Now that Proposition 8 has been ruled unconstitutional it seems quite apparent that the public debate over the meaning of civil marriage could become a subject that goes before the Supreme Court in the next few years. This would make it a subject that impacts every Christian in the United States. I noticed when this was a proposition put forth to the citizens of California that there was much confusion among Christians (this continues: see the USA Today article “Religious leads call Prop 8 ruling ‘insult’ or ‘victory’”). This resulted in a lot of emotional dialogue. Afterward I remember hearing some pastors who had led their churches in a fight against the legalization of gay marriage state that they regretted doing so. One pastor said that he hated the idea of people giving him lewd gestures because of something other than the cross of Christ, but instead because they thought Christians hated homosexuals. He maintained his position that homosexuality was immoral, but he seemed less assured that this meant Christians should spend time fighting in the courts.
Of course, there were many Christians who did side with the LGBTQ community seeing this as a civil rights issue. Some found homosexuality to be moral in general, others in a committed relationship, and others thought it might be immoral before God, but that the State has no right to tell people that they could not wed. Personally, I have wrestled with this subject being a Christian who has lived in San Francisco and Portland the last several years and often I have had conflicted emotions. It was not merely an academic debate. I had friends who felt that they had a homosexual orientation, but that they were as Christian as me. It was hard for them to see other Christians either deny that they were “real” Christians and/or oppose their right to marry someone they loved.
Whatever you come to affirm regarding the concept of homosexual marriage it is essential to try to think through this subject. This is a process worth considering for every Christian:
First, one must decide what one thinks about the authority of Scripture and the tradition of the church. Another way of framing this is “Where do I derive my moral values?”
Some Christians may find Scripture to be the final word on morality. Other Christians may find Scripture to be internally conflicted noting that people have used Scripture to justify slavery and misogyny.
If we find Scripture to be the final word on morality then we must engage the hermeneutical task (see next). If not, we need to ask what role the tradition of the church has in this matter, if any. For example, a Roman Catholic may not see a biblical reason for sexual abstinent male clergy, but they might conclude that the authority of the church and her tradition is much clearer and therefore one should submit to this authority/tradition.
If one is a Christian who finds neither Scripture nor the tradition of the church useful for speaking to this matter then it would do one well to determine where their views on morality derive. Is it useful to talk about “Christian” morality without Scripture and the church of years past? If so, how?
If we find Scripture to be the final (not only) authority we must engage the hermeneutical task.
This includes the traditions of the church since we are not the first people to read Scripture and we do not read Scripture in a vacuum. It is wise to see what others have said since they are not confined to our cultural and historical context. That said, they were influenced by their own cultural and historical context and that must be considered. Our greatest thinkers are not inerrant.
If Scripture is the “final” authority then we see the tradition of the church as influential in this matter, but not absolute. After listening to the “democracy of the dead” as G.K. Chesteron called it we must move to the exegetical task.
We must ask how moral principles are derived from Scripture.
Do we divide Scripture by testaments? Do we have a eschatological frameworklike dispensationalism? If so, what do we do with prohibitions against homosexuality in the Hebrew Bible? If not, we must ask if there is a difference between how Israel related to God and how the church relates to God.
If we find the Hebrew Bible relevant for the Christian moral imagination we must ask why moral language regarding homosexuality is applicable but not other things ranging from holidays and dietary laws to other aspects of ancient near eastern culture found in Scripture (particular ideas about marriage, the family, property ownership, various civil laws, et cetera).
If we do not find them relevant we must develop a framework for how early Israelite and Jewish morality works in relation to Christianity. We must ask ourselves how to interpret the Law of Moses, the narratives of Israel, and the criticisms of the prophets. Why do we find some parts influential (even authoritative) and others not so much?
Once we have thought about the Hebrew Bible we need to think about our views of the New Testament. How do we derive morality from the narratives of the Gospels and the Book of Acts, the letters of the Apostle Paul, the catholic epistles, and the Apocalypse.
What role do Jesus traditions play in our moral formation? If we’re not a strict literalist on matters related to violence and treatment of the poor we must ask why we are about sexual matters. How do we interpret Jesus’ words on divorce? Do we provide exceptions on something that seems fairly “black-and-white”? If so, what makes exceptions to Jesus’ words on divorce different than exceptions on other matters? Jesus is not recorded as addressing this issue. Does that matter?
If we find the Apostle Paul’s words on homosexuality authoritative what do we say of matters related to the role of women and slaves in society? If we find exceptions to Paul’s words there (either for one or both subjects) what is our principle for maintaining the applicability of his views on homosexuals for the modern church. Does it matter that he seems to mention things related to homosexuality in lists/descriptions of sins?
Like Jesus’ words on divorce do we allow for “exceptions”? For example, some have argued that Paul was never confronted with the idea of monogamous homosexuals. If this is true does it change the way one reads Paul’s words on this matter? If not, why not?
After someone has thought about their views on the authority of Scripture and tradition on this matter one must ask what impact that has on civil discourse.
Some one could theoretically find no case for prohibiting monogamous homosexual relationships from Scripture but they could have philosophical or sociological reasons for opposing it. If one does find that Scripture declares homosexuality immoral the next question is whether it should impact civil discourse. Most Christians do not think that people should be put in prison for being homosexual. We are quite divided over whether or not they should be able to participate in a civil marriage.
Someone could find homosexuality to be immoral, maybe beyond what is allowed for Christians, but that same person could find attempts to enforce these views on fellow citizens in a pluralistic world unfitting.
If one is a Christian who find homosexuality to be wrong because of biblical texts, the traditions of the church, or some combination do that person think this should be enforced by the State? If so, why? If not, why not?
What type of morality should move from privatized to public? Most Christians believe alcoholism and murder are both wrong. Likewise, most do not support ideas like the prohibition against selling alcohol or tobacco but they do force their morality on others regarding murder. Where does homosexual marriage fall on this continuum?
I don’t have flawless (maybe even good) answers to these questions and like other Christians I must continue to think about this subject. I must ask why I believe what I believe. What we cannot do is ignore the subject or respond on a purely emotional basis. We cannot dismiss one another off hand and we cannot mindlessly throw around our favorite biblical texts. We must ask the Father to fill us with his Spirit, to give us wisdom, to make us graceful toward one another as we wrestle with this matter.
One place to start could be the discussion between Daniel Kirk (see here and other posts on the subject here) and Tony Jones (here and here) on the subject. It was civil and straightforward. It didn’t collapse into the ugly confrontations often associated with discussing this subject.
Personally, I’ve been influenced by Richard B. Hays The Moral Vision of the New Testament and William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals. I think these two do a solid job of presenting a more conservative sexual ethic for Christians, though this says little about how that relates to civic discourse. That said, I try to hold my position with humility realizing I could be wrong, I could have a wrong interpretation, and God judges through Christ, not me. For those who have been persuaded by books or essays leaning the other direction please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
Your welcome to leave comments below (please be kind with your words).