Another bad argument for gay marriage

Let me preface this post by saying that I don’t enjoy writing about homosexuality. I say, along with Paul, that I am the worst of sinners who is constantly in need of God’s saving and forgiving grace. I don’t intend to place myself above gay and lesbian Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction. I have misdirected desires of my own, and I fall into sin. I feel nothing but compassion for my fellow sinners.

But my denomination is in the midst of a civil war over the question of whether or not homosexual behavior is a sin—and, consequently, whether we should “marry” homosexuals or ordain non-celibate homosexuals. Whether I choose to blog about it or not, my fellow clergy are blogging about it and arguing about it. Since I wasn’t kidding when I affirmed my belief in the doctrines of our church—not to mention when I answered questions directly on the subject during the ordination process—I feel defensive when so many of my fellow clergy are clamoring for change.

I believe passionately in the authority of scripture, and, for me, nothing less than faithfulness to God is at stake in the question. I say that as someone who didn’t always believe so strongly in scripture’s authority. In fact, I was happily liberal on the question of homosexuality when I was in seminary. But I changed. If I did so because of some latent homophobia, I’m unaware of it. For me, my conversion on the subject of the Bible and homosexuality was a matter of thinking it through rather than feeling it through.

Of course, people who disagree with me say that they have scripture on their side, too. If so, I would love for them to use it more persuasively than in this particular argument, from today’s blog post by fellow UMC clergy Jason Micheli.

It goes something like this: Since many Christians are unfaithful to God’s Word when it comes to marriage and divorce, it’s therefore O.K. for Christians to be unfaithful to God’s Word when it comes to homosexual behavior. Or, more charitably: since we’ve reinterpreted scripture in relation to marriage and divorce, why can’t we reinterpret it in relation to homosexuality? As Samuel Wells puts it in this quotation from Micheli’s post.

There is virtually no justification in the New Testament for remarriage after divorce (Mark 10.11-12, 1 Corinthians 7.10-11)—in fact the New Testament has quite a lot more to say about divorce—and yet most Christian traditions have come to believe that remarriage is acceptable for many people.

It seems questionable then why we’re unwilling to adapt our understanding of scripture when it comes to homosexual persons when we’ve shown we’re willing to do so for divorced persons.

Would Wells or Micheli then argue that “most Christian traditions” are therefore right about marriage and divorce? Who could look at the divorce rate among Christians and imagine that this is O.K.—that we Christians haven’t gotten badly off course?

Besides, most Christian traditions still oppose divorce in most cases. What would Wells or Micheli have the church do? Excommunicate our parishioners who get one anyway? Some churches do that, of course, but I think it’s always appropriate for the church to extend grace to sinners (as in Matthew 18), even as we acknowledge that a specific behavior is sinful.

I’m not conceding, by the way, that divorce is always a sin. Jesus offers one exception for divorce (“sexual immorality”) and Paul adds another in 1 Corinthians 7:15. (But read his words in context.) I don’t believe that the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to contradict Jesus. Instead, I believe we can harmonize Jesus and Paul to say that divorce, like war, is always a tragic consequence of human sin; it should be permitted only rarely—as an option of last resort; and grace should abound for sinners in the midst of it.

Anyway, I wrote the following response to Micheli’s post: (I mistakenly wrote as if the Wells quote were his, but I can only assume he endorses it.)

I’ve never understood this argument about divorce. The divorce rate among Christians is scandalous. By all means, the Church is being unfaithful to God’s Word. (Although there is biblically warranted divorce for Christians in some cases. You need to carry your 1 Corinthians 7 proof-text to verse 15 and add Matthew 5:32 to your Mark 10:11-12.)

But what does our failure regarding marriage and divorce prove about homosexual marriage? Logically, nothing at all. You seem to be arguing that if we’re unfaithful to God when it comes to marriage, it’s therefore O.K. to be unfaithful to God when it comes to gay marriage.

If homosexual behavior per se is sinful, this cannot be true. (Not to mention that there’s no such thing as gay marriage. Marriage, by definition, is between a man and a woman.)

If you don’t think homosexual behavior is sinful, then say so. Explain why. Put forward that argument. Because this particular argument sucks.

15 thoughts on “Another bad argument for gay marriage”

    1. What I would like you to ask yourself is this: “Is it possible that really smart and faithful Christians with no ideological axe to grind have have arrived at very different conclusions about these verses, and have done so in good faith? Or am I to believe that the vast majority of Christian thinkers for 2,000 years have been homophobes? That, for example, the ancient saints who actually spoke Greek and Roman natively, who lived and breathed inside of Greco-Roman culture, were ignorant of shadings and nuances of language that we, 20 centuries further on, now understand?”

      If only we were around back then to school these benighted first century Jewish rabbis, who believed—alongside the Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, the Pentecostals, the evangelicals, and the Anglicans—that homosexual behavior was sinful. If only we could go back in time and teach them how to read and understand their native language and culture!

      I should point out that Pope Francis doesn’t even vote Republican, and he opposes homosexual behavior. What’s his problem?

      1. I think the perfect analogy is “slaves obey your masters”. Read Thornton Stringfellow: he is certain that “slave State” slavery is Biblical, and abolitionism is contrary to scripture.

        The demand that gay people be celibate is Wrong, just as slavery is, whatever the Bible says: and therefore it is Right to read those verses restrictively. Reading them to condemn all gay sex is a choice, not absolutely required by the words, and that the Church in the past chose to support slavery is no reason to support it now.

      2. Read Paul’s letter to Philemon and tell me how, if Philemon were to carry out Paul’s commands, the institution of slavery could continue unchanged. Slaves in the Roman world certainly understood the liberating power of the gospel, and they became Christians in disproportionately large numbers, as did women.

        Slavery was illegal in the Christian West by the Middle Ages because the Church didn’t support slavery. When slavery returned centuries later in its far different, far more brutal African form, those parts of the church that supported it weren’t being faithful to their own tradition.

        By the way, when the Bible says, “Slaves obey your masters,” exactly what Christian alternative would a slave have at that time that would improve their lot? Slavery had been an accepted fact of life for millennia, and it wasn’t going away any time soon. Besides, read the words that Paul directs toward masters. Paul’s words would subvert the institution over time.

      3. Well, yes. But Thornton Stringfellow did not accept that. He was wrong, but you think you are right. Here there is no Greek nor Jew, gay nor straight, male nor female. But that shocks you.

  1. Good post, Brent.

    Sam Wells was my ethics prof at Duke. I’d like to hear his quote in full context as I suspect he fleshes that out more than Jason does. Though Wells and I now land at different places on this, I always considered him far more smarter than this quote suggests.

    But great post. I agree Jason’s argument is a dumb one.

    1. I’m sure he’s a smart guy. I only knew one prof at Candler who was willing to admit he was on “my” side. There were others, I’m sure (my NT prof was a member of a Church of Christ church—the restorationist church, not the UCC), but they avoided the subject.

  2. Brent, I think you are 100% correct on this, and very well stated. Also, trying to correlate slavery to homosexuality fails, first, because the Bible does not ENDORSE slavery, but rather states “the rules” where a slave system exists, and second, because homosexuality is condemned from Genesis through Revelation, and consistently between, and third, homosexuality, as Paul says, is simply “unnatural,” i.e., against the created order of things.

    1. Also, there’s no way you can read Paul’s words to Philemon and imagine that if Philemon and every other Christian slaveholder obeyed Paul and treated their slaves as a fully equal brothers in Christ, the institution of slavery could continue unchanged. (The same goes for Paul’s words in Ephesians 5.)

      Also, slavery in the first century was (usually) far different from the American model: people often became slaves voluntarily to pay off debts, and it usually wasn’t lifelong. It was more like what we would call indentured servitude.

      Not to mention Galatians 3:28.

  3. This is my biggest struggle with the UM denomination. I have been Following your blog now for a while, and you seem to be more evangelical (at least linguistically) than UM. Would you help me understand why you stay in an increasingly tolerant denomination (specifically to homosexuality)?

    1. Great question, Christina. The good news about the UMC is that, despite the headlines, the church is becoming more conservative and more evangelical with each passing year. That’s because we’re a global church. The places where our church is actually growing are those places where its pastors and laypeople are conservative and evangelical. They have an increasingly louder voice at our connectional table. The liberal side, I believe, was decisively defeated at 2008 General Conference, when they failed to pass an amendment that would enable the US part of the church to govern itself independently of the “global” part of the church.

      I think the liberal side will make a lot of noise before leaving and forming a church of their own (just what the world needs). When that happens, it won’t be a huge loss because the most liberal parts of our church (in the west and northeast) are those parts that are hemorrhaging members. I believe that’s because they’re being unfaithful to the gospel, and they’re out of sync with their own parishioners.

      My frustration on this issue is directed solely toward some of my fellow clergy who promised one thing at ordination and are now breaking that promise.

      Most of them, I believe, haven’t experienced a change of heart on the issue: they were ordained knowing they didn’t accept the church’s teaching on sexuality but were hoping it would change. Now that it’s becoming clear that it’s not changing, they’re reacting.

      So I feel optimistic about the future of the denomination. But I don’t take for granted that the gains we’ve made can’t be reversed. So I’m going to keep talking about it.

      I don’t know why more of my fellow clergy don’t talk about it. For me, what’s at stake is nothing less than the authority of scripture.

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