Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Scripture & Gay Marriage - a introduction / "stub" entry

A couple of my friends have been asking me to articulate some of my thoughts about scripture and same-sex relationships.

  • I defend the position that same-sex marriages can be pleasing to God and that moral standards for good same-sex relationships are, in essence, the same as moral standards for good heterosexual relationships (i.e., the heterosexuality/homosexuality of a relationship per se does not determine its moral quality).
  • I disagree with the position that gay (same-gender attracted / same-sex oriented) Christians are obligated to lifelong celibacy. 

With respect to scripture, I defend the following interpretive stances in support of my affirming view of same-sex marriage:

1a. The marriage of the man and the woman in Genesis 2 is presented in that text as an ideal and as a normative standard for marriage,
   1b. but cannot and ought not be held up as a universal standard for all healthy marriages, nor as a morally binding standard for marriage.

2a. The violence threatened by the men of Sodom in Genesis 19 is presented as representative of the evil for which YHWH destroys Sodom and Gomorrah,
    2b. but the evil lies in the inhospitality of the city to strangers -- manifest through the threat of violent rape -- and not in the "homosexual" nature of the threatened violence.

3a. The prohibition not to "lie with a man as with a woman" in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 is intended to prohibit faithful Israelites from engaging in a same-sex sexual act between men,
   3b. may prohibit a specific sexual act not intrinsic to all homosexual relationships, and
   3c. the prohibition plausibly does not extend to Christians in same-sex marriages.

4. The meaning of the words sometimes understood to refer to gay partners in 1 Timothy 1:10 and 1 Corinthians 6:9 is unclear, so these verses should not bear the weight of a prohibition against same-sex marriage.

5a. The teaching of Paul on celibacy (that is, voluntarily choosing not to marry for the sake of undistracted devotion to the Lord's work) in 1 Corinthians 7 cannot plausibly support a mandate for all gay Christians to remain unmarried,
   5b. nor can this teaching with much plausibility support a recommendation for gay Christians to marry a person of the opposite sex.

6a. The description in Romans 1:28-32 of those "given up to dishonorable passions", including women who "exchanged natural relations for those contrary to nature" and men who "likewise gave up natural relationships with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error" probably presents same-sex sexual behavior as representative of Gentile/pagan "ungodliness" and "unrigheousness",
   6b. however, this behavior in context is presented as a symptom of idolatry, and we do not accept that idolatry is a cause of gay Christians' sexual orientation as we understand it.

I could say more about each of these six passages, and I could say more about this issue beyond these six passages.  I may do so in future entries here.  (This entry is a "stub", if you like).

I feel most confident about my understandings of #2 & #5 above, and I see #1, #5, & #6 above to be the crucial passages for a modern evangelical Christian's views of this issue.  I see #3 & #4 as possibly related to one another, but also as less crucial to the matter in question, which is: "Does scripture support an ethical mandate for gay Christians either to marry opposite-sex partners or remain single and celibate?".

In the meantime before I pursue this subject further on this blog, I recommend these resources:


  1. I've read these interpretations before but am left wondering a few things. 1) Does God desire people to live in a way that is less than ideal? If, "The marriage of the man and the woman in Genesis 2 is presented in that text as an ideal and as a normative standard for marriage," then wouldn't living outside of that be living outside of God's ideal for a person? 2) Does God create individuals as homosexuals? If so, then these interpretations seem plausible. If not, the question remains open as to whether or not practicing homosexuality qualifies as a "sin." It is not up to us to judge any one for their sin, but whether or not something is a sin colors how we might counsel someone. 3) Can we even know if God creates individuals with a homosexual nature or not?

  2. Emily,

    (Blogger somehow really slaughtered your screenname, didn't it!)

    These are good wonderings.

    I'm sure I'll have more to say about your first wondering when I share more of my thoughts on Genesis 1-3 and their relationship to our ethics of family and human relationships.

    Your second & third are absolutely the right questions to be asking.

    I suspect that "Does God create individuals as homosexuals" is not simply a yes or no question - maybe the "yes" is a simple answer (just maybe; probably not), but if the answer is "no", then there are lots of ways to view one's same-sex orientation as "deviant" from God's creation. If a same-sex orientation is contrary to God's creative intention, is it willful sin? is it an illness or disease, biological or psychological? is it a materially-conditioned propensity to sin / weakness to temptation of a particular sort? is it a disability? is it possible for someone to be "cured" or restored to the nature God intends for that one? does having this "condition" make a difference in what God's will is for your life, and if so in what way?

    Even if we take an officially agnostic position on the question: does God create people with same-sex orientation, we should think about what the optional answers to this question might be, and be conscious of the fact that the option(s) we are inclined to accept will affect the way we think and act.

    I am inclined to think that if we are forced to be honest agnostics on the question, that this has significant implications for good church policy.

  3. I like your “stub” layout; its conciseness makes it clear! I’ll attempt to lay out my own position on what Scripture says point-by-point as a response to yours.

    1a. Yes, agree.
    1b. In Matthew 19:3-12, it sounds like Jesus is saying that the two lawful options are lifelong monogamy or celibacy; there’s allowance for divorce “due to your hardness of heart,” but it’s not ideal.
    1c. Might I add that the train of reasoning, “God allows for hardness of heart, therefore divorce is permitted,” and thus, “my divorce is permitted,” is really communicating, “Dear God, I want to have a hard heart”? Yes, there are cases where people should get divorced, such as abuse or desertion – in which case one spouse has proved to have a hard heart. But we don’t *want* to disobey God – so why plan to do so? When we do find ourselves wanting to disobey, we should confess that to God.

    2a & 2b. May I say, “I agree, but more”? I’m sure we agree that rape, of any sort, (and the threat of it) is evil.

    3. At this point I seriously disagree, and I rather hold:
    3a. This is (as you say) a prohibition of a sexual act (or acts) between men;
    3b. Paul’s reference to women in Rom. 1:26 *may* indicate that the usual interpretation of Lev. 18:22 & Lev. 20:13 was that it prohibited certain acts between women as well;
    3c. Although cultural norms vary between Hebrew and modern American cultures such that some behavior considered “homosexual” by one culture might not be considered such by the other (e.g., level of physical affection), surely there is some overlap;
    3d. I find the overall tone of Lev. 18 and Lev. 20 one to discourage “playing around” with sexuality (e.g., the prohibition of bestiality, and the laws against sex with closely related people);
    3e. I find your point “3c. the prohibition plausibly does not extend to Christians in same-sex marriages,” to be either question-begging or needing further support.

    4. Again I seriously disagree; it sounds like Paul is forbidding sexual acts between men and appealing to Leviticus as a basis.

    5. (see #1 above)
    5a. I think Matt. 19 is a much better ground for the application, “if you are not attracted to people of the opposite gender but rather attracted to people of the same gender, don’t get married,” – but even then, the Bible doesn’t lay out this application, rather, we deduce it, so it may not apply to everyone. However, I am still assuming that “marriage” denotes “between a man and a woman.”
    5b. I think Paul’s suggestion, “But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9) is suggested as a remedy for normal heterosexual desire, i.e., “falling in love,” not as a remedy for disordered lust of any sort. I’m told that getting married doesn’t (by itself) help heterosexual sexual addiction.
    5c. If Matt. 19:10-12 and 1 Cor. 7 were not in the Bible, I would find it hard not to come to the conclusion, “Everyone must marry [a person of the opposite gender] and have children, if possible,” so I’m grateful they’re there.
    6a. Agree, however,
    6b. Now we’re at the root of the matter. Idolatry and sexuality are wrapped around each other; in fact, I think in many sorts of relationships, not just sexual ones, idolatry can be a major factor. Idolatry can drive many lusts, heterosexual, homosexual, or something else.

    I’m disturbed by how you’re interpreting Scripture, but I don’t know what God thinks of how you’re interpreting Scripture. I fear that you’re opening yourself up to re-interpret, in a bad way, other of God’s commands, but perhaps you won’t. I know that God’s love, as modeled in Jesus, is vaster than our small imaginations. He is committed to love us, and He knows what idols we are really holding dear in our hearts, and they may not have much to do with sexuality. Yet, if we misinterpret plain commands, what will there be to say when God asks us what we were about?

  4. Thanks for your comment, Vi.

    Re: 1

    Thanks for mentioning Matthew 19:3-12. As I think of it now, I think it will be important to talk about that passage when discussing Genesis 1-3 in more depth. Not only because many on the restrictive side cite this passage to argue for "the biblical definition of marriage as between a man and a woman", but also because vv 10-12 do speak, as you say, to Jesus' view of the alternative to married life. I haven't given those verses as much thought as these other passages, but I have thought about them and will think about them some more.

    The topic of divorce is extremely important, and even more intensely personal for me than the topic of gay marriage. However, I would like to separate the two discussions, at least for the sake of limiting the scope of this one for practical reasons, and I don't think it's too unnatural to do so either. My views on divorce are the same whether the married couple is straight, gay, or mixed-orientation. But I don't want to get into divorce right here, right now.

    Re: 2
    I'm glad we agree; I'm not clear, though, on what "more" you want to affirm here. I recall that the Covenant lectures you gave me to listen to a couple years ago seemed to think "the homosexual interpretation" of this passage (a terrible phrase) was that the passage is about inhospitality and not homosexuality, while the speaker's preferred interpretation (the straight one??) was that condemnation of homosexuality was the point.

    Re: 3 & 4

    I will talk about this, but it probably won't be my first priority. As I said, I'm more interested in Genesis and Romans (and now Matthew), and in 1 Corinthians 7. I will say now, that I don't mean to question-beg in my 3c above; rather this is one of my theses which I would defend. I'm not saying it is immediately self-evident.

    Re: 5
    Very good points, all. Thank you.

    Re: 6
    Yup, this is the most difficult text, presents the most direct challenge (moreso, I think, than Genesis 1-3) to the affirming view, and is a (the?) crucial text. It is also the one with which I am least clear how I to deal with. I'll definitely talk about this more, and will appreciate others' insights when we get there.

    It makes sense to be disturbed by serious misrepresentation or misinterpretation of God's Word, and to be afraid/concerned when our beliefs and convictions about theology and ethics are questioned by others - especially those we love dearly. I appreciate your concern, your honesty, and your love.

    My prayer is that I will be open to hearing God in scripture, and in the world God has created, and in the Spirit connecting me to my fellow Christians - gay and straight, affirming and restrictive and unsure. I pray that I will submit myself in humility to hear others' counsel and be open to accommodating my view to signs of the truth. I also pray, and trust, that God's grace for me is not rooted in my theology but in the work of Christ and God's unconditional love and faithfulness, which puts our faithfulness to shame. I believe God does not condemn those who question, nor those who come to the wrong conclusions with sincere hearts. Thus, such dialogue as this is possible among Christians in fellowship with one another.