Just under a year ago, I wrote a post entitled The Institution of Marriage, Same-Sex Unions, and Procreation on the subject of same-sex marriage. With the topic such a live one, I frequently get asked follow-up questions and wanted a single place to direct people where such questions could be addressed. This is my attempt to provide such a place.
This isn’t going to be a comprehensive treatment of the subject of same-sex marriage, nor even of the questions that its opponents often face. I will probably update this post at various points. It is a work in progress, rather than a finished piece. I would welcome feedback from all parties on questions to add. If you have any questions that you would like me to address, please leave them in the comments here.
1. What could be wrong with affirming two people’s love and commitment to each other?
The question at issue in the same-sex marriage debate is not whether the love of same-sex couples for each other should be affirmed, but whether it should be affirmed as marriage. There are many ways in which families, friends, communities, and society more generally could affirm the love and commitment of a same-sex couple that don’t involve redefining the institution of marriage. These can and should be discussed in their place, but this particular debate concerns marriage.
Further to this, the love and commitment of individual couples has always had a rather uneasy relationship to marriage as an institution. While married couples are typically expected to get married in large part on the basis of a love for and a willing commitment to each other, the institution of marriage exists not to affirm this love and willing commitment as such, but to create something more certain and lasting beyond that. Marriage typically places considerable restrictions upon love. It places limitations and pressures upon our choices of suitable partners. It denies us the right to have sexual relationships with persons we might love outside of marriage bonds.
For many, the institution of marriage is designed to make it very difficult and costly for them to get out of a relationship with someone that they stopped loving many years ago and may now positively detest. While it begins with a willing commitment of two persons to each other, marriage renders that commitment something objective and binding upon the persons, even should the commitment become an unwilling one. The flipside of the romantic grounding of marriage upon love and willing commitment is a strong divorce culture, because for a significant percentage of marriages, what began as a willing and loving commitment will not always remain that way.
While this is certainly not the only way that a same-sex marriage proponent could put their case, it is important that we notice how the question frames the issue and the assumptions that it betrays. 1. Society is put in the position of ‘affirming’ and recognizing rights, downplaying the idea of the imposition of norms and duties. 2. The focus is upon individual couples, rather than upon marriage and society more generally. 3. More particularly, the focus is upon the underwriting, rubber-stamping, facilitation, and celebration of their volitional, dispositional, and emotive states and their sexual desires, without such a stress upon a binding and objective commitment.
What the framing of such a question reveals is that the re-imagining of marriage taking place in many quarters does not merely rest with the issue of whether two men or two women can marry each other just like a man and a woman. Rather, the very sort of thing that marriage itself is is in the process of being re-imagined. As I have argued elsewhere, marriage is ceasing to be about institutional norms and public values and is gradually moving towards a more privatized lifestyle consumer model.
Reframing the original question in terms of a more traditional understanding of the sort of thing that marriage is, our hypothetical interlocutor could ask: ‘what could be wrong with society expecting all LGBT persons willingly to commit themselves to the norm of lifelong, sexually exclusive relationships between two persons of the same or opposite sex, to reserve sexual relations for such bonds, to form a culture that reinforces and supports them, to privatize displays of sexuality (though not necessarily romantic affection), and to form a society that is ordered towards the needs and the raising of a new generation?’ Marriage culture is binding on everyone, not merely on those who get married.
The fact that a question of this form is so rarely asked is telling on a number of fronts. In particular, it reveals that society in general is largely leaving behind the idea of a ‘marriage culture’. With it the idea of marriage as an institution designed to serve and strengthen society’s fabric is being jettisoned in favour of the idea of marriage as a private lifestyle choice that should be underwritten, affirmed, and increasingly freed from external restrictions.
I also suspect that, despite the enthusiasm for same-sex marriage, with its affirmation of the equality of same-sex relationships to opposite sex relationships and its puncturing of heteronormativity, there really isn’t great enthusiasm for marriage culture within most quarters of LGBT communities. A campaign for same-sex marriage that is championed by a significant number of persons who are ambivalent, resistant, or even hostile to marriage culture isn’t really going to help an institution that is already ailing within our society. One of the things that have been most concerning in the recent debates is realizing just how extensive this departure from marriage culture in Western society actually is.
2. Isn’t it discriminatory for it to be illegal for two men or two women to marry?
Once again it is important to clear up a misunderstanding within the question as it is framed. For same-sex marriage to be illegal in the sense of being prohibited or unauthorized by the law it would first have to be a possible entity. For a considerable number of opponents to same-sex marriage, the key question isn’t whether same-sex couples should have permission to get married but, if such permission were granted, whether a same-sex marriage is even possible. The debate here is about the reality to which ‘marriage’ refers and whether it is a reality that a same-sex couple could constitute. The reason why circles cannot be squared or women cannot be fathers is not on account of a lack of permission. This is the reason why one would really struggle to find evidence of laws against same-sex marriages throughout various societies over the course of human history: one doesn’t need to legislate against that which is considered impossible.
The legalization of inter-racial marriage is frequently taken as an analogy for the present same-sex marriage debates. The contrast between the two examples is illuminating, however. There was general agreement that an inter-racial marriage was a possible entity. The debate was purely over whether the possibility should be a legal one. However, there is not the same agreement that a same-sex marriage is a possible entity.
This also reveals that the claim of discrimination isn’t as straightforward as assumed. Discrimination (and, more particularly, unjust discrimination) was clearly operative in the case of inter-racial marriages. However, if a same-sex marriage is an impossible entity it doesn’t make sense to say that it is being discriminated against.
Even were we to grant that same-sex marriage were a possible entity, however, discrimination against it would not necessarily be wrong. Despite the careless contemporary uses of the term, ‘discrimination’ is not a bad thing per se. Discrimination, when it recognizes the various natures and ends of things and treats different things differently, is very healthy. For instance, we discriminate when we establish ages of marital consent. We recognize that mature consent is conducive to the health of marriage, individuals, and society and so we restrict people below certain ages from marrying. Discrimination only becomes problematic when the grounds upon which we are discriminating are not good ones.
The prohibition of inter-racial marriage discriminated on the basis of skin colour, which, relative to the nature and ends of marriage, is a very bad reason upon which to discriminate. However, in discriminating between the committed sexual partnerships of same-sex couples and couples of the opposite sex there are many more grounds upon which to discriminate and, relative to the ends and nature of marriage, a strong argument can be made that they are good ones.
3. Shouldn’t we seek to treat all people equally?
This question is related to the last. The language of ‘equality’ has considerable currency within our society. However, by itself the term ‘equality’ is largely question-begging and tends to obscure rather than reveal. ‘Equality’ is only truly meaningful when people or entities are in fact equal and, within the relevant context, interchangeable. When we use ‘equality’ language to speak of complex realities where genuine and significant differences do exist, such as gender and forms of relationships, we start to presume the very things that we need to prove.
As it functions in contemporary discourse, especially surrounding gender, sexuality, and forms of relationships, egalitarianism tends to be a self-asserting dogma, often making it impervious to reasonable discourse. I firmly agree with egalitarianism on the point that, when things are truly equal relative to a particular end, they should be treated equally. We should never discriminate between persons or entities on the basis of irrelevant criteria. However, when we are trying to have a debate about the natures and ends of particular realities and which criteria are relevant in particular contexts, to speak about equality merely begs the question.
Instead of the language of equality, I suggest that we adopt the language of ‘equity’. Equity recognizes that people are different and, taking those differences into account and discerning differing natures and ends, is impartial, even-handed, and fair in its administration of justice.
We all agree that equal things should be treated equally: the challenge for proponents of same-sex marriage is to prove that, relative to the ends and nature of marriage, same-sex pairings are actually equal to opposite sex pairings. ‘Equality’ rhetoric simply dodges this difficult task.
4. Why should same-sex couples be denied rights in areas such as inheritance or visitation?
I do not believe that they should. However, there are ways to grant or secure such rights without redefining marriage. To redefine an institution as fundamental to human society as marriage for the sole purpose of addressing such problems is extreme overkill. More troubling, the suggestion that one not infrequently encounters that it would be a sufficient rationale for doing so betrays an alarmingly hollow view of what marriage actually stands for.
5. Jesus never said anything about same-sex marriages. Why should Christians speak on the subject?
As I have already remarked, many opponents of same-sex marriage believe that it is an impossible entity, so it should not surprise us that Jesus never spoke about it, just as he never spoke against women being fathers. Nevertheless, Jesus’ teaching does clearly stand against same-sex marriage. Jesus grounds the institution of marriage firmly in the created reality of sexual dimorphism:
And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 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’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” – Matthew 19:4-6
Jesus’ argument against the Sadducees in Luke 20:34-38 is also illuminating on this front. N.T. Wright observes:
The logic of Luke’s version of Jesus’ riposte then depends for its force on two unstated assumptions: (a) that marriage is instituted to cope with the problem that people die; (b) angels do not die. The Levirate law, quite explicitly, had to do with continuing the family line when faced with death; Jesus in Luke’s version, not only declares that this law will be redundant in a world without death, but that marriage itself, even with one husband and one wife, will likewise be irrelevant in such a world. A key point, often unnoticed, is that the Sadducees’ question is not about the mutual affection and companionship of husband and wife, but about how to fulfil the command to have a child, that is, how in the future life the family line will be kept going. This is presumably based on the belief, going back to Genesis 1.28, that the main purpose of marriage was to be fruitful and multiply.
The purpose of marriage, both in Genesis 1 and 2 is about much more than companionship. It is framed by the concept of vocation: the vocation of humanity to be fruitful and multiply, to fill and subdue the earth, and Adam’s vocation to serve the earth, to guard and keep the garden, and to uphold its law. After the Fall, marriage is also framed by the reality of death and the need to survive and multiply in its face. Human companionship is wonderful and many of its benefits can be enjoyed in particular richness in the context of the lifelong bond of marriage. However, marriage serves ends beyond this and, for Scripture, the tasks of procreation and child-rearing are central. In the new creation, the human race will have finished these tasks and so marriage ceases too. Companionship isn’t as primary an end of marriage in biblical thought as it is within contemporary society, where, given the nature of our world and our economy, companionship with a spouse has to bear the sort of existential weight that were previously typically borne by thick relationships within a settled community.
Such a firm grounding of marriage upon both sexual dimorphism and procreation stands sharply opposed to same-sex marriage.
Why should Christians speak to this issue? First it should be stressed that Christian ethics should address matters of which Jesus never spoke. The fact that Jesus never explicitly condemned bestiality doesn’t make it permissible. We have explicit commands elsewhere in Scripture that address such things. We also have developed principles of justice that we can bring to bear upon realities that aren’t addressed in the biblical text.
The Christian teaching on subjects such as marriage, gender, and sexuality are extensive. Most of this teaching takes a positive form, filling out such realities as sexual dimorphism with meaning and purpose, rather than the negative form of prohibiting particular behaviours (although there is plenty of that too). One of the problems with the assumption that Jesus never spoke to the subject of same-sex marriage is that, rather than taking our bearings from close attention to the positive teaching, it presumes that our answers would only be found in the form of negative prohibitions. However, the positive statements that Jesus makes about marriage clearly reveal that he is speaking about something quite different from same-sex relationships.
Christians should also speak to the subject of same-sex marriage because we are members of society and have an interest in and duty to it. Marriage and the family that grows from it represent the fundamental institution of the original creation. It relates us to deep and transcendent dimensions of reality. It humanizes some of our most fundamental animal functions and orders them to personal and societal ends. It explores and articulates the meanings of the most basic created anthropological difference and relationship – that between a man and a woman. We should seek to guard this for the sake of the good of wider society and for generations to come.
6. Doesn’t all opposition to same-sex marriage boil down to homophobia and opposition to gay sex?
No. One does not have to exclude LGBT persons from those to whom we owe equitable treatment and recognition of personal dignity in order to oppose same-sex marriage. Opposition to same-sex marriage can be quite consistent with support for civil rights for LGBT persons more generally. The arguments that I have raised against same-sex marriage here and elsewhere do not presuppose opposition of homosexual relations, nor even to their recognition by society. The question that we are addressing here is not about the morality of homosexual practice (a question that must be addressed in its own place), but about the meaning of marriage.
7. Why the fixation on same-sex marriage? Why not the same opposition to divorce culture, for instance? Surely husbands and wives divorcing weaken the institution of marriage much more than same-sex couples wishing to enter it.
Divorce culture represents a huge threat to the integrity of marriage. However, divorce culture is a very complicated thing to address. There are valid reasons to divorce, so making it illegal isn’t a solution: it is not divorce but divorce culture that is the problem. Divorce is a symptom of an underlying set of problems. Often these problems don’t lie so much with the laws surrounding divorce or even with the liberal ways in which they are applied (although these are problems) as they do with the underlying values of the society. Challenging and changing these values is difficult.
We attack divorce culture by attacking the values that underlie it. However, the arguments for same-sex marriage that we are encountering at the moment are closely bound up with or serve to strengthen many of these values. It is at points like this, when the underlying values of the divorce culture break the surface and meet us head on – and especially when we are asked to affirm and celebrate them – that we have the duty to resist them.
One of the principal threats posed by same-sex marriage is that of establishing within the very public meaning of marriage key elements of the value system integral to the divorce culture. Same-sex marriage would not be a cultural possibility had not the values underlying the divorce culture paved its way. One’s perspective on the current arguments for same-sex marriage will tend to be shaped by your ranking of values relating to such things as, for example: 1. procreation; 2. the stability of the environment of child-rearing; 3. the relating of the two sexes to each other in society; 4. individual choice, autonomy, and self-fulfilment; 5. the anthropological and religious significance of sexual dimorphism; 6. sexual gratification; 7. marriage as cultural and institutional norm (sexual exclusivity, lifelong union, avoidance of sexual relations outside of marriage, opposition to adultery, etc.); 8. romantic love; 9. the bond between biological, legal, and social parenthood; 10. the need for both a father and a mother and the full involvement, commitment, and interdependence of both sexes in child-rearing; 11. the enjoyment of social status, benefits, and perks; 12. the presence of social support structures that uphold, inculcate, and facilitate the cultural norms.
The values that we hold most highly will be the values into which we will try to integrate all others. However, such a process always requires sacrifice or compromise. For instance, if romantic love is our highest value then we will tend to compromise on marriage as a cultural and institutional norm, because the two will frequently be at odds with each other. If we value marriage as a cultural and institutional norm very highly, we will tend to tolerate – indeed, to expect – much greater sacrifice in such areas as the happiness and sexual gratification of the unmarried. All of this should be fairly straightforward and obvious.
In terms of the values listed above, traditional opposition to divorce culture would place a high emphasis upon 1, 2, 7, 9, 10, and 12 in particular and to downplay and expect sacrifices in the areas of 4, 6, and 8. In order to secure the best interests of children, adults need to learn how to resolve conflicts rather than escaping them, to cope with profound sexual frustration, and to recognize limits on their choice and autonomy. In tackling the divorce culture we need to stress the importance of the duties and roles of both parents and just how necessary it is to guard the integrity and unity of the bond of parenthood. For the same reasons as we oppose divorce culture, we also seek to ensure that marriage is a universally acknowledged cultural norm, so that children aren’t born out of wedlock and so that all of society is committed to and focused upon making marriage a stable and healthy institution, ordering our sexual and relational behaviour in terms of it.
The case for same-sex marriage, however, must necessarily downplay 1, 3, 5, 9, and 10, factors that serve as the primary basis for marriage as a socially normative institution (7). Given the way that the core values of the institution of marriage are carefully woven together, the significance of male-female bonding is never merely an isolated thread within it, but is connected to everything else. Cut that thread, and don’t be surprised if you find all sorts of other things unravelling. The arguments in favour of same-sex marriage have typically emphasized 4, 6, 8, and 11, which, once again, has tended drastically to diminish the significance of 7. Grounding the practice of marriage upon choice and love may seem natural, but history has shown that it is far from a stable basis for the institution.
The divorce culture approaches marriage as an institution ordered primarily around adults’ ends and stresses individual autonomy. It tends to resist marriage’s demands of couples and of society more generally, both married and unmarried. It often treats romantic love and sexual gratification as the primary reasons both for getting and for staying married. It tends to diminish the significance of the very same values as same-sex marriage.
Same-sex marriage goes further, however, as such a diminishment is essential to what it is. While divorce is a failure to attain to certain values integral to marriage, same-sex marriage simply denies that many of these values are integral to marriage or that necessary in the first place. Divorce culture may seriously compromise the bond between biological, legal, and social parenthood. However, every child in a same-sex relationship has at least three parents. Divorce culture may compromise the child’s right to the presence of an involved father and mother. Same-sex marriage typically denies that children need both a father and a mother.
A further and absolutely crucial difference between divorce and same-sex marriage is that divorce has never pretended to be anything other than a tragic sign that something has gone seriously wrong somewhere and that something sought for was not successfully attained. However, same-sex marriage takes much of the same value system of which divorce was a symptom and calls us both to celebrate it and to present it as integral to the meaning of marriage. Divorce typically acknowledges the compromises and the sacrifices that it is making: same-sex marriage strenuously denies them.
8. On what basis do opponents of same-sex marriage say that it will lead to polygamy?
Questionable ones, I believe.
The shift to a more constructivist and malleable understanding of marriage, moving away from close reflection upon the nature and ends of the realities with which it deals, can definitely lead to a weakening of traditional objections to polygamy. The steady de-institutionalization and privatization of marriage can also have the same effect: if James and Steven’s marriage doesn’t harm mine, leaving me with no reason to object to it, couldn’t the same be said of Simon, Linda, and Jane’s? A number of the arguments that many bring forward for same-sex marriage prove more than they intend to and in this sense it could be said that they will lead to polygamy.
However, I have yet to see a convincing reason why legalizing same-sex marriage will open a legal door to polygamy. Nor, more importantly, is there much of a cultural desire for it: the will of our society is running in very different directions. Even if polygamy were made possible, it would be fringe in contrast to same-sex marriage, which is in the mainstream. The following are a few reasons why polygamy goes against the zeitgeist.
1. Polygamy is characterized by a fairly extreme gender differentiation. The current trend is in precisely the opposite direction.
2. Polygamy has male-female bonds at its heart. It is worth remembering that polygamy is not one man entering into one marriage within many wives, but one man entering into many marriages with many wives. The wives are not married to each other. There is an essential affirmation of sexual dimorphism and the fact that a marriage is built around the committed sexual relationship between a single man and a single woman at the heart of polygamy, even if those relationships aren’t exclusive.
3. Polygamous groups tend to be highly procreative and polygamous families tend to place a lot of emphasis on children. Marriage is oriented towards the production of a new generation, not mere sexual gratification or romantic companionship. Once again, this is directly contrary to the current trend.
4. Polygamous marriages tend to challenge the sentimental nuclear ideal of the family, expanding the family beyond a unitary bond of affection and making it far more of a public and communal reality that transcends and limits the will and entitlement of those within it.
5. Polygamy tends to be de-individualizing, particularly for women and children. While it produces more children, the polygamous family invests less in each particular one. It also stresses roles, limitations, and one’s ‘place’ within a greater order, not hinging upon and affirming the choices of sovereign individuals.
6. Polygamy typically relies upon a vision of marriage that is neither companionate nor romantic in character. Almost the entire reason for same-sex marriage’s plausibility to contemporary society rests upon such a notion of marriage.
7. Being procreative in orientation, polygamy would typically stress the connection between sex and marriage, ironically strongly maintaining many of the values that we associate with ‘monogamy’. Polygamous marriages are not typically ‘open’, ‘non-monogamous’, or ‘monogamish’ marriages in the sense that many more modern relationships are.
It is worth remembering that polygamy is typically practised in more conservative religious communities. This really isn’t an accident. Polygamy is in many respects the antithesis of same-sex marriage. While polygamists could exploit the current inclarity concerning marriage for their ends, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that polygamy is the direction that things are heading. Polyamory is a far more likely suspect: it is romantically driven, gender neutral, oriented towards the satisfaction of individual desires, more fluid and renegotiable, more sexually open to outsiders, and typically non-procreative.
9. Couldn’t same-sex marriage lead to a strengthening of marriage as an institution?
Following all of the focus over the last few years of the same sex marriage debate upon marriage being primarily about the love, choice, rights, and affirmation of individuals’ desires by society, it is unlikely that we are about to see a return to marriage as a true cultural norm that would be prepared to compromise or limit those things to maintain its institutional integrity. What we are seeing is a de-institutionalization of marriage for everyone, as the wider public has largely bought into the same notion.
I have encountered suggestions that a lowering of the divorce rate in some countries where same-sex marriage has been introduced is evidence for such a strengthening. Beyond the fact that divorce rates are complicated things to interpret, given the difference in the duration of the marriages involved, it must be recognized that divorce rates have generally dropped because far fewer people are marrying in the first place. When only those who are most committed to the institution bother to get married in the first place, a decline in the rate of divorce is exactly what we should expect to see. The more telling figure is the percentage of the population that marries in the first place.
Also, as a number of the ends integrated by marriage are slowly detached and downplayed, we should expect to see a further chipping of the coin of marriage in various ways. The value of monogamy will be weakened in favour of open marriages, non-monogamy, and ‘monogamish’ relationships. Marriage may also become less oriented to the needs of children and more focused upon the rights of adults. In such a situation, even those who do get married are committing themselves to much less.
The effect of same-sex marriage is not really about the cumulative effect of particular gay couples getting married. Its true damage arises from the corrosive influence of the system of values that it champions and establishes. This system of values isn’t an invention of LGBT communities. Rather, it is a system of values that has been operative in wider society for some time. The problem with same-sex marriage is that it establishes this system of values as the new orthodoxy, the public meaning of marriage, accelerating the change in what marriage means for everyone and making reversal of these unhealthy trends exceedingly difficult.
It shouldn’t surprise us if same-sex marriage further decreases the number of people who marry (as marriage moves from being a cultural norm to a private lifestyle choice), increasing the number of children born out of wedlock. Nor should it surprise us if it reinforces the values of divorce culture (as that is the flipside of the romantic view of marriage that makes love its all-encompassing rationale), and gives pace to the movement towards a loosening of the values of monogamy.
My suspicion is that same-sex marriage and increasingly marriage in general, as it will be practised in the future, will be more of a class-based entity, focused on the class status signalled by the lavish wedding and upper-middle class domestic lifestyle. It will function as a social norm to some degree, but the emphasis will be on the desirable social appearance that marriage confers, and much less upon its integral values. Weddings will be bigger, but marriages will be weaker. Such a form of marriage, with its greater emphasis on marriage as ‘sign value’, serving to indicate social status and provide a context for shared consumption, will also tend to discourage the poor from entering into the marriage market in the first place.
10. If we oppose same-sex marriages, should we support civil partnerships?
Before attempting to address this question, we must stress its distinction from the same-sex marriage question. A rejection of same-sex marriage need not entail a rejection of civil partnerships, as civil partnerships aren’t subject to quite the same critique, having a rather different character. On this particular issue, it seems to me that our answers are less clear-cut and must be determined through a process of careful discernment and deliberation, taking into account the nature of the unions in questions, society’s interest in them, and their relationship to society’s broader interests and forms. Rather than providing a direct answer to this question, I will discuss some of the issues that we must take into consideration and leave it
We should recognize that same-sex relationships can often exhibit traits that are conducive to the health of society. Even those of us who have ethical objections to homosexual practice should be able to recognize the positive dimensions of a commitment between two persons for mutual support, provision, and companionship. We can also recognize that, while it is not the ideal situation of being raised by a mother and a father, and by one’s biological parents, a child raised in a stable household with two parents or guardians of the same sex is probably better off in many respects than a child raised by a single parent. There is a strong argument to be made that the interests of wider society are served by a number of these things, so we have good cause to ask how these values can be supported and encouraged.
Society also has an interest in orienting all of its members to the service of common ‘goods’. In large part this orientation requires that the goods of society are clearly rendered ‘common’, rather than exclusive to certain parties. As a society we need to champion a mutually invested relationship between society and its members, ensuring, to the degree that we can, that every member of society is valued by the wider society and that wider society is valued by every one of its members. Inclusive and democratic institutions are ways in which the threat of social alienation is combatted.
Relating these different areas of concern isn’t always easy. There are many occasions when the interests of particular members of society won’t be conducive to the good of society as a whole. When tolerance and inclusion become our overriding goals, we can often find that the bonds of society are weakened in the process. When inclusion becomes our overriding end, social tensions are reduced, but at the cost of fragmentation, distance, and the compromising of key social goods. These are concerns that I raised in my post on same-sex relationships and the institutional character of marriage.
It should be stressed that the task of securing these social goods and inclusion does not primarily rest on the shoulders of the law or the government, but upon the family, church, and a host of other civic institutions, and also upon business and the economy. As society privileges forms of relationships and commitments that are much conducive to the broader social good there will always be forms of discrimination. However, the justifiable social privileging of marriage does not mean that unmarried persons need be socially alienated. Society has often sought ways to invest itself in the lives of those who are not members of its primary institutions and to ensure that, in turn, these persons are invested in the social order in various ways.
As an unmarried person, for instance, I may not be directly included in the institution of marriage, but I have experienced its benefits less directly in numerous ways – as a child in a stable and loving home, as one invited into the life of loving families, as someone with a strong and tightly knit extended family, as someone whose gender has been valued in my communities on account of its association with committed fatherhood, and as someone who has enjoyed the strong bonds of communities where marriage and its values are central. The great value placed upon marriage demands various sacrifices of me, but I am prepared and enabled to make them in large measure because I know that many of my communities honour me for and support me in making them and because I see in those communities something for which it is well worth sacrificing.
As an institution, marriage has always been about socially approved and supported sexual partnerships. This isn’t all that it is about, but this sexual dimension has always been essential to its social value. If there is one thing that we can typically assume about marriage partners, it is that there is a sexual dimension to their relationship. This sexual dimension has been valued because sexual relations between a man and a woman relate to primary ends of our human nature. It fulfils the primary purpose of sexual dimorphism and establishes strong and lasting relations between the genders, the two halves of the human race. The sexual relationship between a man and a woman is also, crucially, the way that the human race procreates and, as a result, produces very ‘public’ effects. For these reasons, wider society has a vested interest in the sexual relationships between the two sexes.
This vested interest, however, does not exist in the case of sexual relations between two persons of the same sex. Although friends and relatives may value and desire to celebrate the love and intimacy of the same-sex couple, the fact that the couple will be sleeping together is irrelevant to the wider society: it is a principally private fact.
The problem that attends civil partnerships is that they typically connect the enjoyment of social benefits to the presence of a sexual relationship. However, the positive ways that committed same-sex partnerships can serve the wider social good are not ultimately contingent upon their sexual dimension. For this reason, it is unjustly discriminatory to withhold the same privileges from couples prepared to make a commitment to each other without a sexual element. The presence of a sexual relationship would be an irrelevant criterion on which to discriminate.
This, I believe, gets us closer to the nub of the cultural issue that we are facing here. It is not really about the enjoyment of equal social perks and protections. Rather, it is about the insistence that homosexual relations are no less valuable to society than heterosexual ones. The push for same-sex marriage is really about a concerted attack upon the primary bastion of ‘heteronormativity’. What is being sought in civil partnerships, and even more insistently in same-sex marriage, is the public affirmation and celebration of homosexual sex, as interchangeable with marital sex between a man and woman.
The truth that cannot be acknowledged is that sexual relations between members of the same sex are not, in fact, equal in value and significance to those between men and women. This is not to deny the great level of intimacy and commitment that can exist between same-sex couples, but to make the surprisingly controversial point that the objective meaning and value of sexual relations between men and women goes so much beyond mere private intimacy. It is for this reason that they should be privileged, not merely over same-sex relationships, but also over the important relationships enjoyed by the rest of us who are unmarried.
To make civil partnerships contingent upon homosexual sex or to offer same-sex marriages would be unjustly discriminatory against those who serve the same social goods apart from sexual relations. It would treat homosexual sex as if it entitled people to special treatment, apart from a demonstration of its objective value relative to wider social goods and ends. The insistence of a powerful lobby upon such recognition is not sufficient to render such recognition ‘just’.
So, returning to a point with which we begun: same-sex relationships do in fact serve certain wider social ends and goods and, to the extent and in the manner that they do this, they deserve society’s support and recognition. This is merely a matter of equity. For this reason, I believe that such things as rights of visitation and inheritance should be easy for such couples to obtain and that there should also be certain tax benefits. Where non-sexual relationships serve the same social goods and ends, they should receive exactly the same recognition.
Should society establish a separate institution for such couples or merely make legal provisions for them as private (and bespoke) contractual relationships? Alternatively, it could restrict itself to providing benefits to less formally recognized relationships. The key problem to tackle here is whether such an institution would end up weakening marriage. This is a distinct danger, as illustrated by something like the PACS system in France, which has created a two-tiered marriage culture.
None of this need deny communities, churches, families, and individuals from celebrating and giving form to their lives and relationships. By not providing them with formal institutional recognition, the state would not be rendering same-sex relationships illegal, nor denying their subjective importance to those within them, but just denying the state’s vested interest in them. There are various deeply meaningful life commitments and relationships that justifiably lack such recognition. There may be certain tax benefits that are attendant on committing oneself to lifelong membership of a monastic community, for instance, but there isn’t necessarily a good reason why the state need provide formal and institutional recognition to this commitment.
The criteria by which religious communities will determine whether or not to provide formal recognition to same-sex partnerships are different as they have a different set of interests that could be vested within such unions.
11. What about same-sex couples adopting?
Once again, this is a decision that must be made on the basis of equity and close attention to the common good. The primary rights under consideration should always be those of the children. Discrimination, in the sense of wise and careful discernment of relevant factors, is essential, as is close attention to the dimensions of specific situations.
Same-sex couples cannot offer children the same things as male and female married couples. They cannot offer children the form of the natural family. They cannot offer children a mother and a father. These facts provide strong basis for discrimination and favouring of male and female couples over same-sex couples in many situations. However, it does not mean that same-sex couples cannot prove good parents, nor that they are not the right choice as adoptive parents in certain situations.
We must also recognize that our actions in such areas have broader consequences. The more same-sex couples adopt, the more widespread will be the loss of the public norm of children having both a mother and a father as committed presences in their lives. Schools and other organizations will be even more discouraged from referring to mothers and fathers. For the sake of the sensitivities of the children within them, same-sex relationships will also be steadily normalized, much as has happened in the case of single parenthood.
12. Isn’t the ‘redefinition’ of marriage a misnomer, as marriage has never been defined in the first place?
There is an important point to make here: marriage was never ‘defined’ into existence. Rather, a natural reality was recognized and adumbrated with a fitting institutional form and protection. This natural reality has several dimensions, including: 1. Sexual dimorphism; 2. Sexual partnership between men and women as the primary context towards which this is ordered and in which union between the two halves of the human race is most powerfully secured; 3. The procreative nature of the union between man and woman; 4. The appropriateness of heterosexual desire to the natural ordering of our bodies, the sexual dimorphism of the human race, and the process of procreation; 5. The bond between children and their biological parents; 6. The bonds of blood more generally.
Different societies have articulated these realities in very different ways. However, substantial agreement exists across cultures and human history that these realities are in fact clear and constant features of our human nature. They didn’t come into existence through our definition, nor will they disappear through a redefinition.
Abraham Lincoln is popularly credited with having asked the question ‘if we should call the dog’s tail a leg, how many legs would it have?’ To the answer ‘five’, he pointed out that the true answer was four: calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one. In like manner, calling same-sex relationships ‘marriages’ does not make them so, as they lack a clear relationship to the realities that ‘marriage’ names.
In answer to the question, then: no, I do not believe that it is a misnomer. However, the ‘redefinition’ is not a response to a human definition of marriage, but rather to the ‘definition’ of marriage as the form that arises from the very natural realities that it articulates.
13. Can and should Christians argue from a position that does not grant the legitimacy of same-sex relations for the sake of argument?
The concern underlying this question is that we don’t, through a constant bracketing of the question of the morality of homosexual practice, end up abandoning the historic Christian conviction that homosexual practice is contrary to divine will and human nature.
This is definitely an important concern. Accommodating our arguments to the limitations of a rapidly shifting Overton window of public discourse can unintentionally lead to a withdrawal from or weakening of conviction upon positions that are deeply objectionable to the wider public. Prudence and shrewdness in argumentation should not lead to an abandonment of principle.
For the vast majority of those who deny the moral legitimacy of same-sex relationships, the question of the legitimacy of same-sex marriage has already been settled elsewhere, before it was even raised. This makes it difficult for them to establish common ground with those who do not share their moral objections to homosexual practice. As I believe that no position can develop a perfect immunity to the claims of truth and that, wherever people stand, there are ways of challenging them with it, I don’t have a problem with granting opponents many things for the sake of argument. While I want to make clear that my arguments against same-sex marriage do not typically depend upon opposition to homosexual practice, I am prepared to give an explanation for why I am also opposed to that when people ask me. The following is what I believe to be the basic rationale for the position outlined in Scripture.
There are, I believe, clear and strong divine condemnations of homosexual practice in Scripture. These condemnations do not focus merely upon culturally contingent forms of homosexual practice, but draw our attention to the essential form of homosexual relations themselves. The strength of the scriptural case against homosexual practice does not, however, rest upon prohibitions of homosexual practice so much as upon its positive teaching about the appropriate context, nature, and ends of human sexual behaviour.
The common conservative Christian way of reasoning on the subject of same-sex marriage begins with the divine commands against homosexual practice and works from those to the illegitimacy of same-sex marriage. In this respect, Christians opposed to homosexual practice and same-sex marriage reason in much the same direction as those who support homosexual practice and same-sex marriage: both reason from sexuality/sexual practice to marriage. While such reasoning holds up on its own terms, I submit that we would be much better off if we learned to think the other way around – from marriage to sexuality and sexual activity.
For this reason, I think that we need to begin with a strong and richly developed understanding of marriage and reason from there. It is from this point that we will have the greatest traction in the debate about the morality of homosexual practice. This is where we will begin to understand something of the biblical rationale for the prohibition of homosexual practice. Rather than throwing detached biblical commandments and seemingly arbitrary condemnations at the question, we will address it with a rich positive case for the appropriate ends and nature of marriage and the place that sex occupies within it. In light of such a case, the reasons for the scriptural condemnation of homosexual practice will become more apparent.
Framing matters in terms of homosexual practice versus heterosexual practice obscures matters considerably as far as scriptural teaching is concerned. Scripture’s reasoning in these areas does not operate in terms of ‘sex’ as such, or even in terms of heterosexual sex as such, but in terms of the purity and honour of the marriage bed and God’s judgment and condemnation of fornicators and adulterers who dishonour it by their behaviour (Hebrews 13:4). Scripture doesn’t give us a theology of sex in the abstract, but a theology of marriage and the marriage bed.
For Scripture, the vocation of procreation is central to the blessed calling given to the human race as originally created and it is regarded as integral to the purpose of marriage. Sexual difference is also given huge significance as the one created difference that is rendered constitutive to some degree of humanity’s bearing of the image of God. The marital union between a husband and a wife is an icon of the unity of the human race, both in its source and its telos. Marriage exists to order human behaviour to higher ends and meaningfully to articulate our nature as created beings.
Marriage relates us to realities that transcend us and to realities that are quite other to us: to the meaning of our sexed bodies, to the other sex, to the one flesh union of physical intercourse between husband and wife, to the mystery of procreation, to offspring, to the intergenerational and extended reality of the family, and to the God whose image and vocation we express. Consequently, marriage is taken with the utmost seriousness, as something that orients and relates us to some of the deepest realities of our creaturely existence.
When the Scriptures speak of homosexual relations as an ‘abomination’, it is against this background that it is speaking: it is seen as a violation, perversion, and dishonouring of some of the most important dimensions of human existence and a distorting of the very image of God. This is why, in Scripture, homosexual practice falls in the same category that we would put something like the creation of a human-animal hybrid – it is regarded as a moral monstrosity, a sin against human nature itself. It is seen to cut loose sexual practice from the transcendent objective realities for which it was given to connect us and to create an inverted reality in their place, one that no longer clearly directs sexuality outward to serve a reality greater than itself.
Homosexual practice is seen to dis-integrate sexuality from its proper ends, leading to a more general sexual and existential disorientation within society as a whole. Incidentally, it is interesting to observe that, in a culture where sex is very firmly oriented towards ends that exceed mere sexual pleasure, homosexuality and masturbation don’t even appear on the cultural radar. Sexual pleasure can clearly occur and be highly valued in such a context, but it is never detached from something beyond itself, as it is within a contraceptive culture such as ours.
The reason why we find it hard to understand the reasoning behind this is because we tend to consider sexual behaviour in detachment from these ends and more from the perspective of personal sexual gratification, individual self-fulfilment, romance, and autonomous meaning. Sex means what consenting adults want it to mean, can serve whatever purposes they want, and such sex can’t reasonably be said to hurt anyone else.
We have also so tied personal identity and human intimacy to sexual relations that to deny the legitimacy of some people’s desired sexual relations is seen to deprive them of meaningful existence. The form of modern society, where we are increasingly rootless and deep and intimate friendships are considerably harder to develop, doesn’t make this any easier. Furthermore, when the wider society is so geared towards indulgence and realization of one’s own desires, it naturally seems quite cruel and unreasonable to deny one class of persons such a right. We have lost stomach for sacrifice, both our own and those of others. However, such sacrifice is necessary if we are to pursue something greater than our own pleasure.
In Scripture, the widespread practice and toleration of homosexuality is presented as an indictment, not so much upon a particular class of individuals, but upon an entire society. It is a sign that the whole culture has been sexually disoriented and not a judgment exclusively upon those who engage in such relations. Consequently, addressing society with Scripture’s teaching is a matter that calls for considerable wisdom, care, and sensitivity. The culpability of individuals within such a disoriented society is severely diminished, as their sins are less witting. Furthermore, our actions in such a disoriented context often arise, less from a highly developed vicious will than from the natural ruts along which desire is trained to move within such a context.
For someone who is naturally predisposed to homoerotic desire (and, while I don’t think that it is sufficient as an explanation, it seems clear to me that homosexuality has a biological component), remaining chaste in our society would be an incredibly difficult task, while remaining chaste in others would be considerably easier. If the sexuality of the general population wasn’t so frequently perverted and self-serving, such persons would have a considerably easier time of it and we would no longer be put in the position of demanding seemingly unreasonable moral heroics of them, expecting an unfortunate class of persons to bear a heavy burden while we show no restraint. The biblical teaching on homosexuality is not designed to create a sexual ‘leper’ class of those who experience homoerotic desires. Like the rest of us, our friends, relatives, neighbours, and acquaintances who experience such desires are struggling with the disorientation and dis-integration of fallen human nature.
It should be stressed that the scriptural teaching on marriage holds heterosexuals to a standard that is equally unbending. Sexual relationships outside of marriage are condemned, whether fornication or adultery. Sexual unions are expected to be lifelong and exclusive, even in cases where sexual gratification is no longer possible.
While I believe that the position that I have outlined above is the appropriate Christian position, it is one that wider society and a significant proportion of the Church would vehemently oppose. While I believe that a strong case against same-sex marriage can be made without the above points – and that we are wiser to present it in such a manner – I also believe that my comments above illustrate the difficulty that a full and rich cultural understanding and practice of marriage has with homosexual practice.
14. Some, especially John Boswell, have argued that the adelphopoiesis ceremony was designed to create marriage-like unions between members of the same sex in a Christian context. Can we take this as precedent for same-sex marriages?
Perhaps the best analogy for adelphopoiesis unions would be something like adoptions, and we see them related to adoptions in certain contexts. They are more general kinship-forming unions, rather than the equivalent of marriages. Of course, marriage involves a sort of adoption (a fact more pronounced in certain cultures, but we still speak of daughters- and sons-, brothers- and sisters-, mothers- and fathers-in-law), and wives can be regarded as ‘sisters’ (one sees this within biblical texts on occasions, for instance), but this dimension is secondary. Also, like adoption, adelphopoiesis was not regarded as an exclusive relationship: one could form such relationships with a number of parties. The other reason why adoption might provide an apt comparison is that adoption is about the negotiation of bonds where emotional attachment may or may not be present, but where what emotional attachments exist are regarded as non-sexual in character.
Differences between the adelphopoiesis union and adoption (and the adoption dimensions of marriage) could be found in the more private character of adelphopoiesis unions, which do not seem to register the same changes in relationships within the broader kinship structures. They also have a more clearly defined bilateral aspect than one would find in many adoptions.
As ceremonies they bound two men together in a sort of fictive kinship as ‘brothers’. They were not that common and were only practised in a few areas of the church. If the blessing of a sexual union (as in the case of marriage) between two persons of the same sex could be proved to be part of these rites, or their theology, then Boswell would have a strong case. However, there isn’t. It also neglects to make clear that those brought together in such rites were often already married.
If these rites really were marriages, it should be demonstrated that they formed broader unions between families (as in the case of genuine marriage in such cultures), and not just a union between two individuals. If these unions really were marriages, it should be shown that the same grounds and procedure exist for their dissolution.
We should recognize that these rites occurred in a society with all sorts of kinship bonds (spiritual kinship, voluntary and other forms of fictive kinship) that extended far beyond marriage and the nuclear family. They also occurred in times when much that we might deem homoerotic wasn’t regarded as having the same erotic dimension. Men (who frequently had wives) kissing, living together, sharing the same bed, entering into deep vows of friendship, and having profoundly emotional bonds are common in many societies prior to and outside of modern West culture (there are references to all of these things in the Bible), right alongside strong condemnations of homosexual intercourse.
There are potential anachronisms on all sides here. We should recognize that our model of romantic and companionate marriage hasn’t always been the historical norm. We should further recognize that there were no ‘heterosexuals’ or ‘homosexuals’ in the eras in which these rites were practised, only homosexual acts and coitus, marriage, other kinship bonds, and situations of their absence.
In many of these societies, in the context of strong gender differentiation in areas of social activity, in education, etc., the most powerful emotional bonds were between persons of the same sex, even though sexual bonds were only sanctioned between males and females, and within the context of marriage. Deep homoaffective bonds should not be presumed to be homoerotic or to have a sexual component.
On the other hand, we should not presume that all of the things that we associate with marriage (companionate bonds, romantic bonds, cohabitation, pooling of resources, the social expectation of sexual exclusivity, an entrance into union with a publicly witnessed vow, etc.) have always been associated with it, regarded as exclusive to it, or functioned similarly in relation to it in all cultures and places. Before labelling these as ‘marriages’, it should be demonstrated that they were regarded as equivalent to marriages within the cultures in which they were practised, or that they clearly include those elements that constitute a marriage as such within our culture. On the other hand, while I don’t believe that these were marriages on either of those counts, we should be prepared to recognize that, within their historical context, they may have had dimensions that we tend to associate exclusively with marriage (for instance, a companionate or affective bond bound by oath).
Of course, it is possible that some couples who had sexual relations with each other availed themselves of such adelphopoiesis unions. Perhaps some churches (who probably would not have been approved of by higher church authorities) even operated a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy regarding such uses of the rite. This area is ripe for historical speculation. However, the unions themselves (which is the point at issue) were not marriages, and were not designed for sexual bonding. As such, there is no evidence whatsoever that the church ever officially sanctioned or blessed homosexual unions as homosexual unions, which is the tendentious claim being made here.
One not infrequently encounters claims concerning same-sex marriages in history or distant tribal cultures. In my experience, such claims tend to fall apart when subjected to more careful analysis, analysis which seeks to determine the cultural meaning of the unions or ceremonies in question: how they functioned in terms of the broader cultural system, how they related to marriage between men and women, and the sorts of people who entered into them. Often might find, for instance, that a particular union involved no recognition of a sexual dimension: although homosexually active couples might enter into them, they weren’t considered homosexual unions. Anachronism and cultural projection are huge dangers of which we should be aware in this area.
15. Some opponents of same-sex marriage claim that it will tend to weaken the value of lifelong monogamy. Isn’t such a claim merely homophobic, denying that same-sex couples can be as committed to each other as male and female couples?
Are gay persons hardwired to be more promiscuous or less committed to lifelong relationships than straight persons? I don’t believe so. However, once you completely separate sex from reproduction and sexual difference, sex loses a significant amount of its power as a binding force between people, and as a curb to promiscuity. The communities built around homosexual relationships will tend to exacerbate and amplify these tendencies of particular sexual relationships.
First, sexual difference. Every heterosexual relationship will have to negotiate this in some form or other. In order to establish the equality and similarity of gay relationships to straight ones our society tends to think more in terms of a homogeneity of male and female/masculine and feminine economies of desire. However, there are huge and significant differences, as sexual difference has to be traversed in one case, but not in the other.
Our gender has a first person presence in us. This plays a significant shaping role in our relationships with people of the same or different genders. When two men or two women have sexual relations they are relating to someone who operates within the same gendered economy of desire, and they can presume that they will, to some extent or other, know the territory. When we relate to someone of the opposite sex we are venturing into territory of which we have no firsthand knowledge. In such an encounter we are more vulnerable and so greater degrees of caution, reticence, trust-building and the like will usually need to attend the task of negotiating sexual difference than would be necessary in its absence, where our partner would be capable of more immediate empathy with the nature of our desire.
On account of the differences between male and female economies of desire – despite areas of considerable overlap – heterosexual relationships will be faced with the task of forging a complementarity of desire to a degree that homosexual relationships will not. The territory of masculine sexuality and the territory of feminine sexuality differ in many respects and relationships formed between people from both territories will face challenges that those formed within one will not.
In this respect at least I believe that we need to be very open about the fact that gay relationships are categorically different from straight ones. With a denial of this difference comes a denial of the significance of sexual difference. The result is to press for homogeneity of desire, pushing the territories of male and female desire into the regions of their overlap, abandoning the more adventurous traversal of sexual difference as a relic of unenlightened thought, and denying the degree to which the other sex remains a mystery to us. I believe that one of the results of this is to make things difficult for those whose sexuality lies in an area where less overlap exists, as they are often forced to operate in terms of a sexuality in which the differences of the economy of desire are denied and hurt in the process.
Even contrasting the general tendencies of gay and lesbian relationships will serve to illustrate the fact that the reality of sexual difference isn’t about to go anywhere. In marriage the differences between a female economy of desire and a male economy of desire must be negotiated, and the union represents a rapprochement between the two. In same-sex relationships the partners are far more likely to bring the same expectations to the relationship, and to have an intimate understanding of how the body and desire of their partner works, as it is much like their own.
In contrast, marriage forges a bond between you and one who is not merely personally other to you, but one who is sexually other, one whose body works quite differently, one whose desire has different tendencies. This intrinsic other-orientation of marriage, and its nature as rapprochement and negotiation of sexual difference does not merely serve to curb selfishness; it also makes the relationship harder to form and thus establishes a certain inertia for desire, male desire especially. When forms of desire are different, relationships take longer to form, as they involve the navigation of the treacherous waters of sexual difference, promiscuity will also be discouraged and there will be greater emphasis upon the need to create secure and stable settings where this negotiation of sexual difference can be safely undertaken.
Gender difference also introduces greater asymmetry in relationships and, hence, imbalances of power. For instance, the fact that the wife gets pregnant but the husband doesn’t can make her vulnerable and dependent upon the security of the relationship in ways that he is not. One of the reasons that monogamy is so emphasized is on account of these imbalances, imbalances that demand a firm mutual commitment to a structure in which more powerful parties are limited in the degree to which they can take advantage of their greater leverage and renegotiate the terms. Same-sex relationships, as they do not typically have the same levels of imbalance of power have much less of a natural need or demand for the objective norms of monogamy.
Second, reproduction. The big elephant in the room when talking about the difference between homosexual sex and heterosexual sex is that homosexual sex is sterile by its very nature: heterosexual sex is not. The difference that this makes is huge. This fact impacts on all heterosexual activity, even where contraception is used. The fact that heterosexual intercourse can be reproductive leads the sexes to place greater expectations upon each other’s and their own sexual behaviour: it is a much weightier matter.
As heterosexual relationships are apt for reproduction, the behaviour of men and women (and especially women) in such relationships, even where contraception is employed, will be taken as an indication of how suitable they are as reproductive partners. When something as significant as a man’s knowledge of his relationship to his children can rest upon his trust in his wife’s sexual exclusivity, sexual exclusivity will have much greater significance.
Within all of this we see more of the reasons why men and women are drawn to ‘couple’. Between men and women there are natural impetuses towards longer term coupling and towards a higher demand for sexual exclusivity. These do not exist to the same degree in homosexual relationships. These impetuses are founded on the sexual relationship itself, and not merely on some emotional bond that exists between the sexual partners, however strong that may be. It is because heterosexual sex is apt for reproduction that strong expectations exist for each of the sexes with regard to sexual partners. Both sexes expect the other sex to approach sex in general in a responsible way. Men expect women not to be promiscuous, so that they can know when a child is theirs; women expect men to be sexually exclusive because the security and status of their children can depend upon it.
Where there is no sexual difference to navigate and sexual activity can be completely divorced from any hint of reproductive activity the impetus towards lifelong and exclusive coupling will be considerably less and will rely almost entirely on an emotional bond (which can also give rise to the notion of emotional monogamy, in which no strings attached sex can be engaged in outside the union). There is already a movement in this direction in heterosexual relationships (which is one reason for the weakening of marriage bonds), but escaping sexual difference and the fact of reproduction is a struggle for heterosexual relationships: for homosexual relationships sexual difference and reproduction were never issues in the first place. Heterosexuals must aspire to purely contraceptive sex and the complete denial of reproduction, but this comes naturally to homosexuals.
Finally, children. Sexual exclusivity benefits children in a number of ways and the fact that male-female relationships are not merely reproductive unlike same-sex ones, but are also more likely to involve shared child-rearing is hugely significant. Here are a few ways that it makes a difference:
1. Sexual exclusivity strengthens the bond of paternity, ensuring fathers and their children of their relationship, and of its significance, as the child’s origins lie in an act that for his or her parents is practised exclusively within their relationship.
2. Sexual exclusivity situates sexual intercourse in the context of committed lifelong bonds. By powerfully personalizing sex as the marital act, children in turn are personalized. Where sex is depersonalized, children (especially the unborn) in turn tend to be depersonalized, and the bond between biological parents and their children weakened. A father will care far more about the child born to his beloved wife than to the woman that he had a one night stand with.
3. Sexuality exclusivity and monogamy makes the duty of paternity extremely clear, and lowers the risk of this duty not being met. Sexual exclusivity and monogamy ensures that the duty for raising and loving the child falls squarely at the feet of one man, rather than being divided between an absent biological father and a present stepfather, for instance.
4. Sexual exclusivity and monogamy decrease the probability of jealousy, and the poison that it introduces into relationships. It protects men and women from the jealousy caused by other lovers or partners in the lives of their spouses. It protects children from jealousy of the affection that their parents give to those other than their other parent. It protects legal parents from jealousy of the biological parents of the children in their relationship, and their place in the lives, identities, and affections of the children.
5. Sexual exclusivity serves to strongly discourage the straying of affections and consequent household instability that polyamorous relationships could invite. Sexual exclusivity puts a premium on household stability; non-monogamous relationships don’t tend to do long term household and relational stability anywhere near as well.
6. The consequences of the breakdown of relationships with children in them are far more severe than those without, providing a much greater incentive to work towards reconciliation rather than abandoning an unhappy relationship.
In sum, on account of the realities that are operative within marriages between men and women, they will have a much greater inclination towards sexual exclusivity and lifelong union than those between persons of the same sex. With the introduction of same-sex marriage and the increased tendency to view marriage in detachment from reproduction, sexual difference, and child-bearing, it shouldn’t surprise us to see a strong movement towards open marriages, non-monogamy, ‘emotionally monogamous’, and ‘monogamish’ relationships, and away from the norm of lifelong sexual exclusivity.
16. Isn’t polygamy clear evidence against a supposed historical consensus on marriage?
It can be readily admitted that countless different marriage customs exist across human cultures. The claim of historical consensus focuses on certain dimensions of marriage that have been as near to universal as one can get, right down to the present day. These dimensions include an institutional expression of the interdependence of men and women; an institutional encouragement of procreation under appropriate conditions; the existence of public norms, meaning, and incentives; and expectation of the support of parents for their offspring. For the overwhelming majority of human societies, marriage has served to bind together biological (genetic and gestational), legal, and social parenthood, ensuring that their unity is disrupted as rarely as possible.
Polygamy is one of the variable features of human marriage cultures. However, the degree to which it represents a variation is frequently greatly overstated, especially in the context of the current debates. Polygamy is not to be confused with a single marriage to multiple wives. In a polygamous society, the wives of a polygynous husband are not married to each other. Rather, polygamy is typically a matter of one man entering into many marriages. However, each of these marriages consists of one man and one woman. Polygamy doesn’t change the internal character of a marriage so much as permit someone to be within a number of marriages at the same time. Obviously this will have a detrimental impact upon the internal character of each marriage, but this effect is more indirect.
There are a few rare examples in various cultures of practices resembling group marriage. However, even in these cases, the interdependence of male and female is typically central. They usually are instances of spouse-sharing among brothers, rather than unions which involve both homosexual and heterosexual practice, let alone which present them as possessing parity in their significance.
Even polygamous societies serve to underline the sheer prevalence of the cross-cultural consensus on marriage: 1. Marriage involves interdependence between men and women; 2. A particular marriage exists between one man and one woman (save in the very rare case of spouse-sharing); 3. The source of the union of marriage is in the bond between a man and a woman (this bond may become fused with other such bonds, as in the case of spouse-sharing, but the source of the union remains the same: remove the women and the marriage ceases to exist); 4. Marriage encourages procreation. The closer we look, the more that we will see that same-sex marriage represents a far more serious violation of the nature of marriage than polygamy does.
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“The culpability of individuals within such a disoriented society is severely diminished, as their sins are less witting.”
What are your thoughts on letting practicing homosexuals to Church fellowship then? It seems we would allow people who habitually and unrepentently commit other sins to fellowship–for instance, husbands who are habitually rude to their wives are routinely exhorted to change, but, unless the situation is severe, are not usually excommunicated for it. (Indeed, if we excommunicated people for any unrepented sins, we would all be excommunicated.)
Could admitting practicing homosexuals to fellowship be taken on a case-by-case basis like gay adoption, or does practicing homogenital sex exclude people from table fellowship as such? (I’m not sure if that question even makes sense with an established Church, but it’s a very live one here in the States.)
Thanks for the question, Matthew. It is an important one.
I think that we need to take people from where they are, so we don’t treat people in unwitting sin as if they were high-handed sinners. However, to come into the life of the Church we all called to repent and turn our back on sin. As sin is identified to us we should take such steps to reject it. Where we refuse to do so outright, this entry into fellowship cannot take place. A habitual sin is a different sort of thing from a state of sin that we wilfully choose to remain within, which is what a homosexual relationship would represent. A person genuinely struggling with temptation to sin in this area, who is outside of such a relationship, but has given in on occasions is a slightly different case.
Scripture doesn’t view all sins as equal either. Some sins are treated as matters of particular seriousness and homosexual practice is one of these. While a person’s culpability might be diminished in a sexually disoriented society in relation to such actions, this doesn’t allow us to wink at them, or to admit to fellowship those committed to practices that God explicitly commands that we put away from us, along with those committed to them.
First, Alastair, thanks for all of this. Incredibly helpful discussion.
I agree with your answer to the above question, with qualifications — and I think these are qualifications that are vital to the pastoral and ecclesial side of this question’s answer.
“However, to come into the life of the Church we all called to repent and turn our back on sin. As sin is identified to us we should take such steps to reject it. Where we refuse to do so outright, this entry into fellowship cannot take place.”
I’ve heard this in other similar discussions, and the underlying assumption usually seems to be that once a sin is pointed out or “identified” that a Christian should both recognize it as such and come under conviction of it. But in my experience (and, frankly, in the experience of every other Christian, I am confident) conviction doesn’t always, or even usually, follow identification; indeed, even mere recognition doesn’t always follow identification.
So how can/should a communion of believers handle a practicing homosexual who has professed faith in Christ, and who has had their homosexual sin pointed out to them, if he/she does not immediately respond to the identification of such sin? I think we first must recognize that only further discipleship will yield any fruit in bringing conviction for this sin — and discipleship is always most effective within the local church. Second, I think we recognize the progressive nature of sanctification as having vital bearing on this situation, and accommodate it accordingly.
The church seems to have a varied history on this. The New Testament-era church appears to have baptized into membership immediately upon conversion, and then disciplined diligently if problems arose. Meanwhile, the church of the second and third centuries catechized extensively before admitting to membership. So I don’t think we can point to a normative historical pattern — but I think what I described above is historically justified, and pastorally appropriate for today.
“Scripture doesn’t view all sins as equal either. Some sins are treated as matters of particular seriousness and homosexual practice is one of these.”
Yes; but so is adultery, greed, drunkenness, and lying (1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:10). So we either must bring a similar standard against those addicted to porn, or are over-ambitious in their career pursuit, or struggle regularly with having one too many beers, or regularly embellish and exaggerate the truth — or we should recognize that the social stigmas attached to homosexuality (in the church, and until recently culturally) have led us to treat that particular group of sinners differently in our membership standards and expectations.
The truth is, for most evangelical churches the standard for membership is, “do you believe the Gospel?” EXCEPT for anyone who has been in a homosexual lifestyle, in which case the standard is, “do you believe the Gospel AND have you left your life of homosexual sin?” Whether we intend to or not (and I think too often it IS intended), we have applied a standard of salvific works on top of the Gospel for homosexuals.
Thanks for the comment, Ed. You raise some important points.
You are right: recognition and conviction of sin do arise gradually. We can’t expect people to arrive instantly at a perfect awareness of sin that all of us lack to some measure or other.
The relationship between discipleship and full admission to fellowship that you raise here is a helpful discussion to have. Baptizing quickly after confession of faith was the pattern of the apostolic Church, as you say. This seems to have been followed by discipleship within the life of the Church. The fact that there was so much confusion and so many crazy practices in the early Church is probably not unrelated to this.
I believe that the practice would have been to take the person confessing faith at their word and then work on the basis of the break with past ways of living to which the person had been bound in baptism. God deals with us on the basis of his prior welcome. Exclusion is on the basis of rejection of the life that is offered, rather than on the basis of failure to meet some initial behavioural standard. In baptism you would also come under the discipleship and discipline of the Church. A refusal to live in terms of the break and in terms of the discipleship of the Church would be grounds for discipline.
This submission to the discipleship and discipline of the Church is an important part of the picture, I think. It is this discipleship that bridges the gap between conversion and conviction on some moral issues. Refusal to submit to the discipleship of the Church is a very serious matter. It is appropriate to expect people to recognize the authority of appointed leaders in such matters, even when they do not yet fully understanding the moral reasoning itself. The logic here is much the same as that which applies to children, whom we expect to honour and obey those put in authority over them, even when they are not entirely sure why they are told to do particular things. The sin for a child is often primarily one of resistance to just authority, yielding actions of wilful and high-handed ignorance, which is more culpable.
The purpose of leadership, of course, is to bring people to this maturity of understanding, so that they are not purely dependent upon other people’s knowledge. Where someone won’t recognize a serious fault and won’t hear the voice of the Church either, we shouldn’t have fellowship with them.
We are not looking for complete understanding or perfection. Rather, what we are looking for is ignorance submitted to the process of discipleship. Someone who wilfully continues in a homosexual relationship is not submitting to this discipleship, while someone who falls into homosexual sin could well be doing so.
Willing commitment to certain habitual sinful practices should exclude one from the life of the Church: greed, drunkenness, and lying are all examples of this. There are also actions which can demand serious action. For instance, if a member of the congregation was seeing a prostitute, he should not be admitted to communion immediately afterwards, but some process of discipline and restoration should be followed.
Paul uses the Old Testament death sentence as a paradigm for Church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5:13. There are certain sins, homosexual practice among them, which require exclusion. Consequently, a person known to have been homosexually active should undergo a process of exclusion, repentance, and restoration. The same would apply to an adulterer. This process is undertaken as much for the health of the body of Christ as a whole as for the one who has sinned in such a way. God treats such sins differently from many other sins and so should we.
The fact that our culture is ignorant of the seriousness of certain sins – economic and sexual particularly, perhaps – does not mean that we should adopt that standard in our treatment of those sins in the Church. Rather, we should recognize reduced culpability through ignorance, call people to the responsibility of discipleship, welcoming them on the basis of God’s free acceptance, and only exclude where that discipleship is rejected. In other cases temporary exclusion for the purpose of restoration should occur.
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Is part of the issue the palpability of sexual sins? I can agree in principle that, say envy, is wrong, and be envious without knowing I am. But if I commit sexual sins, I can’t trick myself into thinking I did not commit a sinful act, at least, not without tricking muself into believing sexual sins are sins.
Yes, I think that that is an important part of it. We can’t read people’s hearts, but the boundaries relative to certain actions are clear. We can see where such sexual actions go against God’s law, although it is hard to tell whether a couple buying a bigger house are given over to greed.
However, I think that we need to go further than this. Scripture seems to treat certain sins, including sexual sins, in a class by themselves. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:188, the person who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Sexual sins are classed along with sins such as murder as a more direct assault upon the image of God and hence receive a more severe punishment.
Alastair, I believe God’s idea of sex as presented in the Scriptures is much bigger than the puzzle pieces of what gets put where. The regulations contain some of these instructions, but they also contain the ‘when’ and some of the ‘why,’ which is usually related to health.
I think we make a mistake by believing that sexuality operated the same biblical times as it does today. Procreation was tautamount to survival for a nomadic, agricultural people. Sexual rights were more akin to property rights and cleanliness rituals than we often admit. More than anything though, we see in the Old Testament how sexuality was used in the ancient world as an act of subjucation rather than mutuality. Rape was an initiation into a community’s power structure as we see in Sodom, it didn’t matter if the victim was male or female – because it wasn’t a specifically genital act.
Homosexuality in Greece and Rome was largely practiced against the young and against slaves in a “power-over” relationship. It was a common rite of initiation upon obtaining slaves that they’d quickly be introduced to the proverbial “man of the house.” In order to break the spell of shame, many of the exploited turned to pagan temples where the power structure could be temporarily reversed and they could be the dominate ones.
Bottom line to me is that we don’t have very many examples of mutuality in homosexual relationships in the ancient world. Perhaps you know of some texts that point to a few. It seems to me though that nearly everything I’ve read presents bisexual situations in which homosexuality serves more as a tool for dominance than it does a loving relationship. The pagan gods reinforced the stereotypes and the orgies provided a breakdown of the traditional power structure which is probably why they appealed to many, as well the fact that they believed their sexual rites promoted agricultural abundance thru rich harvests.
The Scripture seems plainly rejectionist of the homosexual lifestyle as it existed in the ancient world, I just have a tough time seeing where that lifestyle is at work in the modern world, save perhaps sex trafficing and the NAMBLA movement.
A drunk 3,000 years ago wouldn’t look too different than a drunk today. Neither would a liar. But a homosexual 3,000 years ago most likely looked radically different. To reduce the the act to mere genital activity feels short-sighted.
David, thanks for commenting.
A number of points in response:
1. ‘I believe God’s idea of sex as presented in the Scriptures is much bigger than the puzzle pieces of what gets put where.’ Amen. Sex is the seal of the marital union, in which the two halves of the human race are united and their interdependence is expressed, revealing the truth that God made us male and female as the bearers of his image. It is the primary telos of sexually dimorphic bodies. It the union that bears God’s blessing and fulfils his vocation of fruitfulness and multiplication. It is the loving one flesh union from which human beings find their origin (as physical one-flesh unions of their parents) and the place where the bonds of blood that bind us together are forged. It is the union that stands in the succession of the generations and passes on its life in turn. It is the union that expresses the unity of the first couple. It is the seal of the union that symbolizes Christ’s bond with his Church. It is oriented towards its proper ends by the institution of marriage and is not a dis-integrated end to be pursued in abstraction from those greater ends.
2. The fact that you characterize moral opposition to homosexual practice as arising from a ‘what gets put where’ way of thinking makes me wonder whether you have been listening carefully to what actually is being said, or whether you really think that opposition to homosexual practice isn’t all about how homosexual practice relates to a larger picture.
3. The Scripture’s focus is not upon homosexual and heterosexual sex in the abstract, but upon marital relations and those forms of relationship that pervert, undermine, or are detached from marital relations and the ends of marriage (procreation being one of the chief of these ends). Likewise, the biblical teaching is not against anal or oral sex in particular, but against sexual relations between persons of the same sex and against sexual relations outside of the male-female bond of marriage, whether they be homosexual or heterosexual.
4. I would like to see you substantiate your suggestion that the biblical regulations relating to homosexuality were primarily about health. If this were the case, why isn’t the teaching against anal sex, rather than against sexual relations between males? Or why threaten such persons with death if the preservation of life was the primary end? Knowing the book of Leviticus very well, I think that the claims that its regulations are primarily about health are quite unpersuasive.
5. The teaching against homosexual practice is hardly exclusive to a nomadic, agricultural people. You don’t get much more cosmopolitan in the ancient world than someone like the Apostle Paul, but the teaching is even less compromising in his writings than in the Old Testament, even though procreation wasn’t some huge imperative for the man who recommended celibate singleness for those who could manage it. Nevertheless, he still speaks of homosexual practice in terms of ‘vile passions’, being ‘against nature’, ‘committing what is shameful’, doing things ‘which are not fitting, and being given over to ‘a debased mind’. In other words, the biblical teaching against homosexual practice stays consistent throughout a wide variety of cultural settings.
6. If power-over relations were the primary issue and gender wasn’t the real issue, then surely the Scripture would have spoken of it as such. This rather undermines your point. The fact that the Scripture focuses upon homosexual relations in particular, rather than upon the vast range of power-over relations is extremely telling.
7. Whether homosexual or heterosexual, sexual relationships in the ancient world were a lot less symmetrical and egalitarian than those that we tend to value in all sorts of ways. However, this does not mean that they were necessarily unloving. If asymmetrical male-female relations could be considered loving and morally licit, we really must ask why homosexual relations couldn’t be viewed in the same manner. There were examples of relationships commonly considered homosexual that were characterized by love within the ancient world: Achilles and Patroclus is one such example.
8. Is it the case that lesbian relationships were also perceived to be about unloving subjection and domination? Why do they come under the same judgment in Romans 1?
In short, the biblical rejection to homosexual practice is not about the fact that it is unloving or about domination. That certainly wasn’t always the case and, if it held for homosexual relations, much the same held for many heterosexual relations. Singling homosexual relationships out for particular censure would be strange. The rejection rather arises from the biblical teaching that God created humanity male and female in his image, that sex belongs solely in the context of the marriage bed, and that marriage is established with procreation as a primary source of its purpose and blessing, being ordered towards that end as an institution. In terms of this vision homosexual practice is disoriented sex, sex dis-integrated from its created ends, and distorting the very image of God. It is not the biblical vision that is taking a reductionist view of sex here.
A number of points in response:
The things you’ve placed in your first point are true, not of sex alone, but of intercourse between married, heterosexual people who love and care for each other. The one man / one woman relationship is unquestionably God’s highest ideal for us as human beings. The descriptions are not true about sex in general terms, which comes in a variety of broken forms that deviate from that ideal – among them are many heterosexual manifestations as well. I am certain than you would not advocate for a “rubber-stamp” to be placed upon all heterosexual relationships, even if they were practiced in a divinely sealed, legally binding, totally monogamous marriage. I’ve personally done enough marriage counseling to see the kinds of problems that when left unaddressed, manifest in the bedroom; sexual relationships between married people that are wrecked with violence, the threat of violence, rape, humiliation, verbal abuse, and much more.
You’re right, it’s not merely about the genitals. It’s also not merely about the marriage. It’s about health and well-being and honoring God with our whole bodies. There’s something larger at work in our bodies, even in fully monogamous relationships, that can take us closer to God’s ideal, or further away – most of that comes down to the Spirit of the Law and not it’s letter.
I have little doubt that the items in your third point above are correct, but certainly in the Hebrew scriptures, this picture is often quite skewed. It becomes skewed, not only throughout the biblical ages in the form of polygamy, but also in the willingness to step outside the boundaries in the case of barrenness. The idea that sexual relations were primarily promoted between monogamous people in the Bible doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. These realities lend themselves to the suggestion that what we are dealing with is a time sensitive set of behaviors which promoted procreation, as it was essential to survival. The portrayals we see in the Old Testament of sexuality are not nearly the uniform fit of holy matrimony pointing us to Christ as many would have us believe… and these from God’s elect no less. This is why I have difficulty accepting your interpretation of polygamy above. God was working with broken vessels in a broken system.
On the fourth point, I wouldn’t try to substantiate the claim that homosexuality laws were about health. I meant simply that most laws were about health and well-being of the community unit. They make sense from that perspective. I realize much in holiness code doesn’t make much sense because it related to purity in ways that don’t translate into today’s world very easily. The death penalty you mention arrives in numerous places, not just the sexual sins as I am certain you know. To answer that question though, it seems clear that these were desperate times. Survival was tantamount. A tiny crack in the unity of the group could bring the whole group down. Why, for example, kill the man who wears fabrics from two different sources? It makes sense to deduce that the law existed to simply isolate allergens. Lower immune systems, allergies, hives – all these things meant a weaker soldier, a weaker farmer, and translated into an overall weaker community. The bans on certain sexual behaviors also kept the group unified; it protected young daughters from having to bed their step-fathers, while at the same time keeping heterosexual relations (and procreation) at the forefront. A man or woman with a child would have defended that child and the community with their dying breath – the interest in survival and unity is vested. Some of the laws, like forbidding a man with a crushed testicle from being a priest, were about purity and wholeness. The issue, as time progressed, was determining which laws mattered most and why. Those decisions I am certain were rooted in what was needed at the time to survive. We see this even today – the first thing that happens in a community wide survival situation is Martial Law. Those laws don’t apply in less threatening situations.
I don’t agree with your fifth point, ironically because of Paul. The cosmopolitan apostle had seen temple orgies, or at least spoken with those who had participated in them. He had seen homosexual slavery, I’m sure. Probably spoken with many a soldier who described the process of brutalizing the conquered with both homosexual and heterosexual rape. I am quite certain that I could write a completely accurate paragraph about the sexual culture of Myanmar using much of this terminology without ever having described the quite monogamous, homosexual couple that lives two blocks down the street. In my opinion, the mistake we make is taking the short view of history: to believe that the sexual culture of ancient world, particularly that of homosexuals, is somehow akin to our own. Any literary evidence pointing us to similarities is paltry at best.
I also disagree that the Scripture’s silence about power relations is telling of much. It’s silent on numerous things from contraceptive use to the total emancipation of slaves. That said, even with silent scriptures, I don’t believe God remains silent on too many fronts, which is why the Holy Spirit leads and guides us to all truth. One thing we do know, the scripture is silent about even Paul taking a case for the preservation of marriage to the tribunals. Not saying he wouldn’t, or even that he didn’t appeal for his view of marriage in a secular court – just saying the shoe fits on either foot.
The scriptures aren’t totally silent however, as I said above, I don’t think you’d approve of just any monogamous, heterosexual marriage relationship and neither would Paul. Power-sharing and vulnerability are a huge part of healthy sexual intimacy & which is why submitting one to the other is a priority. It’s only then, in sacrifice, humility, love, and mutuality that the heterosexual union is compared with Christ.
On point 8, I think we should be clear what’s going on the letter. Chapter one is judgment on the world and all the ways it has fallen from God’s perfect ideal. Homosexuality, including lesbianism, is included in that mix. Chapter two is devoted to demonstrating that religion alone won’t cut it either. And chapter three goes so far as to say none of us can escape sin and judgment. It’s a classic “not so fast” series of verses. We can think we’re better off because of the law, or because of religion, but we aren’t. Everyone’s in the same boat without Jesus.
You stated that “the biblical rejection to homosexual practice is not about the fact that it is unloving or about domination,” but I sincerely find it difficult to support that assumption given what we know of the practice in the ancient world. I also do not think the Bible is silent on the same mandates for heterosexual unions – the whole idea of vile lusts, or feeding the “sarx” / flesh / appetite crosses all boundaries, including monogamy. Monogamous marriage can be a stop-gap measure to keep us from burning up with lust, even Paul admits such; but it is far from a cure of all that ails us from within. Christ is that cure, not marriage.
All of the above said, you might be surprised to know that I still don’t believe a homosexual union constitutes as marriage from a Christian perspective for some of the reasons you’ve described, but mostly because of the picture provided to us at Creation. The ideal was always one man and one woman for life. That ideal was broken time and time again in the scriptures by people that God used over and over again for His good work – always because there was a higher work to be done than the letter of the law, which is but dung compared to Christ.
Thanks for the lengthy response and the continued interaction, David.
This response will have to be fairly brief as I have a busy evening. I may not be able to follow up further for the next few days, as I will be out of town.
Scripture doesn’t celebrate sex in the abstract. Sex is celebrated in the context of the marriage bed. Can a marriage be the context for deep sexual abuse and sin? Most definitely. However, it is the context within which the biblical end is to be realized. God’s ideal is realized as we see many ends harmonized within the context of marriage.
If we want to know about the Spirit of the Law, rather than merely the letter, it is to the study of the ends of sex that we must attend. And, in Scripture, these ends are to be realized within the context of marriage. This form is oriented towards the blessing and vocation of procreation, it celebrates the natural order of sexual dimorphism, expresses our being created male and female as the image of God, and the interdependence of the sexes, it binds parents to their offspring, and it is also a context for deep personal union and joy.
Homosexual practice, in terms of these greater ends, is a jarring note. While the form of marriage integrates these ends together, even in cases of infertility, homosexual practice detaches and dis-integrates these ends, abstracting certain ends from the form in which they are to be harmonized. This might put it in the position of a marginal exception, or benign departure from the celebrated norm to be tolerated. However, in Scripture, as a form of fornication, it is condemned with all forms of sexual relations outside of or contrary to the form of the marriage bond. Vague appeals to the ‘Spirit of the Law’, which don’t actually focus upon the ends that the Law itself highlights, are rather problematic.
The fact that polygamy and such customs as Levirate marriage were tolerated and even divinely ordained (in the case of Levirate marriage) underlines the connection between marriage and procreation. They clearly are not presented as an ideal. However, in their time they served a purpose. Where the entire society essentially operated in terms of family structures and male mortality was very high (on account of the dangers of work and warfare), polygamy and Levirate marriage were ways to deal with the tragic reality of the situation. They were very far from the ideal, but nor were they necessarily sinful in and of themselves. As our society is less threatened by death on these fronts, we no longer require these practices and can adopt a more ideal form.
However, it is important to notice that polygamy still operates with the basic grain of the institution of marriage, as a relationship between one man and one woman (although allowing a man to form more than one such relationship), ordered towards procreation, and the formation of the natural family. It is not an ideal form, but it remains clearly ordered towards the primary ends of the institution of marriage. It is an attempt to secure these ends in a situation where death is a far more real threat. The contrast with same-sex marriage is striking, as same-sex marriage is ordered in a manner contrary to the ends that marriage serves in OT and NT and contrary to the natural realities that marriage upholds, encourages, and protects. Same-sex marriage isn’t an attempt to secure the ends of marriage in a situation of threat, but a departure and orientation away from those ends.
I still maintain that the claim that the holiness code was primarily about health is unsustainable. I wonder how closely you have tried to account for the laws in terms of such a thesis. I also think that, when we are talking about the laws, we need to be very attentive to detail. There is no punishment stipulated for mixing wool and linen, so I wonder where you get the idea of the death penalty. Actually, if you look more closely at that law, it should become clear that the mixtures were forbidden because they were holy (read the Hebrew of Deuteronomy 22:9). Mules were royal mounts. The creatures that bear God’s throne chariot are hybrids. The priests wore mixed garments. The tabernacle was made of mixed fabrics. The Garden of Eden was sown with different seeds. Trees in the new heaven and new earth produce different types of fruit.
The health explanation just doesn’t fit the facts. In fact, even in the case of ‘leprosy’ (not the same as what we think of as leprosy) – the one example where health would seem to be the most immediate explanation – the health explanation is insufficient, as the person who is completely covered with it is allowed into the camp (Leviticus 13:12-13). The real logic is symbolic in character.
Paul would also have been well aware of stories of homosexual love. They were present in the major literature of his day. Do you really believe that all homosexual relations were abusive in form in the ancient world? And, as I pointed out, the same asymmetries of age and power that you suggest would underlie the condemnation of homosexual practice do not lead to the same condemnations in the case of male-female marriage.
Homosexual and lesbian practice is not just something less than the ideal in Paul’s teaching, as polygamy functions in Scripture. Rather it is a paradigmatic distortion of the image of God in mankind. None of what follows changes this fact.
Once again, I ask: do you really believe that all homosexual relations in the ancient world were abusive and about domination? Also, my point remains, why are such unions singled out for condemnation, when similar things occurred in many heterosexual relations? Further, why does Paul frame his point by saying ‘leaving the natural use of the woman…’? This clearly suggests that homosexual practice is being singled out, not merely because it happened to take an abusive form in that culture, but because it is a departure from the male-female form of sexual relations. On top of this, the description in Romans 1:27, far from suggesting a situation of domination, seems to presume completely consensual sexual relations. I suggest that, as in the case of the mixed garments, you are not actually reading the text very carefully here.
Once again, I am not arguing that marriage is a panacea. There is a lot of brokenness in every marriage (is there a family that isn’t seriously dysfunctional within the Bible?). However, sexual fidelity within marriage and celibacy outside of marriage are the vocations that are given to us.
While I appreciate the fact that you deny that a homosexual union can constitute a marriage, I believe that it is incredibly important that we pay very close attention to the biblical teaching on such matters as homosexual practice, that we make close and careful distinctions, and that we don’t drift into the sort of lazy and inattentive reading that has so often been presented in challenge to the Church’s historic stance on these issues.
Thanks once again for taking the time to discuss this. As I probably won’t be able to respond for a while, I will leave you to have the final word.
I don’t know much about a last word because the Scripture is far too alive to me to think in such a way, but I appreciate the sentiment. At issue for me I suppose is a pretty clear differentiation of the Law’s purpose. I take a much more anthropological approach to it than it seems that you do. I habitually read blogs like this in order to better understand how the other side of the aisle thinks and would say it’s rare to find one that thinks as clearly as you do.
I’d be the first to confess that I’ve no more than two semesters of Hebrew under my belt and six of Greek – all of which came 20+ years ago. My M.Div. was concentrated in pastoral care and counseling. But I was raised by farmers in a farming culture and I do read the scripture like a farmer which is why things like Deuteronomy 22:9 only make sense to me from the perspective of one who keeps a garden. The idea that the God of the Universe somehow needed particular strains of genetic purity in his grain offerings doesn’t carry nearly as much weight to me as does the idea that mixing seed strains could ruin a harvest and lead the people closer to starvation. Not only do different types of seed require different soils, but they spread and leaf in different weeks – meaning the early and healthiest grown plants will easily choke out the rest. An early sprout with a wide leaf throws too much shade or consumes too much water to keep the weaker agricultural brother nourished.
Why wouldn’t the priests use the people’s spirituality as a tool to help them toward a better harvest? It certainly would be in God’s favor to teach them sound agricultural practice, and history across cultures demonstrates that both hunting and farming techniques were taught to the people via the priest / shaman class.
The idea that mixing fabric is related to mixing seed is the kind of stretch one is forced to make in order to promote an unchanging view of God and scripture over time. The very fact that the things you mention are evidences of changing views – even rapidly changing views based on the needs of a changing culture as it moved from being a nomadic people to a settlement culture, then from settlements to city-states. The laws themselves change over time, until by the time of the prophets (and later Jesus) they have been whittled down mostly to the intangibles of the Divine Nature.
Leprosy too, in the verses you mention, are really very logical when we stop and think about them. In the mind of the ancients an oozing wound was considered quite dangerous. A leprosy which had covered over in white was considered different than one that was ulcerous. It’s easy to see why decisions were made as they were – the health of the group and the dignity of the person were both being taken into account. I see nothing symbolic at all between distinguishing an ulcerous leper from one who had so scabbed over as to form the white nodules. But perhaps you are aware of a detail that escapes the surface.
You worry about the Bible being taken too lightly and I respect that. I worry about it being taken too seriously and thereby giving rise to grandiose explanations of literality which exceed its original intent.
But that’s probably a discussion held for another day.
As it stands, you’ve asked a very fair question as to whether or not Paul had examples of mutuality, love, and acceptance among the homosexual population of his day. It deserves a straight answer, so I won’t throw out an escape hatch by saying that we don’t know for sure, even though that is probably the most accurate answer. Let’s assume he did and like you or me, found it to be less than the standard God put in place for humankind. We’d still be making a stretch to say that the consensual, monogamous homosexual relationship was what raised his ire. Give the state of homosexual brutality and pedophilia in the Roman Empire, what Christian wouldn’t rail against it? And yet, even amidst such misgivings, we still don’t see Paul pushing a social agenda against either form in a secular setting. He was out to protect the church. Paul realized that Christianity was the new kid on the religious block. I can only imagine how many pagan followers of Dionysius or Aphrodite came to check out the sexual stamina of the new religion in town. He needed to make absolutely clear that the Christian life was nothing like the Roman culture. Desire, passion, and Eros could only be understood in relationship to the cross of Christ. I don’t see any other way for him to have presented the Christian faith. Those brackets and boundaries were drawn down by the era in which he lived; just like having a crushed testicle was a bracket and boundary for the era that the Levite priest lived in.
It was natural for Paul to single out the worst of the sexual abuses in his era, but I believe he walked a tight rope with regards to heterosexuality. His admonitions to husbands and wives is probably the most ultra-progressive pronouncements of liberty in the ancient world, stemming I am certain, from the freedom he found in Christ. That previous life of straining gnats and drowning in the minutia of the Jewish religion was gone. If anyone had the right to boast of knowledge about the Law, it was Paul. He admitted to trying to enforce the minutia to his own shame. He pushed what boundaries he could and did so, I think, quite effectively, but it always boiled down to Christ for him.
And I guess that’s where I ultimately land… in a Christ alone mindset. Whereas I completely understand the dangers of taking the scriptures too lightly, I think that dangers of taking them too seriously are the heavier millstone because they carry a Jesus+ potential… and I’m not a Jesus+ believer, just a Jesus one and try to shy away from anything that steers me away from that.
Not at all saying that’s you or this blog, so please don’t hear me saying that. I enjoy this blog way too much and never want to come across negative. I visit here regularly, fully believing that I might be wrong about a great many things and enjoy the way it stretches me. Also, I’m deeply appreciative of the time you’ve taken here.
There are no final words with a living Word… or at least none we can speak. 🙂
Hi Alastair , you have done a good job answering a number of questions. I have a question , and some issues I would like to here your thoughts on. Here is the question:
How should the church deal with homosexuals outside of marriage? These are homosexuals who affirm the traditional views of marriage , recognize the authority of scripture , and seek to live accordingly. How are they to relate to other homosexuals within the church , and form relationships with one another? You talk about the affirmation of same-sex love as a separate issue , and I am wondering if you are willing to elaborate on that.
The second issue , is more practical and in fact relates to an issue going in my own community , and within my very school. Here are the news stories:
And the Pastors words here ( I should add , that this isn’t the church I attend):
So an issue involving the largest church in the community , and I guy i run into in the halls. I have a lot of thinking to do , as well as a lot of dialogue and discussion with people.
In response to your questions.
First, we should begin by breaking down the ‘us and them’ framing of the situation. Those with same-sex attraction are a problem to be ‘dealt with’ (to make clear, I am not suggesting that this was your meaning). Rather, it is an opportunity for the Church to find out something about itself. The question that needs to be addressed is what the Church can learn about herself in these members, and how these members can bear the meaning of the kingdom of God in their very particular circumstances. The Church should see this as an opportunity to be welcomed – the opportunity to discover what shape discipleship and the meaning of Christ can take in this situation and what lessons such Christians hold for all of us – not just as a moral question to receive a ‘NO!’.
As the Church learns to answer the question of how the gospel is good news to the Christian with homoerotic desires and how that Christian is a gift to the Church, not merely someone to be ‘dealt with’, I believe that all of us will be enriched.
Same-sex relationships are a distinct (but related) question from same-sex marriage. I believe that the Scriptures give us a clear line here and oppose homosexual practice.
I think that such members of the body of Christ should challenge us all to make the sacrifices of sexual faithfulness, the sacrifices that undergird the practice of marriage. Too often homosexuals are expected to make costly sacrifices that no others are expected to make. Marriage requires sacrifices of all of us.
Second, I think that we need to take an extremely strong line on homophobic bullying. There really is a lot of it, and in Christian circles too. The hyperbolic reactions don’t help either. Religious freedom is being lost in large part because many religious people have proved themselves incapable of opposing homosexual practice but still treating gay persons with basic dignity.
A little awareness of what it might feel like to be a gay teen would go a long way. The gay teen needs more protection than the religious kid in most situations, as he is considerable more vulnerable and less supported in most cases (I say this as someone who was bullied for my faith a lot as a kid). While I definitely think that biblical teaching on the subject should be given, we seriously need to work out how to avoid making gay persons the lightning rods for our frustration, anger, and fear.
“The Church should see this as an opportunity to be welcomed – the opportunity to discover what shape discipleship and the meaning of Christ can take in this situation and what lessons such Christians hold for all of us – not just as a moral question to receive a ‘NO!’.”
I’m 100% with you on this. A lot of Christians go straight into battle mode , whenever homosexuality is mentioned , regardless of what is actually said about it. I think it would be a good idea for the Church to listen first.
“Religious freedom is being lost in large part because many religious people have proved themselves incapable of opposing homosexual practice but still treating gay persons with basic dignity.”
I have found this to be the case a number of times. A lot of religious people , don’t have any good reasons for opposing homosexuality. I think it may have something to do with a generally poor understanding of sexuality and marriage today. Teleology is absent is most discussions about marriage , and apart from opposition to homosexuality , I can’t detect anything in some peoples understanding of marriage that relates to scripture or
the tradition of Christian thought. Although I think the Catholic Church has a pretty consistent body of work , that is both theologically robust and oriented towards the common good.
Are you familiar with the relatively extensive writing of celibate gay Catholics like Joshua Gonnerman, or Eve Tushnet? I’m not sure they’re getting all the right answers, but their writings may be a place to start looking for reflections on “How the gospel is good news to the Christian with homoerotic desires and how that Christian is a gift to the Church, not merely someone to be ‘dealt with’” (as Alastair put it).
Yes I am familiar with the writings of Eve Tushnet , and I think she has a good understanding of vocation.
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Well said, Alistair. Would that the majority of the people of the world could see these things through the lens of reason. Here’s a shorter article on the subject for any who are interested: http://lcosanswers.com/IDCrisis.php
Sean Capparuccia, NC,USA
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we need help on our school project we are debating about this and need some facts
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What is the porpuse of same sex merriage,it is need to be legalized?
The majority of LGBTIAQ people believe same-sex marriage will change marriage for every man and woman including those whom identify as Gay or Lesbian. Countries which have changed legal marriage into a union between any two people haven’t expanded marriage to include same-sex couples. They have completely changed the meaning of marriage as it’s no longer a sexual union between a man and woman which can reproduce biological children because same-sex couples can’t practice this sexual behaviour. Religious people may want only to identify their marriage with sexual intercourse between a man and woman which can reproduce biological children, but the law refuses them this religious belief and freedom of speech. The new “marriage for benefits” club has made sexual intercourse and biological children irrelevant or optional. A equivalent change to a meaning of a practice is Nursing which use to include midwifery. This means a nurse is no longer identified as a midwife. Some midwifes have a nursing qualification but this doesn’t allow them to identify as a nurse. Therefore, the traditional belief in marriage for centuries of a sexual union between man and woman which can reproduce biological children is no longer identified as legal marriage.
The anti-discrimination court no longer allows religious people to believe in the Biblical practice of marriage between a man and woman because this offends homosexuality. This explains the reason legal marriage was changed rather than expanded. However, Homosexual behaviours (anal and oral sex) can be practiced by both same-sex and heterosexual couples. Marriage is a sexual union otherwise we would call it a friendship or business partnership. People may reject marriage including sodomy (anal and oral sexual behaviours) for religious reasons. Likewise, nurses whom have religious faith may reject abortion, but the practice of nursing includes abortion. However, these nurses don’t identify with the practice of abortion, and will try to remove themselves from this practice of nursing. History is repeating itself as my German forefathers didn’t have legal marriages, but only home church weddings. The King tried to control their minds, and persuade them to get married in his state church, but they refused. The history of marriages in NSW (Australia) were only registered in the Church of England and other denominations from 1788-1856. The Birth, Death & Marriage registry was introduced in 1857 which recognised the religious practice of marriage, and to maintain an accurate record for the illegitimacy of children and inheritance. Therefore, couples got married because of their religious beliefs not because there was a Federal law to get married. I only have a marriage certificate issued by the church, and I have been able to change my name. I don’t ever plan to get my marriage certificate from the NSW registry because my religion, culture and family history doesn’t require me to have a legal marriage.
The reason legal marriage was changed into sodomy (anal and oral sexual behaviours) were because both same-sex couples and heterosexual couples can practice these sexual behaviours. However, these western countries didn’t argue that sodomy (anal and oral sexual behaviours) and sexual intercourse between a man and woman aren’t the same sexual behaviours and have different outcomes. Teachers, doctors, nurses and parents have never encouraged and promoted children and teenagers to practice sodomy (anal and oral sexual behaviours). There is no medical or nursing textbook available which advocates the practice of sodomy. If all boys/men and girls/women were taught to practice sodomy then there would be no need for contraception because it is impossible to get pregnant. However, there are significant harmful health and relationship problems from practicing sodomy. These include: higher risks of illnesses – faecal incontinence, anal pain, vaginal pain, throat pain, lip pain; self-harm/suicide; higher risk of diseases- hepatitis B, STDs/HPV, HIV/AIDS; pelvic inflammatory disease which leads to infertility and death if left untreated; anal, cervical, throat, tongue and lip cancer; anal fistulas; parasitic diseases “gay bowel syndrome.”
There are now cases of girls (13yr old) presenting to health clinics with faecal incontinence after practicing anal sex. This has a significant negative mental health problems because the faecal odour isolates them from family, friends, school, and sporting functions. This can lead to self-harm and suicide. The physical health problems include: vaginal thrush; risk of pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility; anal and vaginal pain; risk of anal cancer, anal fistulas, STDs/HIV/AIDS. A 12 yr girl was self-harming because she refused to give a guy a “blow-job” (oral sex). All her friends had isolated her because they believed this was normal sexual behaviour. Is it only religious people that will defend this girl for not performing this sexual behaviour?
Every man and woman including gays and lesbians had marriage equality to marry a consenting person of the opposite sex. However, the change to legal marriage now means every man and woman including gays and lesbians have the right to marry a consenting person of the same-sex. This means sodomy (anal and oral sex) is the new sexual behaviours for both same-sex and heterosexual couples in legal marriage. Religious people may be against the practice of sodomy like abortion, illegal drugs, active euthanasia, but the law can re-enforce these practices as normal. Unfortunately, morality is going to decline which will lead to government becoming more involved in people’s lives. The government will need to provide more assistance for single parents and families operating two households. Religious freedom and freedom of speech are now becoming more restricted because of new laws which are against the practice of Christianity.
What a bunch of crap. Same-sex marriage is about equality. Do unto others… Love thy neighbor.
why argue just let it happen there is no notable reason to stop same sex marriage.
I am a lesbian. My girlfriend and I are trying to have a baby. But she is married to another woman. They are not legally separated yet. I’m not sure the proper steps to take to avoid any legal problems being as though they are married.
Undeniably the above was a well-informed, meaningful and thought-provoking, article. However, it overlooked to mentioned that whereas the word “marry” is a religious term it should be treated reverently as such. See e.g., Institute of Marriage Research & Studies (www.IOMRAS.info), their Etymology page. Thank you.
as a happily married man I can see no real reason to deny the opportunity for couples to join together in marriage. Marriage is Not a religious term, it simply means to join together, for instance in the navy the term is used to join two ropes to be then used as one. The change to the act only came about in 2004 when John Howard altered the legislation [without going to the people as Abbott has argued]. Many other countries have allowed same sex marriage and the world didn’t come to a crashing holt, and if the Irish can do it surely we can, or has the Catholic church got the parliamentarians in Canberra by the balls? Spending 180 million as Abbott and Turnbull have promoted is the most stupid thing I have ever heard.
You’ve conflated two things the use of the term marriage in a different context, to the origin and function of marriage which is from religion. As for not allowing it clearly they shouldn’t be allowed.
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I would like to leave an observation for you and ask a question.
First, my sister in-law adopted 2 boys with her same sex partner. The boys are now teenagers and are reaping the biblical fruit of growing up fatherless and bringing shame to their mother ( mothers? ). Having two parents doesn’t matter if it is outside of God’s design.
I would like to know from you what biblical reason you have for divorce as you stated there are reasons for it?