This guest post was written by Katie van Santen
This article is aimed to be an overview and primer for the possibility of a biblical interpretation that enables the support of same-sex marriage. It does not explore every possible argument, but links are provided to further reading and background information. The views expressed are mine and do not represent the church of which I am a member or any of those at which I preach.
One of two statements is often heard in regards to an individual’s position on SSA (same-sex attraction), which can be paraphrased as:
“I take the ‘traditional’ view because I believe what’s in the Bible.”
“I take the ‘revisionist’ view because of a family member or friend.”
However, both views have the support of biblical interpretation. Those taking the ‘revisionist’ view do not reject biblical authority, but have a different interpretation of the texts to those who take the ‘traditional’ view.
Sometimes the context of a passage means the ‘surface’ or literal reading is the least important in terms of truth about God and our relationship with Him. Scripture is authoritative because it is the Word of God, and we must seek what God says through the Bible, rather than what the Bible says: ‘the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6). We must guard against making an idol out of scripture.
Firstly I would like to share my own journey. I had a ‘traditional’ view based on teaching, inherited wisdom, and reading of the Bible. Simply, sex belongs only in marriage, and as same-sex marriage wasn’t possible, I saw no allowance for homosexual sex. When that law changed I had to rethink this position, and I began to understand the history of the oppression of homosexuality and the desperation of gay and lesbian people to have their life-long relationships legally and morally recognised. I took a position that it was OK for non-Christians but that civil partnership wasn’t appropriate for Christians. Later, as I studied theology, I became aware of the contextual situation of scripture, and how the ‘surface’ reading that I had been educated with missed much of the deep truth of God’s revelation. When it came to thinking once again about sexuality during a module on Christian ethics, I realised that my belief had changed. I still believe that sexual activity outside of marriage is outside of God’s will (‘sin’), but came to understand that the life-long monogamy of same-sex Christian couples could not be compared to the exploitation forbidden by scripture. Therefore through scripture and reason I came to a ‘revisionist’ position.
Despite a firm belief that it doesn’t matter what you might assume about my own sexuality, I feel I should declare that I have no vested interests here: I am straight/heterosexual. But I came to a point of vocal support for the acceptance of same-sex marriage through my own experience: in the same way that I belong to a minority group (through disability) and need the majority to voice their support of my equality, rights and worth, I need to voice my support of other minorities. And I ought to say that I do not think I am voicing my opinion to be culturally comfortable at the expense of an ‘uncomfortable biblical truth’: there is more discomfort in being counter-traditional within my church than comfort in my counter-cultural interactions with non-Christians.
Views on marriage have changed dramatically over time, and our perception of ‘biblical’ marriage is very different to that of the Israelites or first-century Jews. Only relatively recently have we begun to understand the biology, psychology and sociology that underpins the human condition. The definition of ‘traditional, biblical’ marriage as ‘a covenant between one man and one woman for life’ also raises questions regarding the changing attitudes to divorce and remarriage. Also relevant is the integrity (or lack thereof) of expectations for heterosexual sexual behaviour outside of marriage. These won’t be covered further here but can’t be isolated from the current discussion.
In Israel, men controlled a woman’s purity and reproduction. The purpose of marriage was to produce legitimate heirs to inherit without dispute. In Hebrew culture, marriages were arranged by the fathers and were purely civil, with no religious ceremony. Often while still children, a bride-price was agreed, a contract was signed, and the couple were betrothed. The bride remained in her father’s house. Once the couple were both old enough, and the money had been saved, a date for the wedding was set. The groom and companions came to the bride’s home and paid the bride-price. The wedding party then processed to the groom’s house, the marriage was consummated, and the wedding feast occurred. Thus, Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:5, Ephesians 5:31: ‘a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’. The Bible is unclear as to what defines marriage: in the Old Testament wives and concubines held different status, yet Jesus says that once two become ‘one flesh’ God has joined them together (Matthew 19:5-6), and Paul (1 Corinthians 6:15-16) uses the same ‘one flesh’ language for sex with a prostitute as for marriage.
Priests only became involved in Christian marriages the 12th Century and it became a sacrament of the church in the 16th Century. The Reformers declared that marriage was purely secular. The Book of Common Prayer (1662) lists the purpose of marriage as “the procreation of children; a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; and the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other” without reference to love. The idea of romantic attraction and personal choice of partner were raised in the Enlightenment and popularised only by the Victorians. The Old Testament permitted polygamy (Deuteronomy 21:16-17), handmaids (Genesis 16:1-4) and concubines (Genesis 22:24), along with slavery; women had to marry their rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). There are still Christians who believe that 1 Corinthians 7:4 and Ephesians 5:23 permits marital rape as an outworking of the husband’s authority.
Sexuality is a term created by psychologists in the late 19th century. Prior to that there was no concept of sexual orientation, only heterosexual and homosexual practices. From the 14th Century, a ‘sodomite’ was one who performed the act of ‘sodomy’ (anal sex with the same or opposite sex). Therefore there is no concept of our modern understanding of homosexuality in the Bible, nor of monogamous homosexual relationships; the term ‘homosexuality’ was first used in a biblical translation in 1946. As marriage was for procreation and property, there could be no concept of same-sex marriage until the recent changes in attitudes towards love, women and legitimacy. That there are no examples in the Bible doesn’t stop us driving cars, using plastic, and eating chocolate – these are all things that we see as positive progression.
The strongest argument against same-sex relationships is Jesus’ reference to the order of creation in Genesis (Matthew 19). However, against Jesus’ clear teaching we have come to accept that divorce for reasons other than adultery, such as abuse or neglect, are legitimate. Against scripture and tradition we have allowed our reason and experience to guide us to a different standard. Paul also appealed to the order of creation in saying women should be quiet and submissive, and that they cannot teach (1 Timothy 2:11-15), which we have rejected as culturally-specific and not applicable to today.
Paul had no scriptural or traditional leg to stand on when he completely rejected circumcision (Galatians 5). All of Hebrew scripture and tradition required circumcision to belong to the people of God: the Bible is clear that circumcision was not optional, and it had always been that way; Jesus had nothing to say on the matter. And yet Paul knew that God’s new radically inclusive community required the elimination of this practice, eliminating the control and exclusivity and acceptability connected to this practice. He condemned discord, dissention and factions (5:20) but confidently called out those who were trying to maintain scripture and tradition at the expense of love (5:2-4, 12). For Paul, everything was changed by the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, and scripture and tradition were not enough to make something true or right.
The Bible is a record of the developing relationship of God and His people over thousands of years. Some clear biblical imperatives have been left behind as they no longer fitted into the revelation of the character of God’s love, while other theologies developed from those emerging revelations. Scripture and scriptural interpretation are not unchanging: it is the Living Word, not a dead book.
There are few mentions of homosexual activity in the bible. Those that are presented as condemning homosexuality are discussed here with contextual and cultural background that point to a different interpretation. I highly recommend these three essays for more.
Some Levitical laws make sense to us today, clearly intending to keep the population healthy and free from disease (i.e. blood, mildew, pork). Other laws were for ritual purity, setting Israel apart from the behaviour of surrounding nations (Leviticus 18:1-5, 20:23-24). Some we accept as still being ‘applicable’ (murder, theft, incest) while others we have allowed to be ‘of their time’ (cloth made of two fibres, shellfish, sideburns). Some authors put these verses into a temple-prostitution context: the Hebrew tow’ebah elsewhere means ritual impurity and idolatry. Professor Adrian Thatcher suggests that, in the context of the patriarchal society, it is the phrase ‘as a woman’ that is most informative: treating a man as a woman, therefore degrading his status to that of property, is the catastrophic transgression.
Paul was writing to Christians in Rome, a place that worshipped a pantheon of gods, including acts of both male and female temple prostitution to confer favourable fertility. Paul condemns men and women who glorify false gods and commit shameful acts ‘inflamed with lust’: idolatry, promiscuity, and temple prostitution. Paul talks about ‘unnatural’ sexual relations here, but he also says that for men to have long hair is ‘unnatural’ (1 Corinthians 11:14). The individual people I know who are Christian and gay or lesbian do not fall into the classification of the lust-filled sexual deviants of this passage. They are not “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity”, or “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice”. They are not “gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful”; they do not “invent ways of doing evil” or “disobey their parents”; they do not “have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.” They are clearly not the kind of people that Paul had in mind when he wrote against the same-sex behaviour of Rome.
The NIVUK (2011) translates 1 Corinthians 6 as “nor men who have sex with men… will inherit the kingdom of God” with a footnote referencing two Greek terms meaning “the passive and active participants in homosexual acts”. The terms are malakos and arsenokoites. The latter of these also appears in 1 Timothy 1.
Malakos appears four times in the New Testament, of which three are translated as ‘soft’ in relation to fine clothing (Matthew 11:8; Like 7:25). In other Greek texts it is used to mean metaphorically ‘soft’, i.e. spineless in the face of injustice, or lacking self-control, rather than effeminate or homosexual.
Arsenokoites appears only in these two passages. It is commonly thought to be a word coined by Paul, from the Septuagint translation of Leviticus 18 and 20. In other Greek literature it references exploitation and abuse of the poor. In 1 Timothy 1 it is listed between pornos, a male/boy prostitute, and andrapodistes, a slave dealer. Therefore arsenokoites (literally ‘male-bedder’) appears in the context of abuses of power or idolatry rather than a loving, monogamous homosexual relationship. Many believe it refers to ‘pederasty’ – the normal Greek and Roman practice of an older man having a sexual relationship with a younger man or boy, slave, or social inferior, in addition to his wife and/or male and female prostitutes.
In the context of the Bible as a whole, these six passages are better interpreted as speaking against social injustice, exploitation of power, and idolatry for one’s own gain. Scripture also tells that not all are called to singleness (1 Corinthians 7:9). Even in his perfect relationship with God, Adam needed another human being (Genesis 2:18); in response God didn’t create a community or intimate friendship, but a sexual and romantic partnership. Sex is important within marriage, but marriage is about so much more than sex: Tony Campolo changed his view on same-sex marriage based on his understanding of the spiritual purposes of marriage.
Humanity, in its collective entirety, was made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27: in the image of God… he created them). God is not gendered or sexual but is relational in the Trinity. In the second account of creation (Genesis 2:4ff) God made Adam (2:7), and later Eve (2:21). There is no record of any in-between, yet Jesus mentions eunuchs that were ‘born that way’ (Matthew 19:12). There are individuals who are born with ambiguous anatomy, mono- or poly-sex chromosomes, excess or deficiency in hormone production and/or hormone receptors. Anatomical and hormonal changes can also be acquired. There is a spectrum in sexual desire from asexual to hypersexual, and in sexual attraction from heterosexual through bisexual to homosexual. There is diversity in human biology and sexuality beyond the simple ‘male’ and ‘female’ dichotomy.
The Genesis account of the order of creation is favoured by those who subscribe to a ‘complementarian’ view of gender: that men and women are equal but different and have different roles within God’s created order. These gender differences underpin the ‘traditional’ leader-helper relationship between a man and woman, and male headship-female submission. While there are biological differences between the sexes, gender roles and requirements are often societal constructions; the jobs, clothes, make-up, hair length, colours, etc. that defined gender stereotypes have all varied over time. As an egalitarian feminist with a teaching/leading role I find imposed limitations purely because of gender (not because of a woman’s character, giftedness or intimacy with Christ) irreconcilable. According the Paul (Galatians 3:28), “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Creation is full of glorious diversity and God saw that creation was ‘very good’. Yet we inconsistently label some of this diversity as ‘good’ and some a ‘result of the fall’. This means that questions of affirming LBGTQ+ identity also must extend to other aspects of diversity: how we treat people based on their race, gender, ethnicity, ability, class, age, wealth, size, health, as well as sexuality. The primary ‘label’ of a human is just that: a human, a person, a child of God. All other aspects of their identity are secondary to the core that they are created loved and lovable.
Over history the Church (as a whole) has acted, in its well-intentioned desire to authentically follow Jesus, to make individuals feel that they are unworthy of love because of their identity. The Church took a ‘biblical’ position on slavery, racism, anti-Semitism, and the inferiority of women until reason and experience prevailed. Then a fresh understanding of the context of the supporting texts allowed reinterpretation of the Bible and consequentially a changed belief.
Dr David Gushee reminds us: “We must cling to Jesus’ example and the way he conducted his ministry… If we do we might notice his warnings about religious self-righteousness and contempt for others deemed to be sinners; his embrace of outcasts and marginalized people; his attacks on those religious leader types who block access to God’s grace…; and perhaps above all his death on the cross for the sins of all of us, beginning with each of us as “chief of sinners.” We must focus tightly on Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord.
Each individual has their own opinion on this topic; I do not speak for every ‘revisionist’. For example, some would say that there are gay and lesbian relationships in the bible, others that the ‘one flesh’ language of scripture is better interpreted to mean spiritual unity than the physical union of sexual intercourse. I haven’t covered gender identity but some have suggested that Joseph’s ‘coat of many colours’ was actually a princess dress and the disruption of gender-norms caused the brothers’ hatred. I haven’t discussed these as this is a deliberately short overview and I’m not widely read on some of these areas.
In conclusion, I think there is strong evidence from the broad sweep of the biblical story and human history to support the recognition of same-sex marriages as a progression of God’s revelation to His people. Jesus broke down or reversed the expectations of who was ‘in’ or ‘out’ of God’s favour and community; he showed God’s love for the excluded and those different from the cultural ‘normal’.
Katie van Santen lives in Plymouth, UK with some lego and quite a few books. She has just completed her Certificate of Higher Education in Theology, Ministry and Mission. Currently she is not a marine biologist or science teacher due to disability, but keeps herself busy as a volunteer aquarium host, visiting preacher, and Fairy Godmother.
Image via Pixabay