No Place for Same-Sex Marriage: The Reformed and Baptist Confession
The biblical view of marriage is under attack in many post-Christian societies like the United States. In particular, advocates of “same-sex marriage” either reject the idea that marriage is instituted by God (and, therefore, regulated by him), or they endeavor to “reinterpret” the Bible to allow for homosexuality and legal unions between partners of the same sex. In light of the rising opposition what we know as the traditional view of marriage, I thought it might be useful to offer a brief exposition of the Baptist Confession of Faith’s contribution to this topic.
Chapter 25 of the Baptist Confession addresses the institution of marriage. For the most part, the Baptists closely followed the wording of the Westminster Confession. However, they omitted the last two paragraphs of the WCF, which deal with the subject of divorce. Neither the WCF nor the 1689 provide a definition of marriage.1 To make up for this deficiency, we’ll begin our study with a biblical definition of marriage. Then we will expound the four paragraphs of our Confession. Finally, we’ll briefly note the helpful paragraphs in the WCF on divorce.
A Biblical View of Marriage
The Bible defines marriage as a “covenant” (Prov. 2:17; Mal. 2:14).2 A covenant is a solemn oath-bound promise in which the parties make a formal commitment to one another in the presence of God and human witnesses (Gen. 21:22-32; 26:28-31; 31:44-54; Ezek. 17:13-19; Heb. 6:17-18). The covenant of marriage was originally instituted by God for the purpose of life-long companionship and procreation (Matt. 19:6; Gen. 1:28; 2:18, 24). Thus, we may define marriage as a divinely-ordained human institution in which a man and woman make an oath-bound promise to one another in the presence of God and human witnesses to enter into life-long covenantal companionship.3
At least two important ramifications follow from this definition of marriage. First, sexual union in itself does not constitute marriage. In support of this assertion, the Bible treats those who engage in premarital sex as yet unmarried (Gen. 34:1-4; Exo. 22:16-17; Deut. 22:28-29).4 Furthermore, in Jewish society the marriage covenant was initiated by the pre-sexual betrothal relationship (Deut. 20:7; 22:23-24; 2Sam. 3:14; Hos. 2:16-20).5 Consequently, one who had entered into betrothal could not terminate the relationship without a bill of divorce (Matt. 1:18-20, 24). The second ramification of the definition of marriage is the vital importance of a formal ceremony in which the marriage covenant is ratified. In other words, we must not treat the exchanging of marital vows in the presence of witness as merely human tradition that may be discarded. On the contrary, such a formal ceremony serves to draw a clear line between the married and non-married status of the individuals involved and determines the lawfulness of any sexual relations in which they may engage.
The Baptist Confession on Marriage
The four paragraphs found in our Confession address the monogamous rule, primary purposes, and lawful parties for the marriage relationship.
The monogamous rule of marriage
1 Marriage is to be between one man and one woman; neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband.1
1Gen 2:24 with Matt. 19:5, 6; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6
The first paragraph supports monogamy (Greek: monos = ‘one’ + gamos = ‘marriage) and condemns polygamy (Greek: polys = ‘many’ + gamos = ‘marriage’). The fact that God only created one wife in order to provide companionship for Adam strongly suggests monogamy as the divine intended norm for marriage (Gen. 2:18, 21-22). Moreover, Genesis 2:24 describes the marriage union as two—not three or four—becoming one.6 As Jochem Douma remarks, “If we take seriously this communion, which includes body and soul, then polygamy is for us something illegitimate.”7 The Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul also see monogamy as the biblical norm for marriage (Matt. 19:5-6; 1Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6).
But what shall we say about the examples of polygamy among certain Old Testament believers, such as Jacob (Gen. 29:16-24), Elkanah (1Sam. 1:6-8), or David (1Sam. 25:42-44; 27:3)? Three responses are in order. First, when Scripture mentions the practice of an OT saint without an explicit or immediate censure, it is not necessarily condoning the practice.8 Second, in God’s dealings with Israel, He sometimes chose to regulate rather than immediately to condemn some otherwise sinful practices because the people as a whole were not able to pull away from all their sinful practices at once. This seems to be Jesus’ point when He bases the seeming laxity of the OT regarding the possible grounds for divorce on “the hardness of [the Israelites’] hearts” (Matt. 19:8).9 Third, the OT is not completely silent on polygamous relationships, especially those of the godly. In fact, the Scripture writers are careful to highlight the strife and familial dysfunction that often characterized polygamous marriages (Gen. 16:4-6; 29:26; 30:1-3; 1Sam. 1:1-6).
The primary purposes of marriage
2 Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife,1 for the increase of mankind with a legitimate issue,2 and the preventing of uncleanness.3
1Gen. 2:18; Prov. 2:17; Mal. 2:14 2Gen. 1:28; Ps. 127:3-5; 128:3, 4 31 Cor. 7:2, 9
1. Complementary companionship: “for the mutual help of husband and wife”
We find the first and most fundamental purpose of marriage in Genesis 2:18: “and the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.’” God created Eve to be Adam’s covenantal companion. This is further underscored in verse 24 when marriage is described as the man “cleaving to his wife” so that the two become “one flesh.” The Hebrew term translated “cleave” is used for Ruth’s inseparable attachment to Naomi (Ruth 1:14) and for the men of Judah’s unswerving loyalty to David (2 Sam. 20:2). Thus, when used of the bond of marriage, the word “points to a loving relationship or a friendship, certainly not limited to a sexual relationship.”10 Note also that God intends such companion-ship to be complementary. There is a sense in which the man was incomplete without a “helper” to be his counterpart (Gen. 2:18). Likewise, the woman’s role was incomplete without the man (Gen. 2:24; 3:14). Therefore, complementary companionship is the first purpose of marriage.
2. Procreative companionship: “the increase of mankind with a legitimate issue”
God also instituted marriage to fulfill His procreation mandate: “Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Gen. 1:28). Conceiving, bearing, and raising children are a fundamental purpose for marriage. The very term “matrimony” (Lat. matrimonium < mater = ‘mother’) highlights this purpose.
3. Sexually pure companionship: “[for] the preventing of uncleanness”
Although sexual intimacy is an element of the complementary and procreative purposes of marriage, it takes on a special function after the fall. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, Paul recommends the state of marriage as a God-ordained means to fulfill one’s sexual desires and to protect oneself from sexual impurity. In this way, marriage serves to sanctify human sexuality in the context of a fallen world (see also Prov. 5:15-19; Song of Solomon; Eccl. 9:9; Hebrews 13:4).
This threefold purpose of marriage provokes at least three practical observations. In the first place, it should be noted that procreation is not the only or even the primary purpose for marriage. This observation runs contrary to the traditional Roman Catholic view of marriage, which forbade birth control because of an undue emphasis upon procreation.11 On the other hand, procreation is a major purpose for marriage, and those who marry should be willing to have children. A couple may be unable to have children because of the curse or may choose to limit the amount of children for the sake of the kingdom (Matt. 19:12). But when a couple refuses to have children or limits the amount to one or two solely because they want to maintain an extravagant standard of living and avoid the responsibilities of childrearing, then they are rejecting one of the major purposes of marriage. Finally, the third purpose of marriage—that of sexual fulfillment in a fallen world—steers a middle course between a pagan licentiousness and a prudish depreciation of sexual intimacy. The church must be careful to maintain this biblical balance.
The lawful parties of marriage
1. The religious restriction
3 It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgment to give their consent;1 yet it is the duty of Christians to marry in the Lord; and therefore such as profess the true religion, should not marry with infidels, or idolaters; neither should such as are godly, be unequally yoked, by marrying with such as are wicked in their life, or maintain damnable heresy.2
11 Cor. 7:39; 2 Cor. 6:14; 1 Tim. 4:3; Heb. 13:4 21 Cor. 7:39; 2 Cor. 6:14
The third paragraph begins by affirming the general liberty of marriage that belongs to all men and women: “It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgment to give their consent.” Both rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, laity and clergy (contrary to the Catholic policy of celibacy) are free to marry, provided they are able with sound judgment to consent. Of course, as Sam Waldron points out, “We must not confuse the question of liberty and advisability. What is not sinful may yet be unadvisable.”12 Consequently, though a young couple have a general liberty to pursue the marital relationship, they may be discouraged from such a relationship on the grounds of immaturity.
Granting the general liberty of marriage to all men, the authors of our Confession are quick to add a religious restriction. Based on Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 7:39—“only in the Lord”—the Confession forbids Christians to marry non-Christians. Paul’s restriction is grounded on the fact that an unequally yoked marital union cannot reflect Christ’s relationship to His church (2Cor. 6:14-16), which is the religious design of Christian marriage (Eph. 5:31-32).
In light of this biblical restriction, a Christian young person should only pursue as a candidate for a potential marriage partner one who both professes and shows evidence of genuine faith in Jesus Christ. Sadly, many a professing Christian young person has made shipwreck of his (her) life, or worse, of his (her) faith, because he (she) would not heed this restriction. The Bible is not wasting words when it warns, “The companion of fools will be destroyed” (Prov. 13:20).
2. The relational restriction
4 Marriage ought not to be within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity, forbidden in the Word; nor can such incestuous marriages ever be made lawful, by any law of man or consent of parties, so as those persons may live together as man and wife.1
1Lev. 18:6-18; Amos 2:7; Mark 6:18; 1 Cor. 5:1
The final paragraph of the Baptist Confession adds a relational restriction. On the basis of Leviticus 18:6-18 and other passages (Amos 2:7; Mark 6:18; 1Cor. 5:1) an individual may not seek a marriage partner among anyone closer than a first cousin, whether a relationship of consanguinity (a blood tie) or merely a relationship of affinity (a legal tie). Since the restriction also applies to relationships of affinity, its basis cannot be merely to prevent harmful genetic mutations. Gustav Oehler offers the following suggestion: “Parental and fraternal love on the one side, and the love of married persons on the other, are so specifically different, that by mixing the two neither can find full and holy development.”13
The Westminster Confession on Divorce
Both the Savoy Declaration and the Baptist Confession omit these paragraphs. Perhaps the Congregationalists and Baptists felt constrained to accommodate different views on the subject of divorce and remarriage. In light of the prevalence of divorce in modern times, however, the church would be prudent to articulate its position on this matter. Since we are not expounding the Westminster Confession, we will simply note the omitted paragraphs and recommend some helpful resources that deal with this issue.
The legitimacy of divorce and remarriage on the grounds of marital infidelity
[WCF 24:5 Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract.1 In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party sue out a divorce:2 and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.3]
1Deut. 22:23-24 2Matt. 19:31-32 3Matt. 19:9
The illegitimacy of divorce and remarriage under any circumstances, except marital infidelity and desertion
[WCF 24:6 Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage:1 wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case. 2]
1Matt. 19:8; 1Cor. 7:15; Matt. 19:6 2Ezra 10:3
These two paragraphs represent the traditional Protestant position regarding and remarriage. Contrary to Roman Catholicism, which has forbidden divorce altogether,14 most Protestants have traditionally allowed for divorce and remarriage on the grounds of marital infidelity or willful desertion. For a modern defense of this position, see especially the works by Jay Adams, Jochem Douma, and John Murray (listed below).
Adams, Jay. Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980.
Douma, Jochem. The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life, trans. Nelson D. Kloosterman, pp. 243-83. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1996.
Frame, John. The Doctrine of the Christian Life, pp. 746-83 (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008.
Murray, John. Divorce. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976.
Shaw, Robert. Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith. 1845; reprint, Ross-shire, U.K.: Christian Focus, 1992.
Waldron, Samuel. Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 2nd edition. Durham: Evangelical Press, 1995.
Williamson, G. I. The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964.
Wilson, Douglas. Reforming Marriage. Moscow, ID.: Canon Press, 1995.
- Because the Puritans did not witness the same kind of attacks against the meaning and institution of marriage as we face in modern society, they probably did not feel constrained to define marriage. I believe this is an area where the Confession needs to be updated. See my “Updating and Revising the 1689 Confession: Affirming Marriage and the Roles of Men and Women.” [↩]
- The Hebrew word is ברית (beriyth). [↩]
- Thus, Jay Adams refers to marriage as a “covenant of companionship.” Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible, pp. 8-18. [↩]
- According to the scenario in Exodus 22:16-17, the man who had sexual relations with a virgin was obligated to take the woman in marriage. However, even this obligation was contingent upon her father’s approval. The point is that the physical relationship did not in itself constitute the marriage. [↩]
- In Genesis 19:14, Lot warns his “sons-in-law” to flee Sodom. Many commentators persuasively argue that these men were betrothed to his two daughters who were still under Lot’s roof and had “not known a man” (v. 8). If this is the case, then the reference “who had married his daughters” should be translated “who were to marry his daughters.” Once again, this underscores the fact that betrothal constituted a legal relationship. [↩]
- Though the Hebrew text does not use the word “two,” the translators of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, capture the obvious meaning with the rendering, καὶ ἔσονται οἱ δύο εἰς σάρκα μίαν (‘and the two shall be as one flesh’). When Jesus cites this passage in Matthew 19:5, He follows the Septuagint rendering. [↩]
- The Ten Commandments, p. 250. [↩]
- For example, consider Isaac’s lie (Gen. 26:7-10) and Jacob’s use of a superstitious and unscientific practice to manipulate desired breeding results in livestock (Gen. 30:37-38). [↩]
- Deuteronomy 24:1 speaks of “some uncleanness,” which is a broader concept than fornication, as a ground for divorce. Of course, the careful student will note that Moses is not necessarily approving of such a divorce. Rather, he is merely regulating an already existing practice. In this sense, Moses “permitted” (ἐπέτρεψεν) divorce. [↩]
- Douma, p. 250. [↩]
- The Catholic Church still views procreation as the primary purpose of marriage, but it relaxes its more tradition censure against birth control and allows for various non-abortive methods (cf. articles 50, 51, and 87 of “Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World” in The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Guild Press, 1966). [↩]
- Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, p. 303. [↩]
- Theology of the Old Testament, trans. George E. Day (New York: Fung and Wagnalls, 1883), p. 229. [↩]
- Vatican II refers to marriage as an “irrevocable” covenant (“Pastoral Constitution,” art. 48). I could not find any reference to “divorce” in the index. In reality, Rome does allow for a marriage to be “annulled,” which in my mind differs little from a divorce. [↩]