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.
Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.