President Obama told ABC News yesterday that he supports same-sex marriage, saying that he believes same-sex couples should be able to marry. Needless to say, Obama’s support for gay marriage is being met with a mixed reaction around the world.
Some Christians insist there is a biblical ban on any expression of homosexuality and on homosexual relationships that is so unconditional, so unambiguous and so central to the Christian faith that it should be defended as strenuously as the doctrine of the incarnation. But a steadily growing number of evangelicals, Bible scholars and other spiritually-minded men and women who have done their biblical and theological homework with thoroughness assert the issue is not so cut and dried.
Too often people think they already know what the Bible says about homosexuality having heard a few verses taken out of context and brandished as conversation stoppers. But as people continue to do their biblical homework, they’re finding that a respectful exegetical reading of Scripture allows, if not requires, a change of mind and heart on this issue.
There are only five or six verses in the entire Bible that have been interpreted as addressing or condemning homosexuality. These verses, often referred to as the “clobber passages” because they are frequently used to clobber or bash gay men and women today, are verses taken out of their contexts to proof-text the Bible’s alleged anti-homosexual stance. (These passages have been addressed under separate cover on this blog. Links to these posts may be found below or by clicking the link to the “Archives” page near the top of this one.)
Aside from the fact that the few verses of Scripture that generally get appealed to in this debate do not hold up to scrutiny when examined more closely and in context, same-sex marriage also holds same-sex couples accountable to the same disciplines others try to live by — like fidelity and permanence. Phrased positively, it shelters us all under the same moral canopy. It compels all of us to recognize that marriage is not primarily constituted by the externals — a man and a woman — but by the relationship itself: faithful, truthful, mutual, and permanent. Marriage can then be seen as an intersection of God’s grace and human loyalty and courage, rather than simply the coalescence of genital concavities and convexities. It can reinforce and shore up the marital institution itself that today is sinking toward minority status.
Some have argued that same-sex marriage will alter marriage as we know it in both definition and practice. Many build their case on what they term “the defense of traditional marriage.” But I’ve yet to understand what harm they think they are defending marriage from. How does the marriage of Adam and Steve alter or exercise any detectable impact whatsoever on the marriage of anyone else? In countless dialogs I have asked that question and have never heard it answered, even implausibly. Those who insist that marriage could be undermined by gay people entering into marriage need to explain what aspect of love, commitment and faithfulness between gay people is it that undermines heterosexual marriage?
It’s also true that while few human institutions claim to be as traditional as marriage, even fewer have undergone more traceable metamorphoses. Imagine how you’d like concubinage with female slaves functioning as secondary wives and surrogate mothers; a woman’s loss of property to her husband once married; levirate marriage where men were required to take a dead brother’s wife and produce heirs for him; a husband’s unquestioned right to philander; marital indissolubility in the face of spousal or child abuse. All these and more were once part of marriage’s bedrock tradition.
In the fourth gospel, Christ delivers an intimate address to those to whom he was the closest, those who had been with him from the beginning. At one point he said something perfectly terrifying. Jesus said:
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (John 16:12)
He went on to promise that “the Spirit of Truth” will remain among us forever, one whose office is to reveal those concealed matters to us bit by bit, always slightly in advance of our readiness to receive them.
As we look back on 2,000 years of Christian history we see that the Spirit of Truth has done precisely that on scores of notions that the Church at one time believed the Bible to be as clear as mineral water on. Notions such as: slavery is God ordained, women and blacks should not be allowed to vote, interracial marriage is wrong, women should not teach or preach, anti-Semitism is biblically supported, and on and on.
The Christians who held these views were all convinced they had the Bible on their side and that their understanding of the Bible was self-evidently correct. They also had substantial support from many other like-minded Christians. In each of these matters and in thousands of others, the Sprit has faced the same task with God’s people: to introduce gently the understanding that the “the voice of my private sensibilities is not the voice of God”. God’s voice simply does not sound to empower us to the harm of others — ever. Righteous indignation is simply anger. It evaporates in God’s actual presence, which may furnish a clue as to its origin.
It has been suggested that that the Spirit is now addressing the Church on the matter of same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage. It is further suggested that the Church’s traditional position on this issue is only the most recent doctrinal position well on the way to being generally acknowledged as a mistake of the kind cited above.
The Spirit agrees with all who treasure the Bible as a — if not the — primary source of divine revelation. To that effect, the Spirit of Truth is driving us back to our Bibles on this issue. The result for many is a detachment from the canonized interpretations with which we had shielded ourselves from God’s fresh voice.
Perhaps the Spirit of Truth would have us grasp the real tradition of marriage. The tradition is not primarily something external, like the customary male/female sexual constituency. Rather the essence of marriage is the courage and generosity with which two persons commit to each other in truthfulness, mutuality, fidelity, and the expectation of permanence. This is not a curse or a threat; it is Christ’s restorative gift to all of us.
The Spirit has re-presented to the Church what the authentic church tradition has always been: to love one another as Christ has loved us that we lay down our lives for each other. To shrink from that divine challenge is neither faithful nor orthodox, regardless of who says it is.
See also the following related posts:
Genesis 1: Turning the Creation Story into an Anti-Gay Treatise
Leviticus 18: What Was the Abomination?
Romans 1: What Was Paul Ranting About?
Romans 2: Paul’s Bait and Switch
Genesis 19: What the Bible Really Says Were the Sins of Sodom
Exegesis: Not for the Faint in Heart
Why No One in the Biblical World Had a Word for Homosexuality