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“Only one man and one woman can be joined in a biblical marriage.” That is a familiar refrain in the debate over same-sex marriage, an article of faith among many Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox Christians in North America and abroad.

I recall some discussions on related topics with my late father, Anthony Hoekema, a pastor and seminary professor. The context was probably not same-sex marriage. On that issue we had our differences, but my own ideas then were provisional and changing, and we both looked back with gratitude on the compassionate and pastoral tone of the Christian Reformed Synodical report adopted in 1973. What we were discussing, rather, was whether Scripture mandated monogamy.

Yes, one man and one woman can come together in a biblical marriage, I argued. But so can one man and two women, or one man and six women. Or if the man is a king he may enjoy the company of three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines. And a man whose brother dies without children is required – not just permitted – to take his widow as an additional wife and do some begetting with her.

Those are all exceptions, my father would reply, in light of special historical circumstances. The true paradigm of marriage is found in the Genesis account of creation. God created one human pair, a man and a woman, for procreation and companionship. That’s the model of biblical marriage we must uphold. 

I agreed with my father that the biblical writers see marriage, sexuality, and procreation as closely related aspects of our lives as God’s image-bearers. Committed same-sex unions are not condemned in Scripture; they simply do not figure in any of the Bible’s narratives of God and God’s people. The Biblical understanding of marriage is without question strongly slanted toward heterosexual union — and the making of babies. 

For some rigorous traditionalists the second point is as essential as the first, and marriage is out of the question for anyone who knows that he or she is infertile. We read in the Old Testament of marriages dissolved simply because they were childless. Most advocates for “biblical marriage” are less restrictive, however, affirming the importance of love and companionship as well as procreation. 

But the very phrase “biblical marriage” raises my hackles whenever I hear it, because it recalls the parallel insistence in conservative churches through many decades that marriage can be dissolved only through a “biblical divorce” from an unfaithful spouse. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus restricts divorce to instances where the wife is guilty of “sexual immorality.” (The King James Bible is more explicit: “for the cause of fornication.”) This is part of the “counsels of perfection” in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, and it is repeated in response to a questioner in Matthew 19.

In many churches this teaching was interpreted loosely in one sense and strictly in another. Jesus condemned only female infidelity, but pastors usually applied the rule to both parties. Yet suppose a wife or a husband came to an elder or pastor in despair over a loveless marriage, worn down by years of living with an alienated and emotionally distant spouse. Repeated attempts at healing and reconciliation, with help from the church, had failed. The most important question then was: had there been acts of adultery? If so, then the marriage could be dissolved, with the church’s reluctant but biblically grounded blessing. Had there been no such sexual misconduct? Then let not man or woman put asunder what God has joined together.

In my childhood and adolescence, I never observed this supposedly biblical rule being publicly applied and enforced, but I saw its effects. In the homes of some of my Christian school classmates, the parents scarcely communicated or interacted and yet remained legally married. The husband and wife suffered, the children suffered, but divorce was out of the question. If after years of neglect a woman caught her husband having an affair, she could seek an honorable release from her unhappy life. (So far as I know, pastors did not require documentary proof of unfaithfulness, as had some state laws in the 19th century.)  What if her husband did no more than get drunk and beat her, or belittle her in every social setting, or indulge all his expensive hobbies while his wife could hardly feed their children with her meager household allowance? Then she must pray for strength to forgive and endure.

Thankfully most churches put that bizarre misinterpretation of the Gospels behind them decades ago. Divorce still carries a measure of stigma in the church, even when it is a last resort after all efforts to renew a loving relationship have been attempted without success. But today I cannot imagine a pastor advising a beleaguered parishioner, “No, I’m sorry, if your spouse has not committed adultery you cannot have a Biblical divorce.”

Is there a parallel here? Is the old attitude to divorce similar to today’s attitude toward gay marriage? Is it cruel and unwarranted for a pastor to say to a parishioner, “No, I’m sorry, if your fiancé is of the same gender then you cannot have a Biblical marriage”?

On the surface these are not parallel at all. Dissolution of a marriage undertaken in good faith and with good intentions is a painful necessity in some circumstances. Gay marriage is not the sundering of a bond but the creation of one. But let’s dig a little deeper and consider another possible parallel.

Jesus spoke very directly about the evil of divorce, yet he also preached a gospel of love and compassion that encourages us sometimes to accede to the dissolution of a marriage. Jesus said nothing at all about same-sex relationships, yet he preached a gospel of love and compassion that encourages us sometimes to stretch our understanding of a loving marriage well beyond its former limits. 

That was not a small step but a great leap, you may be thinking. Let’s think things through more carefully. We need to consider the social and cultural context in which the New Testament writers lived. 

For Jesus and other first-century residents of Palestine, marriage was a social institution whose principal purposes were propagating the family and regulating property rights. A woman was her husband’s property, as were her children. The early Christian movement elevated the role of women, even giving them roles in church governance and leadership. And yet the relation between marriage partners remained fundamentally unequal, the wife always subject to the husband’s rule. 

For New Testament writers such as Paul, same-sex relations were also a part of the social and cultural environment. In Greek and Roman culture, it was common for a man of middle age to take a young boy into his household as a protégé and sexual partner. Some Roman temple rituals involved men having sex with prostitutes, male as well as female. That is what male-male sexuality looked like to the New Testament writers. (Female-female sexuality was also a cultural reality but evidently less visible and less offensive, since it receives only one passing reference in the entire Bible, in Romans 1.)

Now there are four questions we need to ask. First, what did the New Testament writers have to say about marriage as they observed it? What they saw around them, in both Jewish and Roman society, was a hierarchical institution in which wives had no property rights, no standing in the religious community, and a status based entirely on bearing children (preferably boys). The biblical writers said to the early Christians: let it not be so among you. Husbands, cherish and respect your wives, and love them as Christ loves the church. Wives, respect your husbands’ authority, and at the same time expect them to value you for who you are and not just for the children you bear. To male church leaders who kept women out of their club, they said: get with the program. God has given women gifts of wisdom and leadership, and you need to listen to them. 

Second: what did the same writers have to say about heterosexual marriage as it is practiced in the twenty-first century? Nothing, because they had no experience, and no conception, of such an institution. We need to extend and adapt the message they presented to their original audience. In a marriage between two equal workers for the Kingdom – and this describes many Christian marriages today — respect and love are due to each, and submission should be mutual and not unidirectional. Marriages of this sort, beyond what early Christians could imagine, have greatly enriched both church and society. 

Third: what did New Testament writers have to say about same-sex relationships as they observed them? What they saw was primarily, if not exclusively, men of power and wealth using boys for their pleasure, as if they were their property. The biblical writers condemned these practices and told the early Christians to shun them. 

Fourth: what did these writers have to say about same-sex marriage as we observe it today, a legal union recognized by governmental authorities and by civil society? Nothing, because they could not conceive of such an institution. And so, just as with the second question, we need to discern how their injunctions bear on today’s realities. 

Today, we find two very different interpretations of the relevant New Testament texts. One is often called traditional or literal (yet neither term is really apposite). In this interpretation, Scriptural condemnation of first-century same-sex relations applies equally to twenty-first century practices, because there are no morally relevant differences. Same-sex behavior was wrong for Jews and gentiles in the time of the apostles, and therefore it is wrong for American and Canadian and Dutch and British Christians today.  Case closed. Rather than “traditional” or “literal,” it would be more accurate to call this response “ahistorical,” because it regards biblical texts as standing outside history and culture.

The other interpretation is often labeled progressive or liberal, although those terms do not really fit either. This interpretation emphasizes the central message of the New Testament about marriage, family, and community: we are not individuals placed in the world to seek our own pleasure but members of a community bound together in love, which finds one of its highest and fullest expressions in marriage and the family. In our intimate relationships, as in larger settings such as the church, we should show love and respect and live in mutual submission to each other. If we find ourselves in a society in which two men, or two women, can commit their lives to each other in such a bond, we need to consider whether that too is part of the Creator’s intent for humankind. At a minimum, we should welcome those joined in such marriage bonds into our fellowship and help them use the gifts they have been given to build and strengthen the community of believers.

Let’s call this not “liberal” or “progressive” but simply “historically informed.” The key assumption is that biblical writers, under the guidance of the Spirit, set forth ideals and principles that remain relevant even in radically different social and cultural environments.    

Some church leaders, including those who gained control of the past two synods of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, have not only upheld the first interpretation but have also decided that no other interpretation is theologically admissible. They have even discovered that their own partisan view has been hidden for five centuries in confessional texts, waiting for them to discover it. 

The adherents of this view have told us what we must do in relation to our family members, neighbors, and friends who identify as LGBTQ. At an anniversary party for an uncle and his husband who have been together for forty years, married for ten, we should begin by assuring them of our love for them despite their sinful life. Then we should explain that their supposed marriage is unbiblical, a craven indulgence of unnatural lusts, and urge them to separate immediately. Likewise, when you meet your daughter’s piano teacher in the supermarket and she introduces you to her wife, you should tell them that the Bible condemns their union and requires them to divorce and find an opposite-sex partner, or live alone. 

The next time I meet a man on his way to a pagan temple to hire a prostitute, or a man of fifty who is engaging in sex-play with a teenage boy, I will follow this script. But I am not ready to condemn the many couples I know, faithful Christians and others, who have entered into loving and lasting same-sex marriages.

Fortunately, I do not need to berate people in this way. The Bible doesn’t tell me that I should. The advocates of the narrow and ahistorical position, not the defenders of a more historically informed reading of Scripture, are the ones who have strayed from the path of righteousness. 

Let us not follow where they would lead us. Let us strive instead to be faithful agents of God’s expansive and inclusive love for all humanity. 

David A. Hoekema

David A. Hoekema is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and retired Academic Dean at Calvin University, and, in the winter, a Visiting Scholar at the University of Arizona.  His most recent book, We Are the Voice of the Grass (Oxford University Press), recounts the tireless work of Christians and Muslims who came together to strive for an end to a brutal civil war in Uganda. In light of recent developments in the CRCNA, he is now a member of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, and he also participates in the worship life of St. John’s Episcopal Church of Grand Haven. Hiking, bicycling, choral music, old-timey string bands, and conversation with Christians whose minds and hearts are open to all are among the things that gladden his heart.


  • Well said. Thank you. Have a blessed Advent.

  • Mark Lucas says:

    Thanks David – I found myself breathing more easily as I read through your article. I hope this clear and faithful thought and writing gets a good hearing.

  • Edward Wierenga says:

    Thanks, David!

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thanks, David. This is helpful. Perhaps someone should take on the wild presumption that same sex marriage inevitably leads to polyamory. THAT is a “great leap” indeed and needs some rebuttal.

  • Steve Norden says:

    Thank you for such a thorough and historically informed biblical perspective.

  • Lena says:

    Ok, now we know what the the teaching of the RCA will be going forward. No preaching about the Biblical definition of marriage will happen (that is already true of this blog) Not only that, but this includes a public rejection of the historic view of marriage and conservative Christians in general.
    It should be noted that half of RCA members have left the church over this.
    I”m praying that for the good of the whole CRC denomination. the small percentage of people whose views align in the way of this author,. will leave the denomination and not try to bring us all down this path.
    Conservative Christian do not have to confront a favorite uncle at his anniversary party., like this author suggests, to point out the uncle’s “sin” The HSR states that the historical view of marriage and sexuality will be what is preached from the pulpit and promoted in teaching materials , and this can all be done without demonizing LGBTQ+.

    • Rebecca says:

      Oh, there’s more than a small percentage of people whose views align in the way of this author..

    • David E Timmer says:

      Perhaps the traditional view can be upheld in the preaching and teaching of the CRC without “demonizing LGBTQ+” people, although this remains to be seen. But at the very least, the church will be saying to them, “Marriage is a great and wonderful good, which we intend to withhold from you forever.” That in itself is a difficult message to convey without any negative implication!

    • Herb Kraker says:

      Thank you, Lena.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Thank you, David, for giving breadth to the interpretation of scripture, for letting it sing into our lives today.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thank you, David, for sharing, along with Ryan Struyk and others, your study and insights on this sadly divisive issue. You have served us well.

  • Herb Kraker says:

    David, you state in this article that “Committed same-sex unions are not condemned in Scripture . . .”
    In Rom. 1:27 we read, “. . . the men . . . were consumed with passion for one another . . .” You refer to the pederasty that existed in the ancient world. Don’t these words from Romans speak of mutual, possibly even committed love?

    In I Cor. 6:9-10 we read that men who practice homosexuality will not inherit the kingdom of God. The word translated homosexuality in English is two words in the Greek, arsenokoitai and malakoi. The first term is taken by most scholars to be an active form and the second a passive. So, the first term would prohibit the pederasty and all violent sex, but the second term also prohibits the passive acts. Is there any other way to understand these two terms than that they include all forms of same-sex erotic acts?

    In the light of these two passages, how can it be said that Scripture does not prohibit committed same-sex relationships? Thank you.

    Any light that can be shed on these two passages will be emailed to many pastors in both the RCA and the CRC. The assistance you (or anyone else here) can provide will be much appreciated.