Ted Grimsrud—October 2, 2017
[The following short essay was my contribution to a recent discussion among several Mennonite scholars concerning the Bible and LGBTQ inclusion in Mennonite churches. Our assignment was to reflect on the significance of the biblical creation story for our discernment. We had to keep the papers quite short, so were unable to address many of the various ambiguities and complexities with these issues. The background for my piece is the argument in opposition to same-sex marriage and in favor of restricting the involvement of LGBTQ people in the churches (e.g., opposition to the ordination of LGBTQ pastors) that centers on the idea of the creation story establishing an irrevocable norm of opposite-sex marriage—without exception (here is a critique of one such argument based on “God’s design for marriage”). I give several reasons why I don’t think is argument works.]
(1) Same-sex marriage is not the agenda of Genesis 1–2
The intent of the story in its own context was not to posit male/female marriage as the only valid marriage. It had other purposes. This is not to say that the gender distinction in the story is irrelevant, but that is not the story’s agenda—so it is making too big a deal of that distinction to use it as the central biblical teaching relevant to same-sex marriage.
It seems also that the male/female element is descriptive not exclusive. It is simply the case that procreation happens through male/female sex. But only a tiny fraction of such sex leads to procreation. Clearly sexual intimacy has other important purposes. Genesis 2 would indicate that one purpose is companionship or friendship—an intimate physical and emotional connection with one other person. And, again, this is not implying that every person is required to do this.
My point would not be to deny that it could be a valid interpretation that the creation story presents male/female marriage as the expected or normal arrangement for humanity and links such marriage with the bearing of children. However, it is not self-consciously trying to make an argument for male/female marriage with children for life is the only allowable arrangement.
(2) Problems with smuggling in natural law argumentation
In the argument against same-sex marriage, the creation story may serve as a means for biblicists to, we could say, smuggle in a natural law method of moral reflection while still presenting the argument as biblical. The story may provide a proof text for what is seen as “natural” (e.g., physical fit, procreation). Again, this is not the intent of the story itself. Natural law can easily become problematic—it has a hard time with exceptions, making nature’s general tendencies (which are always at least somewhat messy and almost always include deviance) into universals, with a likelihood of repression and even violence against “unnatural” deviance (though in nature deviance is actually natural and at times important).
Natural law moral reflection also has the tendency to reflect cultural biases that are presented under the guise of natural law. We could even say that the disposition against same sex marriage is based on deep-seated and long-standing cultural antipathy, even disgust, vs. LGBTQ people. This may be the kind of thing Jesus critiqued when he taught, “You have heard it said….”—that is, you present these ideas as biblical and from God, but actually they are artifacts of human culture all the way down.
Ironically, though, if we do follow a natural law path, it could actually heighten the force of arguments that favor inclusion based on experience. It actually may be said to be “natural,” based on actual experience, that like in the animal kingdom, deviance and diversity are natural and can be good things.
(3) No reason not to allow for exceptions to the “norm”
There is nothing in the creation story that would indicate that we cannot have valid exceptions to the majority gender tendencies that lead to male/female marriage. Again, the story simply describes what is typical; it does not proscribe what is different. So this story cannot bear the weight of serving as the main basis to deny the validity of exceptions.
We should also note other elements of the standard account of marriage that are drawn from this story that the Bible (and tradition) do allow exceptions to. Clearly a key element of the Genesis one text is procreation. However, we allow for marriages where children are not possible. And in recent years, most churches accept the choice to remain childless as valid. Another implication drawn from this story—strongly reinforced by Jesus’s teaching—is that marriage is permanent (i.e., no divorce). However, the Bible does make allowance for divorce and in our contemporary world many churches have been accepting of divorce and remarriage with no questions asked. Why can’t we also make exceptions to the male/female element?
(4) The creation story did not provide the norm for marriage in the Bible itself
The creation story, both in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, notably contains some strong egalitarian elements. The image of God is equally male and female. The female in chapter 2 is presented as a full partner for the male. And, in a peculiar locution, we are told in Genesis 2 that the male will leave his parents to join with his wife. However, the Bible itself does not follow these patterns. Most notably are the never-refuted practice of polygamy and the general sense of male ownership of wives (often plural) that is present throughout the Bible. So, whatever role the creation story played in the rest of the Bible, it did not provide a rigid and absolute standard for the meaning of marriage that was rigorously followed throughout. In fact, the evidence seems to point to the other extreme, where the story played very little role in providing the norms for the practice of marriage.
(5) No evidence of inherent harmfulness
The creation story gives us no hint as to why same-sex marriage would be inherently harmful. Of course, this is to be expected if the intent of the story is not anything about providing us with a once-for-all-time prohibition of same-sex marriage. Even so, though, the vehemence with which many oppose same-sex marriage follows from their use of the creation story as the basis for their exclusivist definition of marriage, it would seem that the story should provide at least some hints as to why same-sex marriage would seem to be so destructive that it must be so vehemently opposed.
This lack of evidence of harm is, of course, one of the main reasons why, in recent years, courts and legislatures have legalized same-sex marriage. In terms of the claims of the exclusivists, it would seem that a key issue here is the sense whether deviance from the majority is intrinsically harmful in nature? The opposite more likely is true, that deviance is helpful.
(6) Jesus was not addressing same-sex marriage
Following the view that the creation story forbids same-sex marriage, Jesus’s citation of it is often understood to reinforce the same point. However, I noted above, because the creation story itself does not have the intent to address same-sex marriage, it should not be seen as able to carry the weight that is put on it for this sense of a biblical prohibition. I would say that the same is true for Jesus’s use of the story. He is not using it to define marriage as only for male/female couples.
Ironically, the teaching Jesus does make based on the creation story is generally ignored by many Christians, even some of those most vehemently opposed to same-sex marriage. That is, in Mark’s version of Jesus’s teaching (probably the original account that Matthew then borrows and adapts), the point of the Genesis citation is to reinforce Jesus’s prohibition of divorce and remarriage.
It was because of Jesus’s teaching on divorce and remarriage that throughout most of its history, the Christian tradition has forbidden both divorce and, even more so, remarriage. It is only due to what some would call “revisionism” (and, likely, cultural pressures) that churches now have become quite accepting of both divorce and remarriage and no longer see those as bases to restrict church membership or ordination.
It does seem notable that people who oppose same-sex marriage based on Jesus’s comment about creation would not even more vociferously oppose divorce and remarriage. At the same time, perhaps the path many churches have followed regarding divorce and remarriage could guide a response to same-sex marriage. The reality of divorce and remarriage does not change the ideal of the permanence of marriage. It just means that we allow for exceptions to that ideal. Shouldn’t we also allow for exceptions to the creation story’s picture of marriage as between a man and a woman? As the footnote to the infamous Article 19 of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective states: “Today’s church needs to uphold the permancy of marriage and help couples in conflict move toward reconciliation. At the same time, the church, as a reconciling and forgiving community, offers healing and new beginnings. The church is to bring strength and healing to individuals and families.”
The need for discernment
I do not mean this discussion of the way the creation story is used to buttress a restrictive position concerning LGBTQ inclusion to itself be a positive argument in favor of affirming same-sex marriage. All I am trying to is take away one of the main arguments used against such affirmation. The lesson I draw from this is that we should accept that we need to discern our current views on these issues for ourselves, we can’t simply cite the Bible to decide the issues.
Rather than “creation,” I would say that that starting point in thinking about marriage in general and same-sex marriage in particular, should be “community.” As Genesis 2 seems to suggest, at the heart of the human way of being in the world is the need for friendship, companionship, intimacy, hospitality, and mutuality. This way of being does not require each person to be married; these needs may (and even for married people should) be met in a variety of ways. However, seeing community as the heart of marriage certainly allows for same-sex marriage as a morally valid option.
12 thoughts on “Why the creation story can’t carry the weight the restrictive view puts on it: The Bible and LGBTQ inclusion [Part 1]”
The central point is the fact of a norm does not say anything in itself about how deviations from the norm are to be regarded. But we can look at how Jesus treated those who deviated from the norm accepted by religious authorities in other respects as some clue on this.
I agree, Bill. Thanks.
Ted, thank you for publishing this. It is constructive that you acknowledge the gender distinction in the two creation stories as relevant to our discernment around same-sex marriage.
I had feared you would say, “Take the gender language out of the stories—also take the references to children out of the stories—and you will find that the core message of these texts does not change.” But you didn’t.
In short, these are stories in which having children is the very first divine command and gender is pivotal to fulfillment of that command. We know these stories were recorded in a form similar to what we have today during the period when Judaism matured and flowered into monotheism and a self-identity that focused on “justice” as its mission to the nations. No, we don’t expect the pre-exilic texts to reflect this understanding of YHWH’s desires for us.
So is the template of the creation stories mere sociology (“this is what we typically see as we survey the world”) or is it normative (“this is what our god has given us as the way for our community to become what we have been called to be”)?
Of course, this brings us to the need to acknowledge exceptions to the norm, and I heartily endorse that approach. Were the church’s debate to be framed in that way, it would make my heart glad.
Jesus viewed the male/female character of creation to be foundational. We should do the same adn go from there.
I appreciate the words of affirmation, Berry. And I am glad that we agree on how we would like “the church’s debate” to be framed.
In my own mind, I’m not quite sure how to articulate the normativity of “male/female character of creation.” One of the members of our conversation group where I presented my paper was quite sympathetic with my main points but also raised the issue of the norm of male/female marriage—while not wanting to use it as a basis for discrimination.
To me, there are some delicate issues here. Right now, I would see a distinction between “normal” and “normative.” And I am not as convinced as you about how Jesus may have viewed these issues. But I suspect (hope) that the main issues are semantic and that a lot of common ground about practice might be found.
I have always agreed with the broad point you are making, Ted, that the creation story is not decisive on question of same-sex marriage. As you note, another point of that story is that marriage is permanent, but yet the Bible and the church does make allowance for divorce. So I have seldom put “weight” on the creation story when talking about same-sex marriage—other than maybe a passing comment noting that Gen 1-2 presents male-female unions as divinely designed. (The “weight” for me comes from the Bible authors consistently placing same-sex intimacy on their lists of what should not be done.)
I will push back at one point. You say that deviance from the creation pattern is not “intrinsically harmful in nature” but “is helpful.” Go slow here. We don’t celebrate divorce and view it as an ideal, but rather see it as a pastoral accommodation needed due to the fallenness of this world. Likewise when persons choose other than the divine pattern of a man and a woman joining in marriage.
I am glad for you to note some important common ground here, Harold.
To be clear, I do not mean to say that all “deviance” in nature is helpful, just that it can be. And even more, I do not mean to imply that divorce is an example of “helpful deviance.” I think it is always a tragedy; it’s a scandal that the churches are so laissez faire about it.
All I meant to say is that sometimes deviance can be helpful. And a lot of damage has been done over the years in trying to repress and squelch it.
I continue to appreciate your scholarship, Ted, and your willingness to wrestle with and discern about this difficult issue. I have just finished going through your “Failure to Find Common Ground” series and Appendices, as well as the extensive Comments sections on each. I have concluded that people of good faith will continue to interpret the Bible differently on the issue of same-sex marriage, and that neither position will be able to discern that the other position is correct. So we need to figure out how we can move forward together in fellowship focused on those matters on which we do agree, OR do what Mennonite Anabaptists have done for centuries.
I THINK I understand Berry’s position on the larger issue from following the various discussions on your blog and in MWR. Berry, are you in your statement about the way the church’s debate is framed, suggesting such a way to move forward together?
Thanks again, Ted.
Kurt, yes, there is a way to move forward that is solid biblically, much more inclusive than has been our tradition, and attractive to many progressives and many traditionalists. I imagine it consisting of three parts: (1) a teaching that the Genesis accounts (affirmed by Jesus) describe the biblical norm for our community with regard to gender and marriage; (2) an affirmation of the church’s role to shape a formative moral practice for those who are unable to follow the norm; and (3) repentence of our history of treating same-sex relationships as beyond the pale of God’s nurturing, redeeming grace.
Those three points seem helpful, Berry. I think #1 is pretty complicated, though. I think we need to find a way to bring together biblical teaching and contemporary science. I would look for a statement that is a bit more nuanced than your wording here.
Thanks, Kurt. I agree with the need to figure out how we can “move forward together in fellowship focused on those matters on which we do agree.” At some point, I think this will happen—though perhaps not until we are down to a “faithful remnant” that is committed to doing so….
It is really surprising to see such a defensive approach to the creation account. The garden is both the first and the last story in the bible, and it should be the most powerfully normative story of what redemption and the kingdom of God is all about and what Jesus came to restore.
It contains the first command and the last eschatological promise to be fulfilled with the crushing of the Adversary under the feet of the saints (Gen 3:15; Rom 16:20). The first command, to reproduce and fill the earth is still to be carried out in the New Heaven and New Earth (Is 65:17f). Jesus, in particular, appealed to the creation account as normative for life-long monogamous marriage, and his mission to restore the human race to the garden of Eden.
It is ironic that Jesus, who appealed to the binding and restored nature of the creation mandates around lifelong monogamous marriage should somehow be associated with optional marriage and optional procreation ideas. Jesus is mocking his own disciples when they said it is better not to marry, in suggesting that if they want to reject God’s order and commands that they should line up so he can cut off their genitals!
The whole force of Jesus argument and his ruling ‘let not man separate’ is the normative and binding nature of the creation mandates, and the end of the Mosaic age of hard hearts and divorcing wives and men making men eunuchs in the kingdom of God.
The creation account is not only the source of the first laws of the kingdom of God, it is also the social and spiritual and eschatological vision of shalom and the eternal life of the kingdom of God. Its primary force is normative and visionary. It is the model for peace and wholeness and communion with God. It calls us to live in a particular way: to marry, to procreate, fill the earth, and rule over the creation (and not each other).
But so many of the church today treat is as a very soft recommendation, or, like the disciples think it is better to reject God’s way. They would rather divorce their wives, marry others, or give up marriage than live in the kingdom of God and follow the laws of the King, the Christ.
Man was cast out of the garden for disobedience. He wanted to tell good and evil for himself and live by his own standards. Jesus came to rescue mankind from that disobedience, and to bring in the new heaven and earth where righteousness dwells. If we say we live in the messanic age, and if we say we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, if we say we are in the new heaven and earth, is it too much for us to agree, as a community, as a city, to teach and follow and make disciples, teaching them to obey the laws of the King?
(Noting of course that many today still think they are awaiting the eschatological consummation that Jesus promised in his generation.)
Or, put another way, I really love the way you understand the whole flow of the story socially and politically and legally, you weave the whole thing together in such a wonderful way, picking up on a whole range of subtle and pertinent points and pointers to make sense of it and to get the story ending up the right way.
Why not do that with marriage and the family and the associated ideas of social and family life, and the governance and law of marriage and divorce and remarriage and family matters?