This is the final post in my blog series on same-gender marriage. For an outline with links to the whole series, click here. The views expressed in this series are my own and do not represent those of my denomination, conference, or local church.
No issue divides progressive and conservative Christians more fundamentally than the debate over same-gender marriage. Conservatives are insistent about preserving a traditional definition of marriage because they want to honor Biblical authority and defend public morality. From their perspective, to affirm same-gender sex in any context when the Bible so clearly condemns it is to make the meaning of Scripture so fluid and flexible that it ceases to have any authority at all. Conservatives are deeply suspicious of progressive attempts to justify same-gender marriage because they view these as a part of a larger project to abandon objective morality altogether. [E1] They view our society as one that is becoming relativistic, in which everyone “does what is right in their own eyes.” [E2] And many of them believe that the traditional institution of marriage is one of the last Jenga pieces that is keeping Western society from collapsing into ethical anarchy. Consequently, for reasons bigger and broader than the issue of same-gender marriage itself, many conservatives feel that they cannot budget on this issue.
Progressives, on the other hand, are concerned about treating people justly and about preserving the good news of the Christian faith. Progressives are painfully aware of the harm that the Church has done in the past by supporting patriarchy, slavery, racism, colonialism, etc. And for most progressives, the parallels between these examples and the present way that the conservative church treats LGBTQ individuals are undeniable. Although progressives often challenge plain and rigid interpretations of Bible, their ultimate goal is not to undermine Biblical authority but to preserve the good news of the Christian message. Progressives feel that this good news gets overshadowed or obscured by fixating on teachings against same-gender sex, and they fight for a more progressive understanding of marriage so that the greater teachings and themes of Scripture will not get lost.
I recognize that the divide between conservative and progressive Christians over this issue is deep, and I do not pretend that I can resolve it by what I have written in this blog series. Nor do I claim to have transcended the debate myself. In one sense, this debate can be reduced to a yes-or-no question, “Can God bless two people of the same gender as they enter into the covenant of marriage?” I answer that question with an unequivocal “yes,” and that means that I have taken a side – the progressive side – in this ethical debate.
However, the way that I understand this issue and the reasons that led me to answer “yes” are different from most progressives: I affirm same-gender marriage on the basis of the gender trajectory of the Bible, not on the basis of our modern understanding of sexual orientation. [E3] And that matters. It influences the way that I talk about these issues, especially when I am in dialogue with other Christians. It gives me a different framework for questions relating to sexual orientation. And it preserves a respect for Biblical authority and public morality, albeit in a different way than many conservatives preserve these concepts. [E4] In this final post, I’ll offer a brief overview of the implications of my gender liberation approach to same-gender marriage for Christian ethics.
IMPLICATIONS FOR DIALOGUE
The language that we use to talk about ethical issues matter. Unfortunately, both progressives and conservatives have allowed the debate over same-gender marriage to be framed in terms of homosexuality, and so we ask imprecise questions such as, “What does God think about homosexuality?” or “Is homosexuality sinful?” There are many problems with this way of posing the question, but chief among them is the fact that this obscures the key issue at stake: this is primarily a debate about gender norms and only secondarily a debate about sexual behavior. Clarifying this can help us have a discussion about whether same-gender marriage is appropriate without putting a spotlight on the sexual desires of gay people.
In saying this, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that gay people ought to drop their gay identity or to stop mentioning the concerns of the LGBTQ community. For many people, having a gay identity is important not only because it describes their sexual orientation but also because it indicates that they are a part of a class of people who have experienced widespread discrimination in society. I believe that the church should be a space where people can say, “I’m gay,” where we should be able to openly discuss our sexual desires, and where the persecution against the LGBTQ+ society should be condemned. However, when we discuss the Biblical teaching on same-gender sex, we need to remember that the Bible assesses the appropriateness of desire based on ethical norms, not the other way around. Therefore, our attention should be fixed on the gender norms that undergird the Biblical teachings and the way that the Bible treats gender in general.
IMPLICATIONS FOR PEOPLE WITH A HOMOSEXUAL ORIENTATION
What are we supposed to do if a teenager says, “I’m gay”? Conservative Christians are inclined to tell that teenager that their sexual feelings are bad and should be avoided. Progressive Christians are inclined to tell that teenager that their sexual feelings are good and should be pursued. From my perspective, both of these responses put way too much pressure on the teenager to understand and master their sexual feelings rather than giving them a more helpful way of understanding and responding to them.
Ok, I’ll backpedal on that a little bit. Because there is still so much stigma around being attracted to people of the same gender, progressives are wise to emphasize to teenagers that it is ok for them to have homosexual desires by saying that these desires are good. [E5] But ultimately, we should teach teenagers – whether they are heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual – not to stress so much about finding someone who fulfills their desires. Instead, we should teach them to seek first the kingdom of God.
As a part of this, we should present celibacy as a legitimate option for all teenagers to pursue. But a teen should only be encouraged to pursue celibacy if there is evidence that it is spiritual gift or calling for them. [E6] We should not turn celibacy into a requirement for teens who have sexual urges that they don’t know how to manage. That is an abuse of the gift.
After encouraging teenagers to put their primary focus on learning their spiritual gifts and how they might be called to participate in the reign of God, we should encourage them to be open to the possibility that they will meet someone to whom they are attracted, who shares their values, and who would enhance their ability to contribute to God’s kingdom. At that point, we should tell them their attraction is a blessing from God, and we should encourage them to invest in and enjoy that relationship – regardless of the gender of the person involved. I think this is more helpful than either a conservative approach, which encourages heterosexual marriage early on, or a progressive approach, that encourages people to “figure out” their sexual preferences and orientation. This approach takes the pressure off to find the most fulfilling partner as soon as possible, and it allows space for more marital possibilities that we might not have conceived ourselves. For example, I know a woman who identified as straight for her entire life but ended up falling in love with another woman who shared her values and who has become a partner with her in a flourishing Christian marriage. I also know a man who identified as gay but who ended up in a very healthy Christian marriage with a woman. We should allow space for all of these possibilities within the Christian community.
IMPLICATIONS FOR PUBLIC MORALITY
One of the reasons that the language we use is so important is because it shapes the way we think generally about ethics. When we debate about a specific issue such as same-gender marriage, the vocabulary, metaphors, and framework we use influence the way that we think about ethics in general. For this reason, I am concerned about the way that progressives generally argue for same-gender marriage. We claim that we ought to embrace it in order to be inclusive, non-judgmental, or non-discriminatory. And while I agree that we should include gay couples in our Christian fellowships and that we shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of gender, I don’t believe that inclusivity and non-discrimination are absolute Christian principles in and of themselves. There are occasions when Christians need to exclude, to judge, and even to discriminate. For example, if it is discovered that a church leader has sexually abused a church member, we have an obligation to judge the action that has occurred as sinful, exclude the perpetrator from positions of leadership and possibly also fellowship, and be more discriminating in our hiring practices in the future. [E3 – not against the possibility of reconciliation] Despite the broad consensus of intolerance on this particular topic, I do believe that an overemphasis on inclusivity can weaken our ability to name and prevent sin from occurring in the future.
My appeal for same-gender marriage is not based on a general appeal to inclusivity, but on a specific appeal to the gender trajectory in the Bible. Because gender is one of the specific structures that the New Testament overturns, Christians should be free to disregard gender norms. However, this does not mean that Christians are free to disregard all norms. For example, the sexual norms of the Bible still apply, which means that a gender liberation ethic is not slippery slope that leads to an “anything goes” mentality. Instead, it maintains the principle that God calls us to seek sexual fulfillment in the context of covenantal relationships.
All of this ties into our understanding of Biblical authority. Conservatives insist that Christians ought to submit to Biblical authority (which is true), while progressives insist that conservatives do not abide by their own understanding of Biblical authority on other issues (which is also true). Here, I think it is important for churches to reflect on the hermeneutics that they already practice and to embrace a broader (but not weaker) concept of what Biblical authority means. For me, the ultimate authority of Scripture is not found in any one verse but in the story it tells as a whole. In order to discern what that story is, we have to read specific passages very carefully and dialogue with other Spirit-filled Christians, while remembering that it is God who ultimately decides what the Bible means. This is not as black-and-white an approach to Biblical as many of us would like, but it does give the Bible a real authority in the Christian life.
I hope that I have demonstrated how an honest wrestling with Scripture can lead to an affirmation of same-gender marriage. Thanks to all who have dialogued with me – publicly or privately, in agreement or disagreement. I welcome further conversation on this topic because I believe that this is the way that we seek to follow Jesus together, by discerning the meaning of the Biblical story.
[E1] This explains why some of the dialogue between conservatives and progressives never goes anywhere. Conservatives place great value in the authority of Scripture as a means of providing moral accountability in each Christian’s life. I have found that conservatives are relatively open to different ways of reading and understanding Scripture, so long as that function of authority is preserved. Many progressive Christians also place a high value on Scripture, and they understand the value of having it as a source of personal moral accountability. However, progressives are aware that the same Scriptures which are designed to provide moral accountability can be weaponized and used as tools of legalistic oppression. (Indeed, the Bible itself gives us examples of this happening, especially with the Pharisees.)
In order to undermine the harmful use of the Scriptures, the majority of progressive arguments begin by calling into question the clarity or reliability of the Biblical witness. Progressives may appeal to the ambiguity of the Greek words, or some of the textual issues in transmission, or to other passages that Christians have disregarded, etc. The progressive argument usually goes, “Look – you thought you were sure about this and it’s not as clear as you thought. So you have no legitimate basis for making these claims against same-gender sex!” But when conservatives hear this argument, they understand progressives to be saying, “Here are some problems with the Scriptures, and therefore they cannot be trusted at all. Therefore, since Scripture cannot be trusted, all we have left are our own individual preferences to sort out right and wrong.” This, of course, runs in conflict with one of the core “conservative” values.
In my approach, I do bring up some of the issues that other progressive mention such as the ambiguity of Greek words and comparisons with other passages, but all of this is subsumed by an overriding confidence I have in the authority of Scripture (as a whole) and our ability to interpret it in the way that God would like us to interpret it as a religious community. Moreover, the crux of my argument does not find its basis in a distrust in the reliability of Scripture’s teachings about same-gender sex but from a commitment to honor the broader Scriptural testimony about gender. This is the kind of argument that is required for real dialogue to occur in the church – one that understands and seeks to honor the core values of the opposing side, to the extent that such an act is possible.
[E2] At one level, I believe that this conservative assessment of society is accurate. In some ways, we are becoming more relativistic, and there is a legitimate threat that American society could collapse if the values, narratives, and trust that holds us together as a nation breaks down completely. However, I think conservatives are wrong to attribute this philosophically to postmodernism and to blame it politically on the left. Ultimately, the roots of relativism lie in individualism, and both political parties are complicit in pushing it forward. Indeed, the great irony is that Donald Trump is the most relativistic president our country has ever had, and it was conservatives who overwhelmingly voted for him.
[E3] To clarify, I do believe that most people have a sexual orientation, but I don’t think that this fact has much bearing on the moral status of same-gender sex. Having a feeling – whether that is a pain or a desire – or even an orientation does not in and of itself have moral value. However, I do believe that the experience of gay people bears weight on this discussion. When thousands upon thousands of gay Christians say, “I tried to live according to the interpretation that God wants me to desire people of the opposite sex, but that did not produce ‘good fruit,’ in my life,” then this is something we ought to take seriously.
[E4] For many conservatives, the language of inerrancy and/or infallibility is used to express their view of Scripture. This language was invented about a little over century ago in reaction to a liberal tradition of Christianity that did not have much respect for the authority of Scripture. Ultimately, I believe that the conservative instinct to preserve the authority of Scripture is right, but the language they are using is problematic. It is not language that the Bible itself uses, it is not in keeping with the tradition of the church, and it doesn’t even guarantee that people who hold this view will allow the Bible to convict and guide them. (Most conservatives believe that one must understand the “cultural context” to really understand a Scripture, which makes it possible to avoid accepting the literal meaning of about 95% of the Biblical commandments.)
My own understanding of Scripture still maintains the concept that it is authoritative, but it puts that authority in the Bible as a whole, and specifically, in the narrative of salvation. I don’t have time to develop this understanding further in this post, but I believe it more accurately reflects the ways that churches such as the Free Methodist Church and the Mennonite Church currently use Scripture than the language of “infallibility” does.
[E5] More accurately, I don’t think we can judge the goodness or badness of homosexual desires in and of themselves, just like I don’t believe that we can judge the goodness or badness of heterosexual desires in and of themselves. But I certainly believe that homosexual desires can be good, and I think that is the most important point for teenagers who are feeling confused and possibly ashamed at their feelings need to hear.
[E6] The classic discussion of celibacy is in 1 Corinthians 7. The apostle Paul lived a celibate life and found great value in it, because it allowed him to focus all of his intention on serving God. Although he remarked that “he wished all were as I am” in verse 6, he acknowledges in that same verse that celibacy is a spiritual gift, and he goes on to say that it is “better to marry than to burn with passion” in verse 8.
But how do we discern if someone has the gift of celibacy? That is still not clear to me, but here are a few initial thoughts. First, if someone has a strong desire for sexual intimacy with others, that is a pretty good indicator that they probably do not have the gift of celibacy. It is our tendency in the West to assume that everyone has strong sexual desires, but even the LGBTQIA community recognizes that there are “asexual” people, which means that not everyone is driven this way. However, I don’t think the spiritual gift ought to be assessed on the basis of sexual drive alone, but it is a factor.
More likely, it is related to calling. The two most prominent figures who were celibate in the New Testament were Jesus and Paul, and they gave themselves so fully to the people of God that there simply wouldn’t have been much leftover for a spouse or children. For those who feel drawn to that kind of consuming work, which I would call apostleship, they ought to consider the possibility that they should be single. Protestants tend to overlook this because we implicitly make marriage a norm for pastors, and this is to our detriment. I believe, for example, that John Wesley likely had the gift of celibacy, but it was not something that he was seriously encouraged to consider. As a result, one of the only ways in which I look at John Wesley’s life and see moral failure is in the way that he neglected his wife in order to dedicate himself to his ministry.