N.T. Wright on Same-Sex Marriage

N.T. Wright is someone who is highly respected in Christian academic circles across the board. Interestingly, he’s also highly respected among progressive Christians who lean toward the left (sometimes leaning hard) on both social and theological issues.

I enjoyed spending several hours with Wright in conversation on our way to and back from a conference wherein we spoke together. We talked about many topics, including the Pauline authorship of Ephesians and the South Galatian theory (re: Galatians), which were particular encouraging to me given our common views on those subjects.

(You can read more about those conversations in my interview with Wright called Mixing It Up with N.T. Wright.)

Recently, Wright was interviewed before an audience and asked to share his views on gay marriage.

Wright didn’t hesitate to give his reasoning on same-sex marriage.

Elsewhere Wright has articulated that he believes homosexuality is condemned in the New Testament, yet he takes what I’ve called “the third view” on the subject, along with people like David Fitch, Greg Boyd, Ben Witherington, and many others.

See Rethinking Homosexuality for examples of the third view.


What do you think are the major challenges to the church and the Christian message in the light of the current legislation on the redefinition of marriage?

N. T. Wright: Obviously huge issues there, and there’s no way we can lay them all out tonight. I do want to say a word about a word. When anybody—pressure groups, governments, civilizations—suddenly change the meaning of key words, you really should watch out. If you go to a German dictionary and just open at random, you may well see several German words which have a little square bracket saying “N.S.,” meaning National Socialist or Nazi.

The Nazis gave those words a certain meaning. In post-1917 Russia, there were whole categories of people who were called “former persons,” because by the Communist diktat they had ceased to be relevant for the state, and once you call them former persons it was extremely easy to ship them off somewhere and have them killed.

In the same way, there was a letter in the Times Literary Supplement just a few weeks ago saying that when we’re talking about assisted suicide, we shouldn’t actually use words like “suicide,” “killing,” and those sort of words because those imply that you shouldn’t do it.

Whereas now our civilization is saying that maybe there are reasons for that. I find that sort of stuff chilling, the attempt to change an ideology within a culture by changing the language.

Now, the word “marriage,” for thousands of years and cross-culturally has meant man and woman. Sometimes it’s been one man and more than one woman. Occasionally it’s been one woman and more than one man. There is polyandry as well as polygamy in some societies in some parts of history, but it’s always been male plus female.

Simply to say that you can have a woman-plus-woman marriage or a man-plus-man marriage is radically to change that because of the givenness of maleness and femaleness. I would say that without any particular Christian presuppositions at all, just cross-culturally, that’s so.

With Christian or Jewish presuppositions, or indeed Muslim, then if you believe in what it says in Genesis 1 about God making heaven and earth—and the binaries in Genesis are so important—that heaven and earth, and sea and dry land, and so on and so on, and you end up with male and female. It’s all about God making complementary pairs which are meant to work together.

The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.

If you say that marriage now means something which would allow other such configurations, what you’re saying is actually that when we marry a man and a woman we’re not actually doing any of that stuff. This is just a convenient social arrangement and sexual arrangement and there it is . . . get on with it.

It isn’t that that is the downgrading of marriage, it’s something that clearly has gone on for some time which is now poking it’s head above the parapet. If that’s what you thought marriage meant, then clearly we haven’t done a very good job in society as a whole and in the church in particular in teaching about just what a wonderful mystery marriage is supposed to be. Simply at that level, I think it’s a nonsense. It’s like a government voting that black should be white. Sorry, you can vote that if you like, you can pass it by a total majority, but it isn’t actually going to change the reality.

The other thing I find worrying is that I was struck this week—this is a memory, and you may not agree with the judgment that precedes it—but eleven years ago, no, actually ten years ago, almost right now, we were about to go to war against Iraq. I sat in my kitchen and I listened to Tony Blair making the great speech on how we should go and bomb Iraq (it was the day before they actually started). I thought at the time and I still think that that speech was absolutely full of holes.

It was begging questions, it was missing points, it was slipping cogs in the logic. Yet all the papers were on board, almost everyone in Parliament was on board, with only a few grouchy people, and I remember thinking at the time: This is absolutely crazy. We should not be doing this and there’s all sorts of what-ifs which we haven’t thought through. I have to say, over the last ten years I have seen no reason to change that judgment at all.

I sense something of the same mood this week. All the press is on-side, most of Parliament’s on-side, and people are saying—get this—that unless you support this, you’re on the wrong side of history. Excuse me.

Did you see University Challenge last night? There was a nice question: Somebody said, who was it who said in 1956, “History is on our side and we will bury you”? One of the contestants got the answer right: It was Nikita Khrushchev. When people claim, “We’re going with the flow of history,” that’s just a rhetorical smokescreen. So, that’s where I am.

What do you think? Is Wright right or is Wright wrong and why?


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  • He also very recently addressed this in an interview here: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/06/03/nt-wright-homosexuality-science-gender/

    I thought this was particularly well-put:

    “All human beings some of the time, and some human beings most of the time, have deep heartfelt longings for kinds of sexual intimacy or gratification (multiple partners, pornography, whatever) which do not reflect the creator’s best intentions for his human creatures, intentions through which new wisdom and flourishing will come to birth. Sexual restraint is mandatory for all, difficult for most, extremely challenging for some. God is gracious and merciful but this never means “so his creational standards don’t really matter after all.”

  • GHerblabnik

    So far the counter points have only cried “bigotry” – typical name-calling without sound reasoning. And just because there were same-sex relations in societies throughout time, it doesn’t justify them against God’s Word or even nature. The point N.T. Wright is making is biblically based. The bigot label is thrown by those who have decided the Bible is wrong and anyone who opposes them is a bigot. It all boils down to whether you believe God’s Word from the origins of creation or you don’t.
    To address the change of position that Obama made – it’s no different than the change in position that some denominations have made toward accepting gay marriage. They have abandoned sound biblical teaching in favor of the popular, secular positions of the day. Some pastors/leaders, like politicians, change their positions to be accepted by the secular society and to keep the money coming into the church.
    The Bible speaks of a day when God’s true people will not be able to buy or sell unless the conform to a societal standards (taking the mark) contrary to God’s Word. That day is upon us. We already have bakeries being forced to do business (making wedding cakes for gay marriages) contrary to their beliefs of be shutdown.
    Time to choose. Either God is God or you are god. Judgement day will sort out who was right and none of us will be sitting on that judgement seat.

  • Actually, the important point that Wright is defining marriage HISTORICALLY throughout cultures for centuries. It seems to me that you are projecting the smokescreen you’re using onto him. I’ll try again: his argument isn’t about relationships but the idea of marriage historically and not just in America in this century. Neither is it about American law.

    In fact, you’ve mentioned American law several times, but N.T. Wright is not American and he never mentioned American law.

    Your comments seem to indicate that you haven’t read or heard him carefully. It appears that you just skimmed what he said because you’re arguments aren’t pointed toward what he’s actually said.

    His comparison with Nazi, etc. were about how language and word meanings have been changed historically. He wasn’t smearing you or anyone else (as you have him by imputing evil motives to his heart).

    Anyways, the Blog Manager says he’s going to end our dialogue here because he wants others to comment. Right now, the thread is being dominated by our back and forth which has now moved into repeats.

    Let’s hear from others.

  • smg77

    Yes, President Obama was a bigot until he changed his stance. N.T. Wright should follow his example.

  • ahermit

    The important point there is that same sex relationships have been accepted as equal to heterosexual unions in the past.

    It’s absurd to suggest that marriage as defined in 21st century American law is the standard to which we should hold the ancients and other cultures when deciding what constituted an equivalent to heterosexual relationships in some other time and place. That’s where the dishonesty appears. Or maybe it’s honest ignorance but either way it’s misleading.

    What you’re calling “nuance” looks like a smokescreen to me. I’m sorry but if the purpose of the argument is to reinforce existing conditions in which same sex couples and their families are denied equal protection under the law than I have a hard time seeing that as anything but a bad motive (especially when he starts out by comparing the other side to Nazis… do you have no ethical concerns about that little smear tactic?)

  • This is a straw man. Wright is talking about “marriage” … you’re talking about “relationships.” He isn’t saying that same sex relationships weren’t common or endorsed in some cultures. He is saying that same sex MARRIAGE wasn’t/isn’t.

    One can say that your “whole approach is dishonest” since you’re using a straw man tactic here. I’d prefer to think the best of your intentions and that you didn’t read him carefully enough to notice the nuance. Wright deserves the same from you. Again, you’ve imputed bad motives to his heart. Whether you agree or disagree with his position, the former is unethical. And it weakens your argument.

  • ahermit

    First of all he misrepresents history when he claims that same sex relationships have never been recognized as legitimate. The Greeks and Romans celebrated same sex relationships, so did Native American cultures, the Mesopotamians and some Asian cultures.

    Second, he doesn’t make much of argument there, he just throws around comparisons to Nazis and Kruschev.

    His whole approach here is fundamentally dishonest.

    And correct me if I’m wrong, but he is opposed to legal same sex marriage is he not? The purpose of all this allegedly intellectual posturing is to prop up the resistance to ending discrimination in civil marriage laws.

  • Hu? Wright’s argument contradicts all of this. He’s speaking about the concept and word “marriage,” not legal rights. It’s all in the transcript. Also, you’ve imputed a motive to his heart by suggesting he’s “rationalizing bigotry.” It’s intellectually dishonest to do so as (1) you don’t know the man’s heart and (2) there’s not a hint of bigotry in his argument. It’s historical and intellectual. You may want to retract the accusation. I know Wright personally and he’s not a bigot. If he was, thousands of progressive Christians and liberal theologians wouldn’t endorse him. False personal accusations only discredit one’s argument. Keep the argument on the intellectual field where his is and that lends credibility. Just sayin.

  • ahermit

    Marriage has been defined in many different ways and marriage traditions vary greatly across time and place.Currently in America the legal definition accords more than a thousand legal rights and benefits on couple who make a public commitment to living their lives as a couple. Legal rights and benefits which are
    withheld from same sex couples for no good reason.

    Denying people equal treatment under the law just because of who they are is bigotry.

    And yes, Obama had a bigoted opinion for all those years. I give him credit for growing up and learning and getting past it.

    It’s not true, by the way, that same sex relationships have been universally taboo throughout history. The Greeks, the Romans and North American Aboriginals all tolerated, recognized and even honoured same sex couples.

  • VL Burton

    NT makes an excellent point without actually making it, which is most people can’t think beyond the end of their noses. Follow every line of thinking to its logical conclusion…this type of critical thinking is no longer taught, apparently.

  • Really? Where is there bigotry in his argument? You do realize that President Obama opposed same-sex marriage before 2011 – was he a bigot all those years beforehand?

  • Where is there bigotry in his argument? You do realize that President Obama opposed same sex marriage prior to 2011 – see point #2 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/media – does that make him a “bigot” for all those years?

  • smg77

    N.T. Wright is just another bigot.

  • TheSquirrel

    Marriage was a thing before your religion even existed.

  • ahermit

    The lengths that people go to to rationalize their bigotry is really astounding.