The debate about gay marriage is an ongoing one that apparently places the church’s theology in an direct confrontation with modern liberal society. In the US, gay marriage has been legalized in some states and the UK is currently going through political discussions in Westminster as old-hand Tories (and that’s how they largely seem in this situation) argue against the senior members of their parties (and most members of the other parties) who suggest that it should be legalized in an opt-in manner such that opposing churches aren’t obliged to hold the services.
What the problem is with a publicly supported opt-in system whereby dioceses that are theologically opposed can still refuse, I’m not so sure. The marriage matter is certainly multi-faceted – there’s the legal/tax aspect in which most people agree that homosexual couples should have the same status as heterosexual couples; there’s the linguistic/cultural aspect of marriage in which homosexuals believe that their marriages should have the same cultural substance as heterosexual – which apart from the religious sticking point, most people believe they should do (and this has also lead LGBT campaigners to support the availability of the perceptively less substantial civil partnerships being on offer for heterosexuals); then there’s the religious aspect whereby Christian homosexuals especially, but not in isolation, want the same religious ramifications for same-sex ‘marriage’ as heterosexual marriage.
The last point is – or at least should be – the only issue for debate in terms of gay marriage in the church and is the only point preventing the parlance of marriage from replacing the presently separating phrase ‘Civil Partnerships’. The religious point is a largely theological one for Christian opposers and this is perhaps too often forgotten by anti-Christian proponents in this regard. On the converse, the theological depiction of marriage is one that is too often obfuscated by tradition in the church, while it is also too often simplified by pro-gay-marriage arguers. This debate is an interesting one for Christian moralists (and one I’m about to have) but it is not one that should have any impact on our secular law. That the church will still be given choice on the matter should make the legal status of marriage irrelevant to their own theological quibbling; any protestations against Cameron’s propositions are quite frankly desperate and reflect a futile desire of the church to pervade an increasingly ambivalent secular society.
But the theology is of interest. It should be noted that the oft-cited, school-taught RS Biblical references used on the discussion of homosexuality are not of particular interest. For starters, absolutely literal interpretations of the Bible have been out of fashion among academic theologians for quite a while as even the most Protestant of mainstream theologians, Karl Barth, admits that the human hand with which God’s word is written is flawed by its human nature. Such is the cultural and historical nature of the biblical tradition, it is problematic to say there is a unified moral system from such a human interpretation as it is. As theologian at the University of Essex Dr Esther D Reed notes, “The polyphonic authorial point of view is not single, fixed or monologic, but multiple and dynamic, almost creating chaos and lack of direction because many different voices coexist and interact”.
What more conservative theologians and Bible students will insist about, though, is that the means to which morals can be derived from the Bible are themselves revealed within the Bible. Despite its obfuscation through the flawed and ‘fallen’ minds of human beings, that which is in the Bible is believed to be guided or inspired by God – this belief is paramount for Christian’s you’d think. In this sense, the Bible as the human transcription of God’s word through history, is still of the utmost importance for Christians – as the prominent 20th century theologian Stanley Hauerwas noted, the Bible is “profoundly important in the process of ethical decision-making”…“within the community of believers”.
Of course the greatest human speaker of God’s word is Jesus Christ as the “Word made flesh” (John 1.14) (the Christological connotations of that sentence can be discussed elsewhere let’s say). In this sense Jesus’ deeds and teachings are of the greatest importance. Though much is made of Jesus’ revolutionary approach to the Old Testament, it would be wrong to say that Jesus overrules the Old Testament. He came ‘not to abolish but to fulfil’ (Matt 5.17) the Old Testament, so it would be wrong to say that Jesus’ emphasis on love as the primary attribute for followers of God renders the laws of the Old Testament irrelevant. But Jesus’ hermeneutic of love as the guiding principle of God’s word provides an important perspective with which to look at some of the historically and culturally affected teachings of the Old Testament.
So, in reference to homosexuality, in terms of those oft-cited Old Testament commandments, intelligent, biblically-based and reasoned love should shape the interpretation and give important perspective about the often superficially condemning commands. Context is often important in this regard. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is now interpreted as primarily the condemnation of the sin of being inhospitable for example; Leviticus 18 and 19 were largely tribal purity laws which are not so relevant in time of great cleanliness. It is also important to remember that historically homosexual acts (identifiable ‘homosexuality’ is actually rather modern, first mentioned independently of the acts of same-sex activity in Westphal’s famous article of 1870 on “contrary sexual sensations”) have been against a moral zeitgeist that is independent of ours now, in the same way that racism and slavery have been ‘morally’ permissible in previous cultures and traditions.
For all the importance placed on the New Testament as opposed to the Old Testament, there are passages in the New Testament that seem against our current moral zeitgeist such as Paul’s apparent dismissal of the equal rights of women. Of course whether our own moral zeitgeist is morally right or not is a matter for intense debate, but the equality of women and men is something that is difficult to argue against (despite the archaic vote against women bishops by the Church of England recently). But it is important to remember that Paul too was writing at a time when cultural conditions were different and while it would be pointless for liberal Christians to be seen as picking and choosing parts of the Bible that suit their modern moral position, the hermeneutic of love and reason, as shown by Jesus, allows for some perspective. Such reason and love allows the acknowledgement that a lot of the seemingly misogynistic passages in Paul are actually not quite as they seem – for example, 1 Corinthians 7:1 is often cited for saying “It is well for a man not to touch a woman”, but the passage goes on to say in 1 Corinthians 7:4, “Let the husband give to his wife what is owed to her, and likewise the wife to the husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” – this is remarkably egalitarian considering Paul was writing for what would have been a largely misogynistic society.
In reference to homosexuality, Paul is again often cited in Romans 1:26-32 as saying the following:
“For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions ; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil ; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice ; they are gossips, launderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful ; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.”
To return to the point of the article, it is also in Paul that marriage as a Christian concept is also most prominent and it is important to look at both within the concept of Paul’s theology. This is important because Paul can be read not just as condemning homosexuality, but as condemning sex in general. Take these two passages from Paul:
“Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Rom 5:16-26);
“Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:8).
If both of these were taken as the primary theological teaching on sexual conduct, then everyone is condemned, not just homosexuals. The important thing to note with Paul, though, is that his moral teachings are not intended to show us how to be perfect, because Paul – as can be seen above – is pretty adamant that human beings are not capable of such perfection – he points this out again when describing us as “slaves of sin” (Rom 6:17). Jesus taught us that love is our greatest means towards living as God wills us and as such God, through his love, gives means for us to live better lives within the fallen world we live in. This is where marriage, as the way which God allows our lusts to be directed towards loving ends, is important to Paul. This much is clear in the following passages:
“It is better to marry than to burn” (7:9);
“Because of porneia, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (1. Cor 7:2).
So there is the grounding of marriage – God’s given framework in which man’s sexual fires (lust) are prevented from burning us. Despite the traditional concept of marriage as being intended towards the caring of children in the family, such Tory values are not particularly theologically grounded – surprisingly little is said in the Bible about children in this context, while the natural law[i] theology that assumes sex’s purpose is reproduction has little Biblical backing (and those who preach Gen 28:14 in the context of reproduction should probably look to the population problems that blight the lives of Bangladeshis and in China among others). Marriage’s Biblical foundation is that it is the institution whereby our fallen lusts are restrained.
In reference to homosexuality, the institution is Biblically framed within the ‘ezer kenegdo’ – Genesis 2:18 which says that man and is united to his wife to “become one flesh”. That this is then affirmed by Jesus in Matt 19:3-6 is the most pertinent Christian grounding for opposition against homosexual marriage. As theologian Richard Hays surmises, “The point of Jesus’ citation of this text is not that Adam and Eve were good examples of how to live out a marriage commitment; rather, the point is that God constituted a normative reality by making them male and female and joining them together as one flesh.”
So here is the contradiction between the secular belief that homosexual compatibility in marriage is legitimate and validated and the apparent Biblical position that such suitability is not possible. Yet looking at the context again of Jesus teachings, it is worth remembering that Jesus was talking to Jewish people 2,000 years ago at a time when marriage was typically between men and women and when homosexuality was not looked at as a genuine psychological aspect of a person’s identity, but looked at solely through lustful acts. What is it that is important about the “one flesh”, porneia preventing aspect of marriage? Well the answer is obvious because it is the principle that Jesus makes the most prominent in Christian morality – love. Jesus teaches this with the ‘Golden Rule’ (Mat 7:12) and the ‘Greatest Commandment’ (Mat37-40) while some Christologies depict Jesus as being God through his love. The moral commandments of Paul are intended to point us towards the best means towards this love in our fallen lives –marriage is construed as the best means for our sexual activity because it allows for the manifestation of love.
With this in mind, should homosexual marriage be proven to manifest in genuine Christ-like love, then the reasons for opposition seem to be more arbitrarily based in the historical context of the Biblical writings, rather than morally reasoned through God’s love as revealed by Jesus. I tend to agree with theologian Ian Markham who argued that “the sincere giving of love in a committed relationship is good, whatever the marital situation or the sexual orientation of the couple”. There may be those who disagree theologically with the argument I’ve made, and if this is so, then they can choose not to go to a church that opts in to the proposed legislated changes, and if they have choice in the matter, opt their church out. However, the theological nature of marriage and homosexuality in reference to it is not as simple as many presume, and this should be remembered by all sides concerned. Christians of all sexual orientations should be given the legal right to chose in favour as well though, for there are important arguments that suggest that the allowing of homosexual marriages is a means to genuine Christian love.
[i] To simplify Natural Law can be summarized with this from St Thomas Aquinas: all created things have a ‘natural tendency to pursue whatever behaviour and goals are appropriate to them’. However, humans, being rational creatures, ‘follow God’s plan in a more profound way’. The physicalist interpretation interprets this as being the idea that what things that are natural to us are good; more modern interpretations of this view this as a form of human flourishing i.e. living according to God’s love as shown to us by Jesus. The latter has come about largely because the physicalist interpretation makes the naturalistic fallacy of deducing an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ – an ungrounded move to make.