Postcards from the Marriage Wars – Part Three

The last time I examined the issue of same-sex marriage, it was by way of a response to the (predictable) views of a Fairfax journalist. However, it is one thing to hear from commentators on this issue; quite another to listen to those directly embroiled in the matter. Perhaps they have a unique insight that mere pundits lack. Roger Munson, a Uniting Church minister who conducted a wedding ceremony between two men during the ACT’s brief interregnum on SSM, is one such individual. Here he is in his own words, explaining his reasons for supporting such a momentous shift:

“Jesus never said anything against people who are homosexual…Jesus always welcomed people, had compassion and never judged people…These people should be allowed to marry because they want to express their love for each other through a public right as anyone else does.”

Leave aside the fact that Jesus’ personal opinion of homosexual individuals hardly settles the public policy debate regarding the nature of marriage; Mr Munson’s views are nevertheless likely to appeal to those of a more liberal persuasion (by the by, it’s interesting that one Christian can be feted for holding views that the Left has already embraced, whilst another Christian can be howled down and accused of illegitimately trying to inject religion into a public debate if he so much as breathes a conservative sentiment). I have already talked about the possible pitfalls of trying to ground marriage in the subjective and transient (if intense) emotions that exist between two people, so I won’t cover old ground. Suffice it to say, it seems that Mr Munson assumes precisely this: people who wish to marry should be able to “…because they want to express their love for each other.” Note the consequential word, “because”: marriage should in effect be afforded to those who declare their love for each other, based precisely on this quality. According to Mr Munson (if his stated view is any indication), the only thing required for a marriage to be codified is the presence of such feelings. On its face, this view is compelling, generous, open and seductive. It reflects the mores and norms of a permissive, liberal age, and is likely to be celebrated with increasing enthusiasm. There’s just one, small problem: it’s wrong. And it’s wrong on several counts, not least of which is Mr Munson’s analysis and application of Jesus’ alleged views. It is upon this particular dimension of Mr Munson’s argument that I wish to focus.

Now, Mr Munson is absolutely correct that Jesus never said anything explicitly about homosexuality – or at least it’s true that the evangelists never mention Jesus saying anything about it. We simply have no record of Jesus’ utterances on the matter. But that’s the first problem; suggesting that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality as a way of legitimising SSM is an argument from silence. Arguments from silence, I should point out, are notoriously feeble. Because the gospels – the only records we have of Jesus’ putative teachings – are so brief, we simply have no way of knowing whether Jesus did have anything to say about the matter. So basing one’s support for homosexual relationships upon the apparent silence of the founder of Christianity is fraught with difficulty. The most we could say is that if Jesus said anything bearing upon homosexuality specifically, the evangelists – for reasons known only to themselves – decided to omit it from their writings. Moreover, I am sure many people can think of other instances of (purported) moral impropriety – behaviour that might well attract near-universal criticism – about which Jesus was absolutely silent. A few examples come to mind; whilst attracting widespread opprobrium today, they are things on which we have no (expressed) opinion from Jesus. Ought we tale his silence on those matters as synonymous with approval? My point is that arguments from silence trade in ignorance – in this case, ignorance about what Jesus actually thought when it came to the question of homosexual acts.

But Mr Munson’s citation of Jesus’ (apparent) silence regarding homosexuality runs into another difficulty – namely, that it seems to reflect a fairly simplistic view of theological ethics. Let me explain. To ground (at least in part) the legitimacy of an act in Jesus’ silence on a particular matter is to give credence to the idea that ethical truths – in this case, prohibitions – are to be found only in explicit commands. But this is false, both in terms of ethics generally, and biblical ethics specifically. Surely Mr Munson knows that, when it comes to a biblically-informed ethical worldview, narrative substructure and underlying perspective are just as important as any explicit endorsement or proscription. This is germane, for once one introduces Scripture’s underlying narrative or ethical worldview, things take on a decidedly different complexion (as we shall see). Ironically, Mr Munson’s view seems to represent the worst kind of “reverse” proof-texting – the obverse of the sort of superficial ethical reasoning for which fundamentalist Christians are regularly (and often rightly) castigated. But of course, when such thinking is pressed into service to shore up presently accepted norms and mores, people are willing to overlook its demonstrable woolly-headedness.

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These are just preliminary remarks, of course. But they point to intrinsic weaknesses in Mr Munson’s position. Moreover, and contrary to what Mr Munson seems to think, I believe that it’s possible to suggest – at least with some justification – what Jesus might have thought about the vexed question of homosexuality. I cannot argue that this case is “air-tight”, for the argument from silence can be a double-edged sword: that Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality means that we cannot be certain – at least from the biblical evidence before us – that he condemned it outright. Still, by examining what Jesus did say about sexuality generally, as well as clear-headed reflection upon the religious-ethical matrix within which he and his primary interlocutors operated, I think we can reasonably suggest that Jesus held to what would now be seen as a “conservative” position on matters sexual.

To begin, Jesus’ comments on sexuality do reveal his views fairly clearly – and, by implication, his views on homosexuality. Take, for example, his debate with a contingent of Pharisees on the question of divorce in Matthew 19. His opponents come to him in order to test his devotion to the Law of Moses (v.3). There are interesting contextual roots to this discussion, pertaining to the differing interpretations of the relevant OT material. Two schools of thought, congregating around the rabbis Hillel and Shammai, debated the meaning and scope of passages such as Deuteronomy 24:1. The former was more liberal in his interpretation of the verse, particularly its references to “displeasing” and “indecent”, whilst the latter adopted a more restricted understanding of legitimate grounds for divorce.

Jesus’ reply to his interlocutors, however, seems to bypass this internecine debate entirely. Indeed, he seems to point to the central meaning of the marriage covenant. Over and against this kind of rabbinic minutia, Jesus holds fast to the underlying ideal of marriage, as outlined in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, by stating in vv.4-6 that marriage was always meant to be the lifelong, one-flesh union between a man and a woman. If one were to say that Jesus didn’t explicitly rule out other kinds of couplings, it would appear that, implicitly at least, he did. Note verse 4, where Jesus quotes specifically from Gen 1:27 – humanity was created male and female. NT scholar Craig Blomberg, in commenting on this passage, has said that the Genesis text set the paradigm, by which “heterosexual, monogamous marriage” was established “as the most intimate of interpersonal relationships and as the only relationship in which sexual union was appropriate” (emphasis mine). The creational ideal, it would seem, meant the distinction between male and female – or sexual complementarity, if one wants to use contemporary language – as the underlying basis for the one-flesh union. The Genesis texts, which the Matthean Jesus took to be foundational and authoritative, offer us a picture of marriage marked by two, intrinsic features: sexual distinction; and fleshy union (i.e., sexual intercourse). It encompasses these complimentary dimensions as structural elements of its own reality. To say, then, that this is the ideal (as Jesus seems to have done), is to implicitly screen out other sexual combinations and permutations, whether they occur within, or beyond, the constraints of some kind of formalised commitment. This includes SSM; however much Mr Munson might like to believe that Jesus would have no problem with two men or two women marrying each other (assuming that such an event is ontologically possible in the first place), it seems that the data contained in the gospels present a rather different picture.

Mr Munson, and those who have trod this path before, might want to argue that even if Jesus presented marriage in these terms as the divine ideal, his silence on homosexuality specifically might reflect a lack of interest in the subject. But this represents a failure to take into account the context within which Jesus and his opponents operated, and the influence it likely had on the shape and complexion of the debates that took place. Let’s take Jesus first. His reliance upon the OT’s premier text as a way of cutting through the debate over divorce suggests that, whatever else might be said, he saw the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative. Indeed, Jesus’ reliance upon the Genesis texts to make his case functions as a window through which we may glimpse his embrace of the OT’s normativity – particularly as it pertains, in this case, to sexual relations. Take Matt 5:17-20, for example, where Jesus spoke of his relationship to the Hebrew Scriptures, and the implications his coming had for its authority. Certainly, the advent of Christ meant (to some extent) the radical redefinition of the Torah and its place in the life of the people of God. But his words in this passage do not indicate that it was thereby abolished. Quite the contrary, in fact. Jesus declared the ongoing legitimacy of the “Law and the Prophets”, even as he fulfilled them. And this would have included everything pertaining to sexuality generally, and homosexuality in particular. Far from abolishing the law, or diluting its force, Jesus actually intensified it.

As noted, there are debates over what place the OT plays in the life of the church today, and how it is to be applied. Furthermore, Christological fulfilment meant, in some case, the rescinding of certain laws (think food laws). But it cannot be said that Jesus dismissed the authority of the OT as a result of his ministry, or implied that its ethical strictures – including those related to sexual relations – were thereby null and void. The Sermon on the Mount clearly illustrates the point; there, in talking about matters such as murder and adultery, Jesus deepened the righteous requirements to which disciples were beholden (Matt 5:21-30). He certainly contrasted his teachings with those found in the OT. However, he did not present a new, liberalised application of Torah, but rather something that went beyond the outward acts proscribed by the Hebrew Scriptures. The point is that on the evidence, it seems unlikely that Jesus would have held anything less than an orthodox understanding of the authority and interpretation of the OT. This has important implications for his views on sexuality. Even though the evangelists did not record anything Jesus might have said about homosexuality, his general attitude towards the OT suggests that he would not have endorsed it.

As a good Jew, Jesus would not have been unusual in this understanding; many, if not most, of his co-religionists and ethnic kin believed the same. This brings me to the other side of the historical-contextual coin: the beliefs and attitudes of Jesus’ interlocutors (whether hostile or otherwise) towards sexuality and sexual relationships. Far from being a strange omission, Jesus’ apparent silence on the matter of homosexuality is easily comprehensible – perhaps doubly so, when one takes into account his own (likely) attitudes – in light of the social, religious and cultural matrix within which the bulk of his ministry occurred. The main recipients of his mission, it would seem, were fellow Jews. To be sure, Jesus made occasional forays into Gentile territory, and spoke with non-Jews. Moreover, his ministry seemed to provide the guiding resources – and indeed, the theological legitimacy – for later missionary activity within largely Gentile areas. That said, it seems reasonably clear to me that Jesus directed most of his vocational energy towards his fellow Jews – urging them to be the Israel of God they had been called to be, and to turn with penitence towards their true sovereign. From the perspective of the evangelists, first-century Israel had many problems, but acceptance of homosexual practices was not one of them. Similarly, and despite its pluriform character, first-century Judaism was unanimous in its rejection of same-sex acts. If Jesus’ ministry took place largely within this context, it is hardly surprising that he should not mention anything on this topic. Arguing that Jesus’ silence in this regard is morally significant is like claiming that an archbishop’s silence on the question of papal authority amongst a gathering of priests has any bearing on whether the Pope is the acknowledged and infallible head of the Catholic Church. For first-century Jews, the moral propriety of homosexuality was uncontroversial, precisely because of it near-universal rejection. It was simply a given – part of the assumed “plausibility structures” of the Jewish worldview, in other words. As such, if Jesus was silent on the issue, we do not have to wander terribly far to discover why.

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Mr Munson’s views are neither new nor revolutionary. Rather, they simply reflect the dominant cultural and sexual narrative in today’s West. His Christological invocation, besides being simplistic and naïve, is little more than a veneer, masking a position that has been formed on quite different grounds. The “givenness” of sexual differentiation, as reflected in the biblical narrative (and which seems especially clear at key points) has given way to an individualised conception of marital relations – one that is largely based upon the pattern of desires and attractions of the participating individuals (whoever they may be). To be sure, Mr Munson is free to disagree with a biblical theology of marriage and the underlying significance of sexual difference. But one thing he is not free to do (logically speaking, anyway) is to pretend that a view owing much to late-modern Western constructions of sexuality and individual choice is, in fact, deeply and authentically Christian. Apart from anything else, I have tried to show that any such pretensions founder on the rocks of biblical and theological reality.

What Does the Bible Say about Homosexuality?

In a previous post, I spoke about a recent VCAT decision, which ruled against a Christian campsite and for a gay organisation. One of the main issues that I detected was the presiding judge’s comments that homosexuality is a fundamental part of a person’s being. This clearly runs counter to what Christians believe, but I did not give any detailed exposition of scripture to support that position. I mean, is it indeed true that the Bible forbids homosexual practice? I argue that those verses which speak about homosexuality do indeed prohibit it. But even if that is the case, is it possible to conceive of a coherent, integrated biblical perspective on human sexuality – into which any discussion of homosexuality specifically can be placed – rather than quoting de-contextualized bits of scripture to try and quash debate? That is what I aim to do in this post, and offer a theological statement that supports the political hue of the previous entry. Some may baulk at yet another essay that offers an interpretation of the biblical witness regarding homosexuality. However, if I am going to critique a judge’s position on the status of homosexuality, then I should be able to provide a theological warrant.

Let me therefore offer some remarks on the biblical witness, and why it is that Christians (at least those who consider the Bible to reliably convey the wisdom of God) take such a consistent stand against homosexuality. It should be said from the outset that homosexuality is not mentioned all that much throughout the Bible. There are some references to homosexual rape in Genesis and Judges, some Levitical laws that speak of male homosexuality, and a number of scattered references to the phenomenon in the New Testament. Now, space does not permit a full exposition of the relevant passages, so I will focus on just one: Romans 1:26-27. This is perhaps the most widely cited passage of Scripture whenever Christians offer a view on homosexuality, precisely because it sets homosexuality within an explicitly theological context. The condemnation of homosexuality that is found in Romans needs to be seen in this wider context, if the church is going to offer anything more than a proof-texted, piece-meal caricature of God’s ordering of sexual relationships. It is also important at this point in time, since the church’s view of human sexual relationships has been consistently challenged by an increasingly hostile culture.

The Apostle Paul, who penned the letter to the Romans, opens his letter by surveying – with broad brush strokes – the pervasive corruption and sinfulness of the human race. In order to point to the supra-historical nature of this predicament (in other words, the fact that this is a problem that has afflicted all of humanity throughout history), Paul sets his polemic within a creational context, hooking it into the Genesis narrative. By that, I mean Paul deliberately echoes Genesis 1-3, which speaks of God’s creation and man’s fall when offering up a theological explanation for the present sinfulness of humanity. His reference to God as creator in Rom. 1:19-20 is one such indicator. Similarly, his observation that man, though knowing God, committed the primal sin of idolatry and fell into darkness, is no doubt an allusive echo of the fall of the first man (Gen. 3). It seems that Paul is painting man’s present corruption as a kind of recapitulation of the rebellion of the first man. Of course, he will draw the curtain back in Romans 5:12, where he finally states plainly that all who are under sin are, if you like, “children” of Adam. But that is another story.

In any case, Paul begins to outline the pervasively disordered nature of humanity throughout Romans 1:24-32. Having given them up to their own sin, God allows humanity to go its own way. And that way is one of disorder and the frustration of God’s creative intent and design. This is where Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality finds its proper home. He does not use it as an example of human corruption because it is a particularly pernicious act. He does not use because of special hang-ups about sexuality. Instead, Paul observes homosexuality as an especially obvious manifestation of the disordered nature of humanity. We must always bear in mind that Paul’s opening gambit in Romans is hooked into the Genesis narrative. We should also bear in mind that one of the foundational aspects of that foundational narrative is the union between male and female as the proper expression of human sexual relationships (see Gen. 2:23-25); it is this sexual complimentarity that is key. For Paul, then, homosexual practice is a clear reflection of the fallen state of man, since it so blatantly goes against God’s created order. That order is outlined in the first few chapters of Genesis, and Paul uses that narrative to offer a structured, theological explanation for the general presence of human sin, and the particular presence of homosexuality.

It is thus that the Genesis narrative forms a crucial interpretive framework for Paul’s thought. It is not the case that he is simply castigating the sexual excesses of the Roman emperors. Nor is it the case that he is criticizing only one type of homosexual practice – namely, pederasty (of course, the fact that he also condemns female homosexuality tells against this argument). Rather, it is clear that Paul sets his polemic in a wider, creational context, arguing quite strongly that homosexuality – of all kinds – is to be seen as a clear violation of the divinely-ordained boundaries that have been established in terms of human sexual relationships. If I may refer to my previous post briefly, it ought to be clear why any Christian, provided they consider the Bible a reliable reflection of God’s wisdom, would reject the ostensibly normative status our society has seen fit to bestow upon homosexual identity and practice. Indeed, based upon this all-too-brief exposition of a relevant biblical passage, it should be abundantly clear why the Christian Brethren campsite rejected a request from a gay organization to use its facilities.

One final word: this post is not meant to make it even more difficult for those struggling with homosexual feelings and thoughts. We live in a time of sexual confusion, and I can only shake my head in sorrow and dismay when I think of so many people who are caught up in it. With that in mind, it is important to make a distinction between orientation and behaviour. Though both are products or reflections of humanity’s fallenness, it is the practice of the latter and the celebration of the former that are sinful. A young man struggling with homosexual thoughts should not see himself as a lone sinner who has been singled out for special condemnation by the Bible. But what is clear is the biblical witness in regards to homosexual practice. This can never be a point of compromise, even as we lay our lives down to love those who struggle in this area.

The Campsite and the Judge: The Challenge to the Church’s Stance on Sexual Ethics

I read with dismay a couple of weeks ago the conclusion to which a judge came when he presided over a VCAT case between a Christian camp site and a gay organisation. Several things come to light as a result of this case, for its significance goes far beyond the result itself. These relate to both the remarks of the judge himself, the implications this case may have for the promotion of Christian truth in the public square (not to mention the promotion of any idea in the public square), and the effect such a decision may have on the robustness of our democracy.

For those interested to know, the Christian camp site was ordered to pay $5000 to the gay organisation as a result of what was seen as unfair discrimination. In coming to his conclusions, the presiding judge made a number of revealing comments. He said: “They are not entitled to impose their beliefs on others in a manner that denies them the enjoyment of their right to equality and freedom from discrimination in respect of a fundamental aspect of their being…” (The Age, October 10th, 2010)

This strikes me as inadequate on two counts. First, the judge argued that the camp site attempted to impose its beliefs on the gay organisation. This is, for one thing, flatly false. The camp site did not try to force the members of the gay organisation to renounce and abandon their homosexual identity or behaviour; that would have constituted the imposition of one’s views upon another. The camp site did not even attempt to dissuade the gay organisation from following this way of life. It merely rebuffed requests to use its facilities, based upon its rejection of homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle. This is not the imposition of beliefs; it is the preservation of beliefs in the face of requests that would potentially undermine their integrity. Why this should be seen as a problem, especially when those convictions are exercised in a civil manner in a democratic polity, is somewhat mystifying – and somewhat troubling, as we shall see. But the judgment was not merely wrong; it was also ironic in its hypocritical application. In ruling as he did, the judge was the one guilty of imposition. In ordering the camp site to pay $5000, he essentially forced it to accept the rightness of the gay organisation’s position. This is true imposition, enacted according to judicial fiat. That to me is inimical to a functioning democratic culture, and I shall return to this below.

Something else the judge said also warrants comment. He argued that the camp site was guilty of unfair discrimination because it denied one’s right to life and enjoyment “in respect of a fundamental aspect of their being…” Now, the judge is undoubtedly convinced that this position – his position – is correct. But this is precisely what is at issue. It was the very rejection of the italicized portion of that quote that led the camp site to reject the gay organisation’s request to use its facilities. As Christians who are committed to the truth and reliability of Scripture, the owners of the camp site believe that the judge’s views regarding the status of the homosexuality are precisely wrong. They, (and I), do not believe that one’s proclaimed homosexuality is a fundamental aspect of their being. Indeed, we would argue that homosexuality is actually a manifestation of humanity’s corruption. It is no more fundamental to true humanity than is greed or pride. The idea that because something is felt intensely or deeply by a person – whether it be homosexuality or some other identity – it must therefore be a natural part of their being, is a complete contradiction of Christian ethical principles. Without going into the specifics of the biblical witness, it is clear that Scripture condemns homosexual practice as a sign of humanity’s alienation from God. This conviction is diametrically opposed to the judge’s position, and only his arbitrary authority (arbitrary in the way it was exercised) was able to break the impasse between two views that differed at a fundamental, structural point. Ordering the camp site operators to pay the money that it did is tantamount to forcing it give tacit approval to a behaviour it believes to be morally wrong.

This leads me to the worrying implications that flow from this decision. According to this latest ruling, it would appear that when there is a fundamental disagreement over a particular issue involving a Christian party, the views of the prevailing culture win out. Given that we live in a society that has increasingly moved towards the normalisation of homosexuality as a viable option for individuals, we can expect faithfulness to, and proclamation of, Christian truth to become harder. We should be concerned as Christians, since our ability to challenge people with the wisdom that we offer and embody may be curtailed as this society moves further and further away from a Christian ethic. Indeed, it may well be the case that the dominant ethic, so inimical to Christianity at many points, will be imposed upon Christian groups and churches. The judge’s ruling showed that, and I expect that a precedent may have been set. But we should also be concerned as democratic citizens. A private operator’s inability to run his or her business according to his or her convictions because of judicial fiat does not bode well for the trajectory of our democracy. As noted earlier, the camp site did not attempt to impose its views upon the organisation; nor did it bar that organisation from finding an alternative location. Nonetheless, it has been made an example of, raising troubling questions surrounding the status of the church (as an institution) in contemporary society and the future of our democratic structures. Sorting through competing ideas via the rulings of a judge is no way to operate a thriving democracy. Similarly, to rule against a particular group because its ideas do not “fit in” with currently prevailing cultural trends undermines our democratic foundations.

Ultimately, I believe that the judge’s decision is not only philosophically flawed, but is also politically dangerous. It may well be that such a decision will only exacerbate the very divisions and inequalities that it seeks to erase. One thing is clear, however: the church must not abandon its commitment to God’s wisdom regarding this or any other matter, simply because of the punitive measures that may be taken against us. Of course, we should always – always – speak the truth in love, and not respond with slander or with vengeance. But never let it be said that the church of Melbourne fails to speak up when God’s truth is being assailed.