A basic Christian argument for affirming gay marriage (Part two)

Ted Grimsrud—May 21, 2012

In the first part of this post, I suggested that Christian churches should be disposed toward affirming gay marriage. Two key factors that support this disposition are (1) the sense we have that marriage is a good thing that should be encouraged and supported in the churches and (2) the emphasis the Bible places on hospitality, especially toward vulnerable people, as a central calling of faith communities.

Both of these points speak to a general disposition, that we should be inclined toward affirmation unless there are clear reasons to override this disposition. It would be possible to draw negative conclusions about gay marriage even if one affirms the disposition toward affirmation. We could do so if we were convinced that there is something inherently immoral about the same-sexness of the partnership.

The argument in favor of affirming gay marriage, though, is at its heart an argument in favor of rigorous moral expectations concerning intimate relationships. It is an argument that same-sex couples should be expected to adhere to the moral standards that govern heterosexual marriage. It is not an argument for relaxing those standards or applying different standards to same-sex couples than apply to heterosexual couples.

The challenge for those who would not affirm gay marriage, then, is to show that there is something inherently wrong simply in the partners being of the same sex. I identified three reasons that are often given by those who do withhold affirmation. The relationships are seen to be immoral: (1) if the relationship is harmful to the people involved; or (2) if the relationship undermines the sanctity of marriage; or (3) if the Bible tells us that, even so, this relationship violates God’s will for human beings.

I use the case of the relationship between “Ilse” and “Jennifer” (based on actual people I know) to present the most positive scenario possible on behalf of affirming gay marriage. To withhold such affirmation, one would need to show why this relationship is immoral (and overcome the benefit of the doubt in favor of affirmation based on the positive value we see in marriage and the biblical call for hospitality toward vulnerable people).

Is the relationship inherently harmful?

Many debates rage about this question. However, we should recognize that a persuasive argument concerning inherent harmfulness would need to apply to all same-sex partnerships. The argument would need to show that it is due to the same-sexness of the partnership that harm results. The argument is making claims about homosexuality per se, not just about specific examples. If some same-sex intimate partnerships are not harmful, then this argument does not work because the harm that may be part of some relationships is not due to the homosexuality itself.

We would acknowledge that there are many heterosexual intimate partnerships that are harmful—due to abuse, physical damage, disrespect, etc. But the existence of harmful heterosexual relationships does not render heterosexual relationships as a class harmful. Should we have examples of same-sex partnerships that are not harmful, we would have cause to suggest that we have to do with a parallel dynamic. That is, the existence of some harmful same-sex partnerships does not render homosexual relationships as a class harmful.

At this point, we could consider Ilse and Jennifer’s relationship. As it turns out, anyone who knows them very well would testify that their relationship is mutually beneficial for them and beneficial for all who are part of their lives. In their partnership (which as I mentioned in the previous post includes their own children), they are a blessing to each other in every way that a healthy and long-term heterosexual marriage is a blessing to all who are affected by it.

Ilse and Jennifer are not necessarily any more unusual within the set of same-sex married couples than a happily married heterosexual couple would be within the set of opposite-sex married couples. There are many other same-sex couples whose partnerships make it clear to any who would observe that there is nothing inherently harmful about such relationships.

Does the relationship undermine the sanctity of marriage?

This question also leads to intense debates. It is difficult to imagine how these debates can avoid being circular, though. Same-sex marriage undermines the sanctity of marriage if you define marriage as being limited to opposite-sex partners. Same-sex marriage does not undermine the sanctity of marriage if you don’t define marriage as being limited to opposite-sex partners.

Part of the issue, then, is what constitutes the core of our definition of marriage. Is it (1) the sexual identity of the two partners? Or is it (2) the commitment and quality of life that is shared by the two partners? Some would say that both of these are part of the definition. But do they have to be? Is #2 dependent upon #1?

What would make marriage sacred? Numerous writers (including Garry Wills) have commented recently that the Christian church did not consider marriage to be a sacrament until the twelfth century. The Bible itself surprisingly offers few actual accounts of examples of the “one man/one woman” “sacred” marriage many Christians today see as the norm (as a thought experiment, try to think of important male characters from throughout the Bible whose “one-woman-for-life” marriage is described).

The meaning of marriage seems to have been different in different times and places. Thus it is difficult to ascertain one particular model that may be seen as “sacred” for all times and places.

However, we could argue that the best way to support the institution of marriage is to focus on the virtues of fidelity, mutuality, faithfulness, commitment to God and the way of Jesus, and enhancing of the well-being of those affected by the relationship. Given the multitudinous failures of opposite-sex marriages to embody such virtues, might those committed to these virtues best make common cause?

Again, if we look at Ilse and Jennifer’s relationship, we see an impressive embodiment of these key “sacred” virtues that underlie the ideal of marriage. Their relationship seems to undergird the sanctity of marriage, not undermine it.

[In Part Three of this post, I will focus on the biblical case for opposition to gay marriage.]

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