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10/30/2014 02:21 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

The Day Jesus Redefined Marriage

Manuel Orero Galan via Getty Images

This week in Nashville, folks from the Southern Baptist Convention gathered for the 2014 Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission National Conference.

To be honest, I didn't know a thing about it and probably would have gone on living in blissful ignorance if #ERLC2014 wasn't popping up all over Twitter. So, I had to do a bit of googling to figure out exactly what was going on.

Turns out that the ERLC folks in Nashville got together, at least in part, because like many other conservative Christians across the country they are concerned about same-sex marriage, or what they view as the redefining of marriage.

As they put it on their website:

Are you and your church prepared for the moral revolution surrounding homosexuality and same-sex marriage happening across America? While human sexuality and social institutions are being redefined before our very eyes, the Bible presents marriage as an unchanging picture of the gospel through the union of one man and one woman. The gospel announces that the story of Jesus is greater than the sum total of our sexual desires.

While I think that first question is important and I completely agree with that last statement, that claim in the middle really caught my attention... and not just because the gospel has nothing to do with "the union of one man and one woman."

If you're plugged into the Christian world in even the smallest way or if you flip over to Fox News every once in a while or, you know, if you're just a human being living in the United States, then chances are good you've heard the outcry over the so-called redefinition of biblical marriage.

The thought behind the outcry being that marriage has always been the exact same institution ever since the dawn of time or at least since the dawn of the Bible. Same-sex marriage, it is argued, is a radical departure from this unbroken tradition.

But does the Bible actually present "marriage as an unchanging picture?"

And, either way does the Church completely adhere to whatever picture of marriage the Bible presents?

The answers might surprise you.

Now, you've probably heard folks point out that marriages in the Bible weren't always between one man and just one woman. That King Solomon fellow, for example, had quite a few wives.

Fortunately for those of us who could barely afford one wedding, polygamy died out in the Old Testament. However, the move from polygamy to monogamy wasn't the only time the biblical definition of marriage was redefined.

While the biblical definition of marriage is a mantra that gets tossed about a lot, and we've all heard about polygamy in the Bible, what gets talked about far less often is the day Jesus redefined marriage.

Ok, perhaps it wasn't just one day.

To be fair, many scholars think the Sermon on the Mount is actually a collection of teachings Jesus gave at various times throughout his ministry. But even if that is true, there was a day when Jesus said this....

You have heard it said, "Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce." But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Two thousand years after Jesus uttered those words, we tend to get caught up on the issue of what does or does not constitute a justifiable divorce. While that's certainly an important part of what's going on here, there's a more seismic shift in the biblical understanding of marriage that's taking place.

That "You have heard it said" part refers to Moses. You probably already knew that. But did you catch the way Jesus quoted him? No? Maybe you did or maybe you've already checked out and are currently pasting every Bible verse about homosexuality you can find in the comment section. Either way, let's look at it again. But this time I'll highlight the part we really need to pay attention to.

"Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce."

That use of gendered pronouns is not an accident.

These days, we have very romantic, Nicholas Sparks-inspired notions of what marriage is all about. While we may ground some of those ideas in the Bible -- even in the Old Testament -- marriage during the time of Moses was typically a far different arrangement than it is nowadays.

We often like to talk about marriage being a covenant today, but while that language is rooted in scripture, a better way to think about marriage during Moses' day is something of a business arrangement.

At the risk of oversimplifying things, marriages in the time of Moses tended to work like this: a contract was negotiated between a man and his potential father-in-law and once financial terms were agreed concluded, the wedding night sealed the deal.

Literally.

Well, and figuratively too, but get your mind out of the gutter.

Anyway, only men were allowed to initiate a divorce because only men were property owners. Their wives were quite literally their property which is why we see so many laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy detailing renumeration for various sorts of "damage" to the husband's "property." If things didn't work out for whatever reason, only men could initiate a divorce because only a property owner had the authority to conduct such important business regarding their property.

But when Jesus starts talking about divorce during the Sermon on the Mount he takes a radically different approach to marriage

He doesn't just give new guidelines for divorce.

He redefines the very institution of marriage.

Yes, the grammatical emphasis is still on the husband, but the foundation for marriage has changed. No longer is marriage an issue of property. For Jesus, marriage is about the sacred commitment we make to one another.

This is why when Matthew elaborates on this teaching in Matthew 19, we read...

Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.

We tend to get fixated on the male/female dynamic in that passage, but that's not what Jesus is focused on. The point Jesus is making to the Pharisees is that what is fundamentally important about marriage is the fact that two people have been joined together in a sacred way. It's not a business arrangement. They haven't just signed a contract. Through the grace of God, they've made a holy commitment to one another and in doing so they have become united on a level so deep they are essentially "one flesh."

Of course, this passage is often cited as "proof" that Jesus defined marriage as something that happens exclusively between a male and female. But not only does Jesus not actually do that in this passage, that argument completely misses the point of what Jesus is saying.

For Jesus (at least in this passage), what is fundamental to biblical marriage isn't the male/female dynamic.

It's the sacred commitment of two people to one another that ultimately binds them together as one flesh, not the physical act of having sex.

That's why he references Genesis; not to proof-text gender difference, but to make the point that such an intimate union has been ordained by God since the beginning.

We can see the importance of this redefinition of marriage in the idea that the Church is the Bride of Christ. Obviously, when Jesus comes for his Bride we aren't becoming one flesh with Jesus through any sexual act. Likewise, within that Bride are both male and female members. Nevertheless, we can still be the Bride of Christ and become one with him (known by our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters as theosis), because for Jesus and therefore for the Church, marriage is, at its core, a spiritual union.

In other words, biblically speaking, gender difference is not quite as fundamental to marriage as it might seem.

It's also interesting and important to remember that the redefining of marriage didn't stop with Jesus.

Though many of us in the Church criticize secular culture for trying to redefine marriage, the Church actually redefined marriage long before the "gay agenda" arrived to "destroy America."

At least the Protestant part of the Church did some redefining.

In our zeal to defend biblical marriage, we tend to forget that as Protestants we've already redefined marriage once before. In the Bible, Jesus gave one reason and one reason alone for justifiable divorce: adultery. But we've tempered that quite a bit and made space for divorce (and remarriage) by redefining adultery to mean not just cheating sexually, but any of a variety forms of "marital unfaithfulness."

Now, don't get me wrong.

I think that's a justified move very much in the spirit (or is it Spirit?) of Jesus' locating the foundation of marriage in our commitment to one another. Anyone who's married can tell you that sleeping with someone else isn't the only way a spouse can be unfaithful to their marital commitment.

But the fact still remains that just like Jesus, we've done some redefining of marriage ourselves.

Like Jesus, we've acknowledge that just because the Bible says it, that doesn't settle it.

Which is why proof-texting hasn't ended the debate over same-sex marriage.

Now look, if you're opposed to same-sex marriage, I'm not naïve enough to think that a blog post will change your mind.

Big shifts in thinking don't happen over night. I get that. Even when Jesus redefined marriage, it took a long, long time before husbands began to stop thinking of their wives as property. Yet, even today that sort of thinking continues to persist in many corners of the world.

However, if Christians are going to continue to oppose same-sex marriage, we need to stop and rethink our demand that the Church never consider accepting same-sex marriage because to do so would be to redefine an unchanging picture of marriage.

Because while the gender dynamic may be becoming more inclusive, redefining marriage is nothing new.

It might not actually be that bad of a thing.

And, as both the Bible and Church history show us, sometimes it's a necessary thing to do.

Which is why it's so important that we press pause on all of the fiery rhetoric.

Because it may just be that those in the Church who are attempting to redefine marriage are, at least in spirit (or is it the Spirit?), not just following the example of their ecclesiastical forefathers.

They may just be following in the footsteps of Jesus.

 

This post originally appeared at The American Jesus.