The Debate about Same-Sex Marriage is Not a Secondary Issue

The Debate about Same-Sex Marriage is Not a Secondary Issue
July 31, 2017

That may sound like a bold claim, and maybe it is, but it’s important that you read the previous post before you read this one. In short, there are many methodological questions that often go unanswered when Christians are quick to say that same-sex marriage is or isn’t a primary theological (or gospel, or essential, etc.) issue. We need to figure out how we determine, not just declare that we have determined, such and such to be a gospel issue.


Here are some of my working thoughts on why I don’t believe that same-sex marriage (and therefore same-sex sexual relationships) is simply a secondary issue—like premillennialism vs. amillennialism, or whatever. I don't actually love the neatly graded scale of first and second and third-order doctrines. It feels too mechanical and modern, and I'm not convinced that the Bible divides itself in terms of important and non-important doctrines. I prefer to think in terms of the biblical story and weighing which aspects of that story are more important or more terterary than others. That is, I like to think in terms of a spectrum than 1, 2, 3 categories, though however you slice it, there is some level of subjectivity going into this discussion, but that's true of any discussion.


In any case, there are several doctrines that almost all Christians would say aren't essential to the biblical storyline, like the timing of the rapture (if you still believe in that sort of thing) or drinking alcohol or the millennium or (and this one's more debated, I guess) the age of the earth. I don't think that same-sex marriage is like of these doctrines. It's more essential to the story of creation and redemption. Here are three reasons why. 


First, whenever marriage is mentioned in Scripture, sex difference is either assumed or explicitly asserted as an essential part of what marriage is. This point is supported by both a narrative (or biblical theological) and an exegetical reading of Scripture. A narrative reading considers Scripture from the standpoint of the overarching story. Every piece of the text plays a role, but there are some themes that are more fundamental to tell the story.


Genesis 1-2 displays creational binaries singing together in harmony (land/sea, light/darkness, heaven/earth) and male/female marriage is the grand finale. “The idea that these two being designed to go together,” says N.T Wright, “is a very profound reality at the heart of that whole story of God’s good creation.”[i] Therefore, “the coming together of male plus female is itself a signpost pointing to that great complementarity of God’s whole creation, of heaven and earth belonging together.”


Sex difference in Marriage, then, is a significant part of the story of creation, and the story of creation is foundational to the story of redemption as a whole. This is why marriage—the union of two sexually different people—shows up in key places throughout the story of redemption (the entire book of Ephesians is structured upon differences coming together, and Eph 5 is, again, sort of a grand finale), and occupies a significant role in the union between heaven and earth in Revelation 21-22.


If you say that sex-difference is not part of marriage—that marriage intrinsically is not the union between two sexually different persons, but presumably the union between two consenting adults regardless of sex—then you’ve yanked out a key aspect of the story as a whole.  


From an exegetical perspective (specific textual details that replicate and support the overarching story) we see explicit statements in Genesis 2, Matthew 19, Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 11 and others where the story of God, creation, and redemption is tethered to sex difference in marriage. One quick example. In Genesis 2:18 and 20, Eve is described as a “suitable” helper. The Hebrew word for “suitable” is kenegdo and it captures both similarity and difference. That is, Eve is like Adam since she’s human, but she’s not like Adam since she’s…


...since she’s what? I would suggest the rather uninteresting claim that the difference between Adam and Eve highlighted in Genesis 2 is that Eve is female and Adam is male. I apoligize to my non-Western readers for putting you to sleep with this obvious point, but it’s an important point for my largely western readers. 


From a Christian perspective, marriage is never just a union between two consenting adults; it’s a “signpost pointing to that great complementarity of God’s whole creation, of heaven and earth belonging together” (Wright).


Second, whenever same-sex relations are mentioned, they are prohibited, condemned, or described as sin (Lev 18:22; 20:13; Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9-10; 1 Tim 1:9-10). I know there’s a massive debate about how to interpret and apply these texts, but I want to stick to the simple observation I just made: whenever same-sex sexual relations are mentioned, they are condemned. There’s no debate about this. I don’t know a single affirming writer who would disagree with this claim. Some of them might say that the type of sexual relations described in these texts aren't the same as adult consenting relationships today. I find these arguments to be built upon sketchy evidence and therefore unconvincing. But without getting into all of that, my basic point still stands. When the Creator addressed same-sex relations head on (if you believe that God had a hand in authoring Scripture), he condemend them. 


And let’s put this in perspective. Scripture is uniform on its perspective on same-sex relations as it views them. Do we see such uniformity on other important questions? For instance, what does the Bible say about your enemy: should we kill them or love them? From an observational standpoint, Scripture offers diverse perspectives, whether you’re reading the Psalms (kill them) or the Sermon on the Mount (love them).


What about women in church leadership? Yes or no? Well, there are verses that could support different views. 1 Corinthians 11 assumes that women are prophesying in Church, and Acts 20 mentions female prophets. But Paul says that women shouldn’t teach or exercise authority over men (1 Tim 2) and tells women to keep silent in the church (1 Cor 14). There’s a solution to these tensions, but my simple point is that Scripture presents some level of diversity on the issue.


Same with divorce. Moses says it’s allowed (Deut 24), Ezra even commands it (Ezra 9-10). Jesus says divorce isn’t allowed except in cases of sexual immorality (Matt 5), and Paul offers more footnotes to the divorce question (1 Cor 7).


We could go on and on—the humanity and deity of Christ, one God or three gods or one God in three persons, etc.—but the simple observational point is this: while Scripture presents some level of diversity on virtually every other doctrine, there simply is no diversity on the question of whether same-sex sexual relationships are ever allowed by God.


Three, the historic, multi-denominational, global church has agreed with these two points. Roman Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Coptic Christian, Syrian Orthodox, Charismatic or non-Charismatic, Reformed or Wesleyan, African, Latin American, South American, European, Scandinavian, Asian, or Antarctican churches (if there’s a church there) have all agreed on this basic definition of marriage, that marriage is between sexually different people and that same-sex sexual relations are sin.


As with the previous point, the uniformity here is almost unparalleled. Can you think of another doctrine that Christendom (broadly defined) has agreed upon? Which doctrines has the entire global church signed off on? The Trinity? Maybe. The deity of Christ? Perhaps. But we can hardly agree on anything else. We can’t even agree on which books belong in the Bible, yet when it comes to marriage, the entire global, historic, multi-denominational church has believed—with Scripture—that sex-difference is part of what marriage is.


I am not saying—as some of my critics have assumed I have said—that individual Christians have not departed from this global consensus. I’m only saying that all denominations or branches of Christianity have held to this view. I assume that individual Christians have held to all sorts of views that go against their religion. I know some Christians who don’t believe in the Trinity too, but this doesn’t mean such denial should be included as a legitimate Christian option.


Now, of course, some churches in the late 20th century and early 21st century have departed from this global consensus. These are almost exclusively mainline western Protestant denominations. But the global consensus is largely uninterrupted. Now, as a Protestant myself, I hold my Bible high above my tradition. Tradition gets some things wrong, and I’m quick to point this out if I have biblical reasons to do so. Please understand my point: I’m not using tradition to build an argument, but to confirm an an observation and interpretation. My narrow point here is that my first two biblical points have been remarkably confirmed by the historic, multi-denominational, and global reading of sacred Scripture. It confirms not creates a Christian view of marriage.


In my next post, I’ll address some pushbacks to these first three points, like: What about all the other weird things the Bible says about marriage (polygamy, dowries, and treating women like property), or we know more about the science of sexual orientation (e.g. some people are born gay) that the biblical writers were unaware of and that’s why they said the things they did. But to summarize my three points above:


(1) When the Bible talks about marriage, it says that sex-difference is part of what marriage is.


(2) Whenever same-sex relations are mentioned, they are condemned—in spite of the remarkable diversity the Bible presents on all kinds of other theological and ethical issues.


(3) The historic, multi-denominational, global witness of the church has agreed with these first two points, even though this global church can hardly agree on anything else.


If these first three points stand, then I don’t see how we can say that believing in same-sex marriage is a secondary issue that churches can simply agree to disagree on, especially since sex-difference in marriage is buried so deep into the fabric of the story of creation and redemption. Most affirming arguments try to deconstruct an interpretation of five or six verses in the Bible. Fine. I find their arguments uncompelling, but either way, it’s one thing to deconstruct a few verses, and it’s quite another to reconstruct a theology of marriage and sexual expression in its place that’s distinctively and counterculturally Christian.