Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gay Marriage and the Bible

The issue of gay marriage is a deeply controversial issue. That controversy has intensified with the passage of Prop 8 in California, an amendment to the California state constitution which defined marriage as the union of a man and woman. There are many political and legal arguments which can be made in favor or in opposition to gay marriage, but in the December 15th issue of Newsweek, Lisa Miller made a biblical case for gay marriage. Basically, her argument consisted of three major points:

-Neither Jesus nor Paul condemned gay marriage or commended straight marriage
-The Bible was written in a world so different from our own it is impossible to take its rules seriously
-The Bible does teach universal truths of love and inclusiveness, which implies gay marriage is approved.

I want to examine the case for gay marriage made by Miller on the basis of Scripture.

Jesus and Paul on Marriage
As a Christian the assertion that caught my attention most immediately was that Jesus never condemned gay marriage and never condoned straight marriage.

The biblical Jesus was—in spite of recent efforts of novelists to paint him otherwise—emphatically unmarried. He preached a radical kind of family, a caring community of believers, whose bond in God superseded all blood ties. Leave your families and follow me, Jesus says in the gospels. There will be no marriage in heaven, he says in Matthew. Jesus never mentions homosexuality.

It is true of course that Jesus was not married. But this was hardly because He believed marriage was wrong, or because He was indifferent on the subject. In Matthew 19 Jesus was quizzed by some Jewish leaders about the subject of divorce, and in His response He specifically endorsed the pattern of marriage described in Genesis, rooted in God’s creation.

He answered, "Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? (Matthew 19:4-5)

For Jesus to use the model of the creation of Adam and Eve as an argument against divorce clearly demonstrates that according to Jesus, any departure from the one-man-for-one-woman-for-life pattern in the garden is against the will of God. This includes divorce (for which Jesus did given the exception of infidelity), polygamy (the two shall become one flesh, not three or four or five), and homosexuality (male and female, not male and male or female and female).

It is also true that Jesus taught those who follow Him have an even deeper basis for a relationship than flesh and blood (Mark 3:31-35). But Jesus also taught that we are to love our families (Mark 7:10), and in His last dying moments made sure to instruct His the apostle John to take care of His mother, Mary (John 19:26-27). It is also true that Jesus taught that there will be no marriage in heaven, but the reason for this is because in heaven we will be immortal, and will not need to reproduce so that there will be future generations after we die (see especially Luke 20:34-36).

As far as the silence of Jesus regarding homosexuality is concerned, His use of the model of marriage found in Genesis 2 is an implicit condemnation of same-sex relationships. Jesus did not categorically outline every conceivable departure from that pattern, but the fact that He said God’s will was one man for one woman leaves no other inference than that same sex relationships are wrong. Further, Jesus referred to the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as models of God’s judgment (Matthew 10:15; 11:23-24; Luke 17:29), cities which were destroyed in part because of the homosexual conduct of its citizens.

Miller attempts to find support in the teachings of the apostle Paul as well.

The apostle Paul echoed the Christian Lord's lack of interest in matters of the flesh. For him, celibacy was the Christian ideal, but family stability was the best alternative.

Once again, this is a careless reading. In 1 Corinthians 7:8 Paul did tell widows and unmarried people “it is good for them to remain single.” However, later in the same chapter Paul explained that this preference was due to something he described as “the present distress” (7:26). No one is sure what this period of trial was, but in Paul’s view it complicated life to the point that it would be better not to have the additional strain of marriage with which to deal. Outside of this specific context, Paul’s perspective on marriage was rooted in creation, just as Jesus’ was. According to his first letter to Timothy, those who taught that marriage was wrong were actually promoting the doctrines of demons, and that “everything created by God is good” (1 Timothy 4:1-5).

Miller also attempts to mute Paul’s pointed condemnation of homosexual practice.

Paul was tough on homosexuality, though recently progressive scholars have argued that his condemnation of men who "were inflamed with lust for one another" (which he calls "a perversion") is really a critique of the worst kind of wickedness: self-delusion, violence, promiscuity and debauchery.

This is also a careless handling of the biblical evidence. Paul’s condemnation of homosexual conduct is based on the created order of nature. “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations 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” (Romans 1:26-27). Notice that for Paul the issue is that these are passions which are contrary to nature. It is natural for women to have relations with men. It is unnatural for women to have relations with women, and men with men.
The simple reality is this: as Jews who honored God’s word and revered God’s work as creator, both Jesus and Paul had a very high view of marriage, and a negative view of homosexual conduct.

The Bible in Its World and Ours
A second major point in Miller’s article is that the Bible was written so long ago that it is impossible to impose its moral teachings on a subject like gay marriage in the 21st century. For instance, there are practices that were tolerated in the biblical world which we find primitive and objectionable, such as polygamy and slavery.

Let's try for a minute to take the religious conservatives at their word and define marriage as the Bible does. Shall we look to Abraham, the great patriarch, who slept with his servant when he discovered his beloved wife Sarah was infertile? Or to Jacob, who fathered children with four different women (two sisters and their servants)? Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and the kings of Judah and Israel—all these fathers and heroes were polygamists…The Bible endorses slavery, a practice that Americans now universally consider shameful and barbaric.

On the other hand, Miller argues that there are many practices condemned in the Bible that we would never give a second thought.

The Bible does condemn gay male sex in a handful of passages. Twice Leviticus refers to sex between men as "an abomination" (King James version), but these are throwaway lines in a peculiar text given over to codes for living in the ancient Jewish world, a text that devotes verse after verse to treatments for leprosy, cleanliness rituals for menstruating women and the correct way to sacrifice a goat—or a lamb or a turtle dove. Most of us no longer heed Leviticus on haircuts or blood sacrifices; our modern understanding of the world has surpassed its prescriptions.

Let’s take a closer look at these points.

It is true that the Bible records polygamous relationships in the families of many of the central figures of Scripture. However, the fact that Scripture records something is not necessarily an endorsement of that behavior. The Bible is brutally honest in its treatment of even the heroic figures of faith. In each case of polygamy, the family relationships were strained to say the least. And since Jesus taught that God’s original intent was a one-man-for-one-woman relationship, it is no surprise that polygamous marriages in the Old Testament were marked by contention and tragedy, since they were a departure from God’s intended design for marriage.

What is peculiar to me is that Miller assumes that polygamy is wrong, and yet by her reasoning, there is no basis for a law against polygamy. After all, if traditional morality should play no role in the state’s regulations, on what basis should there be laws denying consenting adults the right to have multiple marriage partners? I do not see the consistency in a position that argues same-sex marriage is right but multiple-partner marriage is wrong.

Regarding slavery, it is important to understand that what we know as slavery from the American experience is much different than slavery in the ancient world, which was far more complex. In the biblical era slavery was practiced for a variety of reasons (e.g., prisoners taken in warfare, indebtedness) rather than the chattel slavery of America. In some instances people would actually sell themselves into slavery. As Exodus 21:1-6 shows, slavery in the biblical period was of such a nature that a slave sometimes actually chose not to be freed but to remain in perpetual service to the master. What this means is that we need to be careful in painting with such a broad brush in comparing the ancient institution called slavery to modern forms.

The Law of Moses contained all kinds of laws, since it served both as religious instruction and as civil legislation for the nation of Israel. Many of its regulations sound odd to us, such as the dietary laws or the rules about ritual purity and uncleanness. This however should not obscure the fact that there were some practices considered so heinous that the Law imposed the extreme penalty for those who participated, and homosexual conduct was one of those practices. The Bible also teaches that with the coming of Christ, God gave His people a new covenant, which no longer focused on things like ritual purity. But even in this new covenant, God condemned homosexual conduct.

Miller’s assumption throughout much of her article is that our world is just too different from the biblical world to impose the Scriptural injunctions against homosexual practice. This is historically absurd. Homosexuality was widely practiced in the ancient world. When Moses told Israel what practices they were to avoid in Leviticus 18 (including homosexuality), he specifically said, “You shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan” (Lev. 18:3). And after he outlined these practices, he again said, “For by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean” (Lev. 18:24). Homosexuality was commonplace in the first century world of the New Testament, and according to Paul, some of the members of the church in Corinth were former homosexuals (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

Miller has it backwards. On the issue of homosexuality, the ancient world was in some respects more tolerant than our own society is (especially Greco-Roman culture). God’s standards have always challenged contemporary social practices. And as our society grows more tolerant and accepting of homosexuality, it is becoming more and more just like the original historic contexts of Scripture.

The Bible Teaches Love and Inclusiveness
The third major argument in Miller’s article is that while we cannot apply the Bible’s narrow moral teachings regarding sex across cultures, we can apply the biblical emphasis on love and tolerance across cultures, and support of gay marriage is the position most consistent with love and tolerance.

We cannot look to the Bible as a marriage manual, but we can read it for universal truths as we struggle toward a more just future. The Bible offers inspiration and warning on the subjects of love, marriage, family and community… In the Christian story, the message of acceptance for all is codified. Jesus reaches out to everyone, especially those on the margins, and brings the whole Christian community into his embrace.

The Bible does teach that we should love our neighbor– ironically, in the very same book that condemns the abomination of homosexuality – LEVITICUS (Lev. 19:18)! The principle by which the Bible teaches we should love each other is creation. We are to love each other because we are all made in God’s image (see James 3:8). This same principle of creation is the basis of the biblical teaching against homosexuality, which runs counter to the natural function of man and woman as created by God. It is inconsistent to uphold one implication of creation while denying the other.

Miller is correct in saying that Jesus reached out to everyone. Jesus reached out to everyone because we all have the same problem – sin! And we all need the same solution – Jesus! It is a gross distortion of the ministry of Jesus to turn His openness toward people of all backgrounds into acceptance of all behaviors. Jesus came to call humanity to repent and turn to God, to accept the gift of salvation from sin made possible only through His death.

When I preach that homosexual conduct is wrong, I do so not out of any spirit of superiority. I do so because that is the message of Scripture. And I do so fully aware that in many ways I fall short of what the Bible teaches. But I know that I can be forgiven of my wrongs through the blood of Christ, that he can take me as I am but transform me into what He wants me to be, and I want everyone else to know the same is true for them. That is the amazing grace of God – that is the inclusiveness of Christ.

In the same issue of Newsweek in which Miller’s article appeared, editor Jon Meacham wrote the following:

No matter what one thinks about gay rights—for, against or somewhere in between —this conservative resort to biblical authority is the worst kind of fundamentalism. Given the history of the making of the Scriptures and the millennia of critical attention scholars and others have given to the stories and injunctions that come to us in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, to argue that something is so because it is in the Bible is more than intellectually bankrupt—it is unserious, and unworthy of the great Judeo-Christian tradition.

The appeal to biblical authority is hardly fundamentalism. It is nothing less than Christ-likeness, since Christ Himself answered questions by asking, “Have you not read?” (Matthew 19:4).


  1. Thank you Brother Scott for this post, indeed knowing the teachings of Christ and the biblical stance on the homosexual lifestyle is a pertinent one for not only Christians to realize but also for perons in our culture today. It is helpful to realize that this sin is one that has been practiced throughout the Bible, but also one that Christ would be able to forgive when one repents of the behavior. Thank God for His amazing grace!

  2. Wow! How sad people will not accept GOD'S will for them. You hit the nail on the head brother!
    I wonder what the rebellious thought in the days of Noah when they were preached to, " ah that teaching is old and outdated for the times we live in". Preach on brother!