Thursday, August 09, 2012

Same-Sex Marriage and the Biblical Christian

We've seen more than enough of the same-sex marriage discussion to last us an eternal lifetime. But some voices are persistent enough, raising sufficient questions for the faithful and curious, that we are compelled, from our lofty position as an Authentic Biblical Scholar (PhD and all that) to offer some response.

Those persistent voices are succinctly represented  in a snarky, condescending (rather like this blog) Facebook-posted flow chart found (by those with Facebook accounts) here. The notions therein contained are for some persuasive enough to prompt questions of trusted experts like SWNID. We figure it'll be more helpful for others and easier for us if we provide a succinct, pointed response and enshrine it here for posterity's future reference.

So, point by point:

  • "Jesus never uttered a word about same-sex relationships." This is false. The word is porneia, used by Jesus in Matthew 5:32; 15:19 (parallel at Mark 7:21); 19:9. In conventional usage of Hellenistic Greek among Jews of Jesus' day, porneia referred to all sexual activity outside of marriage, and marriage was between members of the opposite sex, of course. If Jesus meant to exclude same-sex relationships from his condemnation of porneia, he did not say as much.
  • "The OT also says that it's sinful to eat shellfish, to wear clothing woven with different fabrics, and to eat pork." True but hardly relevant. The Mosaic books imply a difference between those things that have always been unlawful for all people and those things that become unlawful for Israel when Israel receives the Mosaic law at Sinai. Later Jewish scholars distinguished these as the Noachic commands (those given to all humanity) and the Mosaic commands (those given to all Israel). The notion of sexual sin is based on the creation of man and woman in Eden. It is therefore fundamentally different from the various symbols of separation (diet, clothing, calendar) that constitute what was distinctive to Israel. This notion is part of the Christian interpretation of the Mosaic law as well, as enshrined in Jesus' teaching and the New Testament letters. In the New Testament, the Mosaic law's distinctives for Israel do not bind the follower of Christ, especially the Gentile follower of Christ. But those laws that express what has always been right and wrong do very much apply. So Jesus can at once make a statement understood later by his followers to pronounce all foods clean (Mark 7:18-19) and follow it immediately with a statement affirming that sexual immorality, which for Jesus included same-sex relations, is evil (Mark 7:21).
  • "The original language of the NT actually refers to male prostitution, molestation, or promiscuity, not committed same-sex relationships." Questionable and ultimately irrelevant. Many instances of same-sex relations in the Graeco-Roman world were acts of prostitution or pederasty (an older, more powerful male taking sexual advantage of a younger, less powerful male). And doubtless promiscuity was present as well. So to say that the language of the NT refers to such is simply to say that such acts were common and so were what the language of the NT would commonly refer to. However, here we must proceed thoughtfully. First, were there no "committed same-sex relationships" in the Graeco-Roman world? Would Paul and others not have known of men who lived together for many years and were sexually active together? In the cosmopolitan world of the first-century Mediterranean, we doubt as much. Second, there is a significant difference between the referent of a word and its sense. The "sense" is the meaning of the word, its definition, as it were. The "referent" is the thing in the world to which it refers. So "table" has a sense: piece of furniture with legs and a flat surface on top, on which objects can be placed, but in any usage "table" will refer to a particular table. Now, it is true that most tables one sees in the United States presently are either wooden or made to look like they are wooden. Would it be fair, therefore, to say that in our time someone who speaks of a table thereby refers to something that at least appears wooden? Obviously not. So if someone wanted to communicate, "Tables are evil because of their woodenness," that person would have to say more than "Tables are evil." So it is with the language of same-sex relations in Romans 1:24-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9. These statements in their historical context would refer mostly to exploitative or promiscuous acts. But it is not the exploitation or promiscuity which is the focus of the terms used. Rather, it is the acts themselves. And those statements are made without qualification to make the reader understand that exploitation or such is the real problem. In sum, the nontraditional reading quoted at the head of this point is a case of special pleading that confuses the referent and sense of words.
  • "Paul may have spoken against homosexuality, but he also said that women should be silent and never assume authority over a man." True and irrelevant. The point here is to suggest that no one really follows what the Bible says anyway, especially Paul's bits, so why do so in this instance? One can make a strong case that Paul's teaching about women in context is not nearly as severe as this out-of-context citation makes it seem to be, and that thoughtful Christians have at least sometimes followed and applied Paul's teaching with variations for culture without either oppressing women or obliterating genuine differences between the sexes. Such is not so easily done with texts like Romans 1:24-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9, where Paul's language assumes the prior understanding that same-sex activity is wrong.
  • "[The creation of man and woman in the garden with the command to multiply] was when the earth wasn't populated. There are now 6.79 billion people. Breeding clearly isn't an issue anymore." The implication is that the command to heterosexual marriage is solely for procreation. But Jesus sees more than that. Jesus cited Genesis 2:24 to express the idea that divorce is not a fulfillment of God's will. Given the very real truth that divorced and remarried people generally remain as fertile after remarriage as they were before divorce, Jesus' implication would be irrelevant were heterosexual marriage just for filling up the earth.
  • "The Bible also defines marriage as one-man-many-women, one-man-many-wives-and-many-concubines, a rapist and his victim, and conquering soldier and prisoner of war." False, at least if by "define" we mean "approve." Does the Bible portray all these things? Yes. Does the Mosaic law regulate these things? Yes. Does that imply that the Bible approves of them? No, of course not. All polygamy in the Bible falls after the foundational narrative of Eden with its statement about monogamy in Genesis 2:24. Every story of polygamy shows the bad end to which such arrangements come. The Mosaic law deals with polygamy as it does with other deeply embedded elements of Ancient Near Eastern culture that run counter to morality based on creation: by regulating the practice so as to ameliorate its worst effects and discourage its practice. So Moses tells the polygamist that he must treat each wife exactly the same, while telling stories of the bad ends of polygamy. What does the thoughtful reader do? Take only one wife. Those who don't repeat the stories with bad ends. By the way, Israel's soldiers were specifically forbidden to take spoils during the conquest, including foreign brides taken as spoils.
If you've made it this far or just skipped this far, the problem with all such discussions as these is the failure to consider or acknowledge that there is a consistent, biblical notion of sexual morality, tied to creation. That man and women are both different and correspond is celebrated by the Bible as the expression of God's purpose and the foundation of human society. Reading the Bible to this outcome is not a tendentious misreading: it is the consensus of Jewish and Christian interpreters throughout the Bible's history.

It is the pervasive assumption that heterosexual monogamy is God's creation design that underlies biblical teaching about sex and marriage. This assumption is what makes it possible for the NT writers simply to make brief statements of condemnation without explanation. They address people who quite simply have come to assume that creation of two different, corresponding sexes means something about the act of sex.

Advocates of same-sex marriage would be more honest if they simply admitted that they have chosen to reject what the Bible teaches. The approach we've noted, while doubtless sincerely believed by some, constitutes ad hoc special pleading that ultimately works by confusing the less-informed faithful about the real boundaries of their faith system.

12 comments:

Wesley Kyrlach said...

I very much liked your conclusion that people who affirm homosexuality would be more honest to say that it is against what the biblical authors teach. I also liked the point you made about homosexuality in the first century including glaring sins like pederasty but not necessarily being limited to that. I'd encourage you to read this book if you haven't.

http://www.amazon.com/The-End-Sexual-Identity-Important/dp/0830838368

It's a little conservative but it asks some thoughtful questions about why we place so much identity in our sexuality these days.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

This is an important book. Harris's point, as we understand it, is that the notion of "sexual identity" is a modern one and not necessarily helpful in describing actual human experience.

This is highly significant. Putting people in boxes that say "straight" or "gay" is hardly a fair way to describe people, but it's a powerful way to confuse their interpretation of their experience.

Pat Rucker said...

I have said for a long time now that misinformation is one of the largest problems plaguing modern day Christians. While I believe that I should "love the sinner and hate the sin", I also believe in a mutual respect.
Should gay couples have rights? Absolutely. We should all have rights as that is the law of the land. Should these rights be called marriage? Absolutely not as marriage is clearly defined.

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.[a] 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
Ephesians 5:25-33

Thank you for this!

Pat Rucker said...

I have said for a long time now that misinformation is one of the largest problems plaguing modern day Christians. While I believe that I should "love the sinner and hate the sin", I also believe in a mutual respect.
Should gay couples have rights? Absolutely. We should all have rights as that is the law of the land. Should these rights be called marriage? Absolutely not as marriage is clearly defined.

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.[a] 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
Ephesians 5:25-33

Thank you for this!

JB in CA said...

Very helpful post. But I think you forgot to mention perhaps the most common argument--that I've heard, at least--in favor of same-sex marriage: God would not have created people with homosexual desires if he didn't want them to pursue same-sex marriage.

Joshua said...

Do Matthew 5:32; 15:19, 19:9 constitute a condemnation of masturbation?

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

JB, you are correct. We confined our responses to what was on the charming little flow chart that we linked.

The Christian theological problem with "God made me this way," of course, is that Christian theology also teaches that all humans desire things that are forbidden. We invite gentle readers to search our earlier posts on this subject for rants on that troubling oversight.

Dr. Love said...

Tom Wright's response to the question of "sexual orientation" is probably the best put I've come across. There's a video somewhere on YouTube for those inclined to see it.

Joshua said...

You suggest that Jesus's use of porneia in Matthew 5:32; 15:19, 19:9 constitutes a condemnation of same-sex sexual activity. If porneia refers to all sexual activity outside of marriage, I would think this includes masturbation. If so, do these verses also constitute a condemnation of masturbation?

Joshua said...

Is the Leviticus 18 prohibition against intercourse during menstruation Naochic or Mosaic? It comes right in the middle of a string of prohibitions that I suspect you view as Mosaic, so I suppose that suggests it is Mosaic? So we should be taking this seriously today? Likewise, are the punishments that are prescribed in this passage Mosaic or Noachic? If we have Mosaic and Noachic commands mixed together in the same sentence, I can certainly appreciate you concern that the faithful might become confused!

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Briefly, O ever-persistent Joshua, and then we're done with this side-show:

1. We take the prohibition of intercourse during menstruation to be part of the ceremonial purity code and so Mosaic, not Noachic. It's bound to the notion of purity distinctive to the Levitical code, not to creation.

2. Whereas other forms of "sex outside of marriage" are addressed directly in both testaments, masturbation is not addressed directly in either. Jesus condemns lust, of course, as Moses condemned coveting another man's wife. For those who take the Bible as foundational for ethics, we think that summarizes the issue: there's no condemnation of masturbation as such, but lust is condemned. Those dissatisfied with gray areas in the Bible will have to live with this one.

Joshua said...

Thanks for the reply, brief or otherwise. I will expect nothing more. I do appreciate that explaining these points could become quite tedious and might confuse some of the faithful. I admit to still being confused myself.

1. Lev. 20. This menstual command comes right in the middle of a list of directives that I suspect are still very much to be heeded. I guess we have a quick breath of Moses right in the middle of a Noah section. (The penalties, I sincerely hope, are from Moses as well. Of course, this only confuses me more, since we then have Noah for the first half of the sentence, Moses for the last.)

2. We need only know that same-sex sexual activity is sex outside of marriage to know that Jesus was against it, while His stance on some other forms of sexual activity outside of marriage will just have to remain a mystery. Mysterious indeed.