Towards a Definition of Marriage

The debate over “What Constitutes Biblical Marriage?” is very old. Does marriage require a ceremony and/or consumation? Is polygamy allowed? Can you divorce and remarry and does it matter why and who is at fault? Is marriage only between a man and a woman? In attempting to answer questions like these, the words of Jesus in Matthew 19 are frequently cited. Verse 9 is the most commonly quoted:

“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

This forms the core teaching of most Christian denominations: that marriage is permanent except where one of the spouses cheats sexually on the other. The verses leading up to and including this one are also used to obliquely imply (via Genesis 2) that polygamy and same-sex marriage are wrong.

The passage does not end there. During an internet discussion on the merits of biblical celibacy, I cited verses 10-12:

The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.””

I noticed some very interesting implications from Jesus’ teaching. Here he gives three categories of “not marrying”:

  1. Eunuchs who were born that way
  2. Eunuchs who were made that way
  3. Those who are fully equipped, but still chose to live like eunuchs.

There are three separate conclusions that are drawn from this.

First, eunuchs cannot marry because they are fundamentally infertile. No marriage ceremony can resolve this. As implied earlier by Jesus’ reference to Genesis 2, marriage is a sexual union. Those who choose the life of celibacy (option #3) are choosing the life of a eunuch, even though they are still able to marry. Celibacy here is, notably, refraining from sex (and by logical consequence, marriage).

Second, these categories imply that infertile intersex, transgender, and homosexual persons cannot marry, whether they are “born that way” (nature) or “made that way” (nurture). Those men not capable of sexual reproduction with a woman cannot marry.

Third, by way of more speculative implication, it would seem that a normally fertile man using birth control would not be enough to qualify as consummating the marriage. A husband and wife would, at minimum, have to have had unprotected sex at least once (and subject to 1 Corinthians 7:5) to be validly married.

Those who say that Jesus did not directly teach these things appear to be wrong.

6 Comments

  1. Does any Bible passage clearly say that the infertile cannot marry? Certainly some might have married not even knowing of their infertility. There were plenty of barren married women mentioned in the Bible. If infertile copulation does not consummate a marriage, according to you, then do you even consider it as having sex?

    1 Samuel 1:5 But unto Hannah he gave a worthy portion; for he loved Hannah: but the Lord had shut up her womb.

    Unless you can provide some scripture proving the infertile cannot marry, I’m inclined to believe they can and have. How was a levirate marriage(Deuteronomy 25:5-10) different from ordinary polygyny if the infertile man was never married to the woman in your eyes? And how was the infertile man’s brother called upon to marry the widow, if the infertile man had never really been married to her at all?

    1. Derek Ramsey

      “Does any Bible passage clearly say that the infertile cannot marry?”

      No, because that takes this too far. There is a reason my third point is speculative in nature.

      The Bible says that a man can initiate a marriage and that he does so by having sex. The implication of this passage (and a few others) is that it requires him to be theoretically capable of fertility. We know from science that there is no hard upper limit to male fertility and we know from biblical history that even old women can get pregnant, if God wills it, so scientific infertility doesn’t seem to play a role here.

      The passage quoted above is clear that a eunuch—a castrated person by birth or alteration—cannot marry, otherwise Jesus’ comparison would be false. By fairly obvious deduction, they cannot marry because they unequivocally cannot ever reproduce: they physically lack the required equipment.

      Many (but not all) intersex and transgender individuals are physically eunuchs, either by birth (Jesus’ case #1) or by choice (Jesus’ case #2). Homosexuals cannot marry either, for they are eunuchs by choice (Jesus’s case #3).

      Though an obviously speculative stance, birth control, vasectomies, and other forms of infertility would be somewhat logically equivalent. It is certainly a compatible stance with Roman Catholic teachings on the subject of birth control:

      “do you even consider it as having sex”

      Of course it is still sex and governed by all the moral restrictions on sex, but it isn’t necessarily sanctified. Consider the RCC’s teaching on birth control. The notion is that an inherently infertile act (e.g. condoms) is sinful. The point is that sex isn’t valid unless it is potentially procreative.

      The whole point of levirate marriage was procreation. If a brother intentionally failed to procreate (e.g. Deut 25:7-10; Genesis 38:9 – Onan’s birth control method), he was sinning. It was up to God to decide if she should get pregnant or not. Obviously a brother who was a eunuch was forbidden from levirate marriage, which only strengthens my argument.

    2. Ram-Man

      You could make the argument that the role of a eunuch was culturally defined and separate from fertility. Unfortunately, Jesus says that there are eunuchs by birth, not by station. Given this, it is hard to argue that you can have castrated men who are not eunuchs. Worse, if you could have castrated men who were not eunuchs (that is, castrated men who can marry), then Jesus’ example makes no sense. If a eunuch were merely someone who could chose their station, then what’s the point of mentioning by birth or made that way by others? None at all.

      The only way out of this, as I see it, is to argue that the requirement that a castrated (fully infertile) man not be allowed to marry is purely cultural and Jesus was just using the local requirement as an example, not as something normative. This is a difficult argument to make (e.g. David and Abishag).

  2. The point is that sex isn’t valid unless it is potentially procreative.
    Says Catholic dogma, but never does the Bible say that. And the Bible talks many times about what constitutes sexual sin.

    a castrated person by birth or alteration—cannot marry, otherwise Jesus’ comparison would be false.
    I don’t read that in there. I read that there is a third case where a person functions as a eunuch by choice, for God. However if he would then marry, or fornicate, he would cease to be functioning as a eunuch whereas if the physical eunuch marries or has sex, he is still a eunuch by definition.

    Obviously a brother who was a eunuch was forbidden from levirate marriage, which only strengthens my argument.
    Does the Bible say that? While I agree it would defeat the point of the levirate marriage, which is not to form a marriage, but for “seed” to be raised up “to” the deceased brother.

    I also don’t think it was Onan’s spilled seed that made God angry, the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also. Basically he shagged his brothers wife, while denying her the “seed” which was the only reason such incest was permitted, while falsely dodging the penalty that was due to a man who would refuse to raise up “seed” to his brother. Onan was killed for cheating the levirate system, and using his brothers wife for sex, outside of the levirate mandate. I wouldn’t doubt Onan had pulled out on his own wife to prevent conception, before he maliciously performed that same move on his brother’s wife. However nobody was ever killed by God for pulling out of their real wife, and I’m sure it happened back then.

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