(I keep revising this little document, as occasionally someone asks me about it.)
For Christian theists concerned about the way the same-sex marriage discussion has gone in America, I suggest there are two issues: one religious, the other legal.
The Religious Issue
A fellow Jesus-follower recently asked me two questions. They were:
"Could a gay person ever serve as a leader in your church?" My answer was: yes. (Such as, e.g., theologian Wesley Hill (who is same-sex oriented), whose book Washed and Waiting is important in this discussion, and who teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.)
And:"Could a gay person who teaches that God affirms the gay lifestyle ever serve as a leader in your church?" My answer was: no. Love does not equal affirming. Even churches that call themselves "affirming" do not affirm everything. For example, I can imagine an affirming church that does not affirm certain of my beliefs. It is not loving to affirm anything and everything, carte blanche.
What's the difference between the first question and the second question? Here's what I think. But first, a few preliminaries.
Preliminary matter #1: If you are not a self-professing Christian, AKA a follower of Jesus the Christ, then you do not share my ethical worldview. And, of course, I do not share your ethical worldview. So in what follows I am addressing Christians.
My ethical worldview can be seen in a book like, e.g., The Moral View of the New Testament, by Richard Hays. Reading Hays' book could give you an understanding of how and why I think certain actions are right, and other actions are wrong.
I might be curious about your ethical worldview. You have one, because you make moral judgments. Most people have not examined their ethical worldview, so you may not know where your moral judgments come from. Let's say, for the sake of discussion, that you hold to a utilitarian ethic. If so, then I will be in profound disagreement of a number of your ethical evaluations.
I am saying this because, if you are not committed to the ethics of Jesus, and perhaps you don't even believe in God, then I expect you will not like my views on ethical issues. I think I understand that. I want you to understand that, as well. We then will have something like a "clash of civilizations," to borrow from Samuel Huntington. And our ultimate discussion will be about worldviews, rather than particulars within disparate worldviews.
Preliminary matter #2: To disagree is not to hate. At least, that is what my Christian theistic worldview teaches me.
In addition to that, my philosophy classes taught me how to disagree without hating. I learned that disagreement is not logically equivalent to hatred. Hatred, when it happens, is a sad add-on to disagreement. It was sad that Socrates was killed by the hatred of some who failed to understand him. The way Socrates handled this has been a model of disagreeing while not hating.
My philosophy professors expected disagreement and questioning. They made the classroom a safe place. I learned that a safe place is not a place where everyone agrees about everything. A safe place is a place where people can disagree and learn and grow in wisdom.
A safe place is a place where disagreement is accompanied by love and respect. An unsafe place is a place where disagreement breeds hatred.
A safe place is a place for civil discourse. An unsafe place is a place where you don't have a voice.
A safe place is a place where people come first to understand, and only after understanding is achieved, to evaluate. An unsafe place is where people judge without understanding.
A safe place is a place where you can be angry, but sin not.
Preliminary matter #3: I do not expect you to affirm a belief I have, but with which you disagree. Nor should you expect me to affirm a belief you have, but with which I disagree.
Therefore, when it comes to certain ethical beliefs, you and I will make different choices, and act differently. I expect that to be the case.
Now, for the intra-Christian discussion; i.e., the discussion between professing Jesus-followers. At the heart of this discussion, I believe, is the nature and authority of the biblical texts. The Bible is our Text. In the Bible we find the Jesus-Narrative. Just as, e.g., a utilitarian consults the writings of John Stuart Mill, or an atheist reads Nietzsche. On a scale of 0-10, how much authority should the Bible have in the life of a Christian? If '0' means no authority, that does not seem right. Most (but not all) of the Jesus-followers I have met in my life consider biblical authority to be a '10', or approaching that number. I am one of those. That is, the Bible is The Authoritative Text for me. In, e.g., matters of right and wrong, good and bad. I am not studying social media or listening to news readers (CNN, Fox, you name it) to construct my ethical worldview. What is currently popular is essentially irrelevant to matters of right and wrong. (This, as I see it, is one of the problems with utilitarian ethics; viz., the terms "good" and "bad" are a function of what makes the most, or the least, amount of people "happy.")
So, if someone says they are a “Christian,” then I reason as follows. 1. Christians desire to follow God’s will. 2. God’s will is given to us in the Bible. 3. The Bible forbids same-sex unions. 4. Therefore, same-sex unions are against God’s will. On P1 (Premise 1): Virtually all Jesus-followers affirm this to be true. (How odd to think otherwise, correct? Imagine someone who says, "I am a follower of Jesus, but I do not want to follow Jesus.")
On P2 – Again, Jesus-followers will have little problem with this. There may be discussion on the nature of biblical authority. That is another, and important, discussion. And, there will be matters of interpretation, on which good Christians can and do disagree. (If you are a Christian, please help me by: 1) telling me your view of biblical authority; and 2) telling me how you justify your view of biblical authority.)
If you are a follower of Jesus, it follows that you place a high premium on the words of the Bible. The Bible is our Narrative (remember: everyone has a Narrative, even post-modern theorists who reject metanarratives). For those few billion people in this Jesus-camp, we can and should have discussions over the meaning of the biblical texts, their interpretation, and the nature of their authority. And, again, we can discuss without hating one another. (A good book on explaining the biblical text as our Narrative is N.T. Wright, The Last Word.)
The biblical text guides us (not others) in what we are to affirm or not affirm. Good and bad, right and wrong, are contingent on what God affirms. (This ethical worldview is called Divine Command Theory.) So, on P3 - Does the biblical text disaffirm same-sex unions? I believe it does. Which is to say: God does not affirm this. We see this in the biblical text, which is authoritative for those of us who self-define as Christians. I disagree with Christians who think that, somehow, the biblical text does not disaffirm same-sex unions. I can say this without hating anyone. Disagreement does not equal hatred. Even if I was not a Christian, and was asked to look as objectively as I can at what the Bible says about same-sex unions, I would conclude: it does not affirm them; indeed, it speaks against them. One can surely admit this without hating anyone. Again, to disagree is not to hate.
This is where the intra-Christian discussion lies. If you want to go straight to the heart of this discussion, and look at all the relevant biblical texts in-depth, I can suggest nothing better than Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views, by Dan O. Via and Robert Gagnon. See, e.g., these reviews, which I copy to defend the scholarship contained therein.
“Christians challenged by questions surrounding Scripture on same-sex relations will find an invaluable chart for navigating these confusing waters.” — Joel B. Green, Dean of the School of Theology and Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Asbury Theological Seminary (endorsement inside book)
“Gagnon’s brilliant condensation of his arguments should be a significant asset for clergy and laity, while Via opens new challenges.” — Catherine Clark Kroeger, Associate Professor of Classical and Ministry Studies, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary (endorsement inside book)
“I know of no finer presentation of all the main issues.” — Graham Stanton, Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge (endorsement inside book)
“I know of no other work that so clearly illumines the biblical issues at the heart of the controversy.” — Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics, Duke Divinity School (endorsement inside book)
“Presents a vigorous, illuminating debate about the implications of scripture for contemporary attitudes toward homosexuality. I strongly recommend this book.” –James F. Childress, Hollingsworth Professor of Ethics, University of Virginia
If you want to engage in a civil, intra-Christian dialogue over Premise 3, then I am expecting you to put in some study, and read all sides. I have done this. I have extensively studied and been involved in this discussion since the 1970s. I have done all the contextual studies and word-studies relevant to the context, plus read everything available by Christians who disagree with me. As a result, I believe the Bible not only never affirms a gay lifestyle, it speaks against it. I do not believe a gay sexual orientation is sinful. I have gay friends who follow Jesus who have chosen, on the basis of the biblical teaching, abstinence. See again, e.g., Wesley Hill. Or my friend Phillip Lee. There are gay Christians who agree with Premise 3. Could a Wesley Hill or a Phillip Lee serve in my church? Absolutely!
In the Two Views book, Dan Via is for gay marriage, Robert Gagnon is against gay marriage. Both are New Testament scholars. But note this. Via agrees that one cannot interpret the biblical text as supportive of same-sex marriage. So he gives us a principle that seems of God to him as a justification for allowing same-sex marriages today. I find myself ultimately not affirming of Via's views on biblical authority. For Gagnon’s more complete biblical argument against textual support of same-sex marriage, see his The Bible and Homosexuality: Texts and Interpretation. Of this book reviews include:
“…In its learnedness, [Gagnon’s] book will…be in the vanguard of its position and cannot be ignored….” — Martti Nissinen, University of Helsinki, and author of Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (From the Jacket Flap)
“…the fullest and best presentation of the conservative position….expressing the case same-sex intercourse sympathetically and convincingly.” — I. Howard Marshall, Professor of New Testament, Emeritus, University of Aberdeen, Scotland (Blurb Inside Book)
“…the most thorough examination of the scriptural and theological…perspectives on same-sex relations….a tour de force.” — Marion L. Soards, Professor of New Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (From Jacket Flap)
“Gagnon has offered a learned, judicious, and comprehensive examination of the biblical testimony….fair and compassionate…a major resource….” — Brevard S. Childs, Sterling Professor of Divinity (Hebrew Bible), Emeritus, Yale Divinity School (From Inside Book)
“Gagnon’s book is an extremely valuable contribution to the current debate….I recommend this book wholeheartedly.” — C. E. B. Cranfield, Professor of Theology (New Testament), Emeritus, University of Durham (From Inside Book)
“Gagnon’s incisive logic, prudent judgment, and exhaustive research should make this book a dominant voice in the contemporary debate.” — Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, O.P., Professor of New Testament, Ecole Biblique, Jerusalem (From the Back Cover)
“I believe that this volume will become a classic in the ongoing discussion of the church’s…response to homosexuality.” — Duane F. Watson, Professor of New Testament, Malone College (From Inside Book)
“I know of no comparable study of the texts and interpretive debates that surround homosexual behavior.” — Max L. Stackhouse, Stephen Colwell Professor of Christian Ethics, Princeton Theological Seminary (From the Jacket Flap)
“No Christian concerned with homosexuality can afford to ignore this book.” — John Barton, Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, University of Oxford (From the Back Cover)
“This is a brilliant, original, and highly important work,…indispensable even for those who disagree with the author.” — James Barr, Distinguished Professor of Hebrew Bible, Emeritus, Vanderbilt University
Someone recently said to me, as a supposed objection to my position, "But the Bible says more about greed than it does about homosexuality?" OK. But this is irrelevant, a non-objection. I know of no scholar who reasons as follows: the more a sin is mentioned, the more serious it is to God. I am certain more should be said in some churches about sins like greed. And like gluttony (and note: contextual studies will need to be done here). Bestiality is mentioned in the Bible, less so than greed and homosexuality. But, in all this, the point is: the lesser mentioned are not the more approved; the more mentioned are not the less approved. Back to my original questions. Imagine a person who considered gluttony to be contrary to God's desire (acknowledging it to "miss the mark," hence, be a sin), struggled with gluttony themselves, and got help and prayer to hopefully overcome it. Could they serve as a leader in my church? Unless there were other special, mitigating circumstances, the answer is: yes. Every one of us, more or less, is in that place. I struggle with things I know are sinful. But if this person not only struggled with gluttony but affirmed it, in the sense of claiming and teaching that God affirms (loves, likes) gluttonous behavior, and expected me to affirm it, then my answer is: no. Re. Premise 4, Gagnon concludes that it is true. So do I. I don't hate you if you disagree with us. For any who have followed my blog over the years, you know I am praying, broadly, to love my enemies, and that is not you. If you disagree with me, I do not consider you my enemy. If you love me, you won't hate me for thinking you are incorrect.
The Legal Issue
I think a lot of Christians have rushed over the cliff without a civil discussion. (Five white Ivy-league lawyers decided on the meaning of "marriage" for our nation. What if there had been a national discussion, and then a national vote?)
I think the area we should be most concerned to address is the legal issue, and not the religious issue. This is because, overwhelmingly, we don’t legislate biblical morality. For example, biblically, gossip and gluttony are sins. Engaged in, they mitigate against human flourishing. But I don't think we should legislate against them. I don’t think we should make a law against gossip, or a law against gluttony.
Continue to address the meaning of “marriage.”
Don’t be intellectually seduced by the bandwagon fallacy.Regarding the legal matter, the issue is about the definition of “marriage.” Might we in America have a civil discourse about this? The truth or falsity of the statement We should allow for same-sex marriage rests heavily on the meaning of the term “marriage.” Some of us, myself included, feel like many of our government leaders have rushed forward to change the meaning of marriage, without discussion.
The term "marriage equality" changes the definition of marriage, without discussion. Of course if "marriage" is defined as a union between consenting adults, irregardless of their gender, than same-sex marriages should be legally allowed. But that has not been the legally prevailing definition of marriage. If marriage is defined as between a man and a woman, anything outside those parameters is irrelevant, and no injustice is involved in disallowing gay unions to be called marriages. As Ryan T. Anderson has written, "A truth acknowledged for millennia has been overruled by five unelected judges." (Anderson, Ryan T. Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, Kindle Location 89) Without allowing for an extended, civil discourse. Any citizen ought to feel troubled by such an act of unrestrained power.
Read the editorial in CNN by Robert George (prof. of jurisprudence at Harvard and Princeton), Sherif Gergis (Princeton and Yale), and Ryan T. Anderson – “Gay Marriage, then Group Marriage?” They write:
“Of course, if marriage were simply about recognizing bonds of affection or romance, then two men or two women could form a marriage just as a man and woman can. But so could three or more in the increasingly common phenomenon of group (“polyamorous”) partnerships. In that case, to recognize opposite-sex unions but not same-sex or polyamorous ones would be unfair — a denial of equality.” Please read this entire editorial.