Late last week Sarah Pulliam Bailey posted an interview with Marilynne Robinson. Here’s an excerpt:
Q: For Christians who hold the view that marriage is between a man and a woman, do you think they’ll become a smaller group over time?
A: It’s hard to know. There has never been a period in world history where same-sex relationships were more routine and normal than in Hellenistic culture at the time of Christ. Does Jesus ever mention the issue? I bet it must have been all around him. You can get in a lot of trouble eating oysters if you are a literalist about Leviticus. I’m a great admirer of the Old Testament. It’s an absolute trove of goodness and richness. But I don’t think we should stone witches. And if you choose to value one or two verses in Leviticus over the enormous, passionate calls for social justice that you find right through the Old Testament, that’s primitive. There are a thousand ways that we would all be doomed for violating the Sabbath and all kinds of other things, if we were literalists.
I revere Marilynne Robinson—if there’s a midnight release party at my local bookstore for her novel Lila this fall, I’ll be there—but her answer here represents so much of what I find distressing about the quality of our debates over these matters at present.
In the first place, if there is a thoughtful “traditionalist” who bases her views of the morality of same-sex sexual partnerships on Leviticus, I’m not aware of such a person. That’s just not how Christians read the Bible, and even the most rigorous social conservatives wouldn’t say that an Old Testament text, taken literally and by itself, can serve as the immediate basis for a contemporary Christian ethic. Rather, the reason Leviticus remains a part of the ongoing Christian conversation on these matters is that the New Testament exhibits a certain continuity with the Old Testament’s prohibition of same-sex sexual behavior. Which brings me to my second point.
Robinson’s answer here suggests that Jesus knew of many same-sex couples and remained silent on the ethical status of their relationships. The implication, it seems, is that if Jesus saw no need to carry forward Leviticus’ explicit prohibitions of same-sex sexual behavior, then neither should Christians today. Leaving aside the myth of a sexually tolerant Jesus that Robinson’s answer conjures, we have here—again—a misunderstanding about how traditional Christians form their ethical convictions. Contrary to the “red-letter Christians” experiment, it is simply not a classic Christian practice—among Catholics, Orthodox, or Protestants—to pit the words (or silence) of Jesus over against other portions of Scripture. The unfolding of the New Testament canon presents itself as the continuation of Jesus’ speech, so much so that Paul’s words in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 and elsewhere about sexual behavior are to be read as having the authority of the same Jesus who allegedly said nothing about homosexuality during his earthly life. Notice how Paul describes his identity: “Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead…” (Galatians 1:1). There is much in Robinson’s interview about her love for John Calvin, and here is what Calvin said about this Pauline text:
It was a reproach brought… against Paul that he had held no communication with Christ, while he was on the earth. He argues, on the other hand, that, as Christ was glorified by his resurrection, so [Christ] has actually exercised his authority in the government of his church. The calling of Paul is therefore more illustrious than it would have been, if Christ, while still a mortal, had ordained him to the office. And this circumstance deserves attention; for Paul intimates that the attempt to set aside his authority, involved a malignant opposition to the astonishing power of God, which was displayed in the resurrection of Christ; because the same heavenly Father, who raised Christ from the dead, commanded Paul to make known that exertion of his power.
In other words, Paul speaks as the specially commissioned spokesperson of the risen Christ. There is an organic connection between Jesus’ teaching and the later teaching of Paul, Peter, John, James, and the other apostolic witnesses. We can argue about what Paul’s words in Romans 1 mean and debate whether they really do envision the kind of loving, monogamous same-sex partnerships we see among Christians today. But the one thing we can’t do, if we want to read Scripture the way the Church has always read it, is pretend as if the words of Jesus in the Gospels were somehow ethically definitive apart from the ministry of the risen Christ through his appointed apostles. The sooner we can retire Robinson’s point about the silence of Jesus—and retire it for the sake of a more serious debate with one another—the better.