In discussions on the Bible and gay relationships, a common refrain is that Jesus never said anything about the subject, so it must not have been a priority for him. There are a variety of sound conservative responses, such as pointing to the belief that all Scripture is inspired by God, not just the direct words of Jesus.
In this piece, however, I’m going to focus on a different problem with this argument: those who make it often reject the direct teaching of Jesus on sexual ethics anyway. We do have an authoritative condemnation of remarriage after divorce in most circumstances. For example, see Matthew 19:3-9.
When someone points out that we don’t have a direct record of Jesus condemning gay sex, does that person accept Jesus’s teaching about divorce and remarriage? In many (if not most) cases, the answer to this question is “no.” If the person isn’t willing to accept the teaching of Jesus on other similar matters, then the point about gay sex is just a smokescreen.
I also find it interesting, however, that conservatives don’t often make this point. I think one reason for this is that quite a few conservatives make many of the same mistakes thinking about divorce and remarriage that revisionists make thinking about gay relationships. In both cases, people assume that supporting someone involves getting the person into a loving, supportive marriage. I don’t see much attempt to wrestle with what supporting someone would look like without such a marriage being a morally available option.
I found an example of the revisionist thought I’m describing when I recently got around to reading The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage by Mark Achtemeier. He makes the argument I am discussing, that “Jesus never once touches on the issue of same-gender relationships in all the recorded teaching we have from him.” A little later, he states,
The attempt to claim Jesus’ quotations from Genesis for the modern debate about gay marriage is actually quite ironic, because the conversation in which they occur is about heterosexual divorce. In Matthew 19, Jesus quotes Genesis in order to urge strict limitations on divorce: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (v. 6). Christ’s disciples recognize this as a very difficult teaching, and Jesus himself admits a few verses later that it is not for everyone (vv. 10-12).
Encouraged by Jesus’ admission, a great many churches have become more open and accepting of divorced persons, as they have learned to interpret this teaching in light of the Bible’s broader teachings about grace and forgiveness. It makes little sense, therefore, to lift Jesus’ Genesis quotations out of context to support a very strict position about gay relationships—which he never addresses—while softening his actual teaching about heterosexual divorce!
In this context, the full passage is Matthew 19:3-12.
Jesus’s teaching here is a fairly clear condemnation of divorce under most circumstances: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.’” (v. 9, ESV)
The disciples then claim that in this case it would be better not to marry. Achtemeier interprets the following “not everyone can receive this saying” as a reference to the command about divorce. This is a relatively uncommon interpretation of this passage, and I don’t think it can make much sense of the “For there are eunuchs…” discussion that follows. A much more straightforward interpretation is that not everyone can receive the idea that it is better not to marry.
So why does Achtemeier adopt such an awkward interpretation of the passage? I think it has to do with the need to interpret the passage “in light of the Bible’s broader teaching about grace and forgiveness,” which for Achtemeier seems to imply allowing divorce (and, presumably, remarriage) in some unspecified, broad set of circumstances. The only real wiggle room in the passage is the phrase “except for sexual immorality,” which fails to cover quite a few of the cases of divorce and remarriage we encounter today.
Achtemeier needs to find some additional reason to dismiss the clear teaching of the passage. In some additional cases, he could legitimately point to the teaching of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7. However, we are still left with at best a small set of circumstances under which remarriage is allowable after divorce. Achtemeier seems to be implying something significantly broader, probably to respond to the many couples in churches today who remarried after a divorce that was not one of the cases described in Scripture.
This, to me, is a pretty clear rejection of the direct teaching of Christ, without a biblical warrant. So I am left not believing that Achtemeier would actually be willing to accept the direct words of Christ if they did contain a direct condemnation of gay sex. And indeed, he does offer such tenuous arguments regarding other passages that condemn gay sex.
But I think Achtemeier is rightfully noting the difficulties that come with following Jesus’s teaching on divorce. Loneliness is a real issue for single people. In many cases, it is particularly poignant for someone who is married, but isn’t finding anywhere near enough spousal connection. Sexual temptation is a real issue that could be particularly poignant for a married person whose spouse isn’t sexually available. And while nearly everyone would see strengthening and improving the marriage as the ideal solution, that requires both spouses to be invested. Sometimes one isn’t, and leaves the other in a difficult spot. If they cannot divorce and marry someone who will be more willing to meet their needs, their life may look like celibacy in important ways.
In Protestant circles, there is already a large rejection of celibacy as a legitimate option in most cases. We recognize Paul’s concession that marriage is a good way to deal with sexual desire (1 Corinthians 7:9), and extrapolate it into a statement that marriage is always the solution to sexual desire. We tend to expand this to relational needs as well, given the similarly strong human drive to romantic pairing. Many Christians then assume that a reasonably good marriage is the only way people can thrive.
Here, Achtmeier is makes a very valid point: it won’t do to “support a very strict position about gay relationships while softening his actual teaching about heterosexual divorce!” Gay people have many of the same sorts of difficulties as those in difficult marriages. If the teaching of Jesus can be dismissed for those in difficult marriages, there isn’t much consistency in holding it up for gay people.
And some conservatives are inconsistent in just this way. Others are more consistent personally, but are willing to see this area of sexual ethics as an “agree to disagree.” Of course, some conservatives do recognize the hypocrisy and want to hold Christians to account in taking Jesus’s command seriously. Nonetheless, there is also a great deal of brushing the teaching of Jesus aside.
What if instead of abandoning Christian teaching, including the direct teaching of Jesus, we dropped the assumption that marriage is always an available and moral solution to the problems of loneliness and sexual desire? (We have reflected on this idea in the past.) We are left with some difficult pastoral questions, both for those in difficult marriages and those who are gay. People are still struggling, we are still called to have grace and forgiveness, and most of all we are still to love.
I believe our calling as Christians is to learn how to do precisely this. After all, the teaching against divorce and remarriage and the teaching against sexual gay relationships are not so different after all.