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Controversy 1: Gay Marriage
Friday, 2008 November 14 - 4:39 pm
Sometimes I wish that we didn't pay so much attention to divisive topics like abortion and gay marriage. There are so many more important issues to discuss, and so many ideas in which we can find common ground... why devote such energy to wedge issues like this?

But with what's happened with Prop 8 in California, I think I have to say something. That will make me as guilty as anyone of fueling the fire of debate, but so be it.

I'm going to present some arguments that favor pro-choice and pro-gay marriage positions, but I'm going to do it on a battleground that is ostensibly tilted towards pro-life and anti-gay-marriage arguments: I'm going to discuss these issues in the context of the Bible. For now, we'll set aside the arguments concerning separation of Church and State (although I happen to strongly believe in that concept as well).

Religious groups have insisted on inserting themselves into these political issues. The Mormon church spent millions of dollars in support of Prop 8. Recently, a Catholic priest in South Carolina said that anyone who voted for Obama should not receive communion. In this country, religion is the bedrock of the arguments against abortion rights and gay rights. So that's where I'll take the case.

If you're a believer in the Bible, I argue that you can only take one of three positions:
  1. Literal: The Bible is literal and unambiguous, and every word should be taken at face value.
  2. Contextual: The Bible is unambiguous, but passages should be interpreted in the context of the historical times in which they were written.
  3. Metaphorical: The Bible should be interpreted as stories that illustrate how we should live.
What you cannot do is interpret some passages literally, some contextually, and some metaphorically, as you see fit. If you pick and choose in this manner, then any arguments you make lose merit. You're essentially creating your own religion based on personal viewpoints. While you're perfectly free to define your beliefs in that way, you can't then use the Bible to back up arguments for political positions. All someone would have to do to create a counter-argument would be to cherry-pick their own passages for interpretation in a different way.

To restate: this is not about my beliefs or your beliefs. It's about using the Bible, in a self-consistent manner, as the basis for a political viewpoint.

So. What does the Bible say about these topics? Let's tackle homosexuality first. I'll cover abortion in a future article.

In the quotes below, "KJV" means "King James Version"; "NRSV" means "New Revised Standard Version", and "NIV" means "New International Version". Since no English translation is perfect, I use three different ones to get a better sense of the intended meaning; I'll also refer back to the original Hebrew or Greek when necessary.

Matthew 19:4-6

KJV: And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore god hath joined together, let no man put asunder.

NRSV: He answered, "have you not read that the one 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 they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.

NIV: "Haven't you read", he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

These lines, along with the Genesis passages that Jesus quotes, are the basis for the claim that God has ordained marriage to be the union of a man and a woman.

I will stipulate that in literal terms, the Bible unambiguously states that God created and supports the concept of a marriage between a man and a woman.
But I'd argue that this passage does not contain any prohibitions against other kinds of marriage. Actually, Jesus is making a point about divorce here; he's not talking about homosexuality, polygamy, or any reasons why people shouldn't get married.

If you look at this contextually, it's important to note that there wasn't even a concept of gay marriage at this time. Actually, the most common concept of marriage was that a man paid a bride-price to claim a wife from another family. The woman usually had little say in the matter. Sons were not "sold" in this manner, so it's doubtful people of the time could even conceive of gay marriage, much less ban it.

Interestingly, eunuchs (men with missing or non-functional sex organs) were not allowed to marry at the time (as Jesus discusses later, in verses 19:11-12). The view was that the traditional purpose of marriage was to generate children. If we carried forward that view to today, it'd be a justification for preventing anyone who was infertile (or who planned to never have children) from marrying.

Leviticus 18:22

KJV: Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.

NRSV: You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

NIV: Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.

Pretty clear, right?

Well, if you take the literal view of the Bible, then you should also take these passages from Leviticus at face value: "And the pig, thought it has a split hoof completely divided, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you." (Lev. 11:7-8) "Do not approach a woman to have sexual relations during the uncleanness of her monthly period." (Lev. 18:19) "Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material." (Lev. 19:19) "Do not clip the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard." (Lev. 19:27) "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves." (Lev. 19:28). So for all you literalists out there: do you uphold all these laws? I didn't think so. You may have shaved and eaten bacon this morning. You might be wearing a cotton-polyester blend shirt. You might have a tattoo somewhere.

And by the way, Leviticus 20:13 contains a specific instruction to kill homosexuals. Is that to be taken literally, also?

If you take a contextual view of the Bible, then note that this section of Leviticus concerns earthly laws, to be passed down by Moses to his people to keep them "clean". These are not a list of spiritual sins that lead to eternal damnation. God's intent is that the Israelites do not adopt the customs of the Egyptians (Lev. 18:1), because it was thought that some of those customs could lead to disease or poor harvests. Look at Leviticus 13: it's entirely about skin diseases. These were practical matters, not spiritual ones.

Also note that all the laws about sex in Leviticus 18 are directed at men. There's no specific rule that tells women whom they can sleep with, and no prohibition at all against women having sex with other women. The society at the time was highly patriarchal, and women were considered to be property. So if a man had sex with another man, it was treating him like an inferior; this is why it was an abomination.

In the metaphorical view of Leviticus, we should look at the book as whole as Moses telling his people how to remain clean; i.e., how to honor God by keeping themselves pure and disease-free. We shouldn't interpret each verse as a literal rule. If this were written today, Leviticus would probably contain instructions to wash your hands for thirty seconds after going to the toilet, and instructions to cook chicken to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. So it's hard to see this as a basis for political discrimination.

1 Corinithians 6:9-10

KJV: Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

NRSV: Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers--none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.

NIV: Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

This is a curious passage. The Greek word that Paul uses for homosexuals is arsenokoitai, literally meaning "male-bedding" or "like those who bed with men". It's difficult to know exactly what Paul meant by the word, since the word never appears in this form elsewhere in the Bible, but I'll grant that it probably refers to homosexuality in some way. (Though again, it's about male homosexuality in particular, not women.)

If you're a literalist and you believe that Paul is specifically laying out a list of forbidden behaviors, then take note of the other items in the list. If you claim that this is the basis for banning gay marriage because homosexuality is a sin, then you should also be against marriage among alcoholics ("drunkards"), anyone who's ever had sex outside of marriage (the "sexually immoral" and "adulterers"), and anyone who desires wealth or status (the "greedy", Greek pleonektais meaning "people who want more"). Right?

In the contextual view, note that Paul is specifically speaking to the vices of the Corinthians at the time. Homosexual behavior was listed here because of it was seen simply as a form of lust, or a chosen activity that ran contrary to a person's nature. In these times, there was no conception that a person could be born gay; there was no concept of a truly loving homosexual relationship. In Greece in those days, homosexuality was mostly associated with prostitution or with the abuse of young boys by older men.

And in any event, Paul isn't a big advocate of marriage, gay or straight. "Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife... Those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this." (1 Cor. 7:27-28) "An unmarried woman or virigin is concerned about the Lord's affairs: her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world--how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord." (1 Cor. 7:34-35)

In the metaphorical view, look at the larger picture. Paul is pointing out that earthly vices separate people spiritually from God. But in the passage immediately following the list of sinful behaviors, he says this: "And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." Isn't that the real message here?

Romans 1:26-28

KJV: For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.

NRSV: For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

NIV: Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

First, let's be sure to note that this passage isn't saying that God punished the Gentiles for being homosexuals. Paul is saying that because the Gentiles did not acknowledge God, He turned them into homosexuals in order to punish them. In other words, homosexuality wasn't the sin itself; it was the punishment for the sin.

Let's continue looking the literal interpretation here. Homosexuality was one punishment for the Gentile world's unbelief. The remaining list: "They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant, and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless." (Rom. 1:29-30). So, disobedience of parents was a sign of God's punishment, just as homosexuality was. And gossip. The sequel to Prop 8 in California? A ban on marriage for anyone who gossips.

But all of that is barely relevant to Paul's main point in Romans. Romans 1 is just a back-story for the lessons in Romans 2 and 3, where he condemns those who judge others. "You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things." (Rom. 2:1). "What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin." (Rom. 3:9) If there's a lesson to be taken from Romans, it's not that any particular behavior is bad: it's that all of us are sinners, and it is not the place of any human to judge sinful behavior.

Continuing with a contextual look at this passage, let's look at Paul's use of the words "natural" and "unnatural" (physiken and para physin). By "unnatural", Paul doesn't mean "contrary to the will of God"; he means "contrary to the normal function" and "contrary to the normal active/passive gender roles". At the time, men were the "active" participants in sex, and women the "passive" participants. Sex was unnatural if these roles were changed. So in this light, even a heterosexual relationship is unnatural if the woman is, well, on top. And oral sex would be out too, even between a man and a woman.

As for Rome at this time, Paul is writing at a time when there were various subcultures who engaged in homosexual activity. The cinaedi were one such subculture, but they were largely criticized for their flamboyance and vanity rather than homosexuality itself. To Paul, homosexuality was a symptom of a disorder; he couldn't see it as something inherent to someone's nature. It was inconceivable to Paul that someone would be born gay.

And finally, looking at the metaphorical view, look at Paul's overall message. Gentiles are guilty of sin but so are Jews, and no one can judge another besides God. We are not here to judge, but rather to love one another. "The commandments, 'Do not commit adultery', 'Do not murder,' 'Do not steal,' 'Do not covet,' and whatever other commandments there may be, are summed up in this one rule: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." (Rom. 13:9-10) How do we show love to our gay neighbors? By depriving them of civil rights and the same chance at happiness that straight couples enjoy? Is that love?


I can think of no better conclusion than this quote by comedian Lynn Lavner:
There are 6 admonishments in the Bible concerning homosexual activity and our enemies are always throwing them up to us usually in a vicious way and very much out of context. What they don't want us to remember is that there are 362 admonishments in the Bible concerning heterosexual activity. I don't mean to imply by this that God doesn't love straight people, only that they seem to require a great deal more supervision.
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Posted by Ken in: commentarypolitics


Comment #1 from Jen (Guest)
2008 Nov 16 - 4:21 pm : #
I went to my childhood church in Ann Arbor today with my parents and my children. This was in the bulletin:

"As congregants of the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor, we welcome and affirm all persons. We are intentional in being inclusive of those of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender orientations, all genders, ethnicities, and abilities."

This is on the church's website about inclusiveness:

"The word “homosexuality” was not coined until the late 1800s so it does not appear in a rightly interpreted translation of the Bible. As readers of the Bible, we must rely on the translations of Biblical scholars for their understanding of what Scriptures mean. Scripture does not speak to loving, committed homosexual relationships. And Jesus did not say anything about homosexuality.

Perhaps what we need to keep in mind is that Jesus’ message overwhelmingly encourages us to love our neighbor, be humble, avoid being judgmental, and to care for people who are hurting and marginalized by society."

Also, I'm not at all surprised that you spent so much time on this. Sounds like something I would do if I felt like I had the readership to make a difference (and a public blog) (and people reading it who were not already in agreement with me on this issue).

In other news, Huron Players' reunion on June 6th, 2009. Are you coming? Someone else is planning it!

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