The Questions of Gay Marriage: The Authority of Scripture

This is the second part of an ongoing series I started a few months back.  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.

Why might one believe that a society should not include within its institution of marriage monogamous couples of the same sex?  For many conservative Christians, the first and last word on the question belongs to the Bible.  There may be other reasons out there, but many Christians are wholly uninterested in them on grounds that they will either necessarily be unpersuasive or that they will prove impossible to find.

That sort of pessimism is particularly an acute temptation for young Christians these days; having witnessed the purported failure of the “secular” arguments against gay marriage, it is easy to conclude that unless the social conditions were to change dramatically there simply are no arguments that could “work.”

Yet such a pessimism is a problem for the Christian, I think, even if we ought not be optimists about finding such reasons either.  We are called to hope, in our search for understanding of society and the world no less than in our patient waiting upon the return of Christ.  We have only sub-Christian reasons to believe that there are no “secular” arguments that will be persuasive or that we will never find them out. And if we give up the search prematurely, we may actually foreclose on finding ways of putting the case that would contribute to the very renewal of the society that itself makes the case more plausible.  Onward, then, into finding and evaluating reasons wherever we can.

But nor can we ignore Scripture, at least not if Oliver O’Donovan’s formula that “the reasons to believe are the reasons of belief” has any wisdom at all.  We might have other reasons, but we have at least these. Or so it might seem, anyway.

I am intrigued, however, by the discomfort that I think many young Christians feel at taking a moral stance simply because Scripture says it.  It would be a bit humiliating, would it not, to examine all the arguments and then to find ourselves up against it, as it were, retreating to the privileged position of moral teaching based on special revelation?   To many young Christians (even of the conservative sort, like me) who have invested a good deal in defending the rationality and intellectual plausibility of our tradition, that sort of conclusion would not be far from finding oneself taking up the cross of the flat-earthers:  not only are “the facts” against our position, but society is as well.

That is precisely the sort of humiliation, however, that we ought to be willing to countenance.  It is not so different from the humiliation of the Word that is the center and presupposition of our faith.  It may be that such a humiliation is crucial to see the reasons of Scripture from within, to make sense of what’s at stake in the relationship between man and woman that makes such a relationship irreplaceably unique. In a world where the paradigmatic act of intellect is to doubt, such a credulous obedient stance can only engender embarrassment.

Two further cautions, though, are necessary.  First, I acknowledge the possibility of genuine humiliation here only to highlight the stakes and to see in which direction the prevailing winds will invariably push the argument.  In a society where appeals to Scripture’s authority are considered as inescapably anti-intellectual and where the stance that homosexuality is morally wrong is deeply offensive, those interested in the intellectual respectability of the Church’s witness will have built in motivations to seek ways of sanctioning same-sex romantic unions within the pages of the text.  The inquiry in such conditions will take a very different tack, and the forcefulness of various arguments will seem different because of the broader cultural pressures at work.  In other words, the rules of reading will be established in such a way to make progressive conclusions more plausible.

This temptation, however, works the opposite direction as well.  Appealing to a revelation that confounds the wisdom of the wise (1 Corinthians 1:26) has sometimes been used to foreclose the work of investigation and inquiry altogether, or to simply treat our status as cultural pariahs as proof of a position’s truthfulness.  There can be no room for such anti-intellectual fideism here, however, nor for bad logic. Authority can command obedience in the absence of other reasons (and even in the face of reasons to the contrary) as a provisional moment, but not a final one.  Our obedience may continue until we are dead (and beyond), but that is only because of the aforementioned hope that stands beneath the intellectual Christian life.  Our confident obedience to such an authority will hinge on how deeply we integrate other reasons for trusting in it in other areas.  If we had reason to believe such an authority was not only morally pure but also incapable of error, then we might cheerfully and rationally adopt its prescriptions without hesitation.

My hope is that we will not be in a position where the argument goes forward in terms of Scripture alone.  But acknowledging that possibility at the outset is helpful for clarifying what’s at stake in the method we adopt.  Acknowledging and submitting to the authority of Scripture gives Christians real reasons to look for arguments that comport with its teaching and to maintain a general skepticism or wariness about arguments that do not.

Finally, I would note that I have only posited the authority of Scripture, rather than argue for it.  The latter would take us even further afield.  Additionally, I recognize that further work needs to be done on how Scripture’s teachings relate to our “experience,” whatever that is.  More on that later.  And I would also note that I have not attempted to explain what Scripture says, of course.  To those arguments we turn next.

 

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  • Matthew Loftus

    While I disagree with you on where the Bible leads us on this particular issue, I agree with you wholeheartedly that our public discourse on moral questions *must* be informed by the authority of Scripture and we ought to appeal to Scripture’s authority. Politically, we must be cautious that this doesn’t lead us to justify bad behavior in the name of the right cause– but if we are not using our voices to proclaim the truth of Scripture, we make ourselves a special interest group indistinguishable from the rest.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    I think that there is another dimension of the appeal to such things as natural law beyond that of establishing discourse with opponents of our position on shared grounds, persuasive arguments for non-Christians, or avoiding the intellectual embarrassment of direct appeal to Scripture.

    One of the chief concerns driving my own use of arguments against same sex marriage which do not appeal to Scripture, for instance, has been a theological concern about the nature of divine authority. The danger in falling back to arguments against same sex marriage based upon divine authority is that we surrender the crucial fact that in opposing same sex marriage we are recognizing our duty to be faithful to God’s created reality, not just committed to a divine will imposed upon it from without. Same sex marriage is not merely a resistance of divine will, but contrary to the objective order of created reality.

    Much of our culture operates in terms of an un-oriented world—a creation free of any ordering to a telos—and in falling back to divine command in arguments against same sex marriage, many Christians are falling into the trap of accepting this line. The world becomes inherently un-ordered, order and meaning only coming from the external dictate of divine will. A creation with inner established order and final ends is a fairly big point to give up, especially to arguments as weak as those advanced in favour of same sex marriage.

    • Thursday1

      Absolutely. Arguments based solely on scriptural authority, without any attempts to explain the reasons behind them, are basically appeals to divine command theory, with all the problems that that involves.

      • Thursday1

        Even though we may not convince people, I think it is important that we articulate the reasons why we hold the position we do, so that people don’t assume it to be arbitrary. Hopefully they can understand why someone who starts off with our kind of cosmology would be obligated to oppose gay sexual relationships.

    • Matthew Loftus

      I think this is a tricky distinction because, especially considering NT ethics, there are a number of areas where it is clear the thrust of Scripture pushes the Church towards a standard that we would hesitate to apply across the board (e.g. turning the other cheek, embracing suffering for the sake of another, etc.)

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

      Precisely right, Alastair. I thought about going into all of that, but I figured I’d excavate it while actually arguing alongside the texts.

    • Sonali Kumar

      You’re saying that you know exactly what God’s intentions were when creating humans. Isn’t that kind of arrogant? I think everyone has their own interpretations of what God would want of them, and we do the best we can to live up to those expectations.

  • Thursday1

    A few thoughts:

    1. The utilitarian arguments against gay sex are weak, and, worse, fundamentally un-Christian.
    1a. Gays have substantially cleaned up their act since the 1970s. You now have a slightly higher chance of catching some deadly or unpleasant disease if you are a sexually active gay man, and a somewhat higher . For secular people, these slightly higher risks are not worth denying gays a chance at a loving relationship.
    1b. Christians should be opposed to gay sex even if it were perfectly safe. There has never been a recorded case of HIV transmission from oral sex. Does that mean sucking another man off is perfectly OK. What if anal sex could be made perfectly safe? What about the fact that lesbian sex is almost perfectly safe?
    1c. The damage to children raised in gay households is also kind of iffy (though I am aware of the most recent study). The direct impact of parenting on utilitiarian outcomes in general, so long as it is not completely horrible, is also up in the air.
    1d. Due to many Christians arguing against gay relationships based on a utilitarian considerations, many people naturally assumed those were the real reasons (aside from scripture) Christians were opposed to gay relationships. And they quite naturally assumed that once those arguments were shown to be weak, Christians would come around.

    2. Natural law arguments are religious arguments full stop. The presuppose a world pregnant with purpose and meaning. It is a vision of reality which posits that there is something personal and goal oriented about the universe. While that is not based on revelation, it is still a fundamentally religious vision.

    3. The entire modern world is a gigantic materialist liturgy (which is why so many people are secularizing). Most people (and almost all of our elites) simply cannot see any purposeful aspect in reality, and so argument will only take us so far. We will always be starting with different premises about what nature is at the most fundamental level. (I here combine the work of James K.A. Smith on liturgy with that of Joe Henrich, Ara Naranzayan et al. on how the modern world conditions our very perceptions, AKA the W.E.I.R.D. paper.) That isn’t reason for despair, but it should make us realistic. Unless conditions change, things are unlikely to move on this front. Fortunately, things a

    4. You are right: the argument that this is what scripture says and that is that should be good enough to settle things for a Christian, but, knowing human nature, pragmatically it usually isn’t. Without understanding the reasons behind the Biblical prohibitions, people will start looking for ways to wiggle out of them, especially when there is so much pressure coming from the secular world.
    4a. Doubly so for people who haven’t accepted the Bible as authoritative.
    4b. The argument from scriptural authority actually has kept a few Christians on board who otherwise would seem to be quite sympathetic to permitting gay relationships, and who cannot articulate any reason other than scriptural authority as to why gay sex is always wrong: Rachel Held Evans, Scot McKnight, John Stackhouse, Tony Campolo. At best, they tend to fall back on vague thoughts that “this has something to do with creation.”

    5. The Bible assumes a creation with inherent purpose and meaning in it, including a meaning for our sexed bodies. Robert Gagnon is very good on bringing this out.
    5a. The Christian writers and theologians I mentioned above often don’t seem to get this. They seem to have a fundamentally materialist view of reality (a universe composed of matter conceived as valueless “stuff”) with God and souls tacked on at the end. Inherent teleology and meaning are rarely mentioned.
    5b. It is shocking that Evangelical leaders apparently have a cosmology that is both reductively materialist and un-Biblical.

  • Bethany Persons

    I think you have given a name to something that many young evangelicals don’t realize they’re carrying – the discomfort in relying solely on special revelation. For someone wrestling with this, I can see how it would be easy to not recognize that discomfort and then commit either error while believing they are being faithful and logical. I’m familiar with that discomfort, and I imagine it lies behind so many evangelicals taking the “libertarian” position (that marriage should be sacred only, and civil unions the work of the state).

    This post also reminded me of Psalm 119:33-34 (from the Voice)

    33 O Eternal One, show me how to live according to Your statutes,
    and I will keep them always.
    34 Grant me understanding so that I can keep Your law
    and keep it wholeheartedly.

    Verse 33 describes obedience without understanding that flows from love for God, while 34 acknowledges that the obedience will be easier with understanding.

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

      Bethany,

      It’s precisely my worries about unreflectively falling into either error that prompted me to bring it up and into the open.

      And *thank you* for those verses. Those are absolutely fantastic, and exactly right. I wish I’d caught them when writing the last book….

      Matt

  • Bethany Persons

    Also, I know when you’re done with this series it will be thoughtful, comprehensive, and provide ample material for consideration and dialogue. But here we are a couple of months later, and I’m feeling a bit of “that’s it?”

    More please!

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

      I deserve that. It’s so weird to be asked for “more” after writing over 2500 words of throat-clearing material. : )

  • Thursday1

    I think we often radically underestimate how important background assumptions are to the interpretation of scripture. Give the assumption of a materialist cosmology, the interpretations of scripture by liberal Christians actually make a fair bit of sense.

  • Eric

    Hi,

    I’m an unbeliever who likes to read the website. It’s a good one, probably the best conservative Christian blog around, so thanks and keep it up!

    A naive question, perhaps. On what grounds should divine revelation determine social policy for a world that largely denies (or at best merely pays lip service to) revelation? The standard secularist riposte is that you can live according to your God’s will all you want but you don’t get to force the rest of us to do so as well. I would really like to know why this doesn’t fly. Short of demonstrating the existence of God and the truth of Christianity, I don’t see how this objection reeks of bad faith like so many opponents of gay marriage (and all sorts of other things) seem to. This is an honest question. Honestly.

    Here’s my attempt at understanding. We unbelievers (while often good moral members of society) have no transcendental and absolute set of values and therefore parasite our own moral beliefs off of Christianity. Since all discussion of equality, right, “the Good,” and so on is basically the City of Man appropriating the City of God incoherently, it makes no sense for the former to object to the moral constraints of the latter. Obviously, I find all of this questionable, but is that the gist of the argument?

    Thanks again.

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

      Eric,

      That “naive question” is the very same that has produced hundreds upon hundreds of tomes. : )

      I’ll put my cards on the table: it’s not obvious to me that it should affect the social policy. It’s quite possible that we could conclude that Scripture prohibits gay marriage, but that conclusion alone doesn’t get to political legislation, at least not without other steps between. And yet, it seems to me that’s just the sort of question at the heart of a democracy that is deliberative: were it the case that Christians persuaded secular believers of the plausibility of their position *even without* converting them or demanding that they accept the entire truth of the Christian faith–presuming such a thing might be possible–and won a majority of votes, it seems plausible that their legislation would be justified.

      There are lots of questions (like this one!) that I’ve left ambiguous that need unraveling. I did that partly because I am (still!) struggling to know the best way through the subject, which is partly why it took me so long to write the second and why Bethany found it so unsatisfactory. : )

      Best,

      Matt

  • Bob Greenpoint

    Wow, just seems like an exhausting amount of “how many angels on the head of a pin?”. Why not focus on real-world examples of loving, committed gay couples (and their children). What’s the humane thing to do?

    • Thursday1

      I want to say this in the clearest but nicest way possible: WE ARE NOT UTILITARIANS. We reject the basis for your ethics.

      • Bob Greenpoint

        What’s a Utilitarian?

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

      Bob, I think this is a real and *really hard* question. I plan on taking up this sort of objection at some point (maybe in the long distant future, but in the future nonetheless!).

      Matt

  • gmoothart

    Arguing from Scripture about what social institutions ought to look like, or how governments ought to promote them, is a different (and IMO much more difficult) case to make than simply arguing that the Bible presents homosexual behavior as morally wrong.

    What has mostly kept me from relying on Biblical arguments is that I’m daunted by the difficulty of making this stronger case. I’m looking forward to seeing how you do it.

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  • http://www.realliberalchristianchurch.org/ Tom Usher

    Even if we take the Bible completely out of the discussion, I still know (absolutely and objectively) that males performing anal sex on each other is a fundamental error, always harmful in the final analysis both physically and mentally (even also leaving the spiritual out of the discussion) no matter how much homosexuals protest that it pleasures them. There is also scientific/medical documentation supporting my basic position of harm. Homosexual activists come back with all sorts of statements avoiding the statement and the evidence.

    At the same time, they appeal to the idea that those involved in male-on-male anal intercourse are nevertheless leading moral lives.

    My statement is deliberately narrow and focused. That does not mean that it is incapable of being consistent with the big picture.

    How can it ever be moral to instruct the children that men sodomizing each other (harm) is as deserving of position in society as a faithful, monogamous, heterosexual, married couple having vaginal intercourse?

    At the same time, I am speaking in the most general of terms here. We all know there are hermaphrodites for instance. We also know that not everyone can even have vaginal intercourse. Those exceptions, however, do not nullify the general rule that faithful, monogamous, heterosexual, marriage, per se, is inherently superior to any homosexual union.

  • run262

    These are some very good thoughts. Whie I believe the Scriptures to be very clear in its’ teachings regarding thiese issues, it is challenging to present these views to a society that largely rejects any sort of claim of Divine revelation. There are many reasons for this turn of events, many of which I think Dallas Willard pointed out so well. Looking forward to more posts on this.

    • run262

      Apologize for the typos. Sometimes typing on the Ipad can be a mess.