Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Why I, as a Christian, Support Gay Marriage

I'm posting here a response to a friend's question on facebook. The friend asked why I support gay marriage. My theological reading of this matter does not represent anyone else but me. I may have several things wrong here. I freely admit that. I may also misrepresent myself or others. Please read this post about this very sensitive matter with grace, with careful attention and with the realization that I'm writing this late at night after a long day with a baby who is teething :D.

Here's my friend's question and my response, with only his first name given:

I don't want to quarrel with you, Marc, as I am fairly confident that you are a much more righteous man than I -- at the very least more righteous during college than I was or am, but I am curious as to why you are showing support for gay marriage? I can understand not getting involved in it as it is ultimately in God's hands and I can understand being against it as it is not a Godly lifestyle to encourage, but supporting it confounds me. If you answer, I will leave it at that and will not go back and forth with you. Thank you.

Dear Derek,

Thanks for your question. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know that I can answer you in a satisfactory way. I’ll attempt to outline a few brief reasons here, though my thinking about this goes much deeper. In addition, the journey to supporting gay marriage has been a long one for me. I don’t know that I could adequately explain it in a facebook comment.

You present three options, all predicated on the unspoken assumption that I am attempting to follow God and to be conformed into Christ’s likeness. Your unspoken assumption is correct! I do desire to follow Christ and to be conformed into his likeness. I believe in God and consider myself a Christian.
Of your three options, you understand two. The two you understand are 1) not involving myself in this issue because it is God’s to deal with; and 2) being against gay marriage because it is not a Godly lifestyle. I wouldn’t mind a constructive dialogue about where you have come up with these two options. For now, I can only base my response to you on assumptions about what might underlie the two options you can understand.

I will break up this response into several “comments,” since it is so long. I wish I weren’t so verbose…
At heart, I’m guessing what underlies your confusion over my stance on gay marriage is a particular perspective that you maintain toward the Bible and its normative claims on Christians. That is, I assume you maintain the perspective that the Bible is divinely-inspired and (I’m possibly reaching here) inerrant and that a person who professes to be a Christian would attempt to follow what the Bible says. Since in the Bible marriage is mentioned as being between a man and a woman; Jewish sources (the Hebrew Bible) show a dislike of same-sex relations (Lev. 20:13); the story of Sodom and Gomorrah can be interpreted by some as condemning men having sex with men; and the New Testament, in Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10, lists sexual actions between people of the same gender (male-male, female-female) within longer lists of sins---since this is all in the Bible, I as a professing Christian should be against gay marriage.

Your concern over this matter (and here I’m really reaching, I apologize if I’m wrong) might also be augmented by a concern over the moral state of the United States represented by such things as a decline in family values, an increase in divorce, and the changing of sexual mores regarding intercourse before marriage.

Let me respond to these two issues (the bible and the moral state of the U.S.), though I’m sure this matter is much more complex for you. I’ll also give you a further reasons for my support of gay marriage at the end.

Regarding the Bible. I do believe that the Bible is God-breathed (1 Timothy). Unlike some Christians, I do not believe that this implies inerrancy. Nor do I think this implies a sort of direct way of reading the Bible in which there can be no contradictions between texts of scripture and the Bible should and can be applied directly to life. In point of fact, certain texts of scripture do contradict each other. Certain claims in certain texts of scripture must also be weighed against other claims. There’s a long debate here about the Bible that I simply can’t go into.

Let me give a metaphor for the difference between one particular position on the Bible’s normative claims and my understanding of those claims. The first position assumes that the Bible, as God-breathed, should guide our lives like a rulebook, setting boundaries and telling us what to do or not to do. Since the Bible does not err, the task of interpreting the Bible is to decipher how to make seemingly contradictory or confusing claims harmonize with one another. Once those claims can be harmonized, the Bible then acts as a once-for-all guidebook that is applicable for every age. The Bible, as God’s Word, must be followed to the letter. Deviations from following in this way or disagreement about the inerrancy or normative status of the Bible constitute a slippery slope toward moral wrongness, heresy and not following God.

I understand the Bible, instead, to be a series of dialogues between God and human beings and human beings and each other. This accounts for the seemingly incompatible claims of Proverbs and Job, for instance. Or for the different accounts of King David’s reign (Samuels vs. Chronicles). Or the sometimes stark differences between the various gospels. Or even the seeming difference between Paul’s focus on faith and grace above works and James’ insistence on faith without works being dead. Instead of a rulebook, the Bible is an invitation to enter into those dialogues. The dialogues contain truth about God. They are true experiences of the writers’ interactions with God. The people who wrote the Bible truly believed they were interacting with God. And I believe that they were. God breathed into these humble writings of fallible people and, therefore, these writings are useful for teaching, rebuking and training in righteousness, as we learn in Timothy. The task of interpretation is not therefore to harmonize these accounts, but to learn from them about various ways of interacting rightly with God and how these ways might be lived out. The task of interpretation is also to somehow bring these ways into our contemporary situation, a context that is much different from the context of the writers. There can’t possible be a one-to-one application of what was written in the Bible. Too much has changed. And we are always reading the Bible through our own sin-filled, fallible perspectives, through our own culture and our own local understandings. Our reading of scripture is not pure, and neither has our application of scripture to our lives been pure. I do not think of the Bible as God’s Word (with a capital W), if this implies that we worship the Bible as if it is part of the Godhead, or synonymous with Jesus. Jesus is the Word, that is the Logos, the ultimate reason who binds all things together and who created the universe and who came as a human being, taught us through parables, died for our sins and rose again in victory over death. When we speak of Jesus as the Word, this is different from the Bible, which is words that are divinely-inspired, but not God’s Word directly given, sans-filter, to us. To treat the words of the Bible as the Word of God is to commit idolatry---idolatry of the written text over the living God.

The Bible has been used, misused, and abused to claim various things over our history. I name two cases that seem relevant here. Particular interpretations of texts in the NT (including household codes in the epistles and the letter to Philemon) led to a continuation of the horrors of slavery in the United States. Certainly, the Bible does say that slaves should obey their masters. And the book of Philemon seems to support the idea that Paul actually sent a slave back to his master. He returned a runaway slave. These texts were used to prop up an unjust system of abuse that cost thousands of lives and has repercussions into the present. Slavery in Paul’s time was a different institution than it became in the United States. Even if this were not the case, we must condemn slavery in all its forms now because of the freeing and redemptive love of Christ. We cannot read these verses in the same way in which they were read, either in Paul’s time or in the 1800s.

Perhaps this case seems too far from gay marriage. After all, some would argue, the moral ills of slavery are not equivalent to a ban on gay marriage. So let’s think of a closer example. In 1967, the United States finally overturned a ban on interracial marriages. Without the overturn of this ban, my parents could not have been married. Without my parents’ marriage, I would not be born. Some proponents of the ban on interracial marriage quoted passages of scripture, especially from the Hebrew Bible, that seemed to call marriage with someone of another race or nation an abomination before God (see the texts in Ezra and Nehemiah). Of course, these texts were about Israel as a nation, not about Americans. Some also quoted New Testament passages in support of maintaining boundaries between the races, or between believers and unbelievers. Interracial marriage was conceived of as unnatural and against God’s will. We would not conceive of it so now.

Because of these two and many other cases like them, I am wary of uses of the Bible that would place normative claims on the lives of others, including others who may or may not even call themselves Christians. Especially when these normative claims end up being used by very wrong-headed people in support of hate crimes and murders. Normative claims about homosexuality have been used to cause much harm and abuse. In addition, the truth is that the United States is no longer a “Christian nation,” even if it was once. If I grant that Christians should not encourage other Christians to be involved in homosexual relationships, I cannot extend this into a law that would apply to people who are not Christians.

But I go further. From my study of the Bible and commentators on the Bible, I am not sure if what Paul mentions as unnatural sexual relations in Corinthians, Timothy and Romans, is the same thing as what we call homosexuality now. Some scholars indicate that he was speaking of non-consensual relationships between men and young boys. Others think that these sexual actions took place within particular religious rites of particular people of Paul’s time and that Paul was writing contra particular other religions. Most all scholars agree that Paul had no conception, as we do, of “sexual orientation.” The word “homosexual” is a modern word and a modern concept. We must tread carefully when bringing Paul’s ideas into our modern context.

Even if I do grant that Paul was against same-sex intercourse, I do not grant that that must mean I should be against same-sex intercourse, or same-sex marriage. Paul also wrote that women should not speak in church. I am part of a Christian denomination (PCUSA) that understands women to not only have a voice in church, but also to have the God-given ability to be pastors and spiritual heads of congregations and families.

The Bible also strongly encourages covenant and the sacredness of the vows of marriage. I happen to think that these are larger categories and more important to Christian faith than restrictions on same-sex intercourse. This will address the second issue – the decline of morals in the U.S.
I lament that marriage is a declining institution in the United States. I am greatly saddened by the negative effects of broken marriages. I also believe that sex should happen inside the context of marriage and the covenant of marriage. The covenant of marriage is a witness to the covenant of God with us, Christ with Christ’s church. We keep this covenant as witnesses to God. Because of this, I think that we should support those who desire to live lives within the covenant of marriage. If people of the same sex desire to be married and to live according to that covenant, and conceive of marriage in a covenantal way, I support them.  

In addition to these more cognitive and rational reasons, I add the important fact that I am friends with many homosexual people. And I am friends with several married homosexual couples. A few of these couples consider themselves to be followers of Christ. I cannot deny the deep love that these people have for God, or for each other. By their lives and by their witness to me, I am convinced that they truly love God and that God truly loves them. I am convinced that homosexuality, within the bonds of the covenant of marriage, is not a sin. I support gay marriage because I want to join these couples in their love of God and each other, and in their support for the covenant of marriage.

I hope that you can now better understand why I support gay marriage and why I do not consider that support to be contrary to my life as a follower of Christ. You may not agree with me. I understand that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ do not. I wish that you did. I pray that my support of gay marriage is a witness to God’s love for us and to Christ’s resurrection. I hope that my words here have not somehow been a deterrent to faith in God or have not broken someone’s faith in God. Unless that faith was in a God of our own making, a God who is not really God. Then, I hope that all of us continue to reach for the God who is reaching for us and that we put aside everything that hinders us from running this race of faith with endurance and passion.

1 comment:

Jenifer Stephen said...

I have read this several times now and I just want to say thank you! You put into words and biblical references things I have thought/felt. I am not a writer so it is so nice to have someone else with incredible writing skills put it out there. Thanks again.