Homosexuality: Christian Marriage and Cultural Pressure

Screen Shot 2016-12-03 at 12.28.22 PMWe turn now to the fourth position in the new book Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, edited by Preston Sprinkle. First we looked at William Loader’s rigorous reading of texts about same-sex relations in the Bible in their Jewish context — and he does so in a strong, traditional manner (though he doesn’t think that teaching is normative) — and then at Megan DeFranza’s careful reading of the texts more in line with exploitative relations, while not discussing consensual, monogamous same-sex relations. In our last post in this series we turned to Wesley Hill, a NT professor and fellow Anglican, who proposes to read the texts in light of a biblical theology that he finds carefully expounded by St Augustine. Now we turn to Stephen Holmes, a UK theologian.

Holmes opens with a point about method: “The primary task of theology is to the patient listening to, and repeating of, the scriptural witness, together with the conceptual work of proposing ways of understanding the world that allow the breadth of biblical teaching to be held without qualification or evasion” (166). Loaded, but comprehensive, and he contends to listening to tradition is valuable for hearing how others have listened to the Bible. Our cultural context requires that we re-examine. Holmes is one clear thinker and writer so here’s his substance:

I accept without question that the churches of the West have discriminated in demanding a far higher standard of sexual ethics from LGBT people than from straight people. When set against a historic Christian theology of sexuality, however, I argue that the right response to this is not (primarily) to become more lax in our pastoral dealings with LGBT people, but to become more rigorous in our pastoral dealings with straight people. We need, that is, to recover a Christian understanding of human sexuality as primarily oriented towards procreation, not towards pleasure, and to restate an ethic that takes this orientation seriously. 167-168

For the first four centuries of the life of the church, most writers took this position and justified it from Scripture. Virginity was valued; marriage was acceptable but definitely second best. 169

This chapter repeats in different terms what we already saw in Wesley Hill’s chapter, but it serves to emphasize the major themes of a Christian theory of marriage. In addition, the issue for Christians was not about pleasure but about “why marriage?” once one drops the theory that procreation was to keep the species going and to defeat death’s final word. This often raises the charge of Platonism or gnosticism:

The early Christian struggle to make sense of the goodness of marriage was not about any distrust of the physical world or disgust at the sexual act, but was about belief in the resurrection. 170

Then he turns to Augustine and desire:

[He turns to Augustine:] In view of our theme, it is worth stressing that at the heart of a Christian sexual ethic, and a Christian theology of marriage, is a confession that the erotic desires of every fallen human person are misdirected, warped, and broken. This is true indifferently of straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual—and indeed asexual—desires. 170-171

There are, he famously argued, three goods of marriage: children, faithfulness, and sacrament. 171

This focus on procreation as the primary good of marriage means that marriage must involve man and woman. 171

[Furthermore is the theme of ascesis:] … marriage is a 
school in which our desires are reordered. 172

What then of same-sex relations and marriage? “… the inclusion of sexually active lesbian and gay people in the church can happen only in one of three ways:”

This Christian understanding of marriage might be developed in a way that opens it to same-sex couples.

We might create a wholly new way of life that sits alongside marriage and celibacy, that offers an ethically acceptable sexually active mode of life for same-sex couples.

We might accept the wrongness of same-sex sexual activity but make pastoral accommodation for some people to live that way (as many Protestant churches have done with divorce). 175

Holmes makes now a big point: this set of observations is rooted not in the so-called clobber texts but in the historic understanding of marriage and sexuality in the church. Without those texts this foundation remains the same.

[SMcK: Doubtful to me. These conclusions are established without those biblical texts, but they are in the background. Yes, procreation and complementarity — as he uses the term — are consistently part of the tradition. It is noticeable, too, that he ignores Song of Solomon as do so many others in constructing the meaning of marriage, for in that book procreation is not mentioned and pleasure abounds.]

He shows that in the history of the church, broadly conceived, same sex relations/marriage is opposed because of the procreation principle and because of the complementarity principle. This tradition deserves more attention today.

Why now is this an issue? “There is a simple answer to this, which, however, requires some examination. We have discovered that some people are gay/lesbian—that is, exclusively erotically attracted to people of the same sex—and so it is a matter of justice that gay and lesbian relationships should be permitted, indeed celebrated, in the church” (180). He finds four premises in this, and they together create social pressure on the traditionalists:

1. The “orientation” premise: people are in fact straight or gay or lesbian.
2. The “right to marry” premise: it is a matter of justice that people (consenting adults lacking impediments) should be permitted to marry if they so desire.
3. The “demonstrable virtue” premise: there are in fact many obvious virtues exhibited in gay and lesbian relationships.
4. The “makes licit” premise: the existence of demonstrable virtues within many/most/all examples of a particular sort of human practice renders that practice morally acceptable. 180

I suspect that the felt force lies in another contemporary Western cultural assumption, that it is necessary to be sexually active to be a fulfilled, or even a properly adult, human being, 182

Our sexual desires are not in pressing need of being fulfilled; they are in pressing need of being mastered and reordered so that we may grow into Christlikeness. Marriage is a discipline for the latter, not a permission for the former. 184

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