect a point of view completely foreign to modern people, including Christians. Continue reading


Does the Bible “endorse” or “condemn” cultural institutions?

Critics of the Bible contend that it tacitly endorses harmful institutions like slavery, polygamy, leviration, the subjugation of women, ritualistic violence, and war. Few would deny that, on the surface at least, Bible texts provide a great deal of ammunition for such critiques. A popular Christian apologetic response, however, claims that the Bible cannot technically endorse anything sinful, and that, interpreted in the proper context, it actually condemns these institutions with divine authority. A rather empty expression of this assertion has been popping up in my Twitter and Facebook feeds in the form of this cartoon, but it has been argued with more dilligence and plausibility by apologist pastors like Tim Keller and D.A. Carson. For most evangelicals, this has become “common wisdom,” something everyone should know about how to read the Bible correctly. But does this truly and effectively answer the criticism? Is it clear from a plain and honest reading that the Bible denounces institutions like slavery and polygamy? The answer, like the Bible itself, is rather complex.

The Bible is fundamentally polyvocal, meaning that it is comprised of many diverse perspectives collected together. Interpretive communities (like churches and denominations) may emphasize certain thematic threads and choose to recognize these as a unifying divine “voice,” but the uninterpreted texts remain undeniably diverse and no two Christian interpreters have read every passage in the library in the same way. The problem with claims that the Bible “endorses” or “condemns” an idea or institution is that they typically sidestep the admittedly difficult work of interacting honestly with the various voices represented therein. While I personally believe it is possible to discover within the Bible an inspired trajectory away from harmful human systems and institutions, it is simply less than honest to say that the whole Bible explicitly and uniformly condemns them.

“Biblical” Marriage?

Marriage provides an interesting test case. In the Hebrew Bible polygamy is the norm and the ancient Israelites practice a form of levirate marriage in which a man’s brother is expected to marry and reproduce with his widow. Tim Keller has famously argued that the Genesis stories represent an implicit condemnation of these practices, since they yield chaotic results in every generation. There was a time when I found this response compelling and even echoed it in my own writing and teaching, but now I’m not so sure.

For one thing, it is a distinctly modern maneuver which projects our type of sensibility onto an ancient text. These institutions are absurd from our vantage point, but in the world which produced the Bible they were mundane. That’s not to say that the authors of scripture would refrain from decrying something just because it was familiar (prophets often passionately denounce the status quo). However, the Bible stories in question never explicitly censure the marriage practices of the patriarchs and, moreover, other texts that do address and regulate marriage for the Israelite community neither criticize nor prohibit polygamy or levirate marriage. In fact, by regulating these institutions the Torah laws (said to come directly from the mouth of God) might be said to affirm them. Later, in the New Testament, there are strong hints that a form of monogamous marriage has become culturally normative, though there is no formal repudiation of polygamy from any figure or author. Both Paul and Jesus seem to favor celibacy but acknowledge marriage as a fitting compromise for those with sexual inclinations.

Looking at this brief survey, can we say with confidence that the Bible either “condemns” or “endorses” polygamy, leviration, or any form of monogamous marriage? I don’t think we can. Different texts presuppose different forms of marriage. Different writers/speakers present different opinions about the nature and value of marriage. No specific form of marriage is ever denounced or recommended. It depends on what passage you’re reading.

Principles, Not a Blueprint

What the Bible does provide with remarkable consistency is spiritual and moral guidance regarding fidelity to relationships within one’s cultural context, whatever it might be. “Do not commit adultery” is a majority report, to coin a phrase. God’s people do not violate their covenants with one another or abuse their neighbors’ covenants. How this plays out in regard to marriage will look very different from culture to culture, from era to era. Attempts to reconstruct the cultural norms of an ancient world to solve the moral dilemmas of today are misguided and do real damage to the people caught up in the reconstruction.

It would be very convenient (for some, at least) if the Bible pronounced with more clarity which cultural institutions were acceptable and which were dangerous, but this is not what its contents were designed to do. Instead, they appealed to personal integrity and moral faithfulness within the cultural structures of their own time. It may not be easy to extrapolate and adapt those principles within a very different world, but that is the way forward for Christians who cherish the Bible and desire that it should inform the way they live. We seek principles that bear good fruit in the arena of real life, not a blueprint for conformity to an ancient ideal.

Of course, this question gets even more colorful when discussing topics like slavery and so-called “holy” war. Unlike marriage, these institutions are (almost, God help us) universally repudiated in the modern Western world. Exploring the Bible’s presentation of these realities is no less complicated and, frankly, often more disturbing. For my part, I would point to the divine voice, most loudly audible in the teaching and legacy of Jesus, that forges a radical trajectory away from exploitation and violence and toward empathy and egalitarian love. In that sense, I believe that the Bible represents a powerful, even heavenly condemnation of institutions that enslave and victimize. But this strand has to be discovered and embraced, and to find it we must be prepared to interact honestly and boldly with an ancient and disarmingly foreign library of books.

At the heart of this question is a bigger question, one that opens a larger can of worms. At the core of the evangelical response outlined above is the presupposition that God in some sense authored the Bible, and that criticism of the text thus amounts to criticism of God, which is unacceptable. This relates to the very volatile “inerrancydebate, and illustrates one of my major criticisms of inerrancy as a belief. If the evangelical’s first sworn duty is to defend God and His reputation, and if the Bible is somehow God’s “autobiography,” then it too must be defended at all cost. The result is that scripture cannot be read with open eyes, mind and heart, and difficult questions cannot be addressed honestly. And ultimately, ironically, the very potent truth at the heart of Bible will go untapped by those most eager to get their hands on it.