Marriage, Sexuality, and the Bible

Okay, folks.  Buckle up, because this is going to be one lengthy blog post.

I’m going to start by establishing a few basic ideas, and then we’ll combine and build upon them as we move forward.  I’ve been engaged in a lot of research and introspection as of late, and since this is a sensitive, controversial topic, I’m going to allow the reader to essentially follow along with me on my own reflective journey.

What is the purpose of marriage?

This is the first question I want to ask, because so many other issues hinge on the answer.  Throughout human history, the way we view and treat marriage has changed dramatically between eras and cultures, so I want to examine every common historical purpose of marriage so we can keep what’s valid and throw out what’s not.  Here’s what I’ve got…

  • Establishment of fiscal/civil rights – I listed this one first because it is the most immediately and politically pertinent when it comes to our modern cultural sensibilities.  Functionally and on a civil level, marriage between two people influences property rights, survivorship rights, child custody rights, various tax benefits, cohabitation, issues regarding insurance and the sharing of medical records, etc.  While these are all important civil issues and must be dealt with in one way or another, the establishment of rights as a “purpose of marriage” seems to be more of a social, utilitarian construct — legally valid, but spiritually irrelevant.
  • Procreation – If we’re going to get technical, procreation is actually one of the functional purposes of sex, not marriage. And although the two, ideally, go together, marriage alone (of course) does not produce children.  Procreation is obviously a necessity of nature, and the propagation of the species is one of the reasons why polygamy was commonly practiced earlier in history — and why males still take multiple mates in the animal kingdom.  But many of us have friends or family members who are married and have either chosen not to have children or who are physically unable to conceive, and they are no less “married” than any of us.    Therefore, while I firmly believe that the best environment for children is in a stable home with a mother and father, and while parenthood through procreation is a wonderful thing, I don’t believe it to be the primary purpose of marriage.
  • Rights to sexual access – Presumably, marrying someone gives you exclusive sexual access to that person, assuming you remain faithful to one another as intended.  But this seems more like an effect or result of marriage rather than a purpose.  I mean, if your choice to marry someone is based on the idea that, “Hey, I want to be able to have sex with this person, so we’d better get married,” then you’re likely in for a rocky (and short) relationship.  Anyway, I think we can all agree that marrying someone just for sex is incredibly and undeniably stupid.
  • Political and/or business arrangements – Being a scholar of medieval and renaissance history, I am immediately reminded of the way marriage was utilized during those time periods (and still is today in some cultures).  For most people, marriage was not about love, and women would rarely ever have a role in choosing their own husbands.  In fact, they might not even meet until the wedding.  Marriage was more about political alliances or financial advancement — a man would marry off his daughter to the son of a rival in order to achieve peace between the two families, a poor merchant would send his daughter to marry someone who could afford to take care of her, a knight without lands would be given a wealthy bride after gaining the king’s favor, etc.  Marriage tended to be a function of what either party (or family) could get from one another and how they could both advance in society, so I think it’s pretty safe to toss out this archaic concept as well.
  • Companionship – It’s undeniable that companionship is one of the greatest benefits of marriage.  Personally, I love the fact that I always have someone who I can talk, eat, do chores, and go to the movies with.  It’s comforting, right?  But technically, two close friends could conceivably live together for purposes of companionship without being married or sexually attracted to one another.  Therefore, we still need to determine another aspect that makes the marriage relationship unique.
  • Imperfect Reflection of Perfect Love – When we come right down to it, I believe this to be the primary and most important purpose of marriage.  By willfully and permanently choosing to bind ourselves to another person physically, emotionally, sexually, and spiritually, we create a unique type of relationship that does not exist anywhere else in life, in any other context.  Marriage is the only human bond in which we are called upon to use all four types of love: στοργή (storge, or “empathy”), φιλία (philia, or “friendship”), ἔρως (eros, or “sexual love”), and ἀγάπη (agape, or “sacrificial love”).  It is basic training for learning what it means to truly love another person, because it’s never harder to do so than within the marriage covenant.  I am always reminded of the story of Hosea and Gomer — how God taught us about love by commanding his prophet, Hosea, to marry a prostitute named Gomer.  Every time she left him or was unfaithful, Hosea would always seek after her, forgive her, and bring her back to himself.  That is the inexplicable love of God, and it’s also the love that we are called upon to reflect.

So what about gay marriage?

Yep.  That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?  Well, first I want to talk about this issue politically.  Admittedly, I used to be totally opposed to the idea of federal or state governments sanctioning gay marriage, but my views on the issue have evolved in recent years — I’m not talking about a moral perspective here (although we’ll get to that part later), but a Libertarian perspective.  I am of the opinion that the government has no right or authority to be involved in marriage in the first place, as regulating marriage is not among the enumerated powers granted in the U.S. Constitution.  However, the government does serve an important role when it comes to approving and protecting civil contracts, as discussed in the previous section (Establishment of fiscal/civil rights).  Since all people deserve the right to freely associate with others however they choose, including matters of property rights, survivorship rights, tax benefits, etc., then such civil contracts should not be denied to any person, regardless of sexual orientation.  I mean, it’s nothing but a legal agreement between two adults, right?  Who am I to tell someone else who they can or can’t name as a beneficiary on their insurance policy?

And now we start wading into deep waters, where black and white turns to grey…

What does the Bible say about homosexuality?

I’ve read a LOT of different arguments about whether or not homosexuality (as it is understood today) is a sin.  Some of these arguments are thin and easily discounted, and others are valid and deserve consideration.  The first one I want to discuss involves the translation of the Greek word ἀρσενοκοίτης (arsenokoites), as used in the following passage:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.  Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”1 Cor. 6:9-11

Before we get into the translation, how many of us fall into at least one of those categories listed at some level or another?  Okay then.

Firstly, the word being translated as “effeminate” is actually μαλακία (malakia), which literally means “soft” or “squishy.”  So this could also refer to people who are weak, vain, or cowardly, since it was used by other writers at the time to decry those same vices.  But more prominently, the word being translated as “homosexuals” is actually arsenokoites (a compound of “man” and “bed,” literally “man-bedders”), which was never used previously in the Bible and was apparently invented by Paul.  This fact alone makes proper translation difficult, since we can’t exactly get Paul on the phone and ask him what he meant.  Traditionalists will say that this rare Greek word is an obvious callback to Leviticus 18:22 (which it may well be), while more liberal Christians will argue that the word actually refers to male prostitutes, rapists, or pedophiles.  However, anyone (from either side of the argument) who claims to know for 100% certain what this word means is being intellectually dishonest.  A prominent investigator of the meaning of arsenokoites, Dale Martin of Yale University said, “I should be clear about my claims here.  I am not claiming to know what arsenokoites meant, I am claiming that no one knows what it meant.”

So let’s talk context, then.  Who was Paul’s audience?  What practices were familiar to them?  Well, the Roman Empire was obviously dominant politically and culturally at the time, and sexual conquest was a common metaphor for imperialism in Roman discourse.  The “conquest mentality” was part of a “cult of virility” that particularly shaped Roman sexual practices, so it was expected and socially acceptable for a freeborn Roman man to want sex with both female and male partners, as long as he took the penetrative role.  Acceptable male partners were slaves, prostitutes, and teenage boys of a lower social status.  Rome was also known for various “fertility cults,” which involved drunkenness, prostitution, and orgies on top of altars to pagan gods.

In Greek culture (since Corinth was in Greece), pederasty was an extremely common practice, which involved a sexual relationship between an adult male and a pubescent or adolescent male.  It was sort of an initial ritual — though it was both coercive and predatory, especially by modern standards.  You’re welcome to read more about it if you want, but it definitely would have been familiar to the Corinthians.

Either way, it does seem curious that these admonitions are only present in Paul’s letters to Greek and Roman churches, and not in epistles to the Jewish people, such as Hebrews and James.  This may be a coincidence, or it may be extremely relevant.  Do these verses represent blanket statements about all homosexual relationships (as we understand them today), or was Paul condemning specific practices that would have been familiar to his Greek and Roman audiences?  Honestly, I’m not sure.

Now, what if Paul was trying to echo Leviticus?  He was a Pharisee, after all, and was very familiar with Jewish Law.  However, it is again important to note that his audience was the church in Corinth, not fellow Jews, but we’ll examine the link anyway.  Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20 both condemn numerous forms of sexual sin, also including incest and bestiality.  It is important to note that Ch. 17 is all about religious animal sacrifice, Ch. 19 is about idol worship, and Ch. 20 makes specific references to pagan religious practices and human sacrifice.  Therefore, some scholars argue that the references to sexual immorality contained in these passages specifically refer to pagan sex rituals and shrine prostitution.  Either way, the admonition that “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman,” clearly refers to sex between two men (for whatever reason, women are not mentioned here).  However, our modern conception of homosexuality as a specific sexual orientation simply did not exist at the time.  In fact, it didn’t really exist until around 1900.

On that note, the following is an excerpt from the Oxford Classical Dictionary:

No Greek or Latin word corresponds to the modern term “homosexuality,” and ancient Mediterranean society did not in practice treat homosexuality as a socially operating category of personal or public life. Sexual relations between persons of the same sex certainly did occur (they are widely attested in ancient sources), but they were not systematically distinguished or conceptualized as such, much less were they thought to represent a single, homogeneous phenomenon in contradistinction to sexual relations between persons of different sexes….  The application of “homosexuality” (and “heterosexuality”) in a substantive or normative sense to sexual expression in classical antiquity is not advised.

The point is that use of the modern term “homosexuality” in these passages represents a translation that is at best inadequate and at worst dishonest.

Biblical historians tell us that Canaanite paganism (as referenced in Leviticus) often included fertility rites consisting of drunken sex rituals, which were thought to bring the blessing of the gods on their crops and livestock. During the rituals, whole families, including husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, cousins, aunts, and uncles (along with priests and prostitutes) would all have sex with one another.  Therefore, an argument can be made that the passages in question are in response to Egyptian and Canaanite pagan religious practices, especially since the text begins with the command: “You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you.”

It is also worth noting that in these ancient tribal cultures, it would have been virtually impossible for people who we would consider homosexual (in the modern sense) to form committed, monogamous relationships. Offspring were essential to survival in this primitive agricultural economy, which may be why “spilling seed on the ground” or having sex with a women during menstruation were both forbidden — these practices were considered unclean (though they’re not now) and neither could possibly lead to children.

Let’s pull back for a second here, because I may have lost some of you already.  I’m not saying that I know anything for certain.  I am merely presenting the evidence that exists — honestly, I’m probably working through all this at the same pace as you.  However, I am at least willing to admit that there is some level of ambiguity here.  I may be completely wrong in the conclusions I’ve drawn above… I may only be partially right.  I probably won’t know until I stand before God one day.  But the question now becomes:  What do we do with this information?

Sooo… what about gay marriage, then?

As we all know, Jesus never specifically mentioned homosexuality one way or the other.  Actually, he never really said much about sexual sins at all, with the exception of adultery.  Now,  I don’t personally subscribe to the fallacious argument that “if Jesus didn’t mention it, then it must be okay,” because that’s just irrational.  Jesus didn’t talk about incest, either.  And since drunkenness is clearly a sin, I think a solid conclusion can be drawn that abuse of narcotics is sinful as well. But that’s not the point.  Jesus did talk about marriage on a few occasions, and curiously enough, I feel like there may be a few related inferences we can draw from these passages.  Let’s begin with Jesus’ famous conversation about marriage and divorce in Matthew 19

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Okay, I’m not going where you think I’m going with this.  You probably thought I was going to focus on the “made them male and female” business, but I’m not.  Instead, I want to talk about the last part, when Jesus tells his followers that it’s better for people not to get married and to remain single if they can accept it.

Paul says something very similar in 1 Corinthians 7

Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband…. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion…

I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs — how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world — how he can please his wife — and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world — how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord. If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin — this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.

The point being made by both Jesus and Paul here is that it’s better for Christians not to get married at all so they have more time and energy to focus on pleasing God rather than pleasing a spouse.  The way these passages read, it sounds like marriage is kinda provided as a concession to imperfect people who can’t control their desires — Paul even calls it a concession and not a command.  In other words, marriage is permitted and isn’t necessarily a bad thing (usually it’s a good thing, actually), but it’s also not the ideal.

It sort of reminds me of what Jesus said about divorce.  Basically, Jesus told his followers that marriage is for life and that “what God has joined together, let no man separate.”  In other words, divorce ideally should never happen.  However, he also said divorce is permitted in cases of unrepentant adultery (Paul mentions abandonment by an unbeliever as a justifiable reason as well).  Basically, divorce — while morally wrong in most cases — is permitted under certain circumstances, but it is still not the best thing.  So here’s the question:  If “one man and one woman” is the ideal form of marriage, then is it also possible, in an imperfect world filled with imperfect people, that gay marriage could be considered “not ideal” but still permitted in certain circumstances?  When Paul said, if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion,” is it possible that this could apply to committed, monogamous, homosexual couples as well?

Let’s go back to the beginning for a sec, where I decided that the primary purpose of marriage is the “imperfect reflection of perfect love.”  So here’s another question:  Is it possible for a committed, monogamous, homosexual couple to not only provide each other with companionship, but to show all four types of love (storge, philia, eros, and agape) to one another?  Looking at this issue with a completely open mind, I’d have to say that it is certainly possible.  How could anyone honestly say otherwise?

Okay.  How do we, as Christians, respond to the gay community?

First of all, I’ve always thought it was kind of silly to use the term “gay community,” as if all gay people know each other and have weekly meetings like some kind of league or trade union.  But hey, it’s a term everyone is familiar with, so I’ll stick with it for the sake of simplicity.  Anyway, as I see it, there are three possible ways we can respond to the gay community…

  • “God hates fags!” – Yeah… so this is obviously NOT the right way to respond.  I only included it because this is how a small, vocal minority tends to act — specifically the self-righteous douchebags over at Westboro Baptist Church.  Clearly that kind of vitriol is both completely wrong and completely unhelpful to anyone.  As a matter of fact, if there’s one thing that can unite the majority of Christians with the gay community, it’s a mutual disdain for those bile-spewing jerks.
  • “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” – This is the most common response from the Christian Church at large, and honestly, it’s the way I felt for most of my life.  But here’s the thing I’m beginning to realize:  Whether I’m right or wrong about all the scriptural interpretation and inferences that have filled up most of my blog post, this response doesn’t really help anyone either.  Sure, we can make ourselves feel better by clinging to that little six-word phrase, but it’s still going to result in us pushing people away.  No matter what you or I may believe about homosexuality, it remains an integral part of who these people are, and most of them are not going to change (and probably couldn’t even if they wanted to).  Heck, it’s been well documented that those “pray away the gay” camps don’t work at all.  I mean, do we really believe that we can win people for Christ by making them feel rejected and ostracized?  How can we be “known by our love” when instead we’re known by our finger-wagging?  After all, the Bible isn’t supposed to be a complicated rule-book that we use to clobber people over the head.  No, it’s the story of God’s great love affair with humanity — how we became lost, and how He continually calls us back to Himself.  I’ve recently come to understand that when you choose to hate an element of someone’s identity, whether you understand it or not, you are still — even if unintentionally — hating them as well.  How could any such response be morally defensible when it causes seekers to flee from the Church, families to be torn apart, and teenagers to commit suicide at an alarming rate?  Based on the results alone, it’s clear that another path must be chosen.
  • “Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Of those quotes I’ve used thus far, this is the only one that’s actually in the Bible.  Love God and love others — all the Law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.  I wrote a lot in this blog post about the handful of passages in the Bible that address marriage and sexual activity in one way or another, their context, and the ways they might be interpreted.  Whether I’m right or wrong in my assessments, I believe enough ambiguity exists that I’m not willing to hang my hat on a black-and-white judgment when it comes to committed, monogamous, homosexual relationships.  But do you know what else I realized?  It’s not my responsibility to do that anyway.  And that’s very freeing.  My sins, your sins, and everyone else’s sins will be judged when we all stand before God one day.  Our only job is to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth while treating all of our brothers and sisters with charity, equity, and compassion.

As I wrote in a previous post, we live in a messy world, and sometimes all we can do is meet people where they are.

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” ‘You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.Romans 13:8-10

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