Sorting Out the Gay Marriage Controversy
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
This past week’s Supreme Court decision in favor of legalizing gay marriage has by no means settled this controversy. Growing up in the Catholic church and recalling my years in Catholic school, I learned the Bible’s stance on homosexuality is clear-cut. God condemns it, I was taught, and those who disagree will wind up in hell for eternity. You might say that my childhood church community’s approach to the taboo topic of homosexuality was riddled with self-serving double standards and condemnation. Although I offer no argument that the sins of the city-state of Sodom and Gomorrah cried to heaven for justice, I do question whether the sin that cried to heaven was simply homosexuality. A reading of the biblical text shows the sin of Sodom was not its permission of homosexuality but its inhospitality to Lot’s visitors, who in reality were Angels of the Lord. Genesis states that the crowd wished to have its way with Lot’s visitors. One does not demand the “right” to rape God’s servants and expect to come away unscathed. Rape was the sin of Sodom, and I firmly agree that this does cry to heaven for justice.I don’t doubt that the one New Testament author who wrote on the subject of male-male relations thought it to be a sin. In Romans chapter 1 the apostle Paul called it “unnatural.” Problem is, Paul’s only other moral argument from nature is the following: “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” (1st Corinthians 11:14-15). Few modern Christians would answer that question with a “yes.”
In short, Paul objects to two things as unnatural: one is same-sex marriage and the other is long hair on men and short hair on women. The community opposed to gay marriage takes one condemnation as timeless and universal and the other as culturally relative. I also don’t doubt that those who advocate gay marriage are advocating a revision of the Christian tradition. But the community opposed to gay marriage has itself revised the Christian tradition in many ways. For the first 1500 years of Christianity, for example, marriage was deemed morally inferior to celibacy. When a theologian named Jovinian challenged that hierarchy in 390 A.D. — merely by suggesting that marriage and celibacy might be equally worthwhile endeavors — he was deemed a heretic and excommunicated from the Roman church. How does that sit with so-called “family values” activism today?
Yale New Testament professor Dale B. Martin once noted that today’s “pro-family” activism, despite its pretense to be representing traditional Christian values, would have been considered heretical for most of the church’s history. The community opposed to gay marriage has also departed from the Christian tradition on another issue at the heart of its social agenda: abortion. Unbeknownst to most lay Christians, the vast majority of Christian theologians and saints throughout history have not believed life begins at conception. Although he admitted some uncertainty on the matter, the hugely influential 4th and 5th century Christian thinker Saint Augustine wrote, “it could not be said that there was a living soul in [a] body” if it is “not yet endowed with senses.” Thomas Aquinas, a Catholic saint and a giant of medieval theology, argued, “Before the body has organs in any way whatever, it cannot be receptive of the soul.”
American evangelicals, meanwhile, widely opposed the idea that life begins at conception until the 1970s, with some even advocating looser abortion laws based on their reading of the Bible before then. The point right here is that it won’t do to oppose gay marriage because it’s not traditional while advocating other positions that are not traditional. And then there’s the topic of divorce. Although there is only one uncontested reference to same-sex relations in the New Testament, divorce is condemned throughout, both by Jesus and Paul. To quote Jesus from the Gospel of Mark: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.” A possible exception is made only for unfaithfulness. The right-wing conservative community most opposed to gay marriage usually reads these condemnations very leniently. A 2007 issue of Christianity Today, for example, featured a story on its cover about divorce that concluded that Christians should permit divorce for “adultery,” “emotional and physical neglect” and “abandonment and abuse.” The author emphasizes how impractical it would be to apply a strict interpretation of Jesus on this matter: “It is difficult to believe the Bible can be as impractical as this interpretation implies.” Actually, it sure is. Christianity Today really goofed on that point.
On the other hand, it’s not at all difficult for a community of Christian leaders, who are almost exclusively white, heterosexual men, to advocate interpretations that can be very impractical for a historically oppressed minority to which they do not belong – homosexuals. Whether the topic is hair length, celibacy, when life begins, or divorce, time and time again the leaders most opposed to gay marriage have demonstrated an incredible willingness to consider nuances and complicating considerations when their own interests are at stake.
I have been a born-again Christian since October of 1992, and I received my baptism of the Holy Spirit in 2008. And so I no longer identify with the Catholic church of my youth. The community gave me many fond memories and sound values but it also taught me to take the very human perspectives of its leaders and attribute them to God. So let’s stop the charade and be honest. Opponents of gay marriage aren’t defending the Bible’s values. They’re using the Bible to defend their own. They are also forgetting that the Bible repeatedly warns us about judging other people. Judgment isn’t our job, it’s God’s job, and I will give you several examples. In the Old Testament it says, “I will deal with them according to their conduct, and by their own standards I will judge them. Then they will know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 7, verse 27, NIV). And in the New Testament Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7, verses 1-2, NIV). And the apostle James wrote, “Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the Law and judges it. When you judge the Law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4, verses 11-12, NIV)
The final objection is that many find homosexual sex personally disgusting. While this is an argument for not engaging in homosexual relations personally it is not strong enough to prohibit it to others who do not find it so. Sorry, all you Christian conservatives, but personal preferences and prejudices do not determine public policy choices. So, before we rush to judgment or jump to conclusions about homosexuality, gay marriage or abortion, we all need to back away from our judge’s podiums and get down off our high horses and quit doing the very thing that could get someone sent to hell when they die. “Work out your own salvation”, Paul wrote, “with fear and trembling before the Lord”. And that right there, everybody, should be “job 1” for Christians everywhere. If it’s not, or if we hold certain others in contempt, anyone doing so is missing the mark, falling short in their walk with the Lord, and inviting judgment upon themselves. Or, to explain it another way, I don’t usually associate with gay people. I don’t know any, and I personally don’t approve of their so-called “lifestyle”. But at no time does that give me the right or the privilege to hate or bully gay people. Christians who do such things are really not Christian at all because, instead of being motivated by the love of Christ, they are driven by hate, intolerance, bigotry and prejudice – the same bigotry and prejudice that the confederate battle flag represents. You know, the ones they are taking down all across the country?