The Myth of “Biblical Marriage”

Someone who’s theological musings I have admired in the past recently announced on Facebook that he and his wife have decided to have an “open marriage.” That is, although they consider each other’s relationship as “primary,” they are open to new relationships outside their own marriage.

I was very disappointed to hear this, not because I am an arbitrator or authority on human sexual relationships, but because I believe it will diminish their own relationship and stymie the personal growth that occurs in a healthy, loving and respectful marriage.

Looking outside one’s own marriage for fulfillment or to make up for some kind of perceived lack in one’s spouse, sidesteps the healthy process of communication, compromise and problem solving that eventually ends up with an immensely satisfying relationship. In addition, the problem, or portion thereof, may be the one staring back at oneself in the mirror.

50% of all marriages end in divorce, that includes those in the church. Among Christians, progressive and conservative alike, are subtle (sometimes not so subtle), unrealistic expectations for marriage. In this consumer driven society, we often make bad decisions, then we decide we can’t live with those decisions, so we buy a new, better car, phone, job or a new spouse.

For many Christians the concept of marriage is drawn from the hodgepodge of examples given in scripture as to what marriage looks like. The problem is that those examples are drawn from foreign societies thousands of years ago. The Bible is not a particularly good marriage manual. It is outdated, at times misogynistic and simply did not deal with the same social pressures that a 21st century world places on relationships.

The trouble I see with the conservative view that there are Biblical “rules” to follow: headship, husband priest of the home, women subordinate to husband, etc., is that following those rules don’t seem to have any measurable success in avoiding divorce. The usual scapegoat is to blame the lure of modernism and sexual hedonism they see as prevalent in society. This is only partially true; the descriptives given in scripture were never meant to be applied to 21st century marriages. They are culturally bound.

Among progressives, the freedom from the Bible as a rule book, will, inevitably lead to experimentation, which can be a two-edged sword. If there is to be a “rule,” let it be that of love. Not the mushy, sentimental kind, or the seeking mutual satisfaction kind, but the true, Christ-like sacrificial kind.

Author: socalkdl

Like so many Evangelicals of late, I have grown weary of the so-called "Culture Wars." I can agree with Philip Yancey in his "Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News," that grace within the church seems to be a vanishing commodity. Although still connected to the Evangelical church I have often felt distant and removed from portions of its theology and interaction with a Post-Christian society. A few years ago I felt it necessary, for my own spiritual health, to step back and "deconstruct" my theological belief set. I had become too enmeshed in the Evangelical "bubble" to honestly and critically assess my conservative theological doctrines. What has followed in the past few years is my own journey of rediscovering the Bible, and, above all, rediscovering God. It has become a journey that still surprises and delights me. Not everything is new. The faith first delivered to me by the Evangelical church has been reaffirmed. The Good News is still the best deal out there. But there have been new discoveries as well. It is my hope that my posts encourage your own questions and reassessments. It is my conviction that, because we see through a mirror darkly, there are questions that are valid to ask, and that we should not be afraid to ask them. God bless you in your own spiritual journeys. Kirk Leavens

5 thoughts on “The Myth of “Biblical Marriage””

  1. I don’t believe that. You may or may not be old enough to remember pre-feminist marriages. I am. Before that time, women regularly promised to obey, and many actually did just that. It was considered NORMAL. Very few were repressed, oppressed, and divorce was a lot less prevalent. People stuck together because they saw marriage as a forever thing. Men were the head of the house, men did wear the pants for the most part, men did go out and earn the bread while women stayed home and took care of their children. This has been the case, for the most part since the beginning of time. Anything else is a modern invention. Men were men, women were women and kids were happier for it. You didn’t have a lot of confusion like there is now.


    1. I am 66 years young. Male “headship” was a big buzzword among evangelicals in the 80s. In non-Southern Baptist evangelical churches it generally evolved into mutual submission. With the takeover by fundamentalists in the SBC, by 1993 women had been removed from teaching positions and moderates gradually forced out. They either joined mainline churches or became simply Baptists. It is very difficult for a family to survive on one income anymore, unfortunately, so the reduction of stay at home moms is not a result of feminism as much as economics. Pentecostals and other Arminian based groups have a long history of women in leadership and have never been the worse for wear because if it. BTW, my wife is not a feminist and we have a marriage based on mutual submission.


      1. I’m not talking about leadership. I am Pentecostal, and for the most part, women in my church are stay at home, or they work part-time. Generally if they have children they stay at home because it is better for the children. Women did not primarily work until the 1970s. I grew up in Southern California which was quite liberal, and most of my friends had stay at home moms. It can be done if there is a willingness on the partners to make some sacrifices to achieve it. But most of the things you are saying are based on your own preferences and not on what the Bible says which is fairly clear. Jesus doesn’t submit Himself to His bride; the Church submits to Him. Though the relationship of man and wife is mutually satisfying, the headship principle is very clear.


  2. Pamela, I too am Pentecostal. I mentioned leadership because one of the cardinal doctrines within headship teaching is that is inappropriate for women to lead men in any situation whether it be marriage or in teaching positions. Generally, this has not been a problem among larger Pentecostal denominations like Assemblies of God or Foursquare. But I would add that the headship principals usually espoused within these denominations is dissimilar from the fundamentalism of the Southern Baptist denomination. They tend to have a much broader give and take understanding that is very close to egalitarianism than the Baptists, who are much more legalistic.

    You and I have a basic disagreement as to how to identify Kingdom Principals in scripture. You have rightly claimed that Paul compares headship and submission of women to Christ’s headship of the church. I would see that as, not only as a bit of a lofty assessment of Christian men, knowing what I know about them, but clearly reflects Paul’s culture and his understanding of it. It is Paul’s attempt to make Christian marriage relevant to his culture as well as “redeem” the prevalent mysogeny within that culture and bring men into a better understanding of the worth of their spouses. You have also presented the typical evangelical nostalgia for a mythical period when everything was peachy keen. I would aver that the nostalgia view rarely accurately assesses history.

    The problem lies in how evangelicals, such as yourself, understand “theopneustos.” Jerome translated “God breathed” as “divinely breathed into.” So the writers of scripture had God “breathe into them,” or were “inspired” by Him. Where evangelicals get into trouble is not in believing the authors were “inspired,” but the how and extent of that inspiration. Did God prevent human cultural and ethical understandings of life to be present in scripture or does scripture present only God’s understanding and design for human-human and God-human interactions? Some theologians feel a better rendering of the Greek would be “every inspired scripture is useful.” When one steps back from the implicit docetism that defines the evangelical biblical hermeneutic, it is actually quite easy to see the parallels between Jewish culture and surrounding culture.

    This docetic hermeneutic, in a practical sense, makes the Bible only “appear” to be human. It becomes almost totally God’s words, not mans. In turn, this misunderstanding of inspiration sabotages any honest differentiating of what are Kingdom ethics and what are culturally bound. The most dramatic example of this is the church’s acceptance of war and violence done in the name of Christ. This was not just prevalent during the Middle Ages, but continues to this day among evangelicals. Based on the violent actions commanded by God in the attempted genocide of the Canaanites, all sorts of evil have been perpetrated with the blessing of the church.

    For most evangelicals, the Bible explains Christ. For progressives such as myself, Christ explains the Bible. He is above the Bible, and corrects it and explains it. So coming back to female submission, there is nothing intrinsically Christlike about it when you take into consideration the Kingdom principal that there is neither male nor female, bond or free in God’s eyes. Ancient household codes were designed to fit a largely agrarian culture that has changed drastically in the last 200 years. There is no need for an outdated cultural mindset that adds little of value to marriage or human interactions.


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