Ted Grimsrud—January 7, 2016
The rapidly expanding acceptance of same-sex marriage in United States society—and in many churches—has dramatically changed the dynamics of discernment for all American Christians. No longer is this an issue that church leaders could keep a distance from—thinking in fairly abstract terms about the “other” outside the church. So, often the discussions that did happen in the past concerning church policies did not necessarily involve the sense of agony that accompanies considering people with whom one has a close connection. It’s one thing to keep “outsiders” out; it’s something else when congregations are dealing with actual members.
The practical implications of the anti-same sex marriage view
In our new moment, the issues are more emotionally complicated. Though in his article, “Marriage, practice, biblical interpretation and discernment” (The Mennonite, January 2016), philosopher/theologian Darren Belousek remains safely focused on a textual argument regarding an ancient text, the implications of his perspective are far from distant and abstract.
What should our churches do with actual members who are married (in the eyes of the state, and, in their view, in the eyes of God)? Or what about pastors who due to a sense of vocational responsibility are willing to marry members in same-sex relationships? Or, if the churches are practicing welcoming evangelism, how might they respond to a married same-sex couple who are looking for a church home?
Belousek’s argument would seem necessarily to lead to what many would will see to be a hurtful and arbitrary response—where a couple who may embody authentic marital love and commitment would be turned away or required to deny their life-giving intimate relationship. Ironically, many of the same churches who would discriminate against same-sex couples regardless of how exemplary their partnerships might be would not hesitate to welcome without qualification potential heterosexual members who are in their second or third marriages following divorces.
Belousek gives us no practical reasons for such a hurtful response. A couple of decades ago, a church leader with a restrictive view told me that gays simply haven’t shown that they could live lives of fidelity and commitment. Today, we may point to many couples who have done precisely this. By their embrace of the new possibility of same-sex marriage, lesbian and gay Christians have shown that they too view marriage as a life-giving institution. What practical reason is there to slam the door in their faces?
What is achieved by Belousek’s argument? His stance reinforces the continuation of the churches’ scapegoating harshness toward LGBTQ folks. He sets the churches up for the appearance of hypocrisy and arbitrariness. And he places the Bible squarely on the side of the forces of repression and narrowness.
What does the Bible actually say?
However, we also need to ask if his is the best way to read the Bible. Is there a way to learn things from the Bible that are compatible with our experiences of the life-givingness of same-sex-marriages?
Isn’t the core biblical message about marriage a vision for mutuality, nurture, and community—attributes readily visible in many same-sex marriages? Didn’t Jesus insist that the commands are meant to serve human beings and our wellbeing, not human beings serve the commands? Even when Jesus repeats the male/female description of marriage from Genesis one, his point is to critique how men discriminated against and exploited women—not to reiterate gender essentialism. It’s hard to imagine him approving the use of that statement for a present day discriminatory agenda.
As well, the texts that Belousek briefly alludes to as support for his statement that “the biblical attitude concerning same-sex practices … is unequivocally negative” (page 45) are much more ambiguous than he allows for. If read carefully, the cited texts all allude to practices that were also wrong for heterosexuals (e.g., coerced sex, promiscuity, adultery, economically exploitative sex). This ambiguity plus the sense that the Bible simply is not concerned with same-sex marriage may actually help us take a healthier view of the Bible as a resource for our moral discernment on these issues—challenging us to look at the big story of God’s healing love and not at isolated proof texts. [I have written several pieces developing the points in this paragraph—they may be seen at my Peace Theology website.]
In the end, we should ask: What damage will be done to the churches in adapting the best of our morality of marriage to include same-sex marriage (fidelity, mutuality, shared pleasure, the nurturing of children)? The evidence in congregations that have been welcoming overwhelmingly indicates that instead of damage, such acceptance of same-sex marriage brings a blessing. Sadly, on the other hand, we already know quite well the kinds of damage to the church’s soul of its long and on-going history of discrimination.