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The Questions of Gay Marriage: The Authority of Scripture

November 12th, 2013 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

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.


Matthew Lee Anderson

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.