A Response to Preston Sprinkle on LifeWay and “the Biblical View of Marriage”

A Response to Preston Sprinkle on LifeWay and “the Biblical View of Marriage” July 20, 2017

I recently posted about the so-called “biblical view of marriage” that LifeWay uses to filter their authors, and the response I received has been far beyond anything I expected. In just a few short days, it has surpassed the readership I normally expect for my entire blog in a month.

The feedback I’ve heard has been overwhelmingly positive, but there have been some critiques as well. Frankly, most of the critiques seem to be based on an incomplete reading of the article, and I’m not interested in simply restating what I just said. However, Preston Sprinkle stopped by to leave a critical comment full of substance that is well worth addressing.

Preston Sprinkle
Image credit: Preston Sprinkle’s public profile image.

A little background on Preston and myself: I first became aware of Preston when he co-authored Erasing Hell with Francis Chan, arguing in favor of eternal conscious torment but leaving room for the possibility of annihilationism. At the time, I found it fairly compelling, but I soon shifted to conditional immortality, and today I am hopeful for universal reconciliation. Preston too has shifted since Erasing Hell, and today advocates the view he calls “terminal punishment.”

My next (and far more influential) interaction with Preston came in the form of Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence. His was the book that finally convinced me that Christians are called to abstain from all violence. Ironically, that commitment to non-violence is what ultimately led me to reject inerrancy, which is now the foundational point of disagreement between Preston and myself.

Nonetheless, I find Preston to be a thorough thinker and a gracious debater. Where we disagree, his thoughts continue to challenge my own, and our discussions have always been productive.

With that being said, here’s the comment he left on my recent article:

Hey Chuck,

Thanks for this intriguing piece. As you know, there is so much you and I agree on in life, ministry, and theology. However, as part of a friendly dialogue–and in no way do I speak for, represent, or even agree with LifeWay’s articulation of their view–I think you’re missing some things in your argument.

First, you’re atomistically picking out Bible verses on marriage, calling this “evidence for a biblical marriage,” and then putting the pieces together and saying we shouldn’t (and don’t!) follow THAT marriage.

In some ways, this is helpful. Certainly some conservatives may need to be shown that not every verse on marriage is worthy of emulation. But you’re ignoring the overarching storyline of how marriage is integrated with the creational narrative of redemption. I could explain more of what I mean, but N.T. Wright (as always) does it better: http://www.plough.com/en/topics/life/marriage/what-is-marriage-for

In short, marriage as a one-flesh union between two sexually different persons is woven into the fabric of the creational story and threaded throughout the entire drama of redemption: Differences coming together in unity without erasing those differences. It’s what drives Gen 1-2, Rev 21-22, and so many themes and passages in between. If you want to pull that thread out, that’s fine. But you’re going to be left with a very different garment. I mean, story. Or both.

Second, there’s a massive difference between cultural expressions of marriage and God’s intrinsic design of marriage. That is, most statements on marriage you’ve picked on deal with statements in the OT law where God regulated, tolerated, and sometimes later critiques certain cultural views of marriage, sexism, slavery, and a whole host of other ethical issues. You can’t just pick out random statements from the OT law and ignore the question of OT law for Christian ethics as a whole. (Given your level of intelligence, I’m going to assume that you know this to be a very huge issue in Christian ethics and theology, which many scholars have addressed…none of which you mention.) There are few ethical questions that DON’T have the same problem you point out; statements in the Law that need to be interpreted in light of the larger biblical story. As a fellow pacifist, I know that you know this…

Maybe LifeWay DOES think that “biblical view of marriage” means “thoughtlessly adding up every verse on marriage and saying ‘Let’s do that!'” But this isn’t at all what the phrase “biblical view of marriage” essentially means.

Hi Preston,

Thanks for taking the time to read my article and offer your thoughts. Indeed, on the whole, you and I have tended to agree probably more than we disagree. And in this case, I do agree with what I take to be the main premise of what you wrote.

As the Apostle Paul might say, I’ve been engaging in a bit of foolishness. My article deliberately took inerrantist literalism to an extreme in order to make a point. I hope no one thinks I actually believe we should form our functional view of marriage by piecing together the most obscure and outrageous examples that can be found throughout scripture.

Yes, you (and N.T. Wright) are absolutely correct that we must look at the grand narrative of scripture, rather than isolating proof texts. You and Wright (as non-affirming Christians) would simply differ from me (as an affirming Christian) on the specifics of how you interpret that grand narrative, the direction you see it pointing, and which texts you see as normative commands expressing God’s ultimate desire, rather than “cultural expressions.”

And based on the extensive research you’ve done for your own recent books on the subject, I know that you’re well aware of what a complicated topic this is. While I land on one side, and you land on another, I’m fairly certain you’d be gracious enough to admit that it’s far from a cut-and-dry unequivocal case to say that either side is definitively “the biblical view.”

Of course you believe that your view is the one best supported by the grand narrative of scripture, and I believe the same about mine. But hopefully neither of us are arrogant enough to assume ours is “the biblical view of marriage”—especially given so many contradictory prescriptions for marriage as cited in my previous article.

No, of course we don’t base our view of marriage on such obscure examples. (Just as we must not base our view of marriage on three obscure “clobber texts” in the New Testament.) But one way or another, all of these texts must be grappled with. We still have to admit that they’re in the Bible and that they strongly appear to teach views very different from whatever we would say the grand narrative points to.

My article was intended not to dissuade us from seeking a view of marriage informed by the Bible, but to help us maintain some humility in our approach. LifeWay’s claim to definitively hold “the biblical view”—and their decision to use that claim as a tool of separation—is the problem I wrote my article to address.

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  • Iain Lovejoy

    There is an odd back-to-frontness in this argument about “marriage as a one-flesh union between two sexually different persons is woven into the fabric of the creational story and threaded throughout the entire drama of redemption”. What it seems based on is the number of times pairs like God / Creation, God / Israel, Jesus / the Church are compared to marriages. It’s true that this is a very common comparison, but I can’t see how it advances the case at all, and it is extremely weird theologically.
    The argument seems to be that if I say “A is like B” in an effort to explain A, this somehow means B is required to conform in all particulars to whatever we think A is like, even though A was the thing we didn’t understand and B was thing we supposedly did understand which was used to illustrate A. It’s like describing someone sunburned as looking like a lobster, then insisting because of that all lobsters must be the colour of sunburn or there’s something wrong with them. It’s intrinsically daft.
    It also creates some weird theology as you try and make human marriage laws the central purpose of creation, and adjust your theology of everything else to match what you think marriage should be like.

    • Indeed. While I can see that thread to which Preston refers, sewn into the narrative, it strikes me much more as a line of cross-stitch, added on top of the fabric, than as anything inherent to the narrative itself.

    • Ken Nichols

      Exactly! Just because marriage is used as a tool to help us understand a relationship involving God, does not make man/woman marriage a God-endorsed “standard”. That’s like saying that because Jesus is compared to a shepherd that rescues the lost sheep, that any shepherd that does NOT rescue a sheep is “unbiblical” or “rejects God’s standard”. Poppycock!

      • Iain Lovejoy

        Or better still, the parable of the sower makes seed drills unbiblical.

        • Not to mention the fact that the entire kingdom of God is in jeopardy, since we now know that the mustard seed is actually not the smallest.

          • Iain Lovejoy

            Take that back, Bible-denying, atheist, heretic scum! That’s an eternity in hell for you.
            (P.S. For the hard of understanding that is a joke.)
            (P.P.S I can’t believe I actually felt the need to write that.)

    • Edwin Woodruff Tait

      The question is, of course, whether the marriage imagery is just another “analogy,” or whether, as traditional Christians claim, the union of man and woman is sacramental–something that by its very nature uniquely reflects the divine.

      • Iain Lovejoy

        Not really. That marriage is sacramental doesn’t stop it also being used as an analogy as well. Neither does the fact that it reflects divine love tell you one way or the other whether homosexual couples can participate in the sacrament, God being somewhat lacking in either genitals or gender.

      • Marriage is indeed a sacrament, uniquely reflecting the divine, and same-sex marriages reflect God’s love with equal clarity. It’s no different than using grape juice or gluten-free bread for the sacrament of Eucharist. (And yes, I realize Catholics disagree with doing that too.)

  • Beau

    How does the “affirming” and “non-affirming” grand narrative of Scripture differ?

  • I’d still say that this whole dialog still gives too much credence to the Bible-As-Rulebook line of thought. And also the idea that those outside the church give a fig what the Bible says anyway…

    No, as soon as you start trying to make up any kind of societal rules from the Bible, you run into problems. ‘Do not murder’ is built into our psyches, sure. But it would have been so irrespective of the Bible’s existence, as evidenced by most civilisations, even ancient civilisations, having the same law even thugh they didn’t have a Bible of any sort.

    No way I would ever impose the rules of ancient civilisations into modern day living. I might do it to myself, but to do it to others is just plain wrong.

    • Matthew

      How then should society be structured? Whose idea of morality wins the day?

      • Interesting you should ask that question, although I of course cannot claim to have all the answers! The reason I find it interesting at this point in time is because I have just begun Brian McLaren’s book, ‘The Great Spiritual Migration’. In there he basically proposes a society based on Love; yes it sounds idealistic, but essentially a society where people are emotionally trained at several levels and know how better to employ emotional literacy. Putting others first too; basically there’s a lot of Jesus’s teachings incorporated into that. When I talked about the rules of ancient civilizations, I meant exactly that – the rules; I would not impose them, as I said. But the principles espoused by Jesus are timeless; they are not rules so much as ideas of how people can treat each other in order to make for a better society. Naturally, we have a long way to go, but as with all of these things, it begins with you and me. As each of us becomes more Christlike, we do indeed do our own small part in making the world a better place, and all that adds up into something good. If each of us does what we see the Father doing, we can’t go far wrong.

        • Matthew

          Thanks Tony Cutty.

          The western world is arguably rooted in a Judeo-Christian moral/ethical paradigm — would you agree?

          • Hey Matthew 🙂 I’m not sure quite what that means…does it mean that our cultures are strongly influenced, and have more or less been built on, things from the Bible (which are the Jewish and Christian Scriptures) – in which case yes, I agree in principle, but things have morphed a lot from how things are in the Bible. Which is as it should be, because societies change. Have I got the right end of the stick? 😉

          • Matthew

            I think so.

            I too think things have morphed in western society in terms of morals and ethics.

          • So far I’ve asked Jekylldoc and Ron McPherson these sets of questions: Were you ever an inerrantist? What was it like for you? What changed so that you’re not so much of an inerrantist now. My reason for asking is I recently had some conversations with the Sanctified Muse who claims to be an inerrantist. He certainly is posting a lot of comments lately on the Progressive blog so I think something is beginning to wiggle inside him and does not quite fit like it used to. He has admitted that the Bible is a scary document that has things that are very condemning about God’s character. He says he’s struggled cognitively with the documentation of God’s atrocities. His is a struggle with cognitive dissonance in my humble opinion. It’s an interesting encounter because For the First Time I don’t feel like mocking or judging but like I should try to be more understanding and loving of such. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7b18c5fe1613691831a2f18a808adecd56061c0b734954aa871e3895f937fdec.jpg

          • I think I need to learn that too. The understanding, that is. I need to be more Christlike with those who disagree with me violently; by that I mean those who come in with guns blazing, and/or with rampant judgementalism. Each of us is at a different phase in our faith walk, and we don’t all learn things in the same sequence. Some of us don’t learn the same things that others do. That’s the place I need to speak from, that kind of understanding. As you were saying about those respondents in your post…sometimes the hurting are not just confined to those who have been browbeaten by the Pharisees, but also those who are strugging with inner faith issues, a la cognitive dissonance.

  • The dogged determination to adhere to inerrancy, despite evidence to the contrary, makes it very difficult, if not impossible for people like Preston to differentiate between what is culturally bound in the Bible and what are Kingdom Principals. Marriage in scripture is a good example. Conservatives have traditionally been extremely subjective in how they ‘apply’ scripture on this matter. Cherry picking carefully what they (men) want to hold up as ‘Biblical,’ and ignoring the rampant sexism and mysogeny that accompanies most OT narratives on male/female relationships. A big part of the problem stems from the conservative Reformed position that inspiration, and the work of the Holy Spirit largely stopped with the Protestant canonization of the Bible. Nothing more is to be said, nothing new to learn or understand, no new insight…it’s almost as if the Holy Spirit is out of a job! Theology becomes brittle, boring and becomes no more than restating what Calvin or Hodge has already said many times over.

    • That’s right, Kirk. And this despite Jesus saying, ‘I have so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it right now’ (Jn 16:12)

  • Lilly Munster

    As a moral, law abiding married Gay Male American, I can tell you….the vast majority of not only Americans, but American Christians, are NOT bigots. Conservatives came out of the woodwork to congratulate, hug, kiss and even cry when my husband and I tied the knot in 2008 in San Diego California on our wedding day on a Navy battleship. The Republican Mayor of San Diego sent us a congratulatory telegram. Two hetero couples getting married then and there at the same time suggested that we combine our outdoor reception feasts in Freedom Park on Coronado.
    We were black, white and Latino. We enjoyed a combined Hawaiian Luau (ours) soul food (the black newlyweds) and the most delicious Mexican food I have ever stuffed myself with. Then we adjourned to a bar in Old Town, to learn that one of the couples were Jehovah’s Witnesses (they only drank coke) the black newlyweds were Baptists,and the 50 gay men and women were mostly Atheists. We were toasted by Fundamentalist Christians!!!!!!! We still write, and we get together when we are in San Diego.
    “Biblical Marriage?” Not in the real world. Not with real people.who know the meaning of Grace,Peace and Love.

    • Judgeforyourself37

      Wishing you happiness, good health and a long and wonderful marriage.