Who actually cares whether Jesus said anything about gay relationships?

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.

Image result for The Bible's Yes to Same-SEx Marriage

A book making the argument discussed here

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.

16 thoughts on “Who actually cares whether Jesus said anything about gay relationships?

  1. The difficulty with this discussion is that there is never a modal for gay coupling used in the word in any fashion that is given an allowance.

    The created order from Genesis is the opposite sex model which is more than just a modal. It is the living analogy that points to the future event to come, the marriage supper of the Lamb.

    The joining of Christ to His bride. There is no way that any form of gay coupling does that. Christ is not joined to Christ and the church is not joined to the church in the next great event.

    Understanding that people are human and struggle with all manner of human vulnerabilities, we cannot change what God has set in motion just because it is hard. Many fell away from Christ when He said some of the hard things that He said, like unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in yourselves (John 6:53).

    As a result of this many left (John 6:66).

    • I’m not sure whether you understood the point of my post. I wasn’t arguing that we could dismiss the teaching on gay coupling on account of it being hard. Rather, I was arguing that we shouldn’t dismiss the teaching on divorce and remarriage, even though it is hard.

      I don’t think “opposite sex” is sufficient to model the marriage supper of the Lamb. Under this metaphor, divorce and remarriage represents either Christ abandoning the church, or the church abandoning Christ, for another. This is a very serious wrong.

      While it is true that divorce was allowed fairly broadly in Old Testament law, Jesus tells us that was never God’s intent in creation.

      Again, my argument is that if we’re rejecting the teaching on divorce and remarriage, we are already departing from Christian sexual ethics.

  2. Amen to every word of this! As a celibate gay Christian who’s always worshiped in relatively conservative churches, the inconsistency on which you write has always deeply troubled me. I remember bringing it up to a pastor once—Why do we accept into our membership people who divorced for reasons other than extramarital affairs by their former spouse and have remarried, but do not accept people in same-sex marriages? How are those two things different? I do believe there is a fundamental difference between opposite-sex marriage, which follows the biblical pattern even when it fails in its specifics, but I deeply sympathize with the revisionist who would point out how same-sex “marriage,” while failing to follow the biblical pattern can potentially get so many more of the specifics right!
    I still believe, though, that instead of compromising on the definition of morally acceptable opposite-sex marriage while holding steadfast in opposition to same-sex marriage, the far better course is exactly what you suggest: “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?

  3. I’m a traditional Catholic, so I hold ultimately to the traditional teaching here (though for us it’s really more from natural law than from some idea that morality has to come from Scripture, a document so ambiguous you can interpret it to mean anything you want, and clearly people do! Which is why out of all the ways Catholics use and reverence Scripture, treating it as some sort of sourcebook for systematic theology in the way Protestants attempt has never been emphasized, because out of all the things the Bible is or may be, it is clearly not a theology textbook meant to answer those sorts of doctrinal questions in that fashion).

    But anyway, though I ultimately hold to the traditional Catholic teaching on divorce and remarriage…Christ’s speech in Matthew 19 has never struck me as clear cut as the “straightforward” reading implies, given what we know about Christ’s personality and style. Christ was not a moralizer. He didn’t overturn the Law, as He says, but rather He sort of just transcends that whole paradigm, and opens up the paradigm of grace which is a radically different way of looking at things which isn’t too concerned with “is this species of action right or wrong?” (even as it takes as granted, and uninteresting, the correct answer to those sorts of legally considered moral questions).

    So the passage starts with the Pharisees trying to “test” him by asking about divorce. It’s a common thing in the Gospels, the Pharisees posing a trick question that they think would put Christ in a compromising position no matter which of the two “sides” of the debate He chooses…and then Christ just cuts the Gordian Knot and deconstructs the whole duality and turns it around on the Pharisees by getting to the heart of the spirit and not the letter.

    So I’ve always tended to read the remarriage-as-adultery passage in the light of the adulteress saved from stoning, which is another great example. Christ doesn’t say adultery is ok or question the Mosaic prescription of stoning, but he says “Let he without sin cast the first stone.”

    So when Christ says divorce and remarriage is adultery to the Pharisees…it has never struck me as the natural reading of the passage that Christ is suddenly inserting a strong assertion of a “letter of the law” claim about condemnation of remarriage here (as much as such a condemnation might indeed be the truth about the moral law on this question).

    The spirit of the passage to me has always seemed more like the “let he who is without sin” thing. Like, Christ is basically telling the Pharisees “You’re such hypocrites for looking down on adulterers when you divorce and remarry freely, which is the same thing and was only ever allowed due to the hardness of your hearts!”

    Christ’s message here doesn’t particularly seem to be “be as hard on the remarried as you are to adulterers” but rather “how can you not go as *easy* on adulterers as you go on the remarried?”

    Which is in keeping with the consistent theme of the Gospel “You’re all sinners, so stop being so high and mighty and making false distinctions. Judge not lest ye be judged, forgive or you won’t be forgiven.”

    So the message to me seems more like “You Pharisees always seem really want God to be so harsh with adulterers. Fine. But understand that if you want such strictness applied…you too fall under its strictures, you too are strictly speaking an adulterer” which is pretty much Christ’s general message on judging summed up.

    So for me, the modern analogy we might imagine for this passage would be Christ telling a homophobicly conservative evangelical church, “Sure, sodomy is bad of course…but guess what? Contraceptive sex is sodomy too. So, if you want to condemn gays go ahead…but you’re condemning yourselves too if you do so.”

    • While I think that’s actually a pretty accurate understanding of what is going on here, I think it’s more of a both/and than an either/or. In general, Jesus calls us to a much stricter sexual ethic than was laid out in Old Testament law, but then (in part because none of us can really live up to it) we are also to show a great deal of mercy and grace to those who fail to live up to it.

      So while it could be my more Protestant approach to the Bible, I do think that one implication of what Jesus is saying here is its face value (modulo exceptions he didn’t find the need to give right then, which I think is where Paul helps us out).

      I think a good enough analogy is those homophobically conservative churches that condemn gay sex but are fine with divorce and remarriage on a broad basis. But I do also think the face value moral claim is important.

      • Certainly I think what Christ says assumes the face value truth of the moral judgment; the whole rhetorical turn only makes its point about hypocrisy if Christ really doesn’t see a difference between remarriage adultery.

        However, I’m not sure a modern analogy can retain one half of an old analogy. Presumably the counterpart to approving of remarriage among the Pharisees of today is the same thing it was back then: being nevertheless self-righteously condemning of adultery.

  4. This piece makes an excellent point.

    For several generations, conservative Christians have made little effort to impose the restrictions of conjugal marriage onto those who claim marriage. This doesn’t just show up in our acceptance of divorce. It also shows up in our embrace of a marital narrative that revolves around the satisfaction of romantic love and sexual desire. Peter Leithart aptly refers to this now-predominant marital narrative as “pornographic marriage,” so as to contrast it with traditional marriage. As Carl Trueman noted some time ago, same-sex marriage is, in many ways, the logical outcome of the view of marriage that conservative Christians have largely embraced. Trueman went on to note that our objection to same-sex marriage largely depended on a socio-cultural conclusion that same-sex attraction was somehow yucky and that those who experienced it were somehow worthy of stigmatization.

    Put another way, the church has regularly blessed opposite-sex committed friendships, where the parties to the relationship have no intention of conforming their relationship to the strictures of conjugal marriage. And the church has accepted the sexualization of these non-conjugal committed relationships. In fact, this has become the predominant model of “marriage” within the church.

    I don’t believe that Scripture gives a “yes” to these sorts of pragmatic relationships. But I don’t see where it gives a “no” either. It’s probably incorrect to refer to such relationships as “marriage,” as they don’t really meet the strict definition of marriage. Even so, we have come to accept these secular-pragmatic relationships as generally unproblematic.

    I don’t believe that Scripture gives a “yes” to same-sex marriage. But I have a hard time seeing where it gives an across-the-boards “no.” After all, if certain opposite-sex secular-pragmatic relationships are morally unproblematic (at least in a general sense), then the same should be true of same-sex secular-pragmatic relationships. That said, there may be morally problematic aspects of particular relationships. But I don’t see where Scripture imposes a general across-the-boards ban on all same-sex secular-pragmatic committed relationships. The issue, it seems to me, is what kinds of ethical considerations are relevant to such relationships.

    Our current opposition to same-sex secular-pragmatic committed relationships has nothing to do with any “no” within Scripture. Rather, it rests on our culture’s celebration of “heterosexuality” and of the social scripts embodying it. But we easily forget that “heterosexuality” is an invention of the late 1800s, and did not take hold as a cultural norm until the 1920s. And there have been no shortage of efforts to rediscover this 19th-century invention in the writ of Scripture. See, e.g., CBMW. But God’s “yes” to heterosexuality is no more present in Scripture than God’s “yes” to same-sex marriage. I’d argue that Scripture is silent on both accounts, and that there are things best left to the exercise of godly wisdom and common sense.

    • Quote: “I don’t believe that Scripture gives a “yes” to these sorts of pragmatic relationships. But I don’t see where it gives a “no” either.”

      That’s the advantage that evangelicals have exploited. Whatever the underlying motives are for an opposite-sex marriage, the male/female pattern is always technically correct.

      The other thing is that any objection to “divorce culture” can easily be portrayed as uncharitable. I would encourage everyone to speak out against the easy acceptance of divorced/remarried couples in church but doing so seems unnecessarily hurtful to any particular couple.

      • My point is that we’ve broadened the term “marriage” to include all manner of opposite-sex relationships that bear little nexus to the norms of conjugal marriage. Moreover, the predominant model even excludes from “marriage” certain relationships that would have been included in the traditional definition. For example, consider that heterosexuality is generally viewed by Western Christians as a prerequisite for “marriage.”

        Yes, traditional marriage requires opposite sexes. But what we’ve embraced in the West for the past century is not traditional marriage, but something that may more aptly be called heterosexual marriage, where marriage is seen as an affirmation and celebration of heterosexuality.

        This is probably more true in Protestant circles than in Catholic circles. Thus, the conjugal marriage for Protestants is a red herring. Protestants don’t oppose same-sex marriage because they have a strong belief in conjugal marriage. Rather, they oppose same-sex marriage because they believe that there is something yucky about the experience of homoeroticism.

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  6. “Of course, some conservatives do recognize the hypocrisy and want to hold Christians to account in taking Jesus’s command seriously.”

    Jeremy, I’m confused by your link to Russell Moore. He argues that unions after divorce (other than for porneia, etc.) although “entered into sinfully” are true marriages “because they signify the Christ/church bond of the one-flesh union” and therefore those who have entered an illicit union should “resolve to be faithful” to it. I assume, given the “one-flesh” reference, that Moore sees faithfulness as including continuation of sexual relations; he certainly raises no objection to it.

    First, this is not the traditional Christian view, as I understand it –that view is summed up well by the Church of England’s marriage ritual, for instance: “so many as are coupled together otherwise than God’s word doth allow are not joined together by God; neither is their matrimony lawful.”

    Second, and more to the point, is Moore is willing to apply the same standard to same-sex couples (i.e. as long as you “repent” of entering a same-sex relationship in the first place, you may continue having sexual relations your same-sex partner)? I very much doubt it. That is where the charge of “hypocrisy” comes from… for gays, its, “go and sin no more,” while for heterosexuals its carry on without changing your behaviour.

    • That’s a fair point. I mostly pointed to Russell Moore due to his argument about how Christians have not taken biblical teaching on divorce very seriously, and that we need to do so.

      For Protestants coming from a “sola scriptura” perspective, the question is a little more complicated on this issue, because the Bible doesn’t state as clearly whether the act of remarriage is the adultery, or every sexual act within the remarriage. Whereas with gay sex, the condemnation is just about gay sex, not about entering a marriage. So it’s not as straightforward a parallel as it probably looks from a Catholic perspective, where historical teaching that the remarriage is totally illegitimate (as opposed to being a one-time sin) is part of the received tradition.

      I do think Protestants tend to take historical Christian tradition too lightly, so I’m not endorsing everything Russell Moore said. But overall, I mostly saw his piece as a needed corrective to the state of the evangelical church today.

      • This has nothing to do with Protestants vs. Roman Catholics!

        Everyone knows “adultery” = a married person having sex with
        someone who is not their spouse. The Scriptures weren’t written in
        English, but there’s a reason English translators employ that term
        when they translate. St Paul is perfectly clear:

        “… a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is
        alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that
        binds her to him. So then, if she has sexual relations with
        another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an
        adulteress
        . But if her husband dies, she is released from that
        law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.” (Rom
        7:2-3)

        You can hem and haw and re-interpret that if you like, but you’re
        are doing just as much violence to the obvious meaning of the text
        (if not more) as liberals who try to soften the meaning of the
        clobber passages to make room for same-sex relationships.

        Even if you choose to ignore all of this sense and idiosyncratically re-define “adultery” to refers only to the act of re-marrying (and then re-read the Scriptures in light of your new definition), the fact is these “acts” of remarriage only occur because your pastors have chosen to flip the bird to biblical teaching and marry any and every heterosexual coupling. So its totally disingenuous for evangelical pastors to say, “oh well, you really shouldn’t have gotten married, but since I just married you, enjoy the sex!”

      • I’m curious – how do SF readers respond to re-married couples in their churches? What do you think about them? What can you say about them?

      • That last paragraph is where I thought Russell Moore was making a needed corrective. Protestant pastors have far too readily performed these illegitimate remarriages, and this is the main thing I was pointing out in my post.

        I was not agreeing with Russell Moore on everything, just pointing out that he’s at least moving in the right direction compared to the church body he’s part of.

      • Joe,

        I don’t have an issue with remarriage because I believe that the eschatological purpose of conjugal marriage was fulfilled in Christ, and that marriage in this current eschatological age is a secular-pragmatic construct. Of course, there are still ethical considerations that govern how we as Christians conduct ourselves within secular institutions. But I don’t see divorce and remarriage as necessarily problematic.

        I’d also like to see us think more creatively about social scripts for same-sex coupling. There are certainly many problematic features connected to the predominant scripts for same-sex coupling in our culture. But there is no necessity to these social scripts. They’re just the ones that have evolved in the last few decades. I’d like to see us think more creatively about what same-sex committed friendship looks like.

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