Monday, July 27, 2015

Towards a Christian Approach to Gay Marriage, Part IV: What the Bible Says About Homosexuality

So far, we've discussed marriage as a precursor to discussing gay marriage. We found that the so-called biblical definition of marriage is actually many definitions of marriage - and definitions that most of us don't really believe or uphold as 21st century American Christians.

Next, we turned to biblical ideas on homosexuality, examining the Old Testament first. What we found is that one of the most cited texts on the issue, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, is not really about homosexuality at all. And the only texts that do speak to the issue are found in Leviticus, a code of laws that we are generally quick to dismiss, so it's curious when one law is singled out as still applicable today. Moreover, the ancient logic of sexuality is bound up in a hierarchy of male dominance - and female subservience - that modern Christians do not accept.

This brings us to the New Testament.

In this post, we'll turn to Paul's letter to the Romans. Then, in the next post, we'll look at Paul's first letter to the Corinthians.

Jesus, it should be noted, does not address the issue of same-sex relationships.

Romans 1.16-32
In the letter to the Romans, Paul starts out with his reason for writing, his solution to the problem of the human condition (salvation, the Gospel) and then builds a case for the problem itself (sin), before coming back to his solution in more depth.

The structure of Paul's letter is important to the issue of homosexuality. Paul first addresses the sin of the Gentiles and then, once he's lured his Jewish audience into looking down on the Gentiles, launches an attack on Jewish sinfulness. But there's a crucial difference: Jewish sinfulness does not, according to Paul, include sexuality.

Let me repeat, for this is an essential point: Paul condemns the Gentiles for their sexual sins, but the Jewish sins he lists are not sexual in nature. In other words, sexual sin seems to be a Gentile problem, related to idolatry, not a Jewish problem since the Jews worship the one true God. The implication is that, if we could only get rid of idolatry, then we'd get rid of sexual sin as well in the process. Paul does not make this argument explicitly, but it's implicit to the case he's making.

So let's look more in depth at his case against the Gentiles.

The Gentiles are without excuse because God is revealed in creation. They - the Gentiles - knew God, but then they exchanged the worship of God for worship of idols. He's talking about actual idols, monuments built in human and animal form.

The outcome is lust and passion, impurity of heart, the degrading of their bodies, and sexual immorality.

I want to emphasize the link Paul is making between idolatry and sexual sin. For him, there's a direct connection. Idolatry leads to sexual immorality.

Now, whatever we believe about homosexuality, I don't think that's it. I don't know anyone who would look at our gay brothers and sisters - and accuse them of idolatry, of explaining their sexuality by referencing idol worship. That's just not how we think. That's not a narrative we accept as true. Even those who hold to the sinfulness of homosexuality would not explain the sin with Paul's logic here.

And that's important because, if you want to use Paul's teaching to condemn homosexuality, then you have to accept his reasoning.

Let's review. So far, we've seen that sexual sin is, for Paul, a Gentile problem. More specifically, it's a Gentile problem that's directly tied to idol worship. And, unless we are ready to accept this logic, a logic that says that homosexuality is the outcome of Gentile idol worship, then we probably shouldn't use Romans 1 to argue against homosexuality.

Again, I'll repeat a point I made in the last post, the point I'm making is not that you can't make a case for the sinfulness of homosexuality, but rather that you can't use this passage to do so.

However, say you do accept Paul's logic. What then?

Well, there's a still a couple layers here to unpack: the issues of "passion" and "natural intercourse."

Paul says that "God gave them up to degrading passions," and then "their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another."

First, passion. In the Greco-Roman world, passion is a problem. Sometimes the solution is moderation, balance, keeping the passions in check; some passion is okay, but it can easily become a problem when you have too much. This is a common them in both philosophy and in medicine. But then you have the Stoics, who believed that passion itself was bad. The Stoics even went so far as to argue that you should have sex without passion, a position that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7.1-9, seems to accept as well.

So, even if you accept Paul's logic of the connection between idolatry and homosexuality, which I would argue is a stretch, you still have to deal with his understanding of passion. And that's quite a stretch too.

But then you have Paul's understanding of "nature" and "natural intercourse."

For Paul, mirroring the Old Testament view, there was a "natural" hierarchy that went like this: God-male-female. When a man assumes the female role (e.g., as penetrated), the natural and divine hierarchy was thrown into flux. Male-male sex was "unnatural" because it upset the "natural" hierarchy. Since most of us believe in the equality of men and women, we don't accept the male-female hierarchy as natural, much less as moral comprehensible.

 Moreover, in 1 Corinthians 11.1-16, Paul writes that it is against nature (para physin, the same phrase he uses in Romans when discussing same-sex acts) for women to pray without covering their heads and that it is against nature for a man to have long hair.

What? Isn't it actually more natural for a man's hair to grow out? And isn't it more natural for a woman to not cover her head?

And so the point is that, when Paul talks about "nature," he includes customs and social norms in that category. But that definition of nature just won't cut it in today's world.

Thus, if you want to base your claim on Paul's appeal to nature, then you are forced to admit that you really don't mean biology, in which case you discredit your case.

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In closing, I'll repeat a claim that I've made throughout this series. I am in no way arguing that Paul would be in favor of homosexuality. Rather, my claim here is that you can't use Romans 1 to argue against same-sex relationships.

The broader point is that, so far, the Bible doesn't speak for or against homosexuality, especially as it applies to the marriage of two equal partners. Thus, if we are intellectually honest, we will admit that. Using the Bible to support your position is fine. Just don't claim that your position is the biblical one.  Because it's not.

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In our next post, we'll continue to look at the New Testament, this time digging in to the Greek words found in 1 Corinthians 6.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Towards a Christian Approach to Gay Marriage, Part III: What the Bible Says About Homosexuality

Very often, people talk about what the Bible says without ever opening the Bible. This is especially true when issues of sexuality are being discussed. There is just this assumption that we already know what's in the Bible, so we don't actually have to read it.

Well, that's a problem. A big, big problem.

Any conversation about a text that doesn't include textual evidence would not be accepted by any serious scholar in any field - including biblical studies. In fact, that wouldn't even pass in any good middle school class.

In this post, and the next, I invite you to open up your Bible (oremus is my favorite online Bible).

Sounds easy enough, right? But, again, there's a problem.

We live in 21st century American, not in the ancient Near East or ancient Rome. And that makes any attempt to read and understand the Bible very difficult. To read the Bible well requires a knowledge of ancient languages and ancient cultures that most of us lack. Even if such knowledge weren't a problem, however, we'd still have to figure out how to transfer ancient stories and teachings to life in America today.

In short, reading the Bible is hard. No wonder so many people just skip the reading part!

If we're going to talk about what the Bible says about homosexuality, though, we're going to have to do the hard work of reading it, using our knowledge of ancient languages and cultures to find its meaning, and then figuring out how to apply that meaning today.

In this post, we'll do just that, with a focus on the Old Testament. Then, in the next post, we'll turn to the New Testament.

So, without any further adieu, what does the Bible actually say about homosexuality?

Old Testament Views on Homosexuality
There are only two passages in the entire OT that relate to the issue of homosexuality. A third has historically been taken to apply, but upon closer inspection does not. Let's address that one first.

Probably the most famous biblical passage on homosexuality is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, found in Genesis 19. It's from the city of Sodom that we get our word "sodomy," which is defined as anal sex (or sometimes also oral sex).

The story most people know about Sodom is that God destroyed the city because the men of the city were gay.

Obviously, these people didn't actually read the story printed in the Bible. Because, if they did, they would know that the story is about a lack of hospitality, even to the point of violence, not sex.

Shocking, right? That's not what I was taught about Sodom either. But, seriously, read Genesis 19. (This is a big time trigger warning text, by the way.)

Here's the real story:
  • A couple of angels, disguised as men, arrive at Sodom. Lot greets them at the city gate and invites them to stay the night at his house. It's evening time.
  • The men turn down the offer, stating that they plan to spend the night in the town square.
  • Lot convinces them to stay with him.
  • Before they turn down for the night, the men of Sodom come knocking on Lot's door, demanding that Lot hand over his guests so that the men of Sodom can "know" them.
  • Lot goes out to bargain with them, even offering up his virgin daughters.
  • This makes the men of Sodom angry, and they go after Lot.
  • Lot's guests save him from the angry crowd.
  • Not long after the incident, God destroys the city.
What do we make of this bizarre and troubling story?

The one thing you can't say is that this is a story about same-sex partnership. It's a story about attempted violence, about attempted gang rape, about not welcoming the stranger in your midst. It is not, I repeat, a story about homosexuality.

Yes, the men of Sodom seek sex with the men who are guests in Lot's home. But the problem is not that men are seeking sex with other men. The author of the story may very well think that sex between males is wrong, but that's not the point here.

Simply put, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah does not apply to 21st century discussions about homosexuality.

Not convinced? Flip over to Ezekiel 16.49-50, which is worth quoting in its entirety:
49This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.
Notice that Ezekiel fails to mention anything sexual. And, again, the point is not that Ezekiel or Genesis is in favor of homosexuality, but rather than the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not concerned with that issue.

Leviticus 18.22, on the other hand, does very much speak to the issue. And it appears to be unambiguous in its denouncement of male-male sex:
22You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

Likewise for Leviticus 20.13:
13If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.
These are pretty strong words. What do we make of these two verses?

First, context. Before we consider these two verses, let's look more broadly at the book in which they are found: Leviticus. Earlier in the book, eating fat prohibited, as is eating pork; if this is the case, then we here in Memphis, pork BBQ capital of the world, are in big trouble! Touching a pig's skin is also prohibited - so much for football! On the other hand, Leviticus has no problem with slavery.

I could go on, but President Bartlet (from The West Wing) makes the point about as well as anyone could, so watch this.

Here's the point: If you don't follow Levitical Law, then you can't cite Levitical Law to make your point. That's just hypocrisy. If you reject the parts of Levitical Law you don't like, how do you justify using it when it serves your interests?

Secondly, assume that we accept Levitical Law as valid. What does it mean for a man to lie with another man as with a woman (emphasis mine)? Remember, there were strict sexual hierarchies in the ancient world, including in the Bible. Men and women were not equal, and so sex always involved power dynamics. In sex, the man was the "top," the penetrator, while the woman was the "bottom," the penetrated. Thus, the male-female hierarchy was reinforced in sex.

According to this logic, a male who is penetrated takes on the female role, the bottom, an affront to the divine hierarchy that put the male on top.

To make matters worse, if a man can take on the female role, well, pretty soon you'll have women trying to take on the male role - and we can't have that, now can we!?!?

These verses are certainly about male-male sex (though, curiously, not about female-female sex). But the point here is more about upholding the male-female hierarchy than the sex act itself.

After all, the author could have simply said, "Don't lie with another man." That would have been a clear argument against male-male sex. But that's not the argument. The author specifically adds the phrase, " with a woman." And the reason is that, a man playing the role of a woman is, according to the philosophy of Leviticus, degrading to the man - and, in fact, to all men.

When we reject the male-female hierarchy of the ancient world, these verses cease to apply. If men and women are equal, then " with a women" loses its meaning. If men and women are equal, then male-female sex becomes sex between equals. And, in that case, " with a woman" would be no different than " with a man."

In sum, once you reject the male-female hierarchy, once you assert that men and women are equals, then the prohibition against male-male sex in Leviticus no longer holds. The prohibition is built upon sexual norms we don't accept.

The point, again, is not that Leviticus supports homosexuality, but rather that the book fails to offer a compelling reason to forbid it.

The Old Testament cannot be used by 21st century Christians to prohibit homosexuality. At no point is female-female sex even mentioned, and male-male sex is implicated with a set of laws and a sexual hierarchy we simply don't accept. 

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Stayed tuned. The next post will be will look at the New Testament and what it has to say about homosexuality. After that, we'll make some recommendations.

If you are just joining this discussion, make sure to catch up with the previous entries:

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Towards a Christian Approach to Gay Marriage, Part II: Biblical Views on Marriage & the Implications

Defining Our Terms
Before beginning conversations about topics that invite disagreement, I like to start by defining the terms. Oftentimes, when two people disagree, it seems almost like they are speaking different languages. We're using the same words, but mean very different things. The current disagreement is but a manifestation of a deeper disagreement about language and meaning.

This is certainly true with regard to the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.

So, before we talk about gay marriage, we need to define our terms. We'll start with the general term, marriage. As I mentioned in the previous post, before we look at same-sex marriage, we must first define marriage in general.

What is marriage? It sounds like a simple question, right? But, as it turns out, this question is much more complicated than it first appears.

What is marriage? Well, it depends on who you ask.

Within the Christian tradition, Catholics differ very much from Congregationalists, who differ greatly from Presbyterians. And we Baptists, as we often do, differ mightily with each other. Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, and more -- all have their own views on marriage. Then there are understandings of marriage that are more secular in nature.

In short, when we talk about marriage, we're not talking about just one thing. This is an important point when Christians look to the Bible for guidance.

From a Christian perspective, it's important to understand the big picture. What marriage means has changed many times over the course of history -- from the Old Testament to the New Testament, across 2,000 years of Christian history spread across every continent, down to today. This is not the first time conservatives in the church have defended a "traditional" view of marriage, nor is this the first time progressives in the church have pushed for a redefinition of marriage.

It's healthy, I would say, to reexamine beliefs from time to time. Marriage has evolved, and it will continue to evolve. Before we look to the future, though, it's important to understand the past.

Here's how we'll proceed:
  1. First, we'll look at what the Old Testament has to say about marriage.
  2. We'll turn then to the New Testament to see what it says.
  3. After laying out the biblical view -- or shall I say views, plural? -- we'll examine them, comparing and contrasting what's in the Bible with 21st century belief and practice.
  4. Finally, we'll consider the implications for same-sex marriage.

Old Testament Views on Marriage
Marriage in the Old Testament (OT) is not especially complicated. Overall, the various texts speak with one voice: Marriage between man and woman is the normative way of life. Singleness and other arrangements against the norm are looked upon with suspicion.

Patriarchy is the rule, with the husband being the head of the household. In fact, the Hebrew word for master (baal) is occasionally applied to the husband. The wife -- indeed, the female in general -- is valued as property. She is first the possession of her father, who then makes a business transaction with a man or his family, whereby the woman is transferred over a new ownership. Thus, the woman, now as wife, becomes the property of her husband.

Biologically speaking, the purpose of marriage is to extend the family and the bloodline. In other words, marriage is about procreation -- especially of male offspring. Yet, since the family is the locus of the religious experience in the OT, marriage also has a religious purpose.

The family existed within a tribe or clan, which existed within the framework of the nation. The larger community is more than merely a political organization; it is also a religious community.  Indeed, Israel is a religious community first of all. Although there is some evidence that Israel accepted converts, the primary means of expanding or replenishing the religious community is through childbirth. Thus, marriage in the OT is ultimately about the survival of the people.

The presence and action of God is connected concretely to human sexuality and material bodies. In other words, God cannot be purely spiritualized. If God works through bodies, though, there are definite limits in the OT. Not only are certain sexual acts prohibited, but marriage itself is the boundary between acceptable sex and sinful sex.

Divorce, however, was allowed; there was a fence around marriage, but it had a way out. Indeed, the OT has a very broad understanding of divorce. If the purpose of marriage is to produce offspring, divorce and Levirate marriage can be legitimized. Polygamy can also be understood in this context. In short, procreation was so important that liberties could be taken in order to ensure an heir.

To review, marriage is relatively simply and straight-forward: It is normative from the OT perspective. Its purpose is to sustain and extend the family and the community through procreation, which is understood as a sign of God’s blessing. God is intimately involved in the life of the people, even working through sex. Yet, God’s work through sex is understood primarily as occurring within the institution of marriage.

New Testament Views on Marriage

Marriage becomes immensely less clear in the New Testament (NT). The political climate is vastly different from that of the OT. Whereas the religious and the political in the OT were one, such was no longer the case in the NT -- at least, not with regard to Christianity.

In such a political climate, it makes sense to join together with those you can trust. But the biological family could not necessarily be trusted. Even Jesus didn't recognize his biological family as his true family (Lk. 8.19-21), and he requires those who would follow him to “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters” (Lk.14.26).

Furthermore, Jesus announced the arrival of the Jubilee, the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven. Then, Jesus was raised from the dead, followed by the Holy Spirit coming down at Pentecost. The end was at hand, and a radically new lifestyle was implemented in the early church.

And so family is radically redefined in the NT. Family is no longer husband, wife, and children. For the church, the religious community is now the family. Indeed, Jesus says, “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt. 12.50). The church a fictive family of strangers, transformed and joined together into one body for a common purpose, pitching into the communal pot to meet the needs of the family.

More important is the NT model of (re)generation. Of course, natural procreation still requires the sex act. Yet, the new family now operates according to the law of adoption. New members are no longer welcomed at biological birth, but rather at the new birth into the new family. Blessing is no longer associated with sexual fertility and procreation, but rather obedience to God (Lk.11.27-28). And the church looks to Abraham as its ancestor, not because of biological or tribal connection, but through faith (Luke 3.8). 

How, in light of the situation of the early church, would marriage be understood? Recall that Jesus requires that his disciples hate their spouses. In the age to come, following the resurrection of the dead, “they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven,” (Mk.12.18-27).  Furthermore, Jesus never married; nor did Paul. In fact, Paul reflects on the topic of marriage:

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.....I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in the view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are...Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife (1 Cor. 7. 8, 25-27).

Not only should marriage be avoided, but those with spouses should “be as though they had none” (1 Cor. 7.29). It would seem, therefore, that Jesus has brought a new situation where marriage is, at the very least, no longer normative -- and quite possibly something to be avoided altogether.

However, Paul states in the very same passage that, although it is better to refrain from sex and marriage, they are not inherently sinful. “[B]ecause of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband....if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion....if you marry, you do not sin” (1 Cor. 7.2, 9, 28). The point Paul is making here is that married people have to worry about their spouses and children, whereas those who are single and chaste can devote their whole selves to the will of God (1 Cor. 7. 32-35). Still, it is better to have competing interests than to fall into sexual sin.

Over against these negative voices, however, are some passages praising and supporting the institution of marriage. It is suggested, for example, that Jesus has no problems celebrating marriages,

as he performed his first miracle at one (Jn. 2.1-12); if he attends weddings, he tacitly gives his approval to marriage. And if he enjoys himself, or at least helps others enjoys themselves, his approval becomes more explicit.

The author of Hebrews is unambiguous: “Let marriage be held in honor by all” (Heb. 13.4). In other passages, marriage is just presupposed. For example, Paul writes that “each one of you [to] know how to control your own body [or RSV: take a wife] in holiness and honor” (1 Thess. 4.4).  Paul also assumes leaders in the church will be married when he writes guiding Timothy (1 Tim. 3.1-13) and Titus (2.3-5).

Therefore, to summarize: a NT understanding of marriage is ambiguous. If Jesus and Paul are our primary guides, a strong case can be made against marriage; it need not necessarily be a sin to be placed lower on the sexual hierarchy of the church. However, neither Jesus nor Paul are unequivocal on the matter in either direction.

Biblical Views & Today's World
First, the OT.

Do we understand marriage to be primarily about procreation? In 21st century American churches, I see little evidence of such a view. We have no problem with elderly people getting married, even when procreation is no longer a possibility. We also accept as valid marriage of couples who can't, or choose not to, have children. In short, we see marriage as a good in itself -- and, while it often results in procreation, it does not have to.

Furthermore, we flatly reject the sexual hierarchy OT marriage is built on. For us, marriage is about equal partners, not an exchange of property (the female) between two males.

In short, 21st century Christians by and large reject the OT understanding of marriage.

Now, the NT.

It's more difficult to speak to marriage in the NT because the voices within the NT are less unified and because those voices themselves are less clear. But the main thrust of the teachings of Jesus and Paul is that marriage is at least problematic.

Jesus calls his disciples to hate their spouses -- and modern Christians are so uncomfortable with this teaching that even the most literal fundamentalists insist on a nonliteral interpretation here. Likewise, when Jesus speaks of the end of marriage in the age to come, modern Christians are slow to want to apply that in the here and now.

What about Paul? I've not heard of any group of Christians trying to apply his teaching. Singleness is still seen as suspect in most churches.

In short, 21st century Christians have great difficulty with most NT teachings about marriage.

First, given the fact that marriage evolved over the course of biblical history, it cannot be argued that a change in the status quo is necessarily bad. It may be, but the Bible tells the story of the status quo of marriage being challenged. Therefore, whatever decision we come to, we must at least be open to change.

If we assume an OT perspective on marriage, then same-sex marriage is obviously unacceptable. However, most 21st century Christians, at least in the West, find the OT model unacceptable on many levels. What does this mean for how we might see same-sex marriage?

If procreation no longer has to be what justifies a marriage, then a door is open for same-sex partners. In this regard, two male partners are no different than an infertile heterosexual couple or an elderly heterosexual couple.

That said, even within an OT model, two female partners could procreate using in vitro fertilization, much in the same way that a heterosexual couple could procreate if the male were infertile. In addition, procreation no longer requires biological heirs; same-sex partners can procreate through adoption.

Thus, the OT perspective on marriage does not preclude our acceptance of same-sex partners joining together. Now, there may be other reasons to not accept same-sex marriage, but appealing to OT views on marriage won't suffice.

What about the NT? Well, the prevailing view is that singleness is preferred. However, since churches don't hold heterosexuals to this standard, it's hard to see how anyone could make this the standard for homosexuals.

But one could use Paul's allowance of marriage (e.g., if your passions are too strong, then marriage is an acceptable way to prevent sin) to make an interesting argument in favor of same-sex marriage. If heterosexual couples are allowed to marry if they can't control their passions, what's stopping us from applying this passage to homosexual couples as well? 

At any rate, the NT does reject the necessity of procreation in marriage -- and that in itself opens the door for same-sex couples.

On the whole, though, the NT lacks the robust theology of marriage that the OT has. And this ambiguity about marriage allows a great deal of latitude for speculation and new possibilities.

In sum, while there may be other reasons to reject same-sex marriage (e.g., if same-sex relations are wrong -- stay tuned, though, because we'll get to that question next), appealing to biblical definition(s) of marriage alone is inadequate.

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Stayed tuned. The next post will look at Old Testament verses that apply, or have been understood to apply, to the question of homosexuality. After that, we'll look at the New Testament. And then we'll make some recommendations.