Does God have a “design” for marriage—that excludes gays?

Ted Grimsrud—January 5, 2015

 A recent book, Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage (Baker, 2014) by Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet, makes the case that Christians should reject same-sex marriage. The main reason for this rejection is that God has an ironclad “design” that allows only for male/female marriage. This “design” is revealed in scripture and in the nature of human intimate relationships, most importantly in the possibility for procreation that only male/female partners have.

How persuasive is this book’s argument?

Some good points

One of the main strengths of the book is that it strives for and largely achieves an irenic tone. While it is hard to imagine the main argument of the book being persuasive to someone who doesn’t start out agreeing with it (which to me is not necessarily a flaw; I don’t think the authors are necessarily trying to convert same-sex supporters), those who don’t agree with the book’s argument might, nonetheless, well find the book readable and interesting. If someone who accepts same-sex marriage wants to understand the arguments against it, this book would be a good choice. And certainly those who don’t like same-sex marriage will find in this book strong bases for their opposition.

McDowell and Stonestreet (henceforth, M&S) recognize that evangelical Christianity faces a public relations problem with its opposition to same-sex marriage. So they want to counter the impression that “anti-homosexual” is an accurate description of present day evangelical Christians while nonetheless making the case for opposing same-sex marriage. This is a delicate balance to try to achieve, and they are not particularly successful in doing so. But in their effort, they do mute the typical negative rhetoric a great deal.

As well, they (fleetingly) make a number of concessions that earlier evangelicals on the restrictive side (most notably Robert Gagnon in his widely circulated book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice—tellingly not referenced in Same-Sex Marriage) were loathe to. For example, they write: “Many Christians insensitively repeat over and over that [homosexuality is a choice], but to many of the men and women we have talked with who struggle with same-sex attraction, it isn’t. They look at their lives and say, ‘I would have never have chosen this. I can’t choose not to feel this way. I’ve tried to feel straight, but nothing has changed.’ We believe them.” (p. 118). M&S don’t actually wrestle much with the implications of this concession, but it is progress that they have made it.

The basic argument the book makes against the acceptance of same-sex marriage seems pretty straightforward. The basic rationale for M&S opposing same-sex marriage is clear and hence can be wrestled with.

The core argument

This is what M&S present as the heart of their concern: Christians—and everyone else—should reject the notion that people of the same sex can enter into a marriage relationship. Churches should not bless such marriages, and the state should not recognize them as legal unions (there are a couple of hints that M&S would not oppose “civil unions” as long as they are not called marriages; it’s too bad they don’t address that issue more thoroughly).

Why should we reject same-sex marriage? Ultimately because God has “designed” marriage to be reserved for only male/female couples. This “design” is revealed in scripture, for sure. However, it is also revealed in nature. In the end, the natural revelation (or “natural law”—though this term is not used in the book) basis for saying no to same-sex marriage is the most decisive. Partly, what nature shows us is that a man and a woman fit together in ways that two men or two women don’t. More importantly, though, procreation is only possible for male/female couples. This is M&S’s bottom line.

Despite being couched in a kinder, gentler tone, the case that M&S make is deeply problematic in its immediate application concerning same-sex marriage and also deeply problematic in terms of its theological assumptions and method.

Speaking for God

How capable are we as human beings of speaking with certainty about God’s “design”? One of the key assumptions that M&S seem to make is that we have absolutely certain revelation directly from God that tells us what God’s once-for-all time design for marriage is. They don’t acknowledge that this “revelation” is mediated through human agents at numerous places along the way—a dynamic that renders any message we might think we have from God about marriage tentative and culturally shaped.

I believe that the Bible itself was written by human beings and when read straightforwardly reflects that humanness from start to finish. And when read straightforwardly, the Bible does not present itself as the source of absolutely certain revelation directly from God. It presents itself as a collection of stories that when seen together provide a generally coherent picture of God working with human beings to bring wholeness to a broken world.

As well, the Bible that we English-speaking North Americans use is the product of a long series of human translations from the original languages to our modern English. No matter how careful and scholarly and collaborative these translations are, they still are the product of human interpretations about what contemporary words best approximate the meaning of the original text, realizing that this can never hope to be exact.

Then, we who teach, write about, and discuss the biblical materials are fallen human beings who must make our own interpretive choices in discerning and applying what the text is saying to us. It is interesting to me that people with the theological perspective reflected in Same-Sex Marriage often have a lot to say about the power of sin in our world and how we human beings are fallen. Yet, they seem at the same time to be very comfortable in assuming that their human interpretations of the Bible are a direct message from God.

This problem is exacerbated when writers such as M&S use their authoritarian language about “God’s design” and apply it in such definitive ways in relation to an issue (same-sex marriage) that the Bible does not even directly speak to. Their use of the creation story and its echo in the teaching of Jesus as definitive on marriage are at most based on inference and extrapolation. There is no direct command in the Bible that addresses same-sex marriage. That, of course, does not mean that we shouldn’t go to the Bible for help in our discernment processes. But, I think, it does mean that would should not act as if the Bible gives us clear and definitive directives—nor should folks like M&S dismiss those who don’t agree with their human interpretation based on inference and extrapolation as simple deniers of biblical authority.

The character of marriage: Divine revelation or cultural artifact?

What makes “marriage” marriage—and where does this come from? At the heart of Same-Sex Marriage is the claim that there is “an essential nature to marriage” (p. 22). The authors present marriage, based in part on their interpretation of Genesis 1–2, as something that was established by God to be a certain way and that this is universally the case and has always been the case.

However, the actual portrayal of marriage in the stories of the Bible itself seem to reflect the particular culture within which they take place, not some timeless, set in concrete “design.” Polygamy (which isn’t taken seriously enough as an implicit biblical “norm” by M&S) and patriarchal dynamics where the wife is, in essence, the property of the husband, are both central to “biblical marriage”—as if the biblical people themselves were not aware of God’s “design” for marriage.

If we recognize that understandings of marriage do vary in significant ways from culture to culture and from one time period to another time period, we will be much more reluctant to claim that we have been given an explicit “design” for marriage by God. And again, this “truth” is used by M&S as if it has at its core the forbidding of same-sex marriage, an issue that most certainly was not in the mind of the author of Genesis 1–2.

Problems with natural law

This “design” for marriage is drawn from Genesis 1–2 (and reinforced by Jesus in Mark and Matthew). But M&S also draw heavily on their own sense of what is “natural.” Throughout the book they refer to “natural” marriage as being a practice that excludes same-sex couples. The two main elements that make up “natural” marriage are “the dual, gender-distinct nature of humanity” (p. 32) and, more importantly, “because sexual intercourse is the only biological process that leads to procreation” (p. 40).

One big problem with arguing from “what is natural” is that this is a very imprecise standard. And it lends itself to being shaped by cultural biases. And it does not answer the question of what to do about exceptions.

No exceptions?

If something is “natural” must it allow for no exceptions? Though M&S present procreation as the core reason for why marriage must be only for male/female couples, they actually acknowledge that there are exceptions where marriages that do not produce children are nonetheless to be recognized as valid marriages. “Clearly, not all families have children. Some marriages are barren, by choice or by circumstance…. The natural marriage/procreation connection is not nullified because in some cases children are not intended or even possible” (pp. 159-60).

I doubt that anyone is doubting that the “marriage/procreation connection” is the most typical element of marriage. However, this isn’t the issue. The issue is that M&S argue that the “marriage/procreation connection” is the reason to reject same-sex marriage. Their argument for rejecting same-sex marriage actually depends on there being no exceptions to this “marriage/procreation connection.” If we allow for some exceptions, then we should have to demonstrate why we would not allow for others.

Why is it a valid marriage for a man and a woman in their fifties to get married when the two of them are not capable of producing children themselves but not for two women in their twenties to get married when they are not capable of producing children themselves? And, actually, with recent advances in reproductive technology, it is possible for gays and lesbians to have biological children. It seems that their argument for discrimination against same-sex couples is, despite their assertion to the contrary, based on what they call “arbitrary” rather than “essential” qualities (p. 26).

They assert that the essence of marriage includes three elements: “(1) Two human beings becoming one in every way possible…. (2) Oriented toward procreation…. (3) It comes with an expectation of permanence” (p. 40). Elements #1 and #3 seem to be as equally possible with same-sex marriage as with opposite-sex marriage. That leaves #2 as the central element for their argument. But they allow for some exceptions to this element—valid opposite-sex marriages being “barren,” recognizing that procreation may not be possible for some. How is allowing this exception for some (say, a male and female in their fifties) and not others (say, two females in their twenties) not “arbitrary” discrimination?

One could actually argue that if we are secure in what we understand to be “natural” we should recognize that exceptions do not threaten the “norm.” If it truly is “natural” for men and women to want to marry each other and have children, then the vast majority of men and women will continue to do so even if those few who are more deeply attracted to partners of their same sex also marry each other.

I puzzle over why M&S (and so many others of their persuasion) single out the one exception (same sex couples) as inherently and profoundly wrong and threatening but do not seem nearly so concerned about other exceptions (childless marriages and remarriage after divorce—admittedly M&S say some negative things about divorce but they don’t propose forbidding remarriage for divorced people). One has to suspect that there is indeed bias working here.

M&S are defensive about the charge that those who oppose same sex marriage do so out of hostility toward LGBTQ people themselves. They state, “Clearly, there is no reason to think that mere opposition to a view is driven by hatred, bigotry, intolerance, or any other vice” (p. 159). But they don’t construct an argument with evidence to show why there “is no reason” to think this.

They acknowledge themselves that historically and even in the present many Christians act hatefully toward LGBTQ people. The book as a whole fuels a sense of fearfulness about the threat same-sex marriage posses to the well-being of American culture in general and to the institution of marriage specifically—though they never do explain why the movement toward embracing marriage by gays should be seen as a threat to marriage. And, as discussed above, the reasons M&S give for being so absolute against same-sex marriage are not actually very strong and seem mostly to follow from assumptions that same-sex marriage must be wrong rather than evidence from the actual phenomenon of same-sex marriage that shows it is bad.

The argument from ickyness

In a fascinating passage of the book, M&S quote a young person who used to be an evangelical Christian who left Christianity altogether due to changing her mind concerning same-sex marriage. This person refers to what she calls “the argument from ickiness.” “Being gay is icky, and the people who are gay are the worst kind of sinner you can be…. The moment ickyness no longer rings true with young believers, their faith is destroyed” (p. 128). Such a loss of faith probably is not uncommon when Christians who base their opposition to gays on ickyness personally learn to know gay people and realize they aren’t actually “icky.”

M&S take this comment as a prod for evangelicals to develop a more rigorous and profound theology of marriage so that their opposition to same-sex marriage is based on theology rather than on ickyness. However, I think they fail to respect the significance of this critique. In my reading, their own argument still largely seems to boil down to “the argument from ickyness.” They are generally quite careful not to prey on this sense of ickyness, but how else to explain, for instance, their arbitrary commitment to making exceptions for “barren marriages” but not same-sex marriages when they define the essence of marriage being procreation? Or when they constantly allude to same-sex marriage being “unnatural”?

Sadly, it seems that M&S may still be constructing a kind of pin-prick theology where evangelical Christians who become convinced that LGBTQ people are not “icky” and hence become accepting of same-sex marriage will feel that they have to abandon their faith. The implied link, portrayed by M&S as quite strong, between being a Christian (in the narrow sense they use that term) and being unalterably opposed to same-sex marriage seems certain to lead to some people leaving their faith behind. You let that one “pin” loose, it is bound to deflate the entire balloon.

It seems to me that it should be very easy for Christians who believe in the importance of marriage to welcome the advent of same-sex marriage. I sense that M&S and like-minded folks are themselves creating the crisis they find so alarming. Their notion of God’s “design for marriage” is their own construction. It wouldn’t take much to expand a thoroughly Christian understanding of marriage (that would include elements such as love, commitment, fidelity, mutuality, shared faith convictions, and even children) to include same-sex marriage. It’s too bad M&S don’t devote their energies to enhancing the health of the institution of marriage for all Christian couples who want to commit themselves to it.

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