When Did Biblical Marriage Get To Be A Thing?

When Did Biblical Marriage Get To Be A Thing? March 9, 2015

Photo of couple whose wedding I officiated at on February 9. Photo Credit: Denise DeMonia.
Photo of couple whose wedding I officiated at on February 9. Photo Credit: Denise DeMonia.

The day after I became the first Southern Baptist minister to officiate at a same-sex wedding, Rick Lance of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions and Travis Coleman, Jr., president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, issued a joint statement called “Stand Strong For Biblical Marriage.” The statement said that any Southern Baptist minister who officiated at a same-sex wedding risked being “disfellowshipped” from the Southern Baptist Convention. The Madison Baptist Association through which my church, Weatherly Heights Baptist, belongs to the Convention followed with the decision to remove us from fellowship.

Afterwards, I found myself asking, “When did ‘biblical marriage’ get to be a thing?” And when did “biblical marriage” come to mean opposition to same-sex marriage?

To clarify, I’m not talking about marriage as it appears in the Bible. I’m talking about the cultural movement which became a catch phrase: “biblical marriage.”

Lifeway Christian Resources appears to have been a key player in the development of “biblical marriage.” Lifeway is the merchandise arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. In 20 languages and 186 stores, it offers “biblical solutions to life.” These solutions are available through Bibles, vacation bible school materials, church music, books, magazines, gifts, videos, music, jewelry, and hundreds of thousands of “commitment cards.”

Whether merchandise was cause or effect, Lifeway undertook a focused plan to promote the idea that control over sexuality is fundamental to Christianity. Through a series of campaigns, the focus was expanded demographically and ideologically.

In 1992, Lifeway launched “True Love Waits.” The campaign promoted pre-marital sexual abstinence. “Believing that true love waits,” teenagers pledged on a commitment card “to be sexually abstinent until I enter a biblical marriage relationship.”

In 1993, True Love Waits entered into a partnership with Youth for Christ, a Protestant evangelical organization. With the partnership, the idea of a biblical marriage relationship went well beyond personal sexual matters. It became associated with the outward purposes of evangelism and missions.

In 1997, True Love Waits developed its Crossing Bridges with Purity program. There was a broadening of the message from simple pre-marital sexual abstinence to pre-marital sexual purity which meant such things as not using pornography. “Biblical marriage,” while not invoked per se, was being defined. What strikes me about these abstinence programs, however, is that they do not appear to have been associated with anxiety over intimate same-sex relationships.

However, American anxiety over same-sex marriage had also become a thing. In a separate but related development, the United States Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA]. Signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, the landmark act defined marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman” and banned Federal recognition of same-sex marriages. DOMA was the culmination of two decades of state bans on same-sex marriages.

In 1973, Maryland had become the first state to enact such a ban. Through 1994, nearly every other state in the Union followed suit. As if that were not enough, two years after DOMA, Hawaii and Alaska passed state constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage as did twenty-nine other states.

Credit: Lifeway Christian Resources
Credit: Lifeway Christian Resources

Meanwhile, there were developments in the biblical marriage movement. In 2003, Lifeway Christian Resources expanded the scope of its message to include parents with its True Love Waits Goes Home program. Having previously expanded its demographic focus to include college students, with this campaign Lifeway went well beyond its original task of encouraging teenagers not to engage in pre-marital sexual activity.

Now it was attempting to control the sexual activities of full grown presumably straight men and women inside marriage. Parents committed to abstain from “pornography, impure touching and conversations, and sex outside a biblical marriage relationship from this day forward.”

In 2006, there was an interesting turn of events. The Washington, DC based think tank, The Heritage Foundation, took up the cause of marital purity. The Foundation promoted free enterprise, individual liberty, limited government, traditional American values, and a strong national security apparatus. It launched a campaign similar to the True Love Waits campaign through its website familyfacts.org. The language of the website indicates the Foundation’s belief that purity in marriage is related to family “safety” and by extension to national security.

The kind of anxiety which could connect sexuality to national security issues in the US is not unprecedented. The Lavender Scare of the 1950s, by which gays in the State Department were considered a threat to national security, was a parallel development of the McCarthy era’s “Red Scare” fear of Communists there.

With the scope of both Lifeway’s and The Heritage Foundation’s programs focusing on adults in the context of marriage, my guess is that it was right about here that “biblical marriage” began to take on the meaning of opposition to same-sex marriage.

The tide began to turn in June, 2013. The US Supreme Court recognized the same-sex marriage of Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, invalidating a key part of DOMA. Like dominoes, state bans on same-sex marriage began falling.

Clearly, for those in the Southern Baptist Convention who disfellowshipped my church, “biblical marriage” is a thing. If this inquiry into the origins of “biblical marriage” are borne out in other investigations, the Convention may have to face the fact that those origins do not necessarily trace to the Bible.

Many thanks to Jonathan Harwell of Rollins College who helped research this article.

DSC_0004 2Rev. Ellin Jimmerson, Ph. D. is an ordained Baptist minister in Huntsville, AL. Her Ph. D. is in 20th century US cultural and intellectual history. She is the director of the award-winning migrant justice documentary, The Second Cooler, narrated by Martin Sheen. You can find her on Twitter @EllinJimmerson and on Facebook at The Second Cooler Fan Page.

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10 responses to “When Did Biblical Marriage Get To Be A Thing?”

  1. I think more and more religious organizations will embrace same sex marriage. The Catholics and the Southern Baptists not among them. The numbers are clear that these two organizations are losing membership in large numbers. As the older members pass away, their strict adherence to outdated doctrines will not attract the younger, more science minded, individuals to their ranks. They are fearful of same sex marriage as this will allow many of those who are in the closet to come out and this will cause them to lose even more members.

  2. I agree. If I may add on further, they’re also likely to continue with a victim/persecution complex, where this is merely evidence they’re on the “right” path since so many are against them. Moreover, they’ll continue scapegoating both their decline and essentially anything negative on the people they’re against, rather than on their own actions.

  3. Well written. Marriage was of course around long before the church found it useful to capture the economic resources of men and women by controlling the institution of marriage. Marriage as a choice and for love is a relatively new idea in human history. When I hear the term “biblical marriage” I am reminded that it reflects that ancient need of the church to control the institution in order to protect and enhance the political and economic interests of the church.

  4. This “biblical” view of marriage also has a deceptive agenda of denying women equal access to clerical, economic, educational, and political resources and positions. The language of submission and a separate secondary status based on gender overshadows false claims of belief in equal gender worth in the eyes of God. It’s a neat trick that comforts those men who need to have a sense of power and prestige in their institutions that is not threatened by gifted, talented, and intelligent women.

  5. Great article and kudos on the research. Organized religion is about politics – absolute power and control. Period. The “traditional marriage” definition nonsense merely tries to control people’s relationships, while making one relationship more valid (“holier”) than another (“abomination”). It is completely a self-serving definition for a deluded sense of self-righteousness. My love for my partner is not affected by what some hyper-religious fanatic calls it. Now, my legal rights and protections under the law are directly affected by the prejudice and bigotry. From my perspective, I believe some of the present tension is an ego defense mechanism. It might be projected anger from the most prominent and vocal religious authorities who were forced to live a life apart from their natural orientation. Perhaps, they were expected to get married to opposite sex partners, have children, and now if they were to admit to their genuine sexual/affection orientation, they’ll somehow “ruin” the lives of everyone involved. I would be angry, too. IMHO, the congregation is better off without the larger affiliation. Let a genuine Spirit of Love and Compassion guide you. Who knows, you might actually get to know each other’s names and needs. From one perspective, the trending Mega-churches in the more “privileged” neighborhoods have nothing to do with humility or spreading a Gospel of Peace. They’re all about putting on an impressive and emotional production every week. Actually, the recorded ministry of Jesus was devoted more to exposing the hypocrisy of the ruling religious authorities than condemning the lowly and disenfranchised people of society. Oh, that’s right … he preferred hanging out with the “sinners”, they were probably more fun. Also, a major problem is the need always to be right (the cult I survived was very legalistic/verbal plenarists/sola scriptura). It is very difficult for megalomaniacs to admit they might be wrong, or even that the world is changing and quite a different place from 2000+ years ago. (Honestly, I would be more worried if it hadn’t changed!) The hyper-religiosity at the heart of the culture war is quite alarming in that it appears to be a mass delusion, driven by extreme fears, and simply not rational. Today, Christians are supposed to just accept whatever hate-filled doctrine is passed off to them from their “authorities”. These doctrines which make anyone feel righteous, or “holier”, only by making someone else look bad or “sinful” and inferior are filled with deceit and lies. To question those in authority is to question Scripture … and to question Scripture is to question God, Himself!

  6. Their “martyrdom” is definitely delusional. Hyper-religiosity is a form of delusional processes, along with delusions of persecution (they’re somehow the real victims) and delusions of grandeur (know everything/always right). Reasonable people realize and understand how mental illness and psychological disorders are contributing factors in this debate.

  7. It’s worth pointing out that most of the marriages in the bible (and throughout human history) were polygamous and/or arranged.

  8. I think you are on a valid track here. Same sex marriage completely dismantles the traditional order of power of male over female at a most basic level. The concept of man as ruling authority in marriage over woman’s submission and sub-servance to him, cannot be adapted in any way into same sex marriage. Even if some might consider, perhaps partners take some order of divided roles as in traditional marriage, it is an agreement between “equals” and not underpinned by the traditional male/female dominance/submissive model of marriage.

  9. O, I think it started with Adam and Eve. Gay covenants of fidelity are a better thing than promiscuity, but they will never be marriage. Marriage is either a union that produces offspring and/or a sacrament honoring procreation–without which gay people would never exist. Sad biblical understanding. Sad article. Sad culture.

  10. what amuses me about “biblical marriage” (and I’ve read the whole bible) is that polygamy and concubines are accepted throughout and the existence of prostitues are not denied! The old testament has strange passages about slavery and rape.
    I’m sorry but I can’t accept it as the word of an all -knowing, all perfect loving, god, the old testament is just the words of stoneage jewish men, the new testament has moved on by a few melenia, but marriage was nearlly always arranged anyway.