WaPo/Newsweek 'On Faith' Publishes Item Aimed at 'Debunking' Notion of 'Biblical Marriage'

On Monday I noted how Newsweek religion writer Lisa Miller uncritically peddled the work of two religion scholars who argue that the Bible is not as restrictive on sexual mores as it's widely understood to be.

Yesterday, On Faith, a joint project of the Washington Post and Newsweek, granted one of those scholars, Boston University's Jennifer Wright Knust, what appears to be the first of a series of columns devoted to "Why the Bible can't dictate today's sexual morals." Knust's February 8 column aimed to debunk "biblical marriage" (emphasis mine):

Let's begin with an easy target: "biblical marriage." Despite frequent claims to the contrary, not a single biblical book endorses marriage between one man and one woman for the purposes of procreation.

Really? Knust is entitled to that position, although it's difficult to see how the BU religion professor arrived at that conclusion.  For starters there's the creation account in Genesis, where the Lord God blessed Adam and Eve with the mandate to "be fruitful and multiply." In the next chapter, immediately following the account of God's creation of Eve and presentation of her to Adam as his wife, comes perhaps one of the better known lines of Scripture:

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. [Genesis 2:24, KJV]

Asked by the Pharisees about the Mosaic law's allowance of divorce, Jesus referred back to that passage of Scripture, noting marriage's design was "from the beginning." [Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12]

Knust continued her error-laden drive-by review of Scripture:

Directed at men, the laws attributed to Moses assume that Israelites will marry as many wives as they can reasonably support. By contrast, when Jesus speaks about marriage, he largely warns against it, presenting family life as a distracting waste of time. The apostle Paul follows suit, teaching that celibacy is the best choice for Jesus' followers. He recommends marriage only as a concession to those unable to keep their sexual impulses in check. Later New Testament writers do sanction marriage, but not for the sake of procreation and romantic love. Instead, marriage is portrayed as a venue for testing the fitness of male church leaders, who are told to love their wives and to be kind to their slaves. Wives, children and slaves, however, must obey the men in charge, no matter what, and this in a culture where the sexual access of masters to their slaves was simply presupposed.

There are numerous errors in that excerpt that more learned scholars could refute more eloquently and with more clarity than I, but for our purposes I'll focus on the claim that women, children, and slaves were commanded to "obey... no matter what" and that the Bible in any way condoned sexual abuse of slaves or servants.

First off, Knust is incredibly sloppy in her review of biblical language. Wives are not called to  "obey" their husbands. That language is reserved for children in relation to both of their parents, and children are not understood to be free to disobey God when their parents command an obedience that violates God's law.

The biblical mandate for a wife is to "submit" to her own husband, and that  "as to the Lord." There's no biblical language to suggest wives are to have a higher allegiance to their husbands than to what God commands. When a husband would lead his wife into sin, the wife would be in the right to refuse to submit. [see Ephesians 5:22-33 ; Colossians 3:18-20]

What's more, none of the passages in the New Testament on the relationship between wives and husbands gives husbands any way to force wives to submit. There is, however, a passage that warns that husbands who do not properly respect and care for their wives will find their prayers hindered (I Peter 3:7).

As to the suggestion that slaves or servants of Christian could expect sexual abuse, the New Testament is pretty clear that sex is designed for husband and wife, that everything outside of that is subject to God's judgment, and that the church has an obligation to defend the honor and sexual exclusivity of the marital covenant:

Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.[Hebrews 13:4 ESV]

Again, more learned scholars than I can capably refute Knust's numerous errors, and hopefully On Faith will publish such a rebuttal from a conservative theologian. 

However, given the frequency with which On Faith publishes pieces attacking orthodox Christian doctrine and ethics, it seems the feature is more concerned with attacking religious faith rather than having reasoned debates about it.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters