Ted Grimsrud—May 22, 2012
In Part One of these three posts, I suggested that Christians should be disposed to affirm gay marriage—and then noted three arguments that tend to be used to override that positive initial disposition. Then, in Part Two, I focused on two of those three arguments that tend to be used as bases for withholding affirmation of gay marriage in Christian churches: that by the nature of it being between people of the same sex, gay marriage is harmful to the people involved and that gay marriage undermines the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. In this final post, I will look at the third argument: the teaching of the Bible.
The discussion of the Bible’s teaching is probably the most contentious of all three of our “debates.” Here are just a few thoughts.
The Bible, on the one hand, contains a great deal of teaching and many stories that indirectly speak to our general theme of affirming gay marriage (or not). Not least are the teachings and stories that speak about hospitality and God’s special concern for vulnerable people. As well, teachings and stories about human relationality (going clear back to the very beginning when God says of Adam that it is not good for this first human being to be alone). We also have teaching and stories about the importance of fidelity in relationships and the problems of socially harmful actions (such as violence, injustice, adultery, abuse in various forms).
On the other hand, the Bible does not say much directly about homosexuality (which is not surprising given that the term “homosexuality” itself is a modern term that seems to reflect a modern awareness of affectional orientation and sexual identity). What do we make, though, of the several texts that have typically been seen as providing a basis for generalizing about a biblical mandate to forbid same-sex intimate relationships (and, certainly, same-sex marriage)?
We should notice three things about these texts (the main ones that interpreters usually focus on are the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18–19, the teaching in Leviticus 18 and 20 against “men laying with men as with women,” and Paul’s references in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 to problems with same-sex sexual behaviors [we could also include 1 Timothy 1:10 which clearly is derivative from I Corinthians 6 and adds no new information to the issues raised in these texts]): (1) the Bible speaks only of male “homosexuality,” (2) the Bible is concerned with various behaviors, not just one “homosexual practice,” and (3) the New Testament contains no direct commands to Christians concerning homosexuality.
The Bible speaks only of male “homosexuality”
First, these texts all refer only to males (with the possible exception of Romans 1). The Genesis passage refers to males seeking to gang-rape male visitors. Leviticus speaks only of “males laying with with males.” The particular word used in 1 Corinthians (and 1 Timothy) that is generally seen to allude to homosexual activity literally means “males laying” and is quite likely an allusion to the Leviticus verses. In Romans 1, the mention that certainly refers to homosexual sexual activity refers to “males lusting after other males.” The one possible exception, also in Romans 1, that may refer to female/female sexual activity is irresolvably unclear. It speaks of women “exchanging natural intercourse for unnatural” (1:26). What is unclear is whether the “unnatural” refers to the women having intercourse with other women or the women being “consumed with lust” (1:27). If the latter, the issue for Paul is the “consumed with lust” not the same-sex aspect of the behavior.
The general point, then, is that the Bible does not actually seem to speak directly to, for example, Ilse and Jennifer’s relationship. It seems to be concerned with male/male sexual situations, not homosexuality as a general condition. If we are looking for clear teaching that would require churches to withhold affirmation for relationships such as Ilse and Jennifer’s, we would expect the teaching straightforwardly to speak of homosexual relations as a class, not simply one subset of possible relations. We would need then to look closer at the specific texts to see what they are concerned with if they aren’t making general claims about all possible same-sex situations.
The Bible is concerned with various behaviors, not just one “homosexual practice”
So, second, when we look at the specific texts we see that they focus on particular problematic practices (plural), not on “homosexual practice” as a general category. One of the problematic rhetorical moves that those who oppose affirming gay marriage make is to use this term “homosexual practice” in the singular, with the implication that all we need to find is a single negative reference to any possible same-sex “practice” in order than to conclude that all possible “practices” are forbidden.
We would not think of taking such an approach to “heterosexual practice.” The Bible contains many more stories and commands that speak against certain heterosexual sexual behaviors (rape, adultery, promiscuity, disrespect, etc.). No one I know of would generalize from these prohibitions (in command and story) to say that the Bible is against “heterosexual practice.”
What happens if we look at the specific texts asking why in each particular case the negative association is made with male/male sex? What we will find is that in each case the behavior that is in view is behavior that would also be seen as wrong for heterosexual people. That is, the references are not to the same-sexness itself being inherently wrong.
Recognizing that severals of these passages are quite cryptic in their references (another reason not to but much weight on them), we can see that in each case they do refer to behavior that would be equally problematic if it were male/female. In Genesis, it is gang-rape. In Leviticus, it is sex outside of marriage and, perhaps, sex that happened in the context of pagan religious rites. In Romans, it is promiscuous sex. And in 1 Corinthians, it is sex linked with economic exploitation (probably prostitution).
So, the Bible is not giving us any direct guidance that would determine the churches’ affirmation (or not) of Ilse and Jennifer’s relationship. If we put much weight on the two starting points I mentioned at the beginning (the goodness of marriage and the call to hospitality), we would be led to conclude that the Bible does not overcome the inclination toward affirmation.
The New Testament contains no direct commands for Christians concerning homosexuality
This conclusion is reinforced by my third point, that the New Testament (our most important source of ethical guidance as Christians) contains no direct command against same-sex sexual intimacy. When we look at the (quite) rare references to same-sex sexual activity, we will actually discover that neither of the two main references (Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6) are in the form of direct commands.
In fact, in both cases, Paul is describing the behavior of non-Christians in order to make points that have little or nothing to do with sexual ethics. In Romans, Paul describes the general descent toward violence and injustice that characterizes people who trust in idols rather than in God. He uses the orgies of the Roman elite as an obvious example of this descent. Ironically, in light of how this Romans 1 text is often used in relation to homosexuality, Paul then goes on to challenge his self-righteous Jewish Christian readers that they actually are guilty of the same kind of descent when they point fingers at others.
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul confronts wealthy members of the Corinthian church for their efforts to defraud poorer members of their congregation economically—and to rely on unjust pagan courts to enforce their exploitation. The pagan judges are unjust, in the same way the Corinthians Christians had been before they met Jesus. To make his point, Paul gives a list of sinful behaviors that the pagans are guilty of. This list includes economically exploitative male/male sex.
So, rather than clearly teaching to Christians that they must not be involved in relationships such as Ilse and Jennifer’s, the New Testament is actually totally silent in this regard. So, again, if we are influenced by the affirmation of the goodness of marriage and the call to hospitality, we would be led toward affirmation given the lack of clear biblical teaching to overturn such an inclination.
Christians should affirm gay marriage for precisely the same reasons and in the same ways that we affirm heterosexual marriage. We should not think of this as making a special exception that allows this “deviant” behavior as some kind of “concession.” Instead, we should think of it as refusing a double standard that affirms marriage for heterosexuals but refuses such affirmation for homosexuals.
Going back to the beginning of this post, we do this because we believe marriage is a good thing. We should want everyone possible to enjoy the benefits of healthy and life-affirming marriage relationships. And we also do this because we believe that as biblical people, our disposition should be to welcome vulnerable people (and we recognize how homosexual people have been and continue to be mistreated).
And, finally, we have no bases to overtune our disposition toward affirmation. Gay marriage is not inherently harmful. It does not undermine the sanctity of marriage. And it is not condemned by the teaching of the Bible.
4 thoughts on “A basic Christian argument for affirming gay marriage (Part three)”
Ted, thank you so much for your thoughtful, patient, faithful engagement with questions about sexuality and the Christian life.
Do you not address arguments from natural law because you feel such arguments are weak or because they play no role in how you view “Christian Ethics”? In regard to the sacramental argument- I believe the RC position is that the priest is the “witness for the church” rather than the dispenser of the sacrament. The question within this framework, which not everyone shares, would be, “Is there anything about the same sex nature of the couple that would preclude such a couple from giving this sacrament to each other?”
Have you considered the positive definition of marriage that the Bible gives?
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Plus Song of Solomon, Ephesians, and everywhere marriage is talked about. It’s always one man, one woman.