Lecture presented at Oak Grove Mennonite Church (Smithville, Ohio)—January 18, 2015
As I understand it, I have been invited to be with you today in order to speak from a biblically grounded perspective. I was asked to share my perspective, to explain why I support Christian churches taking what I call an “inclusive” (i.e., gay Christians should be accepted as full participants in the churches with the acceptance of their intimate relationships being understood in the same was as acceptance of heterosexual intimate relationships) rather than “restrictive” (limits should be placed on the participation of gay Chrstians due to their sexual identity) approach to Christians who are in—or who are open to being in—committed intimate relationships with partners of the same sex (for simplicity’s sake, I will use the term “gay”). In a nutshell: I support non-discrimination—gay Christians and straight Christians should seek to adhere to the same set of expectations concerning intimate relationships.
Let’s imagine several “moral analogies” for how we might think of gay marriage.
(1) The least accepting view is that gay marriage is a choice to sin by people who could easily choose otherwise. The analogy could be that gay marriage is like adultery. It’s simply wrong and the person sinning is fully culpable even for wanting to sin.
(2) A more moderate view is that gay marriage is a wrong choice for one who has an unchosen affectional orientation toward people of one’s same sex. The analogy could be that same-sex marriage is like alcoholism. We tend to see the proclivity toward alcoholism to be something that is innate for some people and as such not morally wrong. But the choice to act on that proclivity is sinful. Likewise, one who is attracted to people of the same sex should not act on that and become sexually involved.
(3) A more accepting view yet is that the same-sex attraction is problematic, not the ideal, but not inherently morally wrong. Given that it is deep-seated and, for some, unchangeable, church and society should accept the validity of gay marriage because marriage is a good thing that should not be withheld from people who are not suited for “normal” opposite-sex partnerships. The analogy could be that same-sex affectional orientation is like a birth defect (such as being born without sight). The task is to work at living as full a life as possible in face of the defect. So, if not an ideal state, being “afflicted” with same-sex affectional orientation need not disqualify one from finding a marriage partner and living a pretty normal life.
(4) The most accepting view sees same-sex attraction as completely morally neutral, just as is opposite-sex attraction. The analogy could be that same-sex affectional orientation and gay marriage are like being left-handed. Most people are strictly right-handed, a few are strictly left-handed, and some others are a mixture. Handedness is simply part of who we are. We don’t understand it very well, but we have learned that it is unchangeable for people at the farthest ends of the “handedness” spectrum.
In my view, left-handedness is the best analogy. We should approach sexual ethics as being the same for heterosexual people, homosexual people, and bi-sexual people. The issues will be how to encourage intimate relationships that are life-giving and to challenge behavior that is not life-giving—with the same expectations for mutuality, fidelity, and respect for all people in intimate relationships. Why do I think this?
The call to hospitality
I’ll start by pointing ahead to my sermon: In terms of their mission, Christian churches should take as their starting point a general stance of welcome or invitation or hospitality toward all people. The church exists for the sake of making a home for people from all nations who seek God. This assumption of welcome is a core theme throughout the Bible.
The vision for the community of God’s in the Old Testament law codes (the “Torah”) has at its center a sense that the call to hospitality extended to people within the community who were vulnerable and in need of special care (widows and orphans) along with hospitality toward people from the outside who wanted to be part of the community (so-called “strangers” or “aliens”).
Jesus re-emphasized this call to welcome, to bless all the families of the earth and to give special care to vulnerable people in the community, including people labeled as “sinners.” Jesus’ welcome to sinners included welcoming both people who had violated Torah (for example, the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus the tax collector, and the woman “of the city” who washed his feet) and people who were inappropriately labeled “unclean” (such as poor people, lepers, or menstruating women).
The Bible does place a high priority on the need for the faith community to sustain a clear identity as God’s people—so we should resist forces within the community that compromise that identity. Not everything goes, but we limit hospitality only in order to serve the vocation of welcome. We are not called to an identity that places the highest virtue on purity or being different just to be different. We are called to an identity that recognizes that purity and difference are to serve welcome and hospitality.
In relation to same-sex intimacy, same-sex marriage, and “homosexuality” in general, the fundamental call to hospitality does not fully resolve the issues. However, we should see the call to hospitality as the starting point. There must be clear evidence that we should not be inclusive in relation to a specific situation in order to withhold welcome.
To help us think more concretely about the possibilities of limiting welcome, let’s consider two actual people, two women, “Ilse” and “Jennifer,” who are married to each other. They are life-long Anabaptist Christians who followed the same path the churches expect for heterosexual couples—courtship, counseling, discernment, marriage, commitment to fidelity, open to the possibility of children, continued involvement in a local congregation, and offering their gifts to the churches’ ministries. If we are to be restrictive, we have to show why we should be so in relation to this couple.
Most of the theological literature in relation to homosexuality until quite recently did not focus on marriage. Major books from a “restrictive” perspective that urged Christians not to “normalize” homosexuality could comfortably repeat stereotypes about sexual promiscuity and short-term relationships being the norm especially among gay men (and probably among lesbians as well).
It was easy to equate “homosexuality” with obvious “sexual immorality” since gays and lesbians were, it seemed, not involved in committed, long-term relationships—and probably did not really desire to. So in the literature, we encountered widespread use of terms such as “the gay lifestyle” and “homosexual practice” (note the singular) as if there was only one “lifestyle” or “practice” and it involved a lot of casual sex with multiple partners.
In recent years, though, we see a remarkably successful movement toward legalizing and affirming gay marriage. We now know of many committed same-sex partnerships that have existed for decades and reflect similar patterns as opposite-sex marriages. So, we face this question: Is it possible to construct a theology of marriage that does not discriminate against same-sex couples? The evidence suggests at least some such couples are capable of sustaining long-term partnerships in practice. Can we come up with a theology that fits the practice?
Understandings of marriage have evolved a great deal over the generations. Christians in the 21st century typically affirm that many of our convictions about marriage are shaped by biblical themes. However, understandings of marriage have evolved, inspired by the Bible but also adding additional elements. And deleting some elements—such as polygamy and patriarchy.
The list I offer here of many of the main elements of Christian marriage is gathered from general understandings and impressions of what Christians think today. What are the generally accepted elements of a Christian understanding of marriage? I’ll suggest seven:
(1) It is based on shared Christian values and commitments. Both partners have similar convictions about God, the meaning of life, sources for faith, vocation, commitment to a faith community, ethical values, and other aspects of the life of faith.
(2) It is centered on promises of fidelity, commitment, and monogamy. In entering the marriage covenant, both partners agree to be faithful to each other, to share life together, and to work at their disagreements in constructive ways.
(3) The relationship is accountable to a faith community for support and encouragement. Being “married in the church” is an act that provides the community’s blessing to the relationship and involves a mutual commitment where the couple commits to the community and the community commits to the couple.
(4) The relationship is considered to be permanent—as Jesus commanded. We say, “until death do us part.” An acceptance of the permanence of marriage provides more incentive for partners to work out their differences and resolve their conflicts.
(5) The relationship is to be characterized by companionship and intimacy. The creation account in Genesis 2 taught that the original human person’s loneliness was identified as the major reason for the creation of a second human being made out of the “rib” of the first—for companionship.
(6) Marriage provides the context for the birth and nurture of children. Human beings, of all species, are born vulnerable and needing help. We learn how to navigate life over time; we need family to protect and guide us.
(7) The Bible presents marriage as being an arrangement made between males and females. Genesis refers to marriage being made up of one male and one female. Jesus quotes this in his discussion of marriage.
What about exceptions?
We should note right away, though, that both the Bible itself and Christian practice (especially currently) allow for some exceptions to the norms implied in this list. When such exceptions are made, Christians generally do not assume that the exceptions invalidate the norms—marriage is defined in terms of these seven points even if in some cases not every single one of the points on the list is present.
So, for example, one of the very passages where Jesus quotes Genesis two in describing marriage as between a male and a female (Matthew 19:1-9) has as its direct point the allowing for divorce under certain circumstances, compromising on the norm of permanence. The Apostle Paul also allows for divorce under certain circumstances in 1 Corinthians 7:10-15.
Most Christian groups in North America today are pretty accepting of divorce and remarriage. Increasingly, in fact, it is seen as unremarkable for pastors and other church leaders to be in their second (or more) marriage even while their first spouse survives. Yet, the churches still affirm the permanence of marriage as the ideal and expectation.
The Mennonite Confession of Faith defines marriage in Article 19 as being for one man and one woman for life. The article’s footnote cites the Gospel of Mark version of Jesus’ statement about marriage that actually does not allow for divorce or remarriage at all. But in the commentary, the Confession hints at flexibility on this point and, in fact, Mennonite practice is becoming increasingly accepting of divorce and remarriage.
Even though the Genesis one passage implies that the main purpose of marriage is procreation (“be fruitful and multiply”), Christians tend to accept childless marriage as fine. Certainly, marriage between people older than childbearing age is seen as acceptable as is marriage when one of the partners is infertile.
Our questions, then, are how much leeway do we have in thinking about how we view marriage in the churches today. What exceptions to traditional “one-man-one-woman-for-life-with-children” norms for marriage do we accept? More specifically, to return to the marriage I just mentioned, the partnership of “Ilse” and “Jennifer.” How do we think of their marriage in relation to our list of the elements of Christian marriage and our list of exceptions to the standard picture of marriage?
The first five points on the list of elements of Christian marriage clearly are present in Ilse and Jennifer’s relationship (shared Christian convictions, commitment to fidelity, connection with a faith community, permanence, and companionship). The sixth point, having and nurturing children is potentially present either through artificial fertilization or adoption. Only the seventh point is missing.
The churches today make exceptions to our norm for “Christian marriage” and bless second marriages for divorced people and bless childless marriages. Why can’t churches also make an exception to our norm for “Christian marriage” and bless marriages between two people of the same sex that may include all the other elements (as with Ilse and Jennifer)?
One reason why churches should be willing to make this kind of exception is our starting point of the call to hospitality. We should not put stumbling blocks in the way of people of faith such as Ilse and Jennifer by asking them to choose between participation in a faith community and sharing their lives together. We should be especially sensitive to their situation because they are part of a vulnerable population that has been treated with hostility and violence.
Another reason why churches should make this kind of exception is the high value that Christians place on marriage. We recognize that marriage can be a good thing, a very good thing:
- It is virtually universal among human beings, seen as valuable in all cultures
- It can be important for people’s emotional health
- It helps meet our needs for intimacy and companionship
- It provides pleasure—physically, socially, emotionally
- It makes monogamy more possible
- It can enhance physical health
- It provides economic benefits
- It is a context for spiritual community
- It gives a context for child-rearing—note especially the crucial importance of healthy environments for early childhood
I do accept , for the sake of my argument, that we could still decide that it is necessary to withhold this embrace of same-sex marriage. It would be necessary if the evidence that gay marriage is wrong is too clear. The benefit of the doubt is toward embrace for the reasons I’ve given, but that benefit of doubt may be overcome with clear evidence. The main rationale for withholding the churches’ affirmation of Ilse and Jennifer’s relationship would be the belief that the Bible clearly teaches that such relationships are sinful and not to be accepted as morally legitimate for Christians. So, that’s what I’ll focus on. Does the Bible clearly teach this?
What “practices” are wrong?
In much of the literature and in most discussions of which I have been part, the basis for arguing against gay marriage is the belief that the Bible does provide clear teaching against “homosexual practice”—clear enough to overcome this benefit of the doubt in favor of welcome.
Notice the use of the singular, “homosexual practice,” in the language the restrictive side tends to use. “Homosexual practice” implies that there is only one issue at stake, there is only one “practice” common to all “homosexual” people. It seems that what actually matters, then, for this view, is that the people involved are “homosexual,” not what the specific “practice” might be. Hence, we do not actually need to pay much attention to the specific issues that are spoken to in each the particular biblical texts. We need not try to understand the particular context of each text in order to understand what kind of practice is being addressed. In this view, all we need to know is that the text refers to “homosexual practice”—that’s enough to support forbidding all possible same-sex intimate relationships (including Ilse/Jennifer).
My high view of the Bible, though, challenges me to pay close attention to its content. I believe that we must pay close attention to each text. This is especially true if we accept the presumption toward hospitality in general, and if we accept that we must have strong reasons to deny the good of Christian marriage to Ilse and Jennifer. That is, Christians should carefully consider the evidence—not just assume that the Bible calls every “homosexual practice” sinful.
Please note first that the Bible (and Christian tradition) acknowledges a variety of “heterosexual practices.” Some ways heterosexual people act sexually are moral and some immoral. That we have immoral heterosexual practices does not invalidate all heterosexual practices. We don’t assume a single “heterosexual practice” that encompasses all instances of opposite-sex sexual intimacy.
I suggest we think similarly about “homosexual” sexual intimacy. We should recognize that there are a variety of “practices” and not think one “homosexual practice” encompasses all instances of same-sex sexual intimacy. That is, we should not impose a kind of double standard where we accept distinctions between appropriate and inappropriate sexual practices for straight people but not for gays.
Here’s a short list of some heterosexual practices—both morally appropriate and morally inappropriate:
(1) Sex within marriage
(2) Affection in dating and courtship
(3) Affection in friendship
(4) Intercourse before marriage
(5) Casual intercourse
(8) Coerced sex
Christians affirm sexual intimacy for heterosexuals in the context of marriage, and also affirm limited intimacy in the context of dating and courtship (#1-2). We also affirm affection in friendship (#3). Traditionally, Christians also believe that sexual intimacy of the type in the list below the line (#4-9) is not morally appropriate. So some “practices” are good, some are immoral.
How would we think about this list in relation to same-sex intimacy? We could agree that all behavior below the line (#4-9) is immoral in same-sex contexts just as it is in opposite-sex contexts. We would probably also agree that affection in friendship between people of the same sex is morally appropriate.
The debate concerns the top two “practices” for gays (#1-2). People on the restrictive side and people on the inclusive side could agree that we should have some kind of line that differentiates between sexual practices that are morally appropriate and those that are not. And we could agree on where that line should fall in relation to “heterosexual practices.” So the issue need not be a debate about whether sexual behavior should not be evaluated morally or whether we can have such a line differentiating moral from immoral sexual practices at all.
Rather, this is the issue: Should we have the same kind of line, even perhaps at the same place, for “homosexual practices” that we have for “heterosexual practices.” Or, should we have a double standard—one for each orientation? The main rationale people on the restrictive side give for affirming the need to have such a double standard is that this is what the Bible teaches. So, what do we learn from the Bible when we look at it carefully?
Key Old Testament texts
Let’s start with a few Old Testament passages—Genesis 18–19, Judges 19, and Leviticus 18–20. Genesis 18-19 contains two contrasting accounts of hospitality. First we have the story of Abraham’s exemplary hospitality when he entertains visitors from heaven. Then, these visitors go to Sodom and Gomorrah and are egregiously mistreated, inhospitality per excellence.The main point of the story of Sodom is about Abraham. Abraham is the father of his people and is presented here as a model for their behavior: hospitality in contrast to the inhospitality. Each man in Sodom (19:4) sought to have sex with the visitors—that is, gang rape. The sin here is a social sin. The issue is domination over vulnerable outsiders, not same-sex sexuality.
Interpreting Genesis 18-19 as focusing on hospitality finds support from Judges 19. In both passages, the cities are each utterly inhospitable with the exception in each case of a single resident alien, both hosts’ houses are surrounded by a mob from the city who want to humiliate through gang-rape the guest(s), and both hosts both offer virgin daughters to the mob.
A crucial difference between the two stories, though, supports interpreting the concern in these stories as gang rape, not same-sex sexuality. In the Judges story, the mob relents when they are given the guest’s concubine to gang rape. To ravage the man’s woman had the desired effect of emasculating the male guest; the concern was domination, not same-sex sex.
These two stories, when read together, reinforce the centrality of the call to hospitality. Abraham’s model of faithfulness contrasts not only with the heathen Sodomites but also with the unfaithful Israelites in Judges 19. The negative example of Israelite inhospitality is meant to reinforce the centrality of hospitality for people who would be faithful. There is nothing here that supports inhospitality toward people such as Ilse and Jennifer. The particular “homosexual practice” here is coerced sex.
Leviticus 17–26, the “Holiness Code,” sketches what should distinguish Israel as God’s holy nation. This call to be “holy” (that is, be distinct from the nations and embody God’s will for shalom) provides the context for considering the verses that specifically speak of sexual practices in Leviticus eighteen.
Two underlying issues motivate legislation concerning sexual practices: (1) the need to differentiate Israel’s way of life from that of the Canaanites and (2) concern about procreation. Leviticus 18 begins by asserting that the Israelites “shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan” (18:3). The practices forbidden in Leviticus eighteen (many repeated in chapter twenty) are forbidden primarily because they are seen as characteristic of the peoples from whom the Israelites must be different from.
The Israelites also must “be fruitful and multiply” in order to continue as a distinct community. Each of the prohibitions in Levitucus18:19-23 has to do with “wasted seed”—mostly sexual practices that cannot produce children or at least not in a socially approved way, including sex during menstruation, adultery, male/male sex, and bestiality. The one exception, child sacrifice, is also a form of “wasted seed.”
The prohibition of “a man lying with another man as with a woman” does seem clear on the surface—two men should not have sex together. But we have no discussio of this prohibition. It’s simply listed, along with the others. we aren’t told why. So we need to figure out from the context what likely was in mind. The main reasons for the prohibition of male/male sex in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 seem specific to the book’s setting, not a general rejection of homosexuality (for one thing, they only apply to men). It could be that such sex is linked with pagan religious rituals (which it may have been among Israel’s neighbors). Perhaps we could also see part of the problem being that such sex was likely always adulterous since all men would have been married to women.
Also, Christians understand Jesus’ message to be our core ethical source. In seeking to understand and apply Leviticus’ teaching in general for Christian ethics, the elements that connect most closely to Jesus matter most (in particular, Leviticus 19’s call to “love your neighbor”—which Jesus himself quotes). Leviticus contains numerous other cryptic commands that are no longer applied to Christians (e.g., no tattoos, no wearing clothes with mixed fabrics, no sex during menstruation, no eating shellfish, no masturbation). So, simply the presence of a single cryptic command in Leviticus is not sufficient to provide a timeless norm for all times.
The “homosexual practices” here are casual sex, adultery, and possibly “sacred” prostitution liked with pagan religious rituals.
Key New Testament texts
In the New Testament, the key texts that are seen to support the restrictive view are Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6.
Romans. Paul makes negative allusions to homosexual behavior in Romans one, but we should try to understand the context for those references in order to apply their teaching. The first three chapters of Romans are concerned with the human problem and its solution in Jesus. Paul argues first that human beings outside the covenant live lives of deep-seated injustice, deserving of God’s wrath (1:18-32). However, those people of the covenant who vigorously condemn the injustices of the outsiders while ignoring their own also deserve God’s wrath (2:1–3:8). Adding these two statements together leads to the inevitable conclusion, all people fall equally short of God’s justice (3:9-20). Paul’s punch line, though, comes beginning in 3:21. God’s mercy prevails—as revealed in Jesus.
The discussion of wrongdoing in Romans 1:18-32 makes two points. First, readers are set up for what follows in Romans 2—the critique of religiosity. Second, this critique leads to Paul’s punch line: God’s unconditional mercy is revealed in Jesus apart from such religiosity. Paul assumes that human beings are inherently creatures oriented toward worship. Should we worship idols, we will find ourselves on a downward spiral. We will move toward ever-increasing injustice and slavery to our lusts that render us less than human. Idolaters lose self-control—even to the point of women giving up “natural” self-control for unbridled lust and men being consumed by passion for other men (1:26-27). The injustice finds a variety of expressions beyond oppressive sexuality; 1:29-31 lists twenty examples of unjust behavior characteristic of people who choose idolatry and ungodliness over genuine worship of the God of creation—such as slander, murder, and ruthlessness.
This passage does not seek negatively to analyze pagan sexuality in order to provide regulations for Christian sexuality. Paul does not write Romans one as a constructive statement on Christian sexual ethics. Rather, Paul sets his readers up for what follows in chapter two. When you pass judgment on such terrible sinners, “you condemn yourself, because you the judge are doing the very same things.” Paul does not set out here to make pronouncements that directly speak to 21st-century questions about the moral legitimacy of a relationship such as Jennifer and Ilse’s.
Paul’s concern in Romans 1:18–3:20 is to critique judgmentalism, not to foster it. The example Paul gives of the consequences of pagan idolatry focuses on injustice, people hurting other people, not on covenanted, loving, mutual partnerships. The type of sexual activity associated with injustice and with obsessive lust seems to be what Paul had in mind—not condemning all possible same-sex intimacy as sinful. The “homosexual practices” here are promiscuity and prostitution.
With 1 Corinthians six, we should also look at the allusions to same-sex sexual activity in the wider context of the passage. Chapter six begins with mention of some people in the Corinthian church taking legal action toward others in the church. Paul’s anger stems from the church not taking care of its own conflicts internally. The Corinthian Christians rely on “unbelievers” to settle their disputes. Paul refers to the courts of the unbelievers as unjust. When the Corinthian Christians take one another to court, they declare primary allegiance to the pagan culture of Corinth rather than to the community of faith. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:9 that unjust non-Christians will not inherit the kingdom of God. The Corinthian Christians imitate such unjust unbelievers when they act unjustly in similar ways (6:8).
So, when Paul comes to the list of characteristics of the unjust people who will not inherit the kingdom of God he does not have sexuality on his mind. Rather, he chastises the Corinthian Christians for taking each other to “secular” courts, using unjust nonbelievers to buttress their own injustice. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul drives home his view that Christians should not trust their disputes to unjust outsiders. The items in the list of 6:9-10 illustrate what the Corinthians used to be prior to their coming into the church. They used to be unjust, and now they have changed due to Christ (6:11). In light of this transformation, they ought to stop acting like unjust people who use the courts to settle their property disputes in favor the powerful within the church.
As with Romans one, then, the central concern of 1 Corinthians 6 has to do with justice and injustice—and Paul uses the example of the injustice of “pagans” to challenge his Christian readers to faithfulness. He simply does not, in either place, focus on constructive ethical guidelines for sexuality, and even less does he center his concern on condemning all possible same-sex intimate partnerships as sinful for Christians. In Paul’s list of injustices characteristic of pagan judges, he does not describe how any of these different examples are problematic. Since the general context here is injustice, even if a couple of the words have sexual connotations, they most likely they connote sex of an unjust and exploitative type. The “homosexual practice” here likely is prostitution.
If we refer back to our list, we will actually notice that the types of “homosexual practices” refer to in these texts all fit below our line differentiating heterosexual practices that are morally appropriate from those that are not. These texts refer to “practices” that would also be wrong for heterosexuals: Genesis nineteen refers to coercive sex (#8), Leviticus eighteen and twenty refer to casual sex (#5) and adultery (#7), Romans one refers to promiscuity (#6), and 1 Corinthians six refers to prostitution (#9).
Just as the existence of heterosexual practices that are immoral does not render all heterosexual practices immoral, the existence of some immoral homosexual practices in the Bible should not lead us to see all homosexual practices as immoral. I would suggest that the sexual intimacy in a relationship such as Ilse and Jennifer’s is as likely to be morally valid as that in any healthy heterosexual marriage.
What I’ve done in this talk is try to clear away the main reasons for opposing same-sex marriage based on the Bible. If I have been successful, we should move back to the reasons to support it: (1) the Bible’s call to hospitality and welcome and (2) the goodness of marriage.
So, I believe that the Bible, especially the message of Jesus, calls the churches to welcome and hospitality. This call inclines Christians to be inclusive with regard to gays and lesbians, with the implication that the churches apply the same moral standards concerning intimate relationships to same-sex partnerships as they do to opposite-sex partnerships.