Why Do We Think the Bible is Against Same-Sex Marriage?

I’ve just returned from Calgary, Alberta where Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network (GCN), and I had a public dialogue on All Things Gay and Christian for the Anglican Church of Canada diocese there. It’s not the first time he and I have done something like this, but we both agreed that this one seemed to touch on all the major issues—debates over biblical interpretation, the church’s need for repentance for its treatment of LGBTQ persons, the need to celebrate singleness, to name just a few—in a way we felt was particularly effective. And it helps that Justin such a gracious and generous friend.

(Why do I agree to do these sorts of dialogues? The first reason is that Justin is “family.” We’re both baptized in the same Triune Name. We both confess the same creed. We both believe the weirdest thing is the deepest truth of the universe: that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord. I think Justin’s Side A view is wrong and that it is wrong in a way that touches on first-order Christian claims about creation, Christology, and redemption; I also think that when family members hold views you think are that wrong, you keep on loving them and talking with them and seeking to bear witness to what you believe is true and life-giving. Second, for those who are worried, like I am at times, that this sort of dialogue may be a form of capitulation, a form of saying, “I’m convinced of the truth of my view but not so convinced,” let me just add that another reason I want to dialogue with people like Justin is that I want, in whatever minuscule way I can, to help see my own Anglican Communion, and the church more broadly, through its current crisis on sexual ethics. “Dialogue,” so easy to criticize as wishy-washy, need not entail compromise of one’s convictions; it may instead be a way of signaling hope that some future unity-in-truth may be realized in a way I can’t yet fathom. As the Anglican ethicist Oliver O’Donovan has written, “The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process [of dialogue between ‘gay-affirming’ Christians and ‘traditionalist’ Christians] is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape—a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think—and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject!—is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.”)

There’s so much I could say about our conversation, and maybe I will say a bit more in the coming days and weeks, but I simply want to offer one thought for now.

I had a sort of “aha” moment as Justin was speaking. In the middle of the portion of the event when he and I were debating how the Bible speaks to these matters, Justin made a statement to the effect of, “I think the only reason we are having this debate is because of the so-called ‘clobber passages’ [Genesis 19:1-29; Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:10-11] each one of which is somewhat obscure and addresses specific cultural matters of its time. If those passages weren’t in the Bible, nothing else that’s in the Bible would make us think God was against same-sex marriage.” (Again: that’s the gist of what he said, and he can correct me if I got him wrong.)

But here’s the thing: I realized as soon as he said it that I basically think the exact opposite: I think there is a consistent Scriptural teaching on marriage—aptly summarized by Augustine’s three “goods” of fidelity/exclusivity, procreation, and sacrament, and traceable from Genesis to Revelation—and that the so-called “clobber passages” are merely ancillary confirmation that same-sex sexual intimacy is ruled out of bounds for Christian believers. Even without those passages, I’m convinced I’d still hold the views I hold about marriage: that is a covenantal bond between a man and a women, ordered to procreation, and bearing witness to Christ’s love for the church.

I agree entirely with my Baptist theologian friend Steve Holmes who wrote the following in a book he and I recently contributed to:

Let me note that my argument so far has made no reference at all to the famous handful of biblical texts that speak directly about same-sex relations. If we understand sexual ethics the way the church, almost universally, has done for the past fifteen hundred years, then these texts are just not very significant for the ethical debate. Their proper place is in a footnote, indicating that they offer a welcome, but small, degree of confirmation that a position reached for other, much weightier, exegetical and theological reasons is indeed correct. If these texts had never been in Scripture, the church would still face the same struggle with same-sex marriage, because our understanding of marriage is built on procreation and otherness [i.e., male-female difference]. To the reader who is familiar only with very recent writings on the subject, this will be surprising, but it remains true. Consider even Karl Barth, who wrote at very great length on marriage, and whose theology is famously saturated with Scripture. In noting that a Christian doctrine of marriage has no place for same-sex marriage (a point he describes as ‘almost too obvious to need stating’), he makes no mention at all of Leviticus 18, and only one passing reference to Romans 1:26-27. These texts are just not important for the argument, which turns rather on procreation and complementarity.

There is, as the Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner has put it, a “nuptial figure”—a marital form by which God orders human life, a form that is discernible in the unfolding of the biblical canon, from the first union of man and woman in Eden to the final marriage supper of the Lamb and his Bride, the church. And it is that figure as it is attested throughout Scripture, not just a handful of tricky verses in six or seven places in the Old and New Testaments, that is the ultimate reason many of us cannot see our way clear to affirm same-sex unions as Christianly appropriate.

17 thoughts on “Why Do We Think the Bible is Against Same-Sex Marriage?

  1. “But here’s the thing: I realized as soon as he said it that I basically think the exact opposite: I think there is a consistent Scriptural teaching on marriage…and that the so-called “clobber passages” are merely ancillary confirmation that same-sex sexual intimacy is ruled out of bounds for Christian believers. Even without those passages, I’m convinced I’d still hold the views I hold about marriage…”
    “Let me note that my argument so far has made no reference at all to the famous handful of biblical texts that speak directly about same-sex relations.”

    I agree, and I have written about my views on this, purposely avoiding the “clobber passages” or only using them secondarily.

  2. I’m really glad you’re having such dialogue, Wes. Taking another person’s theological viewpoint seriously is one way of showing agape love.

      • I’ve been following the Side A/B debate for over ten years. Side A now consider themselves to be “on the right side of history”, They view dialogue itself as a step in that direction.

        Justin Lee might be different (I doubt it having read the stuff he posts on Side A sites) but he is very much the exception.

  3. This may sound trite as when I mentioned my thoughts to a married Bishop and his reply was “what do you mean?” I felt sort of silly, but then again i didn’t. My thinking? Without heterosexual activity (be that sexual intercourse, be that in vitro, be that a woman impregnating herself with a turkey baster as did my wife’s niece. there has to be egg and sperm, heterosexual elements. that does not elevate heterosexuals to sainthood and put same sex couples in the fires of hell, but it does, in my opinion state a basic fact of nature which I find hard to deny and was a bit taken back when the Bishop, married with children, questioned my amateur opinion. Four ducks at a school in an incubator. Three hatch. The fourth one doesn’t. Why? Egg was not fertilized and another egg won’t do. So, I am not so sure biblical teaching is going to go against this basic fact…………..without heterosexual activity no one exists, no one, male, female, hetero, homo, or whatever. Heterosexuals have the most responsibility being gifted with procreative functions, not reproductive, procreative. However, to most, these thoughts are a bit backwards, perhaps ignorant, not highly sophisticated, but they make sense to me. In no way do i condemn anyone.How foolish to get into that realm of thinking. I just believe biblical teaching puts the onus of responsibility on the basic unit of humanity, the bond between male and female, husband and wife a responsibility to be taken most seriously but isn’t. Homosexuals can most definitely love one another. I am not so sure it is the benchmark for marital love because egg and egg don’t get it, nor does sperm and sperm. My country way of thinking as I am not totally urbanized.

  4. Dialogue is NOT a form of capitulation. It’s a sign that we don’t necessarily hold ALL of the truth, and that others who think and believe and experience life differently may possibly help us towards a better understanding of the world and of life and of God. A refusal to dialogue, to look seriously at others’ arguments is a form of fundamentalism, which is all too common in discussions about human sexuality.
    And sexuality is not just about the propagation of the species, but about love and coming together in the deepest possible way with another.
    I want to be sure that I understand you aright. You believe that a loving God made you with same-sex attractions and desires, but that you are never meant to express these desires to the full? Only God’s children who are blessed with heterosexual desires are allowed, in marriage, to express them and experience the fullness of His gift of sexuality? But how can you square this with a God of love?
    My wife and I were aiming to love and serve the Lord, got married in the belief that He was calling us to marriage and serve Him together in that way. But He never took away my wife’s lesbian desires, and since it’s impossible to fake desire, we have long lived in a sexless relationship more as room-mates and friends. So we remain faithful to our marriage vows, monogamous and in effect celibate, following the traditional conservative way. But where in all this is the ‘fullness of life’ that we are promised in the Bible?

    • I don’t think many Side B individuals would endorse the claim “a loving God made me with same-sex attractions and desires” — at least not if that claim includes the desire for SEX WITH another member of the same sex. Rather, most Side B individuals would say that God ALLOWED them to have same-sex sexual desires, for His own mysterious reasons, but that these desires are not good in themselves. That doesn’t mean we should expect the desires to just “go away” because God takes them away. We see from other trials — autism, infertility, blindness — that God does not usually work by just removing the thorn. In our fallen universe, thorns are there for a reason; though God certainly doesn’t put them there because He wants us to sin.

      • But there is also a tradition based on scripture for training and rightly ordering our desires. Everyone (!) has desires at times in their lives that are wrong and dishonoring to God. Why is it that homosexual desires should get a free pass?
        And is it any wonder that, in a culture saturated with and endorsing same sex attraction that many, many young people would be confused?
        I also believe that many adolescents go through a time of mild gender disorientation, but this is very heavily dependent on upbringing, media exposure, and most of all (for boys) the presence of a father. We are now taught that this stage is confirmation that we were born with a same-sex attraction or born the wrong phenotypic sex.

  5. The usefulness of dialog is when there are two equally valid positions on the matter i.e. side A and side B. If the two sides are equally compatible with the Gospel then we can argue for a tolerant acceptance of differences as Paul was willing to accommodate himself to differences in matters such as what foods to eat or what days to celebrate (Rom 14–15).
    When the central truth of the gospel was at stake, Paul drew a clear line and refused to compromise as in the Galatian church. And he refused to dialog!
    Does same sex marriage constitute another Gospel? For Paul sexual immorality (same sex behavior) as in 1 Corinth. 6 did as it prevents entry into the Kingdom because for Paul acceptance of the Gospel was based on the Lordship of Christ. Christ is Lord when there is obedience and submission to the teachings of the Christ as revealed to the Church. Same sex marriage is a another gospel that re-orders creation in the image of man and hence the present myriad of genders and the pronoun chaos that ensues. Paul condemned the Galatian Judaizers and I think he would as well the same sex marriage-izers!
    I used to belong to a cyber dialog called ‘Bridges across the divide’ whose goal was to foster respectful dialog of side A versus side B of this same sex culture war. The goal it seemed was to come to a side C to love and accept while retaining one’s own opinion. The effort eventually ended. Why? To be a good pragmatist and live in peace compromise is required. That doesn’t work as it didn’t with Paul when another gospel is presented. I contend that dialog isn’t useful when presented with a different gospel. Dialog at least for me leads to arguing my position and quickly my ego gets in the way. That may not be true for you Wesley.

  6. There are over a million people alive on this earth today who were born with both a penis AND a vagina. There are people born with female chromosomes but male anatomy (penis) as well as people with male chromosomes and female anatomy (vagina/breasts). Heck, there are people born with BOTH sets of male and female chromosomes. Many intersex people (especially in third world countries) don’t even KNOW their anatomy doesn’t match their chromosomes and they’re “technically” a homosexual. There are all kinds of varying cases of “intersex.” It’s a very wide spectrum that isn’t even mentioned once in the Bible and there is a VERY good argument to be made that many homosexuals today are a “soft” cases of intersex.

    I have mad respect for you Wesley Hill for at least affirming that your gay Christian brethren are indeed Christian brethren. A lot of Christians honestly believe “Gay Christian” is an oxymoron, so it was very refreshing to read: “Why do I agree to do these sorts of dialogues? The first reason is that Justin is “family.” We’re both baptized in the same Triune Name. We both confess the same creed. We both believe the weirdest thing is the deepest truth of the universe: that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord.” May the Lord continue to enlighten you, my brother. Peace be with you.

  7. I appreciate your having fleshed out your of marriage view in a bit more detail. It clarified some questions I’ve had with your books. But in reading your remarks, I wonder whether you and Justin are even debating the same point.

    You (and Steve Holmes) appear to be working with a more restrictive view of “marriage” than what prevails in our culture, and even in the culture of most Protestant churches. Steve’s reference to procreation gives that away. This restrictive definition of marriage fits closely (if not identically) with Robbie George’s notion of “conjugal marriage.” But is this really a debate about conjugal marriage? After all, it seems rather obvious that conjugal marriage can’t exist between same-sex partners. This is not a particularly earth-shattering conclusion. In fact, I doubt that those who affirm same-sex marriage would disagree. And that’s because they’re using the term “marriage” to refer to something different from conjugal marriage.

    As you’ve noted in your most recent book, friendship has largely been supplanted by marriage throughout much of the West. But it’s only been supplanted partially. That’s because marriage–as generally construed in our culture–blurs the lines between friendship and marriage. It is a rare Protestant church these days that promotes marriage strictly on the basis of the characteristics of conjugal marriage. Instead, for most Protestants, marriage is all about romance, self-fulfillment, and sexual gratification. Theologian Peter Leithart refers to this type of marriage by the oxymoronic title of “pornographic marriage” (to highlight the fact that it’s a type of marriage that would otherwise lacks the key indicia that Christians have traditionally attached to marriage).

    Thus, I suspect that Justin is not asking the church to expand the notion of conjugal marriage to include same-sex couples. He rightly recognizes that most Protestant communions disabused themselves of conjugal marriage decades ago. Rather, he’s asking the church to expand the notion of pornographic marriage to include same-sex couples.

    I would prefer that, within Christian circles, we return to a more restrictive definition of marriage, i.e., along the lines of conjugal marriage. In that way, we can distinguish marriage more properly from the kinds of pragmatic, bilateral committed relationships (pornographic marriages) that have become predominant within our culture and within most churches. That said, I see nothing improper with the church’s permitting Christians to enter into such committed relationships instead of marriage. We just ought not to identify such relationships as marriages. And, if the church indeed permits Christians to enter into such relationships (and it already does, although without explicitly acknowledging it), must these relationships necessarily be restricted to parties of the opposite sex? I don’t see why they necessarily need to be.

  8. My above comment also highlights some of my persistent frustrations with what the SF project is seeking to achieve. I believe that the church ought to promote conjugal marriage, and do so on explicit terms. But we also need to recognize that conjugal marriage may not be right for everyone. In fact, research suggests that societies function most efficiently when about 15-20% of the population refrains from tying itself down to domestic concerns. So, what do we do with this remaining residuary of people who have in good faith opted out of conjugal marriage? What kinds of relationships are open to them? And what shape do these relationships take when the rubber meets the road? I fear that the SF project never quite gets around to answering that question. For Catholics, that may be unnecessary, as there are certain traditional roles for those who opt out of conjugal marriage. But what are Protestants to do? In most cases, I just see people opting for mixed-orientation marriages or just walking away from the church because there’s just no place for single people in most Protestant communions.

    • I don’t understand why this is a complaint against SF. SF has consistently argued that Protestants need to make a larger place for single people within their congregations (and even within their theology). Are you saying that such a thing is only possible if SF promotes the availability of what you call “pornographic marriages”.

      (And yes, I realize that straight people are already encouraged to be married, even if their marriages aren’t always conjugal. But I see that as a bug, not a feature.)

      • I’m suggesting that the project may be a bit too short on practical examples of what “spiritual friendship” can look like for those who have opted out of conjugal marriage. I suspect that this is at least partly the case because many of the writers move and work in Christian academic circles throughout the week, and are often able to find a large degree of “spiritual friendship” with colleagues and fellow graduate students. But surely this is not just a project for Christian academics! What does it look like for doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, accountants, etc.? In what kinds of practical ways can we embody “spiritual friendship” in our culture, recognizing that it’s unlikely that our culture will move away from a coupling-focused pattern any time soon.

        I also think the project is a bit too hesitant to deconstruct the bad theology that’s led to the exclusion of most single Christians from the life of the church. Positive calls to make a larger place for singles within church life are useless, unless they’re coupled with a concomitant call to extirpate the idolatrous family-values theology that infects the way we construe marriage (and which has played a major role in promoting pornographic marriage as a stand-in for conjugal marriage).

        I also write as an asexual, who’s experienced much of the same exclusion from evangelical church life as openly gay people. I’ve been referred to reparative therapy. I’ve been refused communion, and asked to leave churches. I’ve been told that I can’t expect to be saved unless I experience a persistent desire for sex with women. When I was in my mid-20s, a pastor even broke up my engagement because he believed that it was improper for a couple to marry unless they could fulfill their “biblical gender roles,” including having a robust mutual desire for sex. My experience suggests that evangelical opposition to same-sex marriage is probably less rooted in opposition to gay sex than it is in an unbiblical discomfort with anything that departs from the romantic-Freudian norms that define pornographic marriage. In that sense, evangelicals are much more consistent devotees of Freud than they are of St. Paul. We have to call this out, and I sense a certain unwillingness to do that in pointed ways.

        I was even a bit disappointed in the casuistry of Wes’s argument here. If we’re going to oppose same-sex marriage because it cannot live up to the standards of conjugal marriage, then we better be prepared to take a strong stance against the many opposite-sex marriages that pay little heed to the strictures of conjugal marriage. In my mind, those go hand in hand. And that’s the implicit premise of Justin’s argument (even if he fails to appreciate that). He well recognizes that the church has long since disabused itself of conjugal marriage and has little interest in recovering it. Thus, any objection to normalizing same-sex marriage within the church has to make sense within the context of that premise. While I generally agree with Wes that same-sex marriage makes little sense in a Christian context, I have to say that Justin has the winning argument here. That’s not because Wes is wrong, but because the church has long since waived its right to object to same-sex marriage on the basis that Wes raises here. Because the church has accepted “pornographic marriage” in the context of opposite-sex coupling, it is equitably estopped from raising objections to same-sex marriage on this basis.

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