What is the Christian view of marriage? Of human sexuality generally? Today on the news, I heard one Christian (a Presbyterian minister) declare that God’s plan was for marriage to be between a man and a woman, and I heard another self-described Christian declare that “fags are lawless.” These were, literally, the only voices I heard in opposition to marriage equality today, and they were both Christians, and while one was respectful, neither really represents my understanding of Christianity, the Biblical tradition, or the nature of God.
Among my own Christian friends, through the magic of Facebook, I saw two reactions to the Supreme Court arguments on marriage equality. One reaction was support for equal rights to marriage. Many people posted and reposted statuses and profile photos that proclaimed their solidarity with gay and lesbian folks in their pursuit of equal rights, often with a specific note that they were doing so because they were Christian. The other reaction was silence. Many of my more conservative friends didn’t say anything at all, either for or against. Knowing many of them, this was in part an attempt to avoid controversy. But I also wonder if the silence wasn’t also the product of a creeping question: what if all these people who support marriage equality are on to something, and what if God is now doing a new thing, as Scripture promises God will do from time to time? What if the societal change of opinion on the issue has something to do with the workings of the Holy Spirit, and what if there’s something here I should pay attention to?
Just in case those are the questions some are asking, and just in case some were confused by why their Christian friends would ever support equal rights for gay and lesbian people (and everybody else, for that matter), here is a primer of one progressive Christian’s view of human marriage and sexuality, in six parts.
1. There is no normative Biblical marriage. The Bible contains marriages between one man and one woman. But it also contains lots of other kinds of marriages—between soldiers and captives, a woman and her dead husband’s brother (seriously), between rape victims and their rapists, and, of course polygamy. In fact, if there is one major Biblical normative type of marriage, it is polygamy. Because of this, any claims that God’s plan is for marriage to be between one man and one woman will run into serious problems—namely, that it is not supported by the Biblical evidence. Speaking of Biblical evidence….
2. ….it is true that there are several passages in the Bible that appear to condemn homosexuality. But upon closer inspection, including attention to the original languages and contexts, they are a great deal more complicated. Some seem to refer to specific cultic contexts or concerns about ritual purity; others might have more to do with social order, temple prostitution, or hospitality. The arguments about these texts are well-worn and will never be definitively solved one way or the other, since they are matters of interpretation. Which leads us to….
3. ….Biblical ethics and a holistic view of the Biblical tradition. People who do think that the Bible is clear in its condemnation of homosexuality and promotion of one-man, one-woman marriage (despite the evidence) are still faced with a problem. The Bible is troublesome, to say the least, when viewed as a handbook for modern living. Right next to the frequently-cited passages from Leviticus 18 and 20 are passages condemning the eating of shrimp and pork, condemning the wearing of garments of more than one type of fiber, and of course condemning the mixing of milk and meat in the same dish or meal. (Hope you don’t like bacon cheeseburgers). And right next to the Romans 1 passage that is quoted so often, elsewhere in the Pauline canon are affirmations of slavery and the silence of women in churches. So unless we are willing to be intellectually honest Biblical literalists—to really be Biblical literalists, which almost zero Christians are—the Bible needs interpreting. It does not interpret itself. Which leads us to….4. ….what can we know of creation? One of my convictions (along with many Christians down through the ages) is that God speaks both through Scripture and through nature—that “even the stones cry out.” If science is telling us that homosexuality is not a choice, but that it is a biological trait, then are we to believe that God’s creative power has failed? Are we to believe that it is flawed? Or, should we not rather trust that God makes us just the way we are, and that God doesn’t make junk (as we used to reassure kids at the summer camp where I used to be a counselor)? Which leads to the question….
5. ….what kind of God do you think God is? Is God hateful? Is God petty? If you find yourself thinking, “well, I don’t see what the big deal is, but God’s law says to condemn people who do these things,” you should stop and think. Are you more merciful than God? Are you more righteous than God? Put another way (and a very ancient way, in a tradition of thinking well-worn by Christians from the beginning), for God to be God, God’s mercy, justice, righteousness, love, and knowledge must surpass ours. Unless God is a petty tyrant, surpassed even by the likes of us in what we might call “humanity,” then God is “out ahead of us,” in the recent words of Rob Bell, calling us forward in love. Which leads us at last to….
6. ….love. “God is love,” scripture says. Where love flourishes, God is pleased. This three-word sentence is as simple as theology and Biblical interpretation get. God is love.
The debate over marriage equality among people of faith is not held between those who read the Bible and those who don’t. It is not held between those who love God and those who don’t. It is not held between those who follow Christ and those who don’t. It is held between people with different understandings of God’s view of sexuality and marriage, gleaned faithfully from prayer, Bible study, reflection, and learning. I know many faithful Christians on all sides of this issue, and perhaps we should be content to trust, in the words of Paul, that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
Many will read this and consider it heresy, because it does not comport with what they already think they know about the Bible. That’s fine. But for those who have heard a still, small voice—those who have had that subtle inkling that God’s embrace might be still wider than we have imagined—I encourage you to keep searching. Keep searching your own heart, keep plumbing the Scriptures, and keep your ears and eyes open for the new thing God is doing in the world. And trust that God is love, and be God’s love in this world.
The Rev. Eric Smith is Minister of Community Life at First Plymouth Congregational Church in Denver, CO. He has a Master of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt Divinity School and is currently a PhD candidate in Biblical Interpretation in the Joint PhD Program of Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver. He was ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 2007.