A shorter version of this essay appeared in The Springfield News-Leader on July 11, 2013
I am always astonished when anyone claims to know what God thinks! It is a rash claim, at best. A case in point is the recent editorial by Professor James D. Hernando (Professor of New Testament, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, MO). Dr. Hernando says "Marriage is God's idea. He created us as sexual beings and His loving plan for the fulfillment of our sexuality is a monogamous heterosexual union in marriage" (News-Leader 4/9/13: 3B). Actually Hernando is reciting his own ideal of marriage based on the Bible (Genesis). The Bible, however, is inconsistent on the subject of marriage. For example, polygamy was practiced among the ancient Hebrews (Gen 4:19, 16:1-4, 25:6, 26:34; Deut 21:15; Judges 8:30; 1 Samuel 1:1-2; 1 Kings 11:1-10; 1 Chronicles, 4:5; 2 Chron 11:21, 24:3). Particularly relevant is Deut 21:15, which shows God condoning polygamy. 1 Kings 11:1-10 portrays God as opposed to Solomon's marriage to foreign women because it would lead to the worship of foreign Gods rather than because God placed a high view on monogamous marriage—one man and one woman. In 2 Chron 24:1-3 Joash is extolled as "doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord all the days Jehoiada," while he was married to two wives. So God apparently did not always, if ever, hold to the idea of marriage that Hernando attributes to him.
Even in the New Testament the ideas about marriage do not measure up to Hernando's ideal view of marriage that he attributes to God. Paul, for example, preferred that men and women should remain single (1 Cor 7:6-9), but he granted marriage as a concession to human weakness ("better to marry than burn with [sexual] passion," 1 Cor 7:9). His rationale for his views lies in his mistaken idea that the end of the world was imminent (1 Cor 7:25-31). He sets out his reasons for singularity (not monogamy) in 1 Cor 7:32-35: marriage distracts from undivided devotion to God. His view of a kind of sexless or spiritual "marriage" is odd, to say the least. Apparently at Corinth unmarried men and women were living together without being married or engaging in sexual intercourse. Paul reassured them that if a couple decided to marry "it was not a sin" (1 Cor 7:36—it reflects a rather low view of marriage to refer to it as "not a sin"). Thus, the man who marries his virgin does well, but the man who refrains from marriage does better (1 Cor 7:38). With this statement Paul seems to put his stamp of approval on a kind of continent spiritual living together. And Paul argued, this kind of "union" (being accompanied by a sister as wife) was his "right," a right he shared with "the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas" (i.e., Peter: 1 Cor 9:5). Later writings after Paul do reflect Hernando's idea of "one man and one woman" (viz., 1 Tim 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6). In Paul's earliest letter a passage, usually considered to be about marriage, is unclear for a reader of the Greek text (1 Thess 4:4-8). Tertullian (2nd/3rd century), a presbyter and regarded as the founder of Latin Christianity, in trying to deal with the large number of virgins in the church (those having taken a vow of chastity) recommended that widowers take a virgin as a kind of spiritual wife into their homes. Indeed, "a plurality of such wives is pleasing to God" (Exhortation to Chastity 12).
Cyprian (Bishop of Carthage, middle third century) dealt with a similar situation differently than did Paul and Tertullian (Epistle 4). He stopped the practice of a man and a virgin living together, excommunicated the men who had been involved, but permitted the virgins who remained virgins and were resolved to continue as virgins to remain in the church. What today we see as radical actions, in antiquity was an attempt to deal with the large number of women who had taken vows of chastity. Celibacy was a religious ideal that was honored by the Christian church and thought to be approved by God—as Paul said, however, we don't all have the same gift. And a similar statement is attributed to Jesus about male castration: "whoever is able to receive it let him receive it" (Matt 19:12).
Knowing the mind of God is not information to which human beings are privy. No less a prophet than Isaiah said: "Who has known the mind of the Lord and been his counselor so as to instruct him" (Isa 40:13 Septuagint; quoted by Paul in 1 Cor 2:16). Paul wanted all his saints to have the "mind of Christ" (Phil 2:5), but not even Paul claimed to know the mind of God (1 Cor 2:11), even though he claimed to have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), which likely refers to Christ's self-giving attitude in life (Phil 2:2-10). The Bible, neither as a collection nor in its individual essays, embodies the mind of God, but represents one record of the human quest for God in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The best practice is steer clear of anyone who claims to have God's ear or know God's mind.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University