Teaching on same-sex marriage and the Bible

Ted Grimsrud—January 20, 2015

This past Sunday, January 18, I had another chance to talk about same-sex marriage in a Mennonite congregation. I was invited to speak at Oak Grove Mennonite Church, near Smithville, Ohio. My assignment was to give a talk to a large Sunday School class, preach the morning sermon, and respond to questions in an early afternoon session. It was a good experience for me and, I hope, for the congregation.

One interesting aspect of the visit was how this congregation is really in the middle of the road (or maybe, several roads). Within the congregation, it appears that the more common view would be inclined to what I call the “restrictive” side of things—believing that full acceptance of, say, same-sex marriage, is not appropriate. There seem to be many, though, who likely would tend more to the “inclusive” side and be open to accepting same-sex marriage. However, the point of the visit was not for them to reveal their views to me, but for me to share mine with them.

I put my presentations together so that the sermon, “What matters most to Jesus,” would speak in more general terms about the centrality of hospitality in the Bible, concluding with a focus on Jesus’s teaching. The sermon does not address same-sex marriage directly, but sets the stage for the lecture by establishing a benefit of the doubt in the Bible toward a welcoming stance in general, especially toward vulnerable people. Then, the lecture (“The Bible and same-sex marriage”) would focus more directly on marriage and make an argument for why Christians should embrace same-sex marriage and apply to it the same kind of moral framework as they do to opposite-sex marriage.

I have posted the two presentation on my Peace Theology website (here are links to the sermon, “What matters most to Jesus,” and to the lecture, “The Bible and same-sex marriage”). To follow the argument I tried to make, one should read the sermon first and then the lecture.

Reflections on the experience

The discussion that followed, the presentations and personal conversations helped me to see how I could have perhaps reshaped what I did and made the argument more clear. I also continue to wonder about the overall utility of such discussions—as well on the character of the argument I try to make and the appropriateness of me doing such presentations.

One of the people in the congregation, quite sympathetic with what I had to say, suggested that especially for Mennonite audiences, it would be better if I argued explicitly for a Jesus-centered theology in favor of same-sex marriage. My first reaction was to say that Jesus didn’t say anything directly about it. But he went on to say that what he had in mind was starting with Jesus’s general message of welcome, especially for vulnerable people and then explicitly connecting that with marriage.

I realized that I was implicitly trying to do that in how I planned to start with the sermon and its message that what matters to Jesus most is hospitality and then turn to the general message about marriage that I detail in the lecture. But two things weakened the execution of the argument:

(1) I had misunderstood the morning schedule—the lecture came first and then the sermon. So the more general sermon did not precede the more direct lecture which is how I had planned it. By the time I learned of my mistake, I felt it was too late to make any significant changes. So I launched right into the discussion of marriage before I talked about the broader theme of hospitality. This made it less clear that I was thinking about Jesus in the marriage discussion.

(2) I did not make a direct statement linking the hospitality theme centered in Jesus’s teaching with same-sex marriage. Partly, I had the sense that the congregation did not want same-sex marriage overtly to be part of the sermon. And partly, I haven’t done the thinking yet about making that connection. But I do think it would be a good idea. [I have posted the two presentations exactly as delivered—I hope some time before long to revise them in line with this suggestion and make them into a single essay.]

Another person raised as a question a theme that I only indirectly addressed. She asked about the physical “fit” between males and females—and wondered if that “fit” implies something about God’s “intention for how we live” that would exclude the moral legitimacy of same-sex marriage.

What I did talk about was the idea that there is a sense Christians have of what makes up a “normal” marriage—including that it be one man and one woman, as well as include children and be permanent. I suggested that we allow for exceptions to this “norm” and still embrace childless marriages and second marriages for divorced people. Why not allow exceptions for same-sex couples? To me, the answer boils down to the sense that there is something inherently sinful about same-sex marriage that would not be the case with childless marriages or marriages after divorce. That is, the key issue is still the “sin” issue—and that is what I do address in my lecture. However, it would be good to be more direct in bringing in this person’s concern (which is more emphasized in recent writings by restrictive thinkers; see my review of a book that focuses on this theme).

As I say, I enjoyed the experience. I really have little idea of whether I helped the congregation much. The feedback was fairly positive, though it was clear that some were uncomfortable and even a few angry with what I said. I do think that my presentation that was in many ways pretty conventional, theologically conservative, and biblically-focused might be the only kind of presentation that would get a hearing in such a congregation. So it’s probably a good thing to do.

On the one hand, I still have not encountered a pro-gay marriage argument based on the Bible that develops in quite the same way mine does, which is one reason I want to keep talking. For example, I am not aware of any one else who makes as big a point as I do of the fact that neither Romans 1:18-32 or 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 are texts that have as their point presenting an argument for Christian sexual ethics. It seems to me that writers from both sides of the argument write too much as if these texts are about sexual ethics.

At the same time, I think I need to know a lot more about a lot more things. It could be that I either need to get better educated about a broader range of issues or retire from the fray. I am right now reading a bunch of recent books. So maybe I will come to the point of reformulating my basic argument and making it deeper and more sophisticated.

In the meantime, I am glad for the chance to review what I have put together up to now—and hope that even with its limitations, my argument may be helpful in pushing churches at least a little bit more toward inclusion.

14 thoughts on “Teaching on same-sex marriage and the Bible

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience there. When I was church planting in Cleveland (1987-89), Sonya and I went down to Oak Grove one Sunday. Sonya and I sang one of her musical compositions as the “special music.” My sermon was somewhat autobiographical and a sort of sharing by an urban missionary occasion. Included in my presentation was a recording of Peter Gabriel’s duet with Kate Bush, “Don’t Give Up.” I had the congregation listen to it as a way to, perhaps, have a better understanding of my own and other Clevelander’s need to find hope and compassion in the midst of urban despair. A few people appreciated what was presented. Your presentation may have been a bit more understandable by the mainly rural congregants.

  2. Oak Grove has a reputation of being one of the more “progressive” churches in the Ohio territories, but this designation is of course relative. Thanks for your report and your work, Ted. Yet I wonder if it any longer matters what Ohio Mennonite or Brethren congregations think about God or sex for the future of spiritual and cultural life? These congregations have entered time-warps and God-gaps and are thus becoming irrelevant and obsolete in their naming of God, world, self and others. Many of the children and grandchildren formed by these churches now claim that one is more likely to encounter the divine Sunday morning on the bike trails, in the coffee shops or at the concert in the park than in these sanctuaries. Like you, Ted, I still show up for these churchly conversations but I suspect the future of God-in-the-world is now elsewhere and otherwise.

    1. I appreciate your thoughts, Scott. Things are unfolding rapidly. Hopefully we can all grow in perceiving the presence of God-in-the-world wherever it is. I’d like to believe that these small, troubled MC-USA (and surely COB) “sanctuaries” still have things to do and say that will in some small way help us all better name God, world, self, and others.

      1. In those places where the sanctuaries have not become sacred reservations we can indeed still find help. As one with dual affiliation I have been tracking the Mennonite and Brethren dialogs and debates closely. It seems the Mennonites are now displaying more spiritual courage than the Brethren in engaging both same-sex marriage and LGBTQ inclusion questions and concerns.

        The “non-creedal” Brethren bosses have retreated to a 1983 Annual Conference Paper on human sexuality as offering normative statements for the church if not for society. The problem, of course, is that both God and sex have changed in very interesting and important ways since 1983.

  3. Hi Ted,
    You say that your sermon didn’t address same-sex marriage directly, but set the stage for when you did later by “establishing a benefit of the doubt in the Bible toward a welcoming stance in general, especially toward vulnerable people.”
    I have a web article where I try to respond to that argument. I’m curious your response.

    Here’s how I describe your argument:
    The biblical theme of inclusion is often used to predispose us toward full inclusion of those in same-sex partnerships. Since a main thrust of the Bible is one of acceptance and embracing diversity, surely we as a church should hesitate to go against this movement and exclude a group of persons. If we err, it should be on the side of inclusion, giving the benefit of the doubt to the biblical interpretation which helps the church more fully include a group of people who were formerly excluded.

    Here’s the response I give to your argument:
    Welcome of diversity is not the core message of Scripture. Incidences of inclusion are indeed present in beautiful measure in our Spirit-inspired Word. But that theme is not the centrally-defining one that trumps all others. In the Bible, acts of giving grace and hospitality to the marginalized are preceded by and followed by calls to love God and be faithful to God’s commands. The one who said “I do not condemn you” also in the same conversation insisted, “Go and sin no more.” As we read through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, every nudge toward welcome and inclusion appears with multiple calls to radical, costly obedience.

    I go on to quote one of your 2009 blogs:
    As Ted Grimsrud writes, “Jesus’ message of welcome is not based on ignoring the call to faithful living. If some behavior is intrinsically unlawful, intrinsically harmful to persons and communities, then Jesus would have us expect that that behavior be changed for people to be full participants in the community.”

    Like I said, I would value your response. I am far from fully understanding things.

    Harold Miller

    1. Thanks for the engagement, Harold. I will look at your web article and try to think of more to say in response to what you write there (and here).

      But I want to give one quick response. You do a nice job of summarizing my argument, insofar as that can be done in one paragraph. But even your summary (not to mention my longer argument) does not say that what I am arguing is that “welcome of diversity is … the core message of Scripture” (my added italics) as you seem to allege in your response.

      I don’t think I use the word “diversity” anywhere (though I could be wrong; I need to check). I see the focus being welcome of vulnerable people—often those who are already in some sense part of the community (widows, orphans, the various “sinners” Jesus ministers to).

      The analogy would be how the churches should be welcoming toward those sexual minorities already in some sense in their midst.

      I also suggest that the practice of hospitality toward outsiders (in some sense, I suppose, a “welcoming of diversity”) must not be done in ways that jeopardize the identity of the community of faith.

      1. Thanks, Ted, for pointing out the you don’t use the word *diversity* in speaking of Scripture’s main theme. I was summarizing what I’ve heard from others as they identify the most important theme of the Bible. They speak of “acceptance, inclusion and the embrace of diversity” (Lisa Schirch, May 2014 MWR) or “communion in the midst of diversity” (Karl Shelly, July 2014 response to IMMC Credentialing Team). Sorry to seem that I was attributing that word to you.

        Thanks for being willing to look at my web article (“Listening and responding to voices of inclusion”) and perhaps responding to what I write there on the biblical theme of inclusion.

        Actually, you would have my permission to quote on your blog here any chunks from other sections of my article too — chunks that you think are weak and not helpful. When I put that article on my website last week (it had just been a PDF on the denomination’s list of resources on the issue), I was thinking I’d like to get your response to the various points, but was not sure the best way to do it. Just know that I would value your perspectives. It might help each of us clarify what we are saying.

        Paul Schrag said in his latest MWR editorial (“Shifting toward inclusion”), quoting Conrad Kanagy, “With differences so deep, it is exceptionally difficult to have productive conversations or dialogue about controversial issues. … By and large, respondents fail to understand or try to understand the particular standpoint from which the other sees the world.”

        But for the sake of our church we should at least try.


      2. Harold,

        I appreciate your interest in conversation. As you know, it takes a lot of time and we both are very busy with other tasks. But I agree it would be good if people would try more. So perhaps we can take a bit of time to go back and forth.

        I quickly read your web article, but couldn’t figure out any place there to converse, so will put my comments up over here. Again, right now I will have to be brief, but I hope in the not too distant future to say more.

        I am glad for your clarification that you weren’t summarizing my writing when you used the word “diversity.” Now, I do value diversity as I am sure you do. But I don’t say it’s scripture’s main theme.

        My one comment right now in response to your article is that I think my argument offers a stiffer challenge to what you are responding to than the views you summarize there. This is particularly the case with regard to the interpretation of Rom 1:18-32 and 1 Cor 6:1-11.

        This is what I wrote in the above article: “I still have not encountered a pro-gay marriage argument based on the Bible that develops in quite the same way mine does, which is one reason I want to keep talking. For example, I am not aware of any one else who makes as big a point as I do of the fact that neither Romans 1:18-32 or 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 are texts that have as their point presenting an argument for Christian sexual ethics. It seems to me that writers from both sides of the argument write too much as if these texts are about sexual ethics.”

        My point in relation to these two texts is simple and does not rely on the “deflection” strategies you summarize (not that I wouldn’t also use some of those strategies in making other points). It’s simply that we should read these texts in context and not isolate a few verses.

        In both of these passages Paul is not addressing sexuality. He is addressing (1) the lusts of the Roman elite as an example of the spiral of death that accompanies idolatry in order to then challenge his fellow religionists not to be judgmental but to recognize their own sinfulness and (2) the practice in the Corinthian church of some taking others to the secular courts to resolve their disputes—courts presided over by unjust people (as detailed in 1 Cor 6:9-11).

        Hence, neither of these passages should be seen as offering the kind of strong and clear commands that would directly forbid same-sex marriage. Thus, we should look back to the “benefit of the doubt toward inclusion” that you seem accurately to understand me perceiving in the overall biblical message.

      3. Ted, you raise something that you and I discussed on your blog last March but didn’t really finish. So thanks for raising it again.

        You are saying that both Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 aren’t making commands for Christian sexual behavior and hence they cannot be the strong, clear bases needed for overriding the inclusion trajectory of the Bible’s story [your wording from last March].

        How would you respond to one who says, “But, Ted, don’t we learn from 1 Cor 6:9-10 that Paul views idolaters, thieves, drunkards, slanderers, etc. as sinful — since he includes them in his list of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God? And don’t we learn from Rom 1:26-31 that Paul views those who are envious, deceitful, gossips, faithless, ruthless, etc. as sinful — since he includes them in his list describing fallen, rebellious humanity? And don’t we learn that Paul also places that same moral judgment on same-sex behavior, if indeed that behavior is also included on the lists?”

        Can the wider context (that Paul in 1 Cor 6 is addressing “the practice in the Corinthian church of some taking others to the secular courts to resolve their disputes” and that Paul in Rom 1 is addressing “the lusts of the Roman elite”) wash out the nearer context (that some kind of same-sex behavior is on a list of immoral behavior)?

        Yes, I will grant that it would be stronger argument against same-sex behavior if 1 Cor 6 or Rom 1 had as their purpose to present an argument for Christian sexual ethics, ie., gave “strong and clear commands that would directly forbid same-sex marriage.” But it’s not like those passages let us in the dark as to Paul’s assessment of same-sex behavior (whatever kind Paul had in mind), do they? Should we ignore Paul’s assessment as we shape our sexual ethics?

    2. I agree, Harold, that the behavior Paul alludes to in these two passages is seen as wrong when it touches on same-sex practices.

      But this is my point: There are some heterosexual practices that Paul sees as good (or at least morally acceptable) and some that Paul sees as bad. We should tend to follow Paul’s thinking in this regard (though I wonder if he is positive enough about the goodness of the morally valid sexual activity).

      When we look at the particular practices that Paul seems to allude to in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6, we will see that they are the kinds of practices that Paul would also see as wrong for heterosexual people (the out of control lust of Romans 1 and the exploitive activities of 1 Cor 6).

      What that means is that Paul’s points in these texts have nothing to do with our discussion about same-sex marriage where we assume that the couples follow the same moral guidance the churches offer for opposite-sex marriage. We do not draw any negative conclusions about sex in opposite-sex marriages from Paul’s references to morally wrong opposite-sex practices (which are, of course, discussed in much greater detail in Paul’s writings than morally wrong same-sex practices).

      You seem to have a sense of how my argument works. I am not trying to argue that Paul would necessary support same-sex marriage. All I am trying to do is point out how weak the case is for stating that Paul condemns same-sex marriage. Our reason for affirming same-sex marriage, theologically, would not be some proof text that shows the Bible affirms it but rather the general message that calls us to hospitality and the general message the marriage is a good thing that should not be easily withheld from loving couples. And this general direction is not refuted by direct biblical teaching on Christian sexual ethics.

      1. Hi Ted,

        My response to you has been progressing at glacial speed!

        I valued your last comment. It was a clear, succinct, helpful description. I think I am now catching for the first time (sorry I’m slow!) the heart of your argument:
        Paul lists some kinds of heterosexual behavior that are wrong, but that doesn’t mean all heterosexual sex is wrong. In Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6 Paul is also listing some kinds of same-sex behavior that are wrong (you identify the kinds: it’s out of control lust in Romans 1 and exploitive activities in 1 Cor 6). But again, as you point out, that doesn’t mean that all same-sex sex is wrong. On that basis, it makes sense why you let the biblical trajectory toward inclusion and care for the marginalized nudge you toward the progressive stance.

        However, what if such an understanding of Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6 is tenuous, as I perhaps show in my “Listening and responding to voices of inclusion” article on my GayMatter site? I think a parsimonious argument can easily and clearly be made that Paul is seeing same-sex behavior in general as wrong in those passages.

        But that’s just what I think. I’m very interested in your response. Again, sorry that my article doesn’t have a way for you to respond there. But you are welcome to respond here on your blog; it may make it easier for you, too.

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