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  • Writer's pictureDavid Runcorn

‘All Bible scholars agree that marriage is between a man and woman’ – it is true?

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

by David Runcorn

Those engaging with those holding more traditional views on marriage and same-sex relationships will be familiar with variations on this claim. It can be accompanied by a dauntingly long list of academic authors and books and the question - ‘are you saying they are all wrong?’

But is it actually true?

Four responses:

Firstly, the assertion is highly generalised and argues from numbers and majorities. It is actually impossible to reply to on its own terms without great time, length and detail. Furthermore, arguments from majorities are not traditionally evangelical method, given their historic willingness and tenacity in staying faithful to minority (and unpopular) beliefs.

Secondly, the list of books and scholars gives the misleading impression they are all saying the same thing, in the same way, about the same issues. This is at least questionable. Debates about core texts and their interpretation between conservatives themselves can be highly contested. Biblically, this has always been a pluralist tradition.

Thirdly, it is surely true that (nearly) all biblical scholars would agree that marriage, in the Bible, is between a man and a woman. But in many cases, they will be found drawing other conclusions both concerning the understanding of expressions of marriage found there, and about what the implications of that might be for today. Only if you assume (as some conservatives do) that your audience thinks we should be completely bound by a ‘biblical’ worldview is this therefore the last word on the status of marriage or relationships.

Fourthly, the assertion creates a divide between Biblical scholarship and pastoral theology that needs challenging. This separation is a modern one. All early church theologians were both biblical scholars and pastoral theologians. This is vital. ‘All learning takes place from experience’, says William Challis, former vice-principal of the evangelical college, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. This leads him to insist that, ‘the function of pastoral theology [is] to prevent theology becoming oppressive, denying the truth of people’s experience (The Word of Life - using the Bible in pastoral care. Harper. 1997. p10). Pastoral theology certainly needs to be informed by disciplined biblical scholarship. But the biblical texts without the partnership of pastoral theology can easily become coercive and oppressive.

Put simply, it is possible to have a theory of biblical interpretation that makes perfect sense of the original text but that shows itself repeatedly unable to help people face the realities of their lives today. That is why this debate refuses to go away.

Further perspectives from three bible scholars.

In a very helpful article on the bible and homosexuality Walter Brueggemann starts from the nature of the biblical revelation itself. It is a communal word in dynamic dialogue with God, with itself and with the reader. ‘Start with the awareness that the Bible does not speak with a single voice on any topic. Inspired by God as it is, all sorts of persons have a say in the complexity of Scripture, and we are under mandate to listen, as best we can, to all of its voices.’

He also stresses how, in all interpretation, the text is being filtered through the interpreter’s life. ‘The result, of course, is that with a little effort, one can prove anything in the Bible. It is immensely useful to recognize this filtering process.’

He then highlights three particular filters we bring to the text:

‘i. All interpretation filters the text through the interpreter’s life. These are our vested interests. Sometimes we are aware of these, sometimes we are not. It is not difficult to see this process at work concerning gender issues in the Bible.’

ii. Beneath our vested interests, ‘we read the Bible through the lens of our fears that are sometimes powerful, even if unacknowledged.’

iii. ‘At bottom, beneath our vested interests and our fears, we read the Bible through our hurts that we often keep hidden not only from others, but from ourselves as well.

The defining power of our vested interests, our fears and our hurts, makes our reading lens seem to us sure and reliable. We pretend that we do not read in this way, but it is useful that we have as much self-critical awareness as possible.’

No one is exempt from this.

In Paul: The Apostle's Life, Letters and Thought (SCM 2016), New Testament theologian Ed Sanders, is clear that Paul does not have any sympathy with homosexual practice and is following the standard Jewish line of his day. But then says that ‘as a Christian I agree with the liberal attitude toward homosexuals in much of contemporary Christianity.’ He concludes that, ‘We should let Paul say what he said, and then make the decisions that we should make, which should take into account the modern world, rather than only the ancient world’ (p.370). For Sanders, the text is not the final word.

In 2004, this revered evangelical New Testament scholar, I Howard Marshall, published ‘Beyond the Bible – moving from scripture to theology’ (not a title any evangelical publisher would risk today!). There he argued that Christian faith always requires the willingness to go beyond the Bible text. He admits there are risks involved with this. But he points out what he considers to be the greater of these. It is that of being misled by only reading the Bible in a first century (or earlier) time warp and ‘refusing to go beyond the letter of Scripture’. He continues, ‘We must be aware of the danger of failing to understand what God is saying to his people today and muzzling his voice. Scripture itself constrains us to the task of on-going theological development’ (2004:78).

In summary.

The problem with the claim is the premise behind it. Biblical scholars may agree that marriage is between man and woman in the Bible, but as theologians they can and do take different views about what should prevail today. Not all (perhaps not many) take the view, commonly claimed by conservatives, that what is ‘biblical’ is normative, or at least not in the way being asserted.

Unqualified, the claim leaves the place of scripture in the church, in danger of ‘becoming oppressive, denying the truth of people’s experience’.

David Runcorn

Friends, Tim Chesterton and Richard Cooke, will hear their voices, words and wisdom here, and I am grateful.


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