The Well-Thought-Out Christian Rationale Behind Christian Acceptance of Gays and Lesbians

It is well known that some conservative Christians accuse liberal Christians of simply going with their personal preferences, in a manner that can be and has been called “Talladega Nights theology.” (If you don’t get the reference, click through to see the video clip).

That is a danger – and not exclusively for liberal Christians. But be that as it may, the accusation does not always fit.

David French’s post (to which I linked above) suggests that the acceptance of not merely gays and lesbians as people, but of homosexual intercourse as something no longer to be regarded as immoral, is merely making Jesus (and Biblical ethical teaching) in our own image, and according to our own personal and cultural preferences.

In response, it is not enough to point out that Jesus never said anything explicitly about homosexuality or homosexuals. Since he was Jewish, silence cannot easily be filled with a viewpoint that was not common in Judaism in the first century – however much one might go on to insist that Jesus’ views did not always mirror what most people thought.

But as I highlighted in a recent post, which took as its starting point a post by Fred Clark, we may or may not pick and choose more or less than conservative Christians – even those who deny doing so. That isn’t the central issue.

But many of us do have a rationale for doing so.

Jesus taught us to allow love for neighbor and concern for human beings to trump other concerns – even if it leads to healing on the Sabbath or eating sacred bread. Even if it means to breaking other laws, laws which according to the Bible were laid down by God himself.

Ancient Israel’s marriage laws reflected those of the time, and the workings of the marriage institution as an element of patriarchal society allowing men to treat women as property so as to ensure that their other property passed to their legitimate heirs. Times have changed, marriage has changed, and none of the conservative Christians I know who are married are involved in anything that mirrors “Biblical marriage” in all its features.

There is nowhere in the Bible where marriage is instituted by God as opposed to being legislated as a human institution already in existence, nor where a manual for appropriate and enjoyable sexual intercourse is provided. Don’t tell me that Genesis 2 or the Song of Songs provide this. They do not – and not only because they were not written until too much later. Genesis 2 simply places a man and a woman together, no ceremony, no instruction. Song of Songs is a wonderful love poem, but it reflects erotic love rather than offering guidance about it.

And so of course our thinking about marriage reflects the wider perspective of our time and place. Thinking about marriage among the people of God always has. And as with so many issues, such as women’s equality and slavery, we sometimes advocating the setting aside of practices that can be justified by careful exegesis of certain Biblical passages, on the basis of more fundamental Biblical principles. We pick and choose from both the Bible and our culture based on overarching principles and convictions about the centrality of love, the importance of justice, concern for the poor, and so on.

Some of us feel that the actions of Christians in the past, and in many instances continuing right up to the present, far from being faithful to the Bible’s teaching, are so fundamentally at odds with its core principles as to deserve an apology from us.

So whether it is changing our views about homosexuality, or about how to treat those with whom our forebears disagreed or those with whom we ourselves disagree, it is not a matter of picking and choosing based on personal preference. It is a matter of allowing the principles which Jesus laid down as fundamental to be the definitive guide to our morality.

I encourage “conservative Christians” to adopt the same approach, since any other approach to morality, no matter how often it appeals to the Bible, is fundamentally sub-Christian.

 

  • Frank

    There is nothing rational, well thought out or Christian about affirming/encouraging/normalizing sin.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      That phrase may seem like it is enough to you. But perhaps you have failed to notice that the opponents of Jesus, and the opponents of Paul, would have said the very same thing. And so how do you know that you are not, rather than taking a stand against sin, failing to follow the Spirit’s leading in God’s ongoing work of expanding his people to include others previously excluded?

      • Frank

        God includes everyone and ask everyone to go and sin no more. Everyone is equal even the person who sins through homosexual behavior. All sinners.

    • Helen

      I would also add that there is something rational, well thought out and Christian about reducing youth suicide. Given that gay youth commit suicide up to five times more often than straight youth do, it is time to allow these people to live their life to the full (as Jesus put it in John 10). Driving people to commit suicide does not seem to me to be an acceptable test of the “fruits of the Spirit”.

      • Ray Hooker

        Helen, That sounds very compassionate but I suggest you need think this through. I agree that we need to be kind, and that those dealing with rejection over homosexual feelings may consider suicide. It does not mean though that telling them that their homosexual feelings are normal is going to prevent suicide. I think in actual situations, you will find that there are many other factors leading to their depression. So I suggest your analysis is based on compassion but it is lacking in insight. We are not responsible for other’s actions. You only have to talk to a parent whose child has committed suicide despite their best efforts.

        • Gary

          I’d like to know what Ray feels about hermaphrodites? Certainly you accept that a very small, but non-zero percentage of babies are born with both sex organs. If so, you also certainly can accept that some babies are born to grow up with an imbalance of hormones, that result in a chemical problem in the body that results in non-typical characteristics of their specific gender. So obviously not all sexual orientation is strictly by mental choice. So do you assign sin to such persons? Even Jesus seemed to realize that there are exceptions, Matt 19:11-12. What would you suggest, to make a person “normal”, if they lie outside the “norm”? Where do you draw the line, in assigning sin, versus just accepting that someone is outside the “norm”, or draw out the knife and start cutting if it is physical, or draw out the drugs, if it is hormonal? Or accept a homeopathic approach (no pun intended).

  • http://twitter.com/d_pardee Darren Pardee

    It seems to me there are two codes or doctrines for Christian behavior; a moral one and a religious one. Jesus summed them up perfectly with the “two greatest commandments.” Loving God is the religious doctrine, while loving your neighbor is the moral one.
    I think most people who call homosexuality “immoral” don’t understand the difference between the two codes. I think it was Kant (if I remember correctly from the warped and dusty corners of my brain where Philosophy 101 concepts went to hide) who summarized the principle of moral universality as that act which you would will/forbid others to do must also apply to you as well, or else the entire social system falls apart. Forbidding others to marry who they choose would be immoral from this viewpoint because if the shoe was on the other foot (ie homosexuality was the norm and hetero- the exception), heterosexuals wouldn’t want others telling them who they could be with. Homosexuality doesn’t violate Kant’s idea of immorality either, since willing everyone to love who they want harms no one. (Meanwhile, running a red light intentionally would be an immoral act, since if you willed everyone else to do the same, you defeat the purpose of traffic lights.) I’ve seen folks argue that homosexuality hurts society because if everyone was homosexual, there’d be no new babies (thus society breaks down?), but this ignores 1) modern technology and 2) everything we know about human sexuality (you do not “will” your sexuality, ie it’s not a choice).
    You may argue then that homosexuality breaks the RELIGIOUS code; that you can’t love God when you’re doing something you think he’s against. However, since you can’t will everyone to think like you do, as long as YOU follow God’s code, you’re okay in this regard. And, as Prof mentioned above, this begs the question of which of God’s religious rules are still in play, and which ones we can throw out like an old deflated pigskin-er, synthetic rubber/plastic football.
    Yes I do believe religious codes can be “normalized.” They asked Jesus for the single greatest commandment, and he gave them two, but I like to think he actually gave them one. Loving your neighbor IS loving God, following the moral code IS following the religious one, so that’s what I live by. Just a dirty librul here.

  • Gary

    “There is nowhere in the Bible where marriage is instituted by God as opposed to being legislated as a human institution already in existence”…This seems true, based upon a quick word search of “marriage” in the bible. Especially considering that Jesus was suppose to have said there is no marriage in heaven. If a return to heaven is suppose to mirror a return to the Garden of Eden, then heaven forbid, :-) Adam and Eve were not married. I ran into a rather disturbing incident this Sunday, where “call2fall” was pushed from the pulpit. Considering this was sponsored by the Family Research Council, which is a right-wing political organization supporting both antigay messages, as well as their recent negative comments (supposedly biblical) about the Health care law, I can see this happening more and more as the November election draws near. Even it’s name, “call2fall”, attached an obvious double meaning. I cannot accept politics being introduced in a Sunday sermon, especially when it is presented in a supposedly “sanitized” manner.

  • Ray Hooker

    Where did God institute marriage? It depends on what you mean by marriage. Marriage is the union of a man and woman. This goes back to the garden when woman was made so man would not be alone. In fact, the text in Genesis goes on to say that “therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife and they shall become one flesh..”. Jesus repeats this same statement (as does Paul in Ephesians). So the point is that if we are followers of Jesus, we need to affirm with him that God instituted marriage between a man and a woman. The formal ceremony of marriage is indeed based on human tradition and law, but the actual substance of a man and woman coming together in a life commitment is said to be God’s idea. Jesus also forbids any sexual desire outside of marriage as being the same as adultery or having sex outside of marriage. There was no homosexuality allowed in Israel at all, but it was common among the Greeks and Romans. Paul does indicate in Romans 1 that any other sexual act, other than between a man and woman was unnatural. I don’t see how you say that a follower of Jesus could approve of anything else. I do like what Tim Keller said. He believes homosexuality won’t send you to hell any more than heterosexuality was going to save you, but any sexual act outside of marriage between a man and a woman is a sin….

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I think that one can make precisely the opposite argument, based on the same passages. The story in Genesis 1-2 is about a first pair of humans, and so it is a requirement of the narrative that they be of opposite genders and have children – otherwise the story would have ended there. But the more basic principle that is offered as normative – that it is not good for human beings to be alone – is directly at odds with the conservative Christian view that homosexuals should refrain from entering into the sorts of lifelong companionships that heterosexuals do.

      As for Romans 1, it seems clear that homosexuality is the punishment and not the crime there, and the reason for viewing same-sex relationships as shameful has to do with views of gender and their respective natures that we no longer share, and so I do not see that we should, or could, view the topic in precisely the same way.

      • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

        “As for Romans 1, it seems clear that homosexuality is the punishment and not the crime there,” It is certainly a punishment, but to flat out say it’s not also a sin in itself is to overlook the fact that Paul–Paul, the champion of disregarding culture when it interferes with the Christian walk, the enemy of all types of legalism, who once denounced the Apostle Peter in public for allowing culture to dictate how he interacted with people–Paul calls homosexuality impure, saying it leads to a dishonoring of the body. He calls it unnatural, an error that deserves a penalty. Finally, it is the product of a “debased mind”, something that ought not to be done.

        Paul is more mindful than most of the relationship of culture to Christianity. Why would he completely lose all of that here, and treat a mere cultural issue as an inherently sinful, debased act?

        • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Paul also viewed women having short hair as unnatural – at least, according to one understanding of his admittedly obscure argument in 1 Corinthians 11. His view of what is natural and unnatural is not ours. He presumably agreed with other Greco-Roman authors who likewise viewed same-sex relationships as dishonorable because one of the two took on themselves the role of the opposite gender, which was “unnatural.” Since most of us do not view women as inherently inferior or passive or whatever, we should not perpetuate a conclusion built on that assumption while we have jettisoned the assumption that is its foundation.

          • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

            But his language is MUCH stronger here. In fact, he lumps it in with all sorts of other stuff that is sinful entirely apart from culture, like, envy, murder, strife, etc. He doesn’t treat homosexuality any differently than he treats these other things: They are all the the products of a debased mind.

            • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              He uses strong, stereotypical anti-Gentile Jewish polemical language to lure readers into condemning themselves.

              But at any rate, I do not share your apparent assumption that if Paul thought X on this topic, so too must we.

  • Tim

    “There is nowhere in the Bible where marriage is instituted by God as opposed to being legislated as a human institution already in existence, nor where a manual for appropriate and enjoyable sexual intercourse is provided.”

    If that’s the case, what do Jesus’ own words in Matthew 19 mean, if not a direct mandate from God Himself?

    4- And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female,
    5- and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?
    6- So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”

    • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

      I agree completely. Jesus states that the words come from God Himself: God says, in paraphrase, “Marriage is a thing because I made them male and female, able to be joined in one flesh, and I am the one doing the joining.” The concept of marriage arises directly from the creation of male and female, and Jesus does not hesitate, does not hedge, does not waffle in the slightest in attributing the act of joining to God Himself.

      • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        If all you mean by marriage is two people uniting before God (with no one else around to be involved, it seems, in the case of Adam and Eve) then that is not, on the one hand, an arrangement that most conservatives consider marriage, and on the other hand, it is a sort of relationship that gays and lesbians can and do participate in already. If you mean marriage in the sense that most use the term today, involving paperwork, state recognition, and ceremony, then I do not see that either in the Genesis passage or in Jesus’ comments on it.

        • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

          Jesus is answering a question about legal divorce, which means that his answer has directly to do with marriage. He decides to give them the context of marriage, quoting the Genesis passage, attributing it to God, and then ends it with his actual answer about divorce: “What God has joined together, let not man separate.”

          Marriage, then, is NOT just when “two people unite before God.” Paul tells us in Romans 6:16 that simple sexual intercourse, even with a prostitute, achieves a level of physical one-ness. “Two people uniting”, therefore, is not inherently good: Adding “before God” does nothing except to say that people can sin and think they’re doing good. People can have sex without being married, and it is certainly sinful (and you are quite right that all people can participate in a relationship of this kind already).

          Jesus tells us in this passage that marriage is what happens when GOD unites two people. God does the joining that makes it marriage: Anything else is just sex.

          And why do you deny ceremony, or place it firmly with “state recognition” in terms of importance? God loves ceremony: The Old Testament and the New Testament are full of it. Sacrifice, circumcision, baptism, communion… all of these are ceremonial things that, regardless of their ceremonial nature, assume colossal importance to every biblical figure from Moses to Jesus to Paul. Why do you think that Jesus did not have ceremony in mind when speaking of marriage and divorce?

          • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            There is nothing wrong with ceremony, and my post argues for allowing still more people the right to have one! But Jesus’ argument is about going behind legal marriage, which also included legal divorce as a possibility, to something more fundamental as described in Genesis – a special relationship between human beings, experienced as a blessing bestowed upon us by the Creator.

            • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

              Except he doesn’t use gender-neutral language. He didn’t need to bring up the “male and female he created them.” If “male and female” is completely extraneous to the idea of marriage, then that reference is a complete non sequitur.

              When Jesus is asked about divorce, his very first action is to explain what marriage is. When he’s explaining what marriage is, his very first words are about God creating humanity male and female. That means that to Jesus, the creation of humanity as male and female is fundamental to what marriage is: Otherwise, why would he bother bringing it up at all?

              • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                Because it is in the story. Are you suggesting that since that story is about one man and one woman, Jesus was saying that the various patriarchs were not legitimately married – Jacob and Rachel, for instance? Or in those examples would you accept that Jesus was talking about the most common and prototypical form of marriage – between a man and a woman – without necessarily invalidating permutations based on the me principle, the formation of a covenant relationship between human beings?

                • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

                  I have no problem with Jesus saying that Jacob was invalidly married to at least one of his wives, much like the idols some of the patriarchs took for granted were sinful. Nothing good came from Jacob’s multiple wives/concubines. In fact, that theme continues to David and especially Solomon: multiple wives leads to nothing but trouble. If marriage, as God meant it to be, is between one man and one woman, then it wouldn’t make sense to say that it was good for other people to be married to multiple wives.

                  And Jesus didn’t need to tell the story. He disagreed with popular culture many times (this is one of them, in fact). He could have omitted this story, merely saying “What God has joined together, let not man separate.”
                  But he didn’t. In fact, the “therefore” at the beginning of the marriage quote means that the idea of God creating them as man and woman is a fundamental part of it: “Therefore,” “Because of this,” “For that reason,”… because God created them male and female, there is such a thing as marriage. Nothing Jesus says, either at this point or anywhere else, suggests that his words here do not mean exactly that.

                  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                    Do you accept that Jacob and Rachel were married, as the Bible says they were?

                    Jesus was, at any rate, using the text in order to argue against divorce, much as he creatively used Scripture to silence Saducees. None of these points seems to invalidate the points made in the original post above.

                    • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

                      Perhaps they were joined by man but not by God? His married life certainly was not blessed by God, that is for sure: Perhaps that’s the reason. I still say that Jesus very strongly links marriage as a concept, at it’s very core, to God creating us male and female.

                      I feel that we won’t really get much further here. I’ll just leave with a question. On what grounds, then, does one go about condemning any sin (not any person: Any sin)? On what grounds does one say that adultery is a sin? On what grounds does one say that marriage should only contain two people? Who’s to say that eventually it will not be discovered that lust can really be quite fulfilling, and that it was only cultural bias that caused Jesus to condemn it?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      It is a good question to ask why we reject a form or marriage accepted in the Bible, namely polygamy. It is because our culture’s thinking about marriage is different than that of the culture that was the background to the Bible.

                      As for what makes something sinful, Jesus gave us clear principles to guide us. In the stories in the Gospels, he allows concern for other human beings to trump sacred rules about shewbred or sabbath.

                    • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

                      Ah, but one of the ways Jesus showed concern for people was turning them away from sin (see John 8:11). You’re basically saying that everything in the Bible except for YOUR version of love boils down to cultural differences.

                      I can play that game too: If sin exists, than it’s more loving to attempt to bring the person out of the sin than to allow them to feel at home in it. I agree that can be done poorly, and that people can use these words to mask hate. That doesn’t invalidate the fact that if Paul is correct in saying that homosexuality is objectively wrong (at least we’ve established that: You just say we should disagree with him), then it is more loving to attempt to bring people out of it.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I am not saying any such thing, and there is no way that one can treat the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John in general as words of the historical Jesus, so how much less words that are not even in our oldest copies of that Gospel?

  • Frank

    So when is someone going to present a ”
    Well-Thought-Out Christian Rationale Behind Christian Acceptance of Gays and Lesbians” as the headline promised?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Which part of the post did you not understand?

      • Frank

        I understood all of it but I am still looking for the well thought out rationale.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Some folks may appreeciate this discussion of the Biblical passages usually felt to be most relevant to this issue: http://www.matthewvines.com/transcript


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