The Questions of Gay Marriage: How serious a concern is homosexuality?

This is the third part of an ongoing series I started a few months back.  You can read the second part here. I am proceeding more slowly than I should, but I am wanting to give myself the space to allow the subject to marinate and to reflect on how I want to proceed.  Your questions and dialogue are (as always!) both most welcome in the comments below.

How important does Scripture seem to think homosexuality is?  It’s common these days to minimize the concern about this particular question before addressing it on grounds that Scripture says very little that is explicit about the subject, even if the now infamous six explicit verses are all negative.

That’s the claim that Richard Hays makes in his massively influential Moral Vision of the New Testament, at any rate.  He suggests there that “In terms of emphasis, [homosexual behavior] is a minor concern—in contrast, for example, to economic injustice.”

Hays goes on to argue for a traditional view of the question; but it seems this is a point where his methodology betrays him into misconstruing the text.  It may be the case that the importance of a respective issue could be determined by counting up the number of verses where it is mentioned explicitly.  But for someone with an otherwise incredibly sophisticated way of reading Scripture, that approach seems far too blunt.  That humans are created in the “image of God” is not a claim that fills many verses in the Bible; its importance for Christian theological reflection far exceeds its frequency.

What sort of background we compare those six verses to will determine what sort of distortion our inquiry into the subject will suffer from.  It is probably true that conservatives have overemphasized those six verses.  But the most problematic distortion is not simply that they have not talked enough about money, but that they have not properly located those six verses within the more fundamental moments of Scripture’s teaching about humanity:  creation and redemption.  Without that backdrop, any sort of moral proclamation about homosexual behavior takes on an exclusively negative character and fails both to offer the word of hope within the moral analysis and to lay bare the reasons beneath such a prohibition.

But if that is right, it may turn out that gay or lesbian behavior is much more than a “minor concern.”  If those six negative judgments—if they are negative judgments on today’s practices—are the exegetical tips of a theological iceberg, then the authors of Scripture may have few reasons to keep stacking such judgments on top of themselves, as the logic of the entire text would move against it.  A community steeped in that logic might need stronger denunciations of certain practices around money, as money is a universal phenomenon that pervades a community.  But while homosexuality is obviously of incredible importance to those who experience same-sex attraction, it does not draw everyone within a community into its orbit the way financial practices do.  But if this is right, then Scripture’s lack of explicit attention to the phenomenon might be an indication that it emerges into the open when the narrative of Scripture has lost its grip on a community.

It’s not clear that a community would have to be strictly a religious community for that to be the case:  it’s indisputable that the Bible has had a pervasive impact on Western society, and the decline in biblical literacy culturally has coincided with the rise in the public sanctioning of same-sex sexual activity and gay rights.  Is it anything more than a correlation?  The causal links may become intelligible if we could grasp the deeper connection between the logic of Scripture’s teaching about human sexuality and its purported negative judgments about homosexuality.

I put this forward by way of an exploratory hypothesis: the above may not hold up upon reconsideration of the texts themselves.  But it is worth bearing in mind, as it highlights the ways in which our exegetical starting points have a considerable influence on how we frame this particular moral question.

Where ought we begin, then, in considering the questions of gay marriage?  My own inclination is to follow the path that Jesus points toward in Matthew 19, and that Paul follows in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6:  the Genesis account.  This pathway has the advantage of being uncompromisingly Biblical and, if you like drawing sharp lines between Jesus and Paul, of being sanctioned by the “red letters” too.  But it also takes us straight to the heart of the matter in such a way that orients our attention away from the negative proposition about same-sex sexual relations toward the particular goodness of heterosexual sexual relations.  Whether that good is exclusively limited to heterosexual unions is a separate question, as is whether discerning it would definitively answer the question of gay marriage.  But neither of those can properly be answered until we first get a grasp on why marriage matters within Genesis to begin with.

It’s also important to note that this sort of exegetical strategy doesn’t stem from any sort of “embarrassment” about the prohibitions in Leviticus because of what we might call the “reductio ad slavery”:  Leviticus prohibits same-sex relationships, but slavery gets endorsed, which means Scripture clearly can’t be trusted.  Sometimes “shellfish” get tossed about, too, since Leviticus ostensibly doesn’t allow them.  But following Jesus behind Leviticus to the norms of human sexuality within Genesis shows just how empty that argument is.

The reasoning is relatively straightforward.  On the traditional reading of the Genesis account—which we will have reason to question—male-female relationships are revealed as normative.  Yet the aforementioned notion that humans are made in the “image of God” makes an appearance as well. What that means is a contest of its own. But the most dominant readings in the Christian tradition start with a shared and equal responsibility before God for all who share that image.  In light of such a fundamental equality, slavery begins to look like the sinful perversion that it is.  There may have been certain compromises to it as an institution within Leviticus, for a variety of reasons and qualified in important ways.  But as Jesus points out in Matthew 19, Moses made compromises on divorce law, too.  Does such a compromise undermine the norm of permanence for traditional Christians’ account of marriage?   Clearly not.  In fact, it is only recognizable as a compromise when people have grasped the norm in such a way that they are able to see the disparity.

But reaching back into Genesis may also have the effect of calling into question the importance of the distinctions between gay and lesbian practices then and now.  The most popular way around those prohibitions has been to say that the New Testament knows nothing of permanent, stable, monogamous gay or lesbian relationships and that its prohibitions don’t apply.  Whatever we make of that argument, it doesn’t matter much for a theological stance toward homosexuality that takes its cues from the account in creation.  If the prohibitionary norms (do not [x]) are themselves tied to and derived from the goods that Scripture purportedly presents as marking off heterosexual relationships, then the quality of those gay or lesbian relationships doesn’t determine their licitness according to Scripture.

That last point, though, needs clarification:  the appeal to Genesis is a doctrinal appeal that isn’t itself derived from anyone’s experiences.  The norms are instead implicit within and grasped within that particular story, that construal of how the world is.  That story establishes the norms for everyone’s relationships; it is the backdrop against which evaluation of our own choices, affections, and thoughts happen.

Whether and when a person or a society’s “experience” (broadly construed at the moment so as to include both personal anecdotes and social scientific evidence) might trump this doctrinal story is an interesting question that I suspect will come up later on.  But the logic of any appeal to Genesis for norms at least initially pushes people’s experiences to the margins, for it is an appeal to a form of relationship that exists before sin enters the world and hence a form of relationship that is necessarily unlike our own.

Such are the limits of appealing to Genesis, though, limits which mean that our understanding of its meaning for today is necessarily incomplete unless we also reflect upon the other pole of Christian theology, the redemptive work of Jesus.  These two loci are not competing:  they are mutually complementary, such that neither can be properly grasped without the other.  Creation is the context wherein the meaning of redemption is grasped; redemption clarifies, restores, and deepens the goodness of the original creation.  Without any integrating both poles of reflection, any account of human sexuality will necessarily be stunted.

Of course, none of this gets us to the actual question of what Genesis 1-3 says about the goods and norms of human sexual relationships.  Instead, it only argues for why we should choose this as a starting point and its limitations.  I’ll turn to that substantive question next time.

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  • Bethany Persons

    You should publish these as an e-book when you’re done. For myself, I think it would be helpful to re-visit this inquiry as a whole, outside the context of the blog, so I can digest it better.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      If there’s interest, I’ll be happy to….though I will reserve the right to revise and change my mind on everything in putting that together. : )

      • Bethany Persons

        Haha, that’s fair. I was thinking it would be good, if possible, to arrange it so that you can read the main line of thinking straight through, but with caveats, objections, and side considerations kind of appended to each main point. For example, the previous post on the temptation to feel embarrassed strikes me as an aside that, while valuable, wouldn’t need to be in the main flow of the argument.

  • Bethany Persons

    “Whether and when a person or a society’s “experience”… might trump this doctrinal story is an interesting question that I suspect will come up later on.”

    I’m glad you’re going to address this. I tend to take it for granted that experience shouldn’t carry more weight than divine revelation, which means I can be condescending to those who don’t. At the very least, I think it will help me empathize with those who don’t share my view.

    What’s more, my own conviction here is probably not well developed. At the moment, I boil it down to God’s testimony being more trustworthy than my own, because I don’t trust myself to rightly interpret even my own experiences.

    • jamesfarnold

      I’m glad Matt will address that, as well. I tend to think similarly to your description, that I’m not a trustworthy source. The heart is deceitful, etc. etc.
      Another way to frame that sense of self-frustration, at least for me, is that I don’t want to put myself at the center of decision making for, well, anything. If we’re asked to submit to the cross–and we are–then it seems like we shouldn’t be the source of our decisions. Sure, our preferences, desires, loves, etc. can play a role. But if I have a choice between my gut instincts and Jesus’ words, Paul’s teachings, or the consensus of the historical and present Church? I’m going with the broader body of Christ over my own, fallible body, so to speak.

      • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

        “”The Church is not a thing like the Athenaeum Club,” he cried. “If the Athenaeum Club lost all its members, the Athenaeum Club would dissolve and cease to exist. But when we belong to the Church we belong to something which is outside all of us; which is outside everything you talk about, outside the Cardinals and the Pope. They belong to it, but it does not belong to them. If we all fell dead suddenly, the Church would still somehow exist in God. Confound it all, don’t you see that I am more sure of its existence than I am of my own existence? And yet you ask me to trust my temperament, my own temperament, which can be turned upside down by two bottles of claret or an attack of the jaundice. You ask me to trust that when it softens towards you and not to trust the thing which I believe to be outside myself and more real than the blood in my body.””

        G.K. Chesterton, “The Ball and the Cross.”

        And yes, it does always come back to Chesterton.

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

          This is such a Thomistic sentiment….and so, so foreign to our world. : )

        • Bethany Persons

          Hah, well if that’s a good enough reason for Chesterton, it’s probably a good enough reason for me!

  • jamesfarnold

    Matt,
    This is a really good post in your series. I’m really excited to see where this all goes (as I suspect you are). I’ve described each of these posts as my favorite thing you’ve written, and each one makes me revise the statement. They are all interesting, sure, but they’re also cautious, deliberate movements. You aren’t flying forward at a break-neck pace, and you seem genuinely open to counter-arguments at each step, which is commendable.
    I’m *really* interested in what you’ll do when you get to actual exegesis. What you’ve done so far, while really good and helpful, has primarily been set-up. I suspect many from each side can at least tentatively agree to your pre-text thoughts: the rub will really be in exegesis itself. What will you make of those six infamous texts, or whatever other texts you interest yourself in (teaching on marriage, creation account, etc.)? That’s what I’m looking forward to, more than anything else.
    Regardless, I’m glad this series is going out. Don’t stop them.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, James. I think I’m around 5000 words of setup now, which is far, far too much! : )

  • http://davebriggman.com/ Dave Briggman

    You should change the second sentence in the first paragraph to direct people to the FIRST part, since they’re reading, presumably, the second part.

    • Brian Watson

      Dave,
      This is actually part three. If you click on the hyperlinks above, you’ll see the first and then the second parts. So, the first sentence should indicate that this is the third part, not the second.

      • http://davebriggman.com/ Dave Briggman

        Obviously, Brian…I need to renew my prescription for eyeglasses…good pieces, all three.

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

          Yeah, I should have included those backlinks. Sorry. I’ll update when I get a second.

  • Brian Watson

    Matt,

    It is exactly right to approach this issue from Genesis. It is necessary to show that before sin entered the world, the norm created by God was man and woman in a relationship that is stunning: the two become one flesh (Gen. 2:24). Also, Genesis 3 contributes to this issue in an important way, because it shows that, with sin in the world, our desires are perverted. This is a subtle point found in verse 16, where God tells Eve, “Your desire shall be for your husband,and he shall rule over you.” It would be easy to misconstrue the meaning of those words. Eve’s desire for her husband is not a positive one, but one that seeks to master him, or to pervert the relationship as God intended it. (We know this from Genesis 4:7, when God warns Cain of sin’s desire for him.) The husband, on the other hand, instead of being a loving leader, will seek to dominate the wife, which is another perversion of the marital relationship. I think this clearly shows that our desires, with respect to relationships, are negatively affected by sin. This, too, is part of the issue of sexuality. All of us have perverted sexual desires. The heterosexual who lusts has perverted sexual desires, just as the homosexual does.

    I think it is essential to keep these six verses within the biblical metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration/consummation. It’s possible for someone to twist the meaning of those six verses, but it’s awfully difficult to ignore the whole thrust of the biblical story, which begins and ends with hetero marriages (man and woman in Genesis; God and humans in Revelation).

    In the end, what matters is faith in Christ, repentance of sin (not making a lifestyle of our sinful desires, but seeking to live according to God’s commands), and a reliance upon God’s grace.

    • Bethany Persons

      Just a quick quibble with your interpretation of Genesis 3:16. The idea that the wife’s “desire for her husband” is a desire to dominate is an interpretation that arose in reaction to feminism, which makes it a fairly modern one. The plainer interpretation, as well as the one that is consistent with historical experience (even in a feminist culture), is that the woman’s desire borders on idolatry, as she seeks to have a man fill all her needs. And when the curse says that the husband will have dominion over his wife, that’s where we see women being treated as property, objectified, and as the majority of domestic abuse victims.

      Ironically, the idea that woman’s curse is to want to dominate men seems to serve mainly as yet another attack on strong-willed women.

      • Hermonta Godwin

        I think that you have been following Wendy Alsup, a bit too much. If one assumes that your take is correct, then how does one make sense of Paul’s commands to spouses in Eph 5 or Col. 3? He tells wives to submit and Husband’s to love and not be harsh because those are against natural tendencies but are necessary for Godly marriages. If your take on Gen 3:16 is correct, then Paul is saying something akin to “if one is hungry, then don’t forget to eat food.”

  • Linda

    It would be nice to read this in simpler terms that the average person can understand, and not with so much “fluff” of wording.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, Linda. I’m writing in my own voice here as much as possible, FWIW. If there’s something you didn’t understand, I’d be happy to try to clarify.

      • Bethany Persons

        Yeah, unfortunately when I share these posts, people tend to get confused. I had one person who thought YOU were embarrassed to have scripture as your only grounds for your beliefs about human sexuality and marriage. Obviously that’s not the case, but it was difficult for him to see it.

        This time I included this summary:

        “In this entry, he sets up the idea that the injunction against homosexual behavior is the “tip of the iceberg” with regard to biblical teaching on human sexuality, and that the best place to begin exploring the whole iceberg is Genesis.”

      • Larry Mills

        Sadly Linda is quite correct. This essay reads like it was written to impress seminary professors and/or Hank Hanegraaff, not to actually communicate the importance and context of homosexuality’s mention in Scripture to the average everyday person.(And I’m reminded of why I cannot stand listening to Hanegraaff on the radio.) Communication breaks down and is lost when only a very few can understand your writing, or your radio program. Compared to this essay, Faulkner is an easy read.

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

          It’s been a while since I’ve read Faulkner….but that made me laugh. Thanks.

      • windrivertom

        You’re writing works well, Matthew; keep it up. Too much of what passes
        for ‘good’ prose here in 21st century America is uncomplicated for the
        sake simplicity w/o any meaningful communication of information. Please
        don’t succumb to the dead weights of our consumer culture w/o good
        reason to.

    • http://stowellbrown.blogspot.com/ stowellbrown

      How about this–speaking of creation in Genesis God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve!

  • James Vincent

    A great article, but boy am I glad our Bible wasn’t written in this fashion! This would go a long way in reaching many more people, thought processes, and convictions if it were put in simpler terms! I have to admit, I was bored by the third sentence. Sorry, just my point of view.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      You are, of course, under no obligation to keep reading beyond the third sentence. : )

    • CP

      I’d have to agree. The eloquence of this article is impressive, but I’m afraid some of it’s heavy content gets lost in translation.

      Not a criticism. I understand it is writing style and taste. Maybe I’m an ignoramus but it took me several reads of some of the paragraphs to interpret the point.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    Good stuff, Matt.

    It seems to me that the attempt to declare upon the relative importance of issues on the basis of how often they are mentioned in the Bible atomizes the text. The Bible becomes a grab bag of—often contradictory—theological and ethical sentiments, rather than a coherent text.

    More telling, perhaps, is the fact that this principle is seldom applied consistently. The same people who make this objection will often use a single decontextualized verse such as Galatians 3:28 to override large swathes of biblical teaching. I would argue that the deeper driving principle is choice, not frequency. If the Bible is a grab bag of contradictory statements, we must pick and choose. Relative infrequency, for such an approach, means less of an imposition upon our autonomy in this regard. We must craft our own coherent systems out of the material offered to us by this inconsistent text and, if an objectionable position is not repeatedly thrust at you by the text why would you think of adopting it?

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      That’s a really good point (as usual) about the inconsistency on Galatians 3:28. I wish I had deployed it myself.

  • Nicaea4

    Hi Matt!

    Reading your articles in this series thus far reminds me of a quote from St. Basil the Great in his treatise combating the 4th century Arian controversy. He wrote to Bishop Amphilocios, “What
    I admire most about you is that your questions reflect a sincere desire
    to discover truth, not like many these days who ask questions only to
    test others. There is certainly no lack nowadays of people who delight
    in asking endless questions just to have something to babble about, but
    it is difficult to find someone who loves truth in his soul, who seeks
    the truth as medicine for his ignorance.”

    You can always tell when people are trying to strong arm you into believing what they believe out of fear, and are so sure they’re right that they forgot to honestly ask good questions in the first place. This in contrast with those who have true and practiced faith in Scripture and the witness of the Holy Spirit, thus encouraging you to pursue truth with mature ownership and responsibility. Keep it up. I sense God will be faithful to you in anointing both your words and your actions, particularly toward those who may disagree with you.

    Blessings to you.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      That’s a great quote about questions. I wish I had it when I was writing my book!

  • run262

    I must admit, had some trouble following you through your argument. But that could be due more to me, rather than your writing.
    Regardless, I appreciate the way in which you are going about this. While I am certain of my beliefs regarding this subject, I often find it hard to articulate to those without faith or knowledge of God.

    As to the question of homosexuality being a serious concern, I think the answer is clearly yes. Not because it stands out among other sins, but because it is sin and all sin is a serious concern for man. The trouble is that the concept of sin is not really accepted by modern society. Even professed Christians do not acknowledge the destructiveness or damage sin can cause. That perhaps should be the starting point of discussion, along with what the Bible has to say about sexuality as a whole.

  • wmrharris

    If an interpretation of Genesis limits itself only to the sexual aspects of male and female, it will miss the broader notes in the passage. For instance in the early Church, “male and female” were also seen allegorically as a sort of soul/body split where fruitfulness arises from the integration of the two. Or take the western turn that sees in the family the idea of community/state (this interpretation can be seen when Reformation catechisms turn to expositing the commandment to honor one’s parents) — this same interpretation of male and female as a type of covenant can also be found Karl Barth’s work.

    Secondly, the text of Genesis must also be read against the ongoing rejection of fertility gods/goddesses (Baal/Astarte) by Israel. If we put to much weight on sexual relations we end up missing Israel’s rejection. That is, fruitfulness is not a mimetic or even sacramental act portraying divine reality and appealing for divine intervention, but an act of the total human community; this better explains and gives credence for ruling over all the rest of creation.

    To read Genesis only as a sort of etiological account of normative sexuality thus misses the fullness of the text. Practically, such a reading also allows us to look at SSM apart from the usual categories of utilitarianism or romanticism/sentimentality. We are not hurt by being thus biblical.

  • Bobbienry

    Also, how should we act to the stance that (say) Russia has taken on the issue?