Soon after the Supreme Court ruling on Same-Sex Marriage in June 2015, a dear friend with an evangelical tradition as her background asked for my thoughts on the matter. Specifically, she wanted to know how I saw this from a biblical perspective. I would not put myself in the ranks of theologians and scholars but I have been a student of things Churchy since I was a child. I have a fair knowledge of scripture and church history. I have a good handle on the debate on the topic over the last three decades. What follows is my response to her. I borrow greatly and plagiarize extensively in this work. Since most of it comes from memory of scholarly works I have read I am not able to site the original authors with accuracy in every instance. This is more my retelling of a story previously told by many others but it is offered with the hope of us all growing in knowledge and compassion.
My religious tradition is a bit different than that many U.S. evangelicals follow. Rather than being a church based on literal interpretation of Scripture, Episcopalians, base our practice of faith on three main things equally: Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. Since we are Apostolic in practice, in some ways we see ourselves as living in the 29th Chapter of Acts and God’s will is still being made known to us though the councils of the Church and guidance of the Bishops. We test things against Scripture. We apply reason to its reading. We look at the tradition practiced by the people of God throughout the past two millennia. All three are necessary to us. Above all we test our position against Christ’s commission to us to love one another and find a way to bring all people to an understanding of that love. Given that bit of background, I can say that even in our own denomination we are not always in agreement about everything but, over the course of time, God’s will becomes clearer to us. Same-sex marriage is one of those things that is becoming clearer just as the abolition of slavery, the role of women in ministry, and the remarriage of divorced persons has. It is a revelation to us as much as the acceptance by James, Jesus’ brother and the Bishop of Jerusalem, that Gentiles could be Christians without first becoming Jews.
So let’s start with Scripture. There are historically six verses people turn to as condemnations of homosexual practice. Three in the Old Testament and three in the New Testament. Let’s start with the Old Testament:
Genesis 19 is the story of God’s punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah. The men of Sodom threatened to gang rape God’s messengers. Rape is a crime of violence. This was a gross display of two things considered distasteful in God’s eyes: the abuse of power against the innocent and the inhospitable treatment and humiliation of strangers in your land. It is the Prophet Ezekiel (chapter 16:49) who says, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” Ezekiel’s illumination of the sin of Sodom is an important key that I will return to later.
Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 are the Bible verses most frequently quoted by opponents of same-sex marriage: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” And if you do “they should be put to death.” But Leviticus is part of the Old Testament law, and the New Testament teaches that Christians should live under the New Covenant, not the old one. Jesus warned us that if we are going to live under the Law we must be prepared to live under the entire Law. Most Christians, regardless of their tradition, would agree that it is not an abomination to interact with a woman during her period, eat non-kosher foods, wear fabrics of mixed fiber, or have a shrimp cocktail or a few strips of bacon. All of these situations are included in the same list of abominations as same-sex relations. We are told to even kill our family members and children if they violate this Law code. Most of us wrote that off years ago along with owning slaves.
Now let’s turn to the New Testament. In Romans 1:26-27, the apostle Paul condemns same-sex behavior he describes as lustful, unnatural, and shameful. Some would argue that “We can’t accept something that the Bible says is unnatural and shameful.” But in fact, most Christians already do. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:14 that for a man to have long hair violates what “nature” teaches and is “a disgrace to him.” But most Christians wouldn’t condemn long hair in men. In fact, the Bible itself speaks highly of long hair in men in the Old Testament (see Numbers 6:5, 2 Samuel 14:26, and 2 Kings 2:23). Even the tradition of the Nazarenes, of which Jesus was a part, was to wear their hair un-shorn. It is a bit of a sticky wicket when your Lord and Savior’s hair is seen as a disgrace by the Apostle Paul which I don’t believe is the case. That’s why most Christians interpret “nature” in 1 Corinthians 11 as referring to cultural conventions of Paul’s day in the culture specificly practiced in Corinth. Remember Paul in his letter was always speaking to people, almost always Gentiles, in a specific place and culture. In the same way, Romans 1: 26-27 refers to traditional cultural roles where men are the active partner and women the passive in all things. For men to show affection or to be physically intimate with one another, or for a woman to be intimate with another woman, the assumption is that those roles are reversed or blurred and are therefore “unnatural.” Would we say today that for a woman to initiate intimacy with a man is unnatural? I think not. Furthermore, there are culturally other concerns here such as married men having extra-marital relationships with same sex partners which was and is still prevalent in some middle-eastern cultures since it is not seen as adultery.
Before 1946, no Bible translation had ever used the word “homosexual.” Starting in the mid-20th century, many translations of 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 were changed from the original Greek words to say that “homosexuals” will not “inherit the kingdom of God.” Fortunately, many New Testament scholars have been pushing back against those translations in recent years, from Dale Martin to James Brownson. Their case is simple: The word “homosexual” didn’t even exist in any language until 1869, nor did the concept of affectional sexual orientation as we think of it today.
It’s perfectly possible that the apostle Paul was condemning certain forms of same-sex behavior in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1. He refers to “Malakoi” and “Arsenokoitai”, two Greek words that refer to the “Licentious” and the “Abusers of themselves and Mankind.” The types of same-sex behaviors that were most widely practiced in his day were things like pagan worship prostitution, sex between masters and slaves, and pederasty (sex between men and adolescent boys). Same-sex marriages between equal-status partners weren’t on the radar screen at all, so the idea that he was condemning those kinds of relationships seems to be a stretch.
But what about the Biblical definition of marriage. The problem would be deciding which one of the definitions is the correct one. Throughout scripture marriage is described multiple ways: one man, a wife, and a concubine as in the case of Abraham; or, one man and many wives such as Solomon. Even in the new Testament Paul recommends that a Bishop should be a man of one wife which implies that many men active in the ministry of the new Christian sect had more than one wife. In Matthew 19 is one of the few times Jesus speaks about marriage. Some Pharisees ask Jesus whether a man can divorce his wife “for any and every reason,” and Jesus says no. He responds to their question—a question specifically about a man and a wife—by saying “what God has joined together, let no one separate.” While the assumption is made that this is one man married to one wife it is not specific in scripture.
Jesus wasn’t asked about same-sex marriage and Jesus never makes any comment about same-sex anything. That’s to be expected given that no one was talking about same-sex marriage in the first century when marriage was viewed more as a contract of mutual assistance and inheritance. But while Jesus didn’t directly address same-sex relationships, the core principles of his teachings on marriage can be applied to same-sex couples today. Both Matthew 19 and Ephesians 5 teach that marriage is fundamentally about the self-giving covenant that spouses make and keep with one another, reflecting God’s self-giving love for us.
These preceding examples are the primary points of scripture that opponents of Same-sex marriage point out. You will notice that a recurring theme in the rebuttal made by supporters of same-sex marriage is that either our understanding has changed, the moral law has changed, or the concept did not exist and was never addressed by Christ. Some Christians want to dismiss such an examination of Scripture but we must deal with it in respect to our daily life. If circumstances cannot change and therefore impact the way we view the literal words of scripture and its practical application to life, Scripture would be a dead document. In Scripture there is no mention of the telephone, no concept of modern weaponry, no view of medical practice, or the role of women in a world of dual income families. Our God is bigger than the boundaries of the pages of a book even if that book has red letters in it. Scripture tells us the story of God’s never failing faithfulness but the Holy Spirit refocuses those tales into meaningful reality for God’s people in each successive age.
Jesus provided a blueprint of this reinterpretation continually. He addressed this when confronted by those who loved the rules more than compassion and mercy, the Pharisees. They asked him which of all the rules, or commandments, is the greatest in an attempt to condemn him as a heretic. He responded simply with, “This is the first and greatest commandment, ‘Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul;” and the second is like it, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two hang all the rest.” He then told the the parable of the Good Samaritan in which the keepers of the law turned their back on the injured man but the Samaritan, one who was deemed inferior and outcast, actually did the work of loving his neighbor. This completely disarmed the Pharisees but it did not take away their distain for what he taught — Jesus kept changing the literal words of the law to make it apply to living a merciful life. Even today, the Lord’s admonition for us to love God and love our neighbor takes a backseat in much religious practice. We love the rules. The rules help us divide people into “them” and “us.” With the rules it is easy to think we are God with the right to judge, violating the first Great Commandment, and to divide ourselves from one another violating the second Great Commandment of our Lord. It is applying this test that allows many of us in today’s Church to welcome LBGT persons who seek to form committed, faithful relationships through public commitment or Same-Sex marriage.
Think back to the story of creation. The only thing God said was “not good” in his creation was that the Man was alone. So God made for the Man a helpmate and companion. For many people, a loving intimate relationship with someone of the opposite sex is as unnatural as a relationship with someone of the same sex would be for others. They would be condemned to live out unacceptable alternatives: a marriage of convenience with someone with whom they could never fully share their whole self, a life celibate and alone denying the hunger to love and be loved, or a life where they see themselves as outcast and unloved forced to use others as pawns in their seeking of affection. To me the “Love your neighbor as yourself,” part of the summary of the law is that we would encourage those created by God to find “bone of my bone; flesh of my flesh” so that they may not be alone in a way that is life-giving to them and to the community of faithful people of which they seek to be a part.
We must remember it’s not the gender of the partners, but the faithfulness and love the partners have for each other that makes a relationship moral. When gay and lesbian people fall in love and choose to form a moral, affirming, loving relationship (or to be married for short), they take the words of Genesis as their own: “Here at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” Here is a fitting partner for me.
So, long story short, this is why I believe the Spirit of God is calling the People of God to embrace a new practice and a new understanding. To better love God and to better love their neighbors; to be the Church to more people in more honesty; to honor faithful people who God has already bestowed with many gifts for the good of all His people. This is the church’s response to Ezekiel’s admonition to not be arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; and to help the poor and needy.”. It is time we are hospitable to the stranger who has come among us seeking a home. To be hospitable we must welcome them as God created them without reservation. In so doing, we may be demonstrating hospitality to messengers sent by God.
In closing, I would recommend watching this sermon from a Baptist pastor in Richmond, VA.