Traditional Marriage and the Bible (REALLY!)

Note to readers: Last week, I posted the link below on marriage in the Bible, but in my own remarks I passed on to other topics. I naively thought that if readers were not interested, they would just stop reading. No big deal. However, some readers reacted with furious indignation, protesting that they had been trapped with a bait-and-switch and forced to read something they did not like. So, to make amends, I promise in future posts strictly to adhere to the topic of the title. Also, I am re-posting the link and this time I will REALLY write about the topic of the title.

Here is the link:

This is pretty grim stuff, and those who make simplistic appeals to “Biblical” morality need to be reminded of just what they are advocating.1

Of course, it is an old, old freethinker’s trick, going back at least to the Enlightenment deists, to quote copiously from the Pentateuch the many embarrassing prescriptions and proscriptions that so blatantly grate upon our sensibilities. Tom Paine did a superb job of that in The Age of Reason. Also, there was Ingersoll’s classic, “Some mistakes of Moses.” Really, if one’s only aim were to discomfort believers by piling up horrid quotes from the Pentateuch, then this is pretty easy to do.2 I don’t want to return to that well-trodden ground. Instead of the usual polemics (bor-ing), I would like to try something different. Here I will focus exclusively upon some of what St. Paul has to say about marriage and do my best to present his views in the most positive light I honestly can.

Interpreting what Paul says about marriage—and many other topics—is complicated by the fact that Paul works under the assumption that the apocalyptic ending of the present world is imminent. He expects Christ to return in glory at any time and all of his advice about practical matters is predicated upon that assumption. It would be most interesting to know what Paul would have had to say had he known that Christians would be here “for the long haul.” Would Paul have looked at things differently had he known that the Parousia would be so long delayed? I can’t think of any reasonable way to address such a counterfactual, so I will just take his words at face value.

Unfortunately for those who want to interpret him charitably, Paul does come across as a stodgy, sour old sexist celibate who thinks that women should shut up and ask their husbands if they have any questions (I Corinthians 14: 34-35) and that marriage is far inferior to celibacy, but is better than living in uncontrollable lust (I Corinthians 7: 8-9). Nothing is so effective at killing sexual desire as marriage, Paul seems to be implying. Paul really makes it hard to cut him much slack. Nevertheless, I will attempt to present some aspects of Paul’s views of marriage in the best possible light I honestly can, and will then ask whether, even so construed, this is a reasonable and morally acceptable understanding of marriage.

In various passages, such as I Corinthians 7: 3-4, Paul seems to be remarkably egalitarian. He says that husbands and wives have equal claim on each other’s bodies. Neither should deny what is due the other, for married partners no longer belong to themselves but to each other (verse 4). It is hard to know just how far Paul intends this to go. Does he mean that husbands and wives owe sexual relations to the partner whenever the partner desires it, despite one’s own feelings? (Wives, of course, used to be told that they had to perform their sexual duty for their husbands) If so, this would seem to take things too far. Sex-on-demand does not seem to be conducive to intimacy. Perhaps Paul here only means (verse 5) to say that you do not have to attempt any rigors of self-denial, lest you fall into temptation. Except for brief periods of abstinence (verse 5) for devotion to prayer, married couples should have sex freely when it is mutually desired. At any rate, Paul may be credited, in an age when women were generally regarded as property and to be sexually used when desired, with the progressive view that marital relations involve mutual obligations.

Even some of Paul’s more notorious sayings seem to be tempered by egalitarian expressions. In I Corinthians 11 Paul says that a man should pray or prophesy with his head bare but that a woman who prays or prophesies should have her head covered. Note first of all that women were indeed allowed to pray or prophesy, that is, they were allowed to participate in public worship (though not to address the congregation, I Corinthians 14: 33-35, or to be a teacher, I Timothy 2:12). However, the reason that women must cover themselves but not men is that

…man is the image of God and the mirror of his glory, whereas woman reflects the glory of man. For man did not originally spring from woman, but woman was made out of man; and man was not created for woman’s sake, but woman for the sake of man…(I Corinthians, 11: 7-9).

That should keep her in her place! Indeed, Paul seems to be positing a metaphysical disparity between men and women. Man is the image of god, but woman is only the image of man. I think that the best thing you can say about this bit is that it is not that much worse than Aristotle’s opinion that a woman is a defective man. Yet, just below, in verse 11, Paul says this: “And yet, in Christ’s fellowship woman is as essential to man as man to woman.” The notation in the Oxford Annotated Bible referring to this verse says: “Paul guards against a wrong inference form what he has said about the subordination of women.” It sounds, then, like what he is saying can be summarized like this: Yes, man is superior to woman, and she exists to serve him, but both men and women are essential members of the body of Christ. Essential but unequal? Sounds like a bad Supreme Court ruling. Paul is frustrating my efforts to interpret him in the most favorable light, so I will just let this be.

Probably Paul’s most famous advice to husbands and wives comes from Ephesians Chapter 5. He begins by saying that they should be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ (verse 21). The Oxford Annotated Bible comments: “The general principle is one of mutual subjection.” Sounds good, but Paul continues:

Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord; for the man is the head of the woman, just as Christ also is the head of the church. Christ is, indeed, the Savior of the body; but just as the church is subject to Christ, so must women be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church and gave himself up for it, to consecrate it…in the same way men also are bound to love their wives as they love their own bodies. In loving his wife a man loves himself. For no one ever hated his own body: on the contrary he provides and cares for it; and that is how Christ treats the church, because it is his body, of which we are living parts. Thus it is said in the words of Scripture “a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” (verses 22-31)

So, though husbands and wives have mutual obligations, a wife must defer to her husband’s authority (“in everything”), just as the church must defer to the authority of Christ. Yet, just as Christ selflessly loves the church and seeks its good always, so must the husband exercise his authority towards his wife. The husband leads to serve, just as Christ led to serve (Southern Baptists regard the husband’s role as that of a “servant leader.”) In the end, the relation of husband and wife is so close that they are really “one flesh.”

How, then, are we to take Paul’s views on marriage, viewing him, of course, in the context of his times? At a time when most of the world regarded women as little more than chattel, should Paul be seen as a conservative, moderate, a progressive—or maybe as defying easy categorization? It is tempting to interpret the more retrograde parts of Paul’s statements as boilerplate, stock copy thrown in to mollify conservatives, while what he really thought is expressed in the egalitarian, progressive passages. However, it would be very hard to maintain this interpretation. Paul was never, ever the least bit hesitant about shocking the conservatives. When he had a strong conviction he was not at all conciliatory or compromising. When Peter wanted to require converts to undergo circumcision, Paul got right in his face about it. He had no truck at all with the old Jewish requirements—circumcision, dietary restrictions, not eating with Gentiles—and did not care whom he offended by saying so. It is hard then to think that if Paul’s views had been genuinely egalitarian, that he would not have been as outspoken and forceful about that as he was about everything else he strongly believed.

Hence, it would not be honest to dismiss what we now see as the retrograde parts of Paul’s views while holding the progressive elements to be the “real” Paul. Whig history is always a temptation. We would like our historical heroes to conform to our modern sensibilities, but they will not. Darwin, one of my heroes, though a steadfast opponent of slavery, took for granted the prevailing racist assumptions of his day. Likewise, Paul sounds egalitarian and progressive in some ways, yet seems to have accepted the traditional assumptions of male superiority and privilege. And this is precisely the problem. Any attempt to base a Christian view of marriage on Paul’s words will face the problem of balancing the incompatible retrograde and progressive elements of that teaching. No such balancing act will succeed.

Consider the Baptists’ husband as “servant leader” concept, which definitely seems to be an effort to capture the true Pauline spirit. No matter how you slice it or dice it, and no matter how much you underline the “servant” aspect, the man has a higher place in the hierarchy; his authority is greater. In frank terms, he has the greater power to decide. Of course, the husband is told to hold his authority humbly, not proudly, but however you attempt to qualify or restrict it, power obeys its quintessential dynamic, the one noted by Lord Acton: Power corrupts. Lord Acton should have added: And rationalization is easy. Perhaps the easiest bit of self-deception is to disguise self-seeking as altruism. Even humility itself, as everyone from Dickens to Nietzsche has noted, can easily become a mask for sneaky selfishness. In the end, despite anodyne rhetoric, power is power, and to say that in a marriage relationship more of it belongs to the man—just because he is a man—is fundamentally unjust.

Of course, women have always had ways of resisting official male superiority. One of my favorite scenes from Fiddler on the Roof is the one where Tevye, the poor milkman, and his wife Golda are in town and Tevye wants to see is son-n-law’s new sewing machine. Golda says no, there is not enough time and they must get home. Tevye erupts into a tirade asserting with maximum bluster that he is the man, and so the boss and his word goes, etc. Golda says nothing, but just crosses her arms and transfixes him with “the look.” Tevye glances at the sewing machine for two seconds and announces “I have now seen the sewing machine and we can go home.” Some boss.

Still, it would be better not to have to play such games. When marriage partners are recognized as equal, truly equal, then they must make decisions mutually; they must come to agreement. Egalitarian marriage may indeed be harder than authoritarian marriage, since neither partner is allowed to arrogate or abdicate responsibility. However, the genuine mutuality that Paul teaches when listening to his better angels is achievable only on the basis of equality.

1 Perhaps they should also be reminded that the bizarre rules about marriage naturally accompany bizarre views about women. The plainly superstitious rules relating to female biology have to be even more embarrassing than the ones specifically about marriage. For instance: According to Leviticus Chapter 15, a menstruating woman is unclean for seven days (verse 19); anyone who touches her shall also be unclean (verse 19); anything she lies or sits upon during her period of uncleanness is also unclean (verse 20); anyone who touches her bed must wash his clothes and bathe and will remain unclean until evening (verse 21); if a man has sex with a menstruating woman and any of her blood gets on him, he is unclean for seven days and any bed he lies upon is unclean (verse 24). And so on, ad nauseam.

2 I’m not saying that there is no place for publications that do that. The Pentateuch really does say those horrid things and some believers need to be discomforted. A modern publication that effectively carries on Paine’s work is Ruth Hurmence Greene’s The Born Again Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible, from The Freedom from Religion Press (1979). Christian apologists have responded to such charges (See, e.g. Paul Copan’s “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?” in Philosophia Christi, 10 (2008) 7-37; also available online. But also see the reply by Hector Avalos, “Yahweh IS a Moral Monster” in The Christian Delusion, 209-236, edited by John Loftus, Prometheus Books, 2010).