imagesGay marriage is clearly “the great debate” of the hour. People on both sides, and all sides in between, debate the meaning of Scripture’s witness to the covenant of marriage and the role of the state in making civil law. On one side, Christians argue that “gay marriage” is not clearly envisioned in Scripture but the idea itself is acceptable because of how obscure the “proof texts” are regarding same-sex relationships. They argue the idea itself is grace-filled because accepting the sexual practice of a whole group of people who are differently oriented from the majority of us is what grace always does. (Honesty requires that we admit that the Bible does not say a lot about this issue, as advocates of same-sex practice often argue. Yet it seems that what it does say seems fairly clear to most Christians.) So proponents of gay marriage appeal to (virtual) textual silence and to grace. They then argue that marriage is a bond of love between two adults who commit themselves to one another. It is increasingly hard to disagree with this in the wider culture, especially among younger Christians where nearly two-thirds of their peers have plainly embraced same-sex marriage as right and good.

Most serious opponents of gay marriage will appeal to the creation account in Genesis 2.

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” 19 So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.”

24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed (NRSV).

One must admit that the “basics” about marriage, at least as they are clearly stated in this story, are quite straightforward (no pun intended). God creates a male and concludes that he should not be alone. He then created a female to give him companionship and to produce/procreate the human family (as the story continues into Genesis 4.). These two “others” were both equally made in God’s image. (We can say they reveal that image together, not apart from one another.) And the two are created as male and female. This relationship between the male and female is what God calls “one flesh.” Then in Genesis 3:17 we have the fourth mention of a “wife” where the word wife very clearly refers to Eve (“the mother of all the living”), the female that God gave to Adam as a companion. (The same point is true in all other mentions of husband/wife so far as I can tell.)

The debate then generally turns to Leviticus 18:22, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (NRSV). The way in which this text has been used and abused is apparent once you have listened to the modern debate long enough. Some of the most radically offensive things some Christians have said about same-sex couples is based on their misguided use of the word “abomination.” These Christians conveniently leave out a number of other things that are called an “abomination” in the same text.

The primary texts which are appealed to by those who defend marriage as a sacred union between a male and a female are found in words like these in Romans 1: 26-28

26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error (NRSV).

Other Pauline texts are also appealed to in defense of marriage as exclusively the sacred union between a man and a woman. These texts, it is argued, prove beyond reasonable doubt that engaging in same-sex practice is a sin against God.

equalityIn this present debate I hear one refrain again and again: “Jesus never mentioned same-sex practice so why do you put so much stress on this issue when he did not?” Not only is this a flawed appeal to the witness of Scripture regarding sex and marriage but it begs a bigger question too infrequently discussed. That question is quite simple: What does Jesus mean when he speaks as he does in Matthew 19: 1-9?

When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he cured them there.

3 Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 8 He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery” (NRSV).

It seems quite evident that our Lord takes his opponents in this text back to the story of human origins and then clearly says that God made humankind as male and female so that they could form a “one flesh” relationship that is called marriage. Here Jesus says that nothing should dissolve this “one flesh” relationship. (This is why easy divorce is a much bigger problem, over the past forty years or so, in the American experience than anything remotely related to same-sex unions. The argument that gays and lesbians are the people who are destroying marriage and family life is truly weak!)

The proponets of same-sex marriage are forced, I sincerely believe, to argue that their view of marriage is assumed in the mercy, charity and grace of God. Why? It is not clearly and plainly revealed in Scripture as I’ve noted above. I get their point and would agree that an argument from silence is not entirely without merit. They argue, often out of what appear to be good motives, that these more negative texts need a fresh interpretation, much as we gave to the problem of chattel slavery in another era. I get this point. But I am unconvinced that these points establish a firm and clear moral foundation that should result in the church accepting same-sex marriage as a union blessed by God.

I am not sure how many pages I have read on this issue but it numbers in the thousands I am quite sure. I have tried to read as many sympathetic arguments for same-sex marriage as I have read negative arguments against it. I have engaged with Christian brothers and sisters who believe that such unions are blessed by God. I have listened attentively and respectfully for countless hours. (Generally, the same response has been afforded to me but not this is not always the case.) I am reading another sympathetic treatment of these ideas about same-sex marriage even as I write these two blogs. A noted biblical scholar from my own Reformed tradition has changed his understanding and recently written a lengthy, strong and tight argument for why we should accept same-sex unions/marriages. While I respect this brother very deeply I do not persuaded of his argument.

So, here is my nagging question. I wish it would go away but it will not. We are at a place in church history, at least in the West, where Christians clearly do not agree on this issue. What are we to do in the immediate future? How can we proceed in a way that allows for the historically Christian view of marriage to regain strength (which I pray will happen when the debate dies down in the next twenty years or so) while the culture is rapidly moving toward embracing gay marriage as the legal norm?

Tomorrow: Same-Sex Marriage Redux? (2)


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  1. mwkruse May 2, 2013 at 10:32 am - Reply

    Like you, John, I find the attempt to characterize the Bible as indifferent to same-sex behavior (by using hermetical gymnastics with some passages) unconvincing. Homosexual behavior was known in the N.T. era yet there isn’t one statement that is remotely supportive of homoerotic behavior and the whole weight is toward heterosexual behavior in the context of marriage. Those who champion same-sex unions on the basis that Christians of the biblical era were really okay with it, border on being disingenuous.

    However, God’s incarnation was contextual. God became flesh at a particular time, with particular people, with a particular culture. Was every ethical stance taken in those times and places universally applicable, or were some contextual? I think of the issue of slavery. We certainly see a softening of the edges of slavery in Bible but no where is there condemnation of slavery. There is nothing to suggest that slavery is an insult to the dignity of the slave and that it diminishes the person as being in the image of God. Yet today, we consider slavery a particularly heinous sin. It emerged largely as a result of the seed of the idea that we are all image-bearers. But it wasn’t there at the start.

    Is homosexuality akin to the slavery question? Is there something more that we know now about human nature that qualifies the biblical witness on this topic, just as we now qualify slavery in the Bible today? I’m not convinced there is but I think this avenue of discussion is more productive than smoke and mirrors saying the Bible and early Christians really weren’t opposed to homoerotic activity.

    Joseph above is absolutely right that the issue raises all sorts of interpretive challenges.

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