This is a long text. I build on different concepts and I suggest reading one thing at a time. You can jump to each section clicking here: Ritual and Myth, Sex and Marriage, Marriage and Sin, Early Christian Marriage, Love, Imago Dei/Imitatio Christi, and The Law of Love. I hope that after reading you will understand in a deeper level what the bible means by marriage, and how the gospel of Jesus radically changes our relationship to one another: even our sexual relationships.
Ritual and Myth
The work of theology is, always, to assign meaning and symbolism to things that were already there from the beginning – or if you prefer, not to assign it, but to reveal it. Theologians are mythical storytellers, not inventors. In telling stories that communicate who we are, where we are from, and what our purpose is, theologians form, inform, or challenge, the symbols and the imaginary of people’s relationship to God and to their own lives; our image of God, after all, shapes our own image.
The process from a spontaneous thing or event to a systematic ritual and theory is organic: as people ask “why do we do this?”, the leaders explain things the best they can, often with a good amount of imagination and best-guesses, and that process slowly shapes a community’s theology and symbols. That is exactly what the author of Exodus tells us Moses instructed the elders of Israel to do when he established the ritual of Passover (Easter):
…You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’… (Exodus 12)
This ritual, Passover, defined the people of Israel and still defines modern Jews, as they celebrate it every year, retelling the story and remembering that day of liberation. Passover was central to Christianity because on the year Jesus died, on Passover, he was having the special supper with his disciples and he asked them to continue doing what they were doing, but in his memory (he was not specific about how often), presenting them with bread – something everyone eats – and wine – something most people drink. He said the bread was his flesh, and the wine was his blood, and they ate and drank. In a few centuries of Christianity developing, between Jesus’ Passover supper with his friends and his friends doing the same thing over and over again, teaching their own disciples to do the same, and then their disciples asking new questions, and they coming up with answers, we found ourselves a thousand years later debating whether the bread in communion is literally Jesus with the accidents of bread or just sort-of-Jesus united to the bread, or just a symbol, getting complicated in philosophical terms Jesus never used. Not only did we get complicated on defining what was once the simplest of rituals, we actually persecuted and killed each other because of it.
There we have it: an event (Exodus), then a story and a ritual that gives meaning to it (Passover). Then again, a new event (Jesus’ last supper) that changes the original meaning of the first, and establishes a new story and a new ritual (Eucharist/Lord’s Supper) that gives new meaning not just to Passover, but to eating bread and drinking wine with your friends.
One of the main questions studying the bible, for theologians, is whether these stories, which are called myths – like reading 1 Corinthians 11:23-34 – tell how something new started, or if they were simply adding new meaning to something old. For example, baptism was a Jewish tradition: Gentiles who wanted to enter the Jewish community were baptized, Jews have several different washing rituals for different reasons, and John the Baptist, a popular Jewish prophet, had started a movement of purification asking all Jews to baptize themselves. Then came Jesus and asked his disciples to baptize both Jews and Gentiles, once and for all, “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, promising a mysterious new baptism “with fire”. This was a scandalous and new, subversive addition to an old ritual. Now the idea of baptism is associated mainly with Christianity, even though Jews still practice Mikveh.
Thinking back on the Eucharist, it would be ridiculous to read the gospels and think Jesus instituted the eating of bread and the drinking of wine, or that bread and wine are God-given things that humans should not be allowed to enjoy outside Christian guidelines. We very much understand that celebrating communion is one thing, and drinking some wine while enjoying a French baguette with a friend is another, even though the only real difference is what we think we are doing. The difference is not in the bread, or the wine, but in our own thoughts, words, and feelings.
Similar is the question of sex/marriage: how do we distinguish the lines between what has happened in human history, what is told in the bible, and what we tell ourselves through theology and culture?