A few weeks ago Nicholas Wolterstorff made big news when he delivered a speech at Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in favor of same-sex marriage. The speech has evoked mixed reviews. Those who desire to see the church affirm monogamous same-sex sexual relationships are ecstatic to have a philosopher of Wolterstorff’s stature on their side (however cautiously he may have presented his case), while those committed to the biblical conception of marriage as being between a man and a woman are discouraged and, admittedly, somewhat surprised at how little Wolterstoff engaged scholarly exegesis with respect to the relevant texts, not to mention the broader scriptural context of what the Bible says about homosexuality.
In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that Nick is a friend and mentor to me. I respect him deeply and have learned a tremendous amount from his work on love and justice. I meet regularly with him for coffee and conversation and I have discussed this presentation with him in a charitable and constructive manner. In that sense I am reluctant to write this piece, but I do so out of a sense of obligation as the professor of moral theology at Calvin Seminary, appointed by the Christian Reformed Church to offer some measure of theological leadership on moral matters, and because Nick himself has welcomed just this sort of response to his work. All that said, whatever you do, do not read this as an attack on Nicholas Wolterstoff. Read it as an affectionate, yet deeply concerned, response from one of Nick’s own admiring students. There has been no breach of friendship or respect between us, and if anything, this discussion gives us an opportunity to serve the church through respectful, substantive dialogue.
Let me say first of all that I largely agree with the way Wolterstorff framed the issue. That is to say, I think he raises the right questions. 1) Is homosexual practice really a violation of the biblical command to love one’s neighbor as oneself? If so, how and why? 2) If homosexual practice is not a violation of the love command, do we oppose it simply because scripture opposes it? In other words, is this merely an issue of biblical authority, with no why or wherefore to it other than the arbitrary will of God? 3) If we answer yes to these questions, then shouldn’t we revisit scripture’s teaching on homosexuality, understanding it in its proper context, to see if we have interpreted it properly?
In addition to these questions let me stress that I wholeheartedly agree with Wolterstorff’s argument that we cannot simply fall into proof-texting on this issue. Those who seek to affirm homosexual relationships do so not because they fail to see where scripture seems to fall on the issue, but because they no longer understand its logic or rationale. And that leads them, like Wolterstorff, to wonder whether there might not be some other way to read the texts in question, one which may give rise to an interpretation different from our initial reading, and one whose logic and rationale makes more sense to us. In short, the question is not, What do the texts say when taken out of context?, but, What do the texts say when understood in light of the broader context of scripture and of the gospel?
So for that reason I wholeheartedly agree with Wolterstorff’s insistence that we respect context. Context. Context. Context.
Hence my disappointment with Wolterstorff’s presentation. He does not, in fact, look at the issue of homosexuality, or scripture’s discussion of it, in its full biblical context. Indeed, Wolterstofff did not even mention foundational scriptural passages on sexuality and marriage such as Genesis 1-2, Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 6, or Ephesians 5. Rather, he focused on the seven texts where scripture explicitly mentions homosexuality. And even there, he does not actually interpret those passages in light of their broader context.
For instance, with respect to the all important passage of Romans 1, Wolterstorff zeroed in narrowly on what Paul says about homosexuality in verses 24-27. He entirely ignored the context of those verses, in verses 18-23. And, as I will argue, that makes all the difference in the world.
Wolterstorff presented Paul’s logic in Romans 1 as if Paul was trying to show how evil people are who experience homosexual passions. He then argued that since we know that not all people who experience these passions are evil, Paul must not have been talking about the sort of people who are committed to monogamous homosexual relationships.
But that is to miss Paul’s point entirely, because it is to take it out of context. In a sense, Wolterstoff is guilty of just the sort of proof-texting against which he warned us at the beginning of his presentation. What Paul is actually doing in Romans 1 is showing us how people suppress the truth of God revealed in creation, exchanging that truth for the lie of idolatry. Hence they worship the creature rather than the creator. They are guilty of turning the order of things on their head, and so living a lie.
The result, Paul argues, is that “God gave them over” to sexual impurity (1:24). “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (1:25). And the shameful sexual passions to which he “gave them over” (1:26) are the “due penalty for their error.” Why are they the “due penalty”? Paul is telling us that there is a logical correspondence between the practice of homosexuality (the practice in which “men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another”) and the practice of idolatry. In each case a natural or created good is “exchanged” for something objectively disordered.
In the sex-saturated culture in which we live, both progressives and traditionalists have come to embrace overly sexualized narratives of sex, marriage, and family. Both tend to idealize sex as a fundamental part of human flourishing, essential to personal wholeness. Progressives emphasize the goods of sex to such an extent that they have largely abandoned the notion that good sex can only take place within a heterosexual, married relationship. The only ethical guidance they seem to be able to provide individuals seeking sexual flourishing is to tell them to respect the consent of others and do what seems right to them. Traditionalists, for their part, idealize the permanent union between a man and a woman and the nuclear family that is supposed to flow from it as if it were the greatest and most wonderful relationship that any person could know in this life.
These narratives have deeply shaped Christians too. Progressives in the church increasingly find themselves questioning classic Christian prohibitions of fornication (i.e., sex before marriage), homosexuality, and divorce, while traditionalists cling all the more tightly to the glories of the married relationship to which everyone is called and for which everyone who is not having sex must necessarily wait. Progressives are abandoning gender as merely a human construct, while conservatives are holding to gender distinctions all the more rigidly as the inviolable decree of creation. Both groups seemingly despise the celibate life, finding it deeply implausible, and both tolerate divorce in virtually every instance in which a couple really wants it.
From the perspective of the gospel, both of these narratives are deeply flawed. True, Jesus clearly affirmed traditional Jewish teaching regarding sexual immorality, and he affirmed that marriage is between a man and a woman because that is how God declared it to be from creation. Up to that point, at least, the traditionalists are right.
But Jesus said so much more than that – the gospel says so much more than that – and that is getting lost in the debate. If the church hopes to truly exercise a prophetic voice in the midst of a culture whose radical oversexualization produces ever greater numbers of abused, scarred, and disillusioned victims, it needs to recover the good news of Jesus for sex, marriage, and the family.
Catholic ethicist Julie Hanlon Rubio points out that Jesus consistently challenged his followers not to hold too tightly to marriage and family. Jesus, like his most famous follower, the Apostle Paul, lived a celibate life, and like the Apostle Paul he did not hesitate to characterize the celibate life as one that is especially conducive of devotion to the kingdom of God. He called his disciples to leave their family members for the sake of the kingdom, using language that still shocks us today (if we have ears to hear it):
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26-27)
The problem, for Jesus, was not sex. The problem was that marriage, like other familial bonds, places on human beings a host of demands that can easily distract us from the things of God. It calls us to serve one another with absolute fidelity. It tempts us to pursue a life oriented to pleasure, property, and the pursuit of happiness. It makes us, like the rich young ruler, unlikely to be willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus once we have considered what the cost of such discipleship might be.
Indeed, when the disciples heard the extent of Jesus’ teaching on marriage their response was not, as it is for so many traditionalist Christians today, to yearn for it all the more deeply (and feel ever more guilty for denying sex to those who are not yet or cannot be married). On the contrary, they exclaimed, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). And Jesus does not rebuke them for this conclusion. On the contrary, he said,
Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it. (Luke 19:12)
When is the last time you’ve heard a sermon on that text? Jesus, like Paul, recognized that there is something better than sex in this life, a calling that far transcends gender roles, and one that is worth pursuing for those willing to receive it. He himself chose that path, rather than the path of marriage.
And yet, his point was not to reject the family. His point, rather, was to get his followers to look beyond their own marriages and families to the much more important family of those who have been reconciled into communion with one another and God. When his own biological family came seeking him, attempting to interrupt his kingdom work, he spoke words that would shock us if we actually took them seriously:
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Luke 12:48-50)
Nor was Jesus simply thinking of his own unique messianic situation when he said that. On the contrary, each of the synoptic gospels records Jesus, immediately after his conversation with the rich young ruler, pointing his own followers in the same direction. As Mark’s version puts it,
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundred-fold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Mark 10:29-31)
To be sure, sex, marriage, and family are good things, gifts from God. But they are not the best thing. And if the words of Jesus or Paul mean anything to us at all, there is something about the celibate life that is, in fact, closer to that best thing. The early church saw that (indeed, they took it much too far), but our culture has blinded us to it.
If the Christian sexual ethic has become less plausible in American churches today, if churches are less and less willing to call their followers to the path of radical discipleship, indeed, if the celibate life of the Christ to whom we are supposed to be conformed has itself become inconceivable to us, then that is a testimony to just how much Christians – progressive and traditionalist alike – have failed to hear the gospel and believe it. Just like our culture, we have idolized sex, marriage, and family. We have confused the American dream with the gospel.
If that is indeed the case, then as Ed Shaw puts it in his must-read, Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life, the church should give thanks for the phenomena of homosexuality and same-sex marriage because it might just serve as the wake-up call the church needs. In the words of the songwriter Rich Mullins, “We are not as strong as we think we are.” If progressives are caving in to the spirit of the times, then traditionalists are too often basking in a hypocritical self-righteousness. Both need to repent and return to the gospel.
If the church wants to speak a prophetic word that is indeed good news for a culture steeped in sexual confusion and scarred by a pandemic of abusive and failing sexual relationships, it must once again hear this word from its lord. Starting with ourselves, we must give up our idols, take up our cross, and follow him.
My (sort of) colleague at Calvin College, Micah Watson, has written an excellent piece at Public Discourse reminding pro-life human rights supporters why they should never support federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Watson explains why certain practices should never be accepted or promoted based on the values of principled pluralism, even though principled pluralism is good and necessary for liberal democracy. As he puts it,
Any morally acceptable pluralism will have to draw lines somewhere, excluding some groups while including others…. Our pluralism is broad indeed in the legal sense, as our commitments to freedom of association and freedom of speech extend to a host of groups with which no morally decent person should associate. Government funding, however, is a different matter. Government funding sends a positive message that the government’s partner in this or that venture is a reliable organization promoting the public good. Whatever complexity abides in some gray areas of public policy, as Ryan T. Anderson and Robert P. George write in the Harvard Health Policy Review, there simply is no understanding of the public good that can include funding organizations that perform and profit from the deliberate taking of innocent human life.
It’s an excellent piece, and one that will help us think more carefully about what we try to justify on the basis of principled pluralism. For instance, a growing number of Christians argue that the church should accept same-sex civil marriage as a legitimate expression of principled pluralism (see one report soon to be discussed by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church here).
As Watson demonstrates, however, if pluralism is to remain principled, it must have its limits. Ever since the Apostle Peter declared that “we must obey God rather than men,” (Acts 5:29), Christians have maintained that government’s authority ends precisely where it actively promotes injustice or immorality. It is one thing for government to tolerate slavery, abortion, adultery, poverty, or same-sex sexual relationships, for instance; it is another thing entirely for government to promote such phenomena. And whatever the government does, the church must continue to proclaim the justice and righteousness of the kingdom.
Watson is not writing about the church, per se, but he makes a strong argument that those who support the human right to life should insist that federal funding for abortion is outside the bounds of principled pluralism. You can read his whole piece here.
One of the reasons why many Christians are struggling to determine the appropriate response to America’s affirmation of homosexuality – and why some are even arguing that the church should embrace homosexual practice – is that they grasp that the Gospel is supposed to be good news. The Gospel is supposed to be liberating. The Gospel brings salvation, not judgment.
How can Christians, who are supposed to represent good news, be identified with a political and cultural position that is associated with animus and bigotry? What has gone wrong? Is the traditional Christian position on homosexuality misguided? Even if we assume that the world is wrong to denigrate this traditional position as one of animus or bigotry, surely no Christian can be comfortable with this state of affairs. No Christian can take lightly the fact that the Christian witness is being interpreted primarily as one of judgment.
I realize that some Christians think we solve this problem if we simply distinguish between politics and the church. Then we can oppose gay marriage at the political level while showing love and grace at the personal level. But what about our churches? Increasingly it is not just the mainline churches who want to welcome those practicing homosexuality to the Lord’s Table; prominent evangelicals are moving in this direction too. The reality is that the angst Christians have experienced dealing with homosexuality at the political level is nothing compared to the angst they ought to feel witnessing to the Gospel’s implications for sexuality at the personal level, and in the church.
At a time such as this we need to remind ourselves why our witness regarding homosexuality needs to be rooted in the Gospel, not just the law, and we need to wrestle more deeply with why the Gospel is ‘Good News.’ Too often Christians have assumed that by standing for what the law says about sexuality they are fulfilling their obligation to witness to Christ. They have imagined that opposing gay marriage in and of itself is standing for the Truth, capital T. And then they wonder why gays, lesbians, and various liberals do not see the graciousness of the Gospel.
Christian witness is not fundamentally about standing up for the law. Nonbelievers don’t need us for that. That is what the conscience is for. The law is written on human hearts (Romans 1-2).
What nonbelievers need Christians for is their witness to the Gospel. What men and women who practice homosexuality need to receive from Christians is a clear sense of how in the world the Gospel is Good News, not just for the righteous, but for gays and lesbians.
But how can a message that rejects a person’s very identity be received as Good News? This question lies at the heart of the anxiety many Christians feel about the church’s response to gays and lesbians.
What is the Gospel? Stated most simply, it is the good news that because he loves the world infinitely, God has sent his only Son to take the world’s sorrow upon himself, in order that the world might be saved from sin, oppression, and death. He accomplished this through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, reconciling all things to himself, such that all who call on the name of the Lord might be saved. Now Jesus has sent his Spirit to lead men, women, and children to faith in order that they might receive the forgiveness of their sins, empowerment for a life of love and justice, and the promise of life in the coming kingdom of God.
This is fundamentally a message of liberation. When Jesus first preached this Gospel of the Kingdom he proclaimed it in the form of blessings on those who found themselves on the underside of history. It is an approach that much of the contemporary church has long forgotten but that we would do well to recover. (We tell ourselves that the beatitudes of Matthew and Luke are purely ‘spiritual,’ which seems to mean that they don’t really mean what they say.)
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied…. (Matthew 5:3-6)
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. (Luke 6:20-21)
Does the church preach this Gospel today? Is this the message for which we are known?
We live in a world in which the masses who do not believe the Gospel are desperately trying to make meaning for themselves. Women and men pour their energies into all manner of ambition, sensuality, self-righteousness, and idolatry (the buzz words are success, self-expression, affirmation, and fulfillment) because they think that they can find happiness in the pursuit of these things. As time hurtles by, reducing all of us to decay and death in a series of accidents without meaning, people existentially cling to their autonomy as the only means of attaining some small measure of happiness. The opportunities for pleasure and fulfillment seem endless, but the enterprise is ultimately futile, the sheer weight of expectations crushing our accomplishments, relationships, and manufactured identities.
This is a scenario ripe for good news.
True, there are some people who are so invested in this futility that they will consistently reject the Gospel. Their minds are too darkened by the present age to see good news when it is staring them in the face. But there are many others who grasp that their deepest desires cannot be fulfilled by this world, that it cannot liberate them from the powers and failures that oppress them.
What Christians need to communicate to these children of God, many of whom are gay and lesbian, is that the Gospel brings with it complete salvation: not just the forgiveness of sins, not just the end of homosexual practices, not just personal affirmation, but complete salvation, the fulfillment of every purpose and desire for which we were created in the God who is love. It clears away our inadequacy and guilt by paying the price of sin, it tears down our pride and self-righteousness by filling us with love for our neighbors, and it ends our need to manufacture and fulfill our own identity by identifying our purpose in faithful response to the love of God.
Yes, the way in this life will be hard. It will require tremendous self-denial on the part of gay and straight alike. In the short term we have nothing to offer but that a person deny herself, take up her cross, and follow Christ. But while this is a hard way, it is also a fulfilling way because it is the way of Truth. In the long run it is easy and light because it leads to Life. And in the end, that is what many people so desperately desire. That is why the Gospel is Good News. Let’s show it to them.
At a first read, Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision declaring same-sex marriage to be a fundamental right, follows a logic that is breathtaking in its simplicity.
Whether you find this logic exhilarating, depressing, or irrelevant does not depend on what you think of gay and lesbian people, or how they should be treated. I firmly believe that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is unconscionable; we should treat each person in accord with the human dignity that stems from her or his creation in the image of God. I have zero sympathy with anyone who thinks their Christian faith ordinarily requires them to refrain from serving, living near, befriending, or otherwise loving gay and lesbian people (though this should not, as a matter of freedom of conscience, require Christians to participate in or celebrate gay weddings). The media and political drama notwithstanding, I believe most Christians agree with me.
And yet I, along with most Christians, not to mention Muslims, Hindus, and many other people of good will, find the Supreme Court’s decision deeply troubling.
Read the rest of this article at Canon and Culture.
According to yesterday’s New York Times report on the opposition to same-sex marriage in France, a movement that was initially inspired and led by religious figures has been embraced by conservative politicians eager to use the issue to discredit socialist French President Francois Hollande. This has been good for the campaign in terms of numbers. On Sunday some 45,000 protestors marched peacefully in Paris against the bill (which gained final parliamentary approval yesterday).
Unfortunately, the surge in opposition to same-sex marriage has spawned new levels of vitriolic anti-homosexual rhetoric, as well as violence.
At the margins, the demonstrations have also become more violent and homophobic, with a series of nightly demonstrations last week around Parliament that resulted in clashes with riot police officers and a number of arrests. Even opposition leaders have bemoaned the way harder-right groups have infiltrated the demonstrations, and there has been a small surge in violence against gay men and lesbians, with some beatings and angry, offensive words on social media.
Two weeks ago, a Dutch-born man walking with his partner in Paris was beaten up. The man, Wilfred de Bruijn, posted a photograph of his bloodied face on his Facebook page, calling it “the face of Homophobia.” It has been shared thousands of times. Last week, two gay bars, in Bordeaux and Lille, were attacked, and a same-sex couple was attacked Saturday in Nice outside a gay nightclub.
These sorts of developments are a nightmare for conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage but who believe gays and lesbians bear the same rights and the same human dignity as do all human beings. There is no better way to discredit a moral tradition than to show that it inevitably leads to bigotry. Unfortunately, when a religious tradition is embraced almost universally on a cultural and political level, it is inevitable that that tradition’s teachings will be directed in ways hostile to its fundamental character. Although Jesus associated with the sexually deviant and taught love for one’s enemies, throughout Christendom people and societies who claimed the name ‘Christian’ have responded to those deemed ‘sinners’ with precisely the opposite attitude.
The problem has become all the more acute during the modern era, as societies that still conceive of themselves as broadly Christian are shaped by forces and ideologies that have little to do with historic Christianity and that are often openly hostile to it. Inevitably Christian teachings and symbols are politicized or hijacked for other purposes, often with tragic consequences, but generally with the cooperation of many Christians themselves. Bewildered, those who understand the true teachings of the faith, or the example of Jesus, mourn the perversion of the faith. Yet far too often the efforts of such individuals and groups to reclaim their faith comes too late.
Perhaps the best example of this is antisemitism. As I argued in a recent essay at Patheos, many Christian pastors embraced Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 because they believed that he would restore Germany to its national glory and to its Christian heritage. These Christians associated liberalism, democracy, socialism, and Jewish emancipation with the decline of Christianity. Though they had no desire to return to the violent persecution of false religion that characterized Christendom through the 16th and 17th centuries, they did want Germany to be a ‘Christian’ nation, in which national identity, political power, and Christian faith went hand in hand.
As Jonathan Steinberg writes in his powerful biography of Otto von Bismarck,
The impact of the defeat of Prussia in 1806 and the occupation of the kingdom by the ‘godless’ Napoleon had driven many of the great Junker landlords back to Christianity. They rejected Enlightenment rationalism, the horrors of Jacobin fanaticism, the doctrines of equality, the guillotines, but also Frederick the Great’s cynical contempt for religion. (57)
One of these men, Friedrich Ruhs, declared in 1816 that “a Christian state can therefore absolutely not recognize any other members than Christians.” In a speech in June 1847 General Ludwig August von Thile, president of the Berlin Mission to the Jews, an evangelistic organization, rejected talk of granting full political rights to Jews on the basis that the state had to remain Christian:
I have also heard today that Christianity and even religion should play no role in the discussions of the state; but one of the Honor delegates put this in words which I could heartily endorse when he said ‘Christianity should not be constituted within the state. It should be above the State and should govern it.’ With this I heartily agree … He [a Jew] may be the born subject of another nation, he may out of private interest or out of a feeling of general love for humanity make great sacrifices to the circumstances in which he lives, but he will never be a German, never be a Prussian because he must remain a Jew.” (80)
Such sentiments are properly understood in relation to older (though not so old as Jesus!) Christian convictions regarding the nature of the state rather than to later figures like Hitler. Unlike their Nazi descendents of the next century, 19th Century German antisemites accepted that conversion enabled a Jew to become a Christian, and therefore a German. Nevertheless it is easy to see how this sort of Christian antisemitism could easily evolve into a more radial antisemitism in the context of secularization, modernity, and human sin.
Think about it. If you emphasize too much 1) the hostility of Christianity to a particular religion or practice, and 2) the necessarily Christian character of the state, it is inevitable that people devoted to the welfare of the state, whether Christian or not, will turn themselves in strident opposition to the religion or practice in view. Once Christian views have been thus politicized within a broader culture, the results are entirely unpredictable. If it turns out well, expect Christians to take the credit. But if it turns out tragically, as in the Holocaust, or in the cases of anti-homosexual violence mentioned above, don’t expect nonbelievers to let Christians off the hook. Nor should they.
As Christians we need to be aware that any principle we bring into politics – any idea or symbol we seek to integrate into a broader culture – will be politicized and manipulated for other ends. This should caution us against being too quick to slap the label ‘Christian’ on a movement or policy we happen to support. We must always carefully distinguish between the principles of our faith (i.e., Jesus is the Messiah long promised to the Jews; sexual intercourse outside of marriage is unjust) and political policies deemed by some people (perhaps including ourselves) to be logical extensions of such principles (i.e., non-Christians shouldn’t have the same political rights as Christians; homosexuals should be punished).
Just as importantly, we have to make sure that we are as committed to defending the rights and dignity of our fellow human beings as we are to opposing what we regard as unjust or unrighteous. We are, at least to a certain extent, responsible for the ways others abuse our arguments, especially if we are silent at the abuse. We should be horrified by the violence committed against homosexuals in France. We should be wary of any religious rhetoric that so denigrates other human beings, turning them into such ‘Others’ that we no longer see them as those whom we are called to serve and with whom we are called to suffer, after the example of Jesus.
Christians convinced that the true religion must be advanced by the sword have done inestimable damage throughout the turbulent years of Christendom and modernity. That’s not what Jesus called us to do. Let’s heed the warnings of the past.
It’s hard to claim that allowing a tiny percentage of gay men and women to marry will destroy an institution that already has little to do with what conservatives say they are trying to preserve.
Nearly half of births are to unwed mothers. Many more children grow up in households wrecked by divorce. Marriage is not in a meaningful sense a legally binding contract.
One of the reasons it’s plausible for so many people to think Christians oppose same-sex marriage because they are bigots is because on the whole Christians have shown themselves to be much more fired up about homosexuality than about problems like divorce, adultery, and what was once known as illegitimacy (problems with which Christians themselves are quite complicit). To be sure, many Christians opposed the liberalization of laws pertaining to divorce and adultery. But many others proved highly susceptible to the feminist claim that such radical liberalization was essential to the liberation of women, unable to distinguish between reforms that were necessary and those that went too far.
If social conservatives – most of whom are Christians – have any hope of recovering the institution of marriage as a meaningful factor in the procreation and raising of children in this country, they are going to have to get back to the basics. Set aside same-sex marriage for the moment. What should traditional marriage look like? The relevant audience that needs to do some hard thinking here is not simply the audience committed to gay marriage, but the audience committed to the rights of men, women, and children to have sex, get married, have sex with people married to other people, and get divorced at will.
How do we recover the binding legal character of marriage so that it will benefit children, men, and women without allowing that institution to be used for the exploitation of women as it so often was in the past? What might laws regarding adultery and divorce look like – laws with teeth – that protected and empowered women as much as they promoted the interests of men? Perhaps most important of all, how do we persuade a skeptical audience – in practice made up especially of those both at the top and the bottom of the socio-economic spectrum – not only that marriage matters, but that it is good? That, not the narrow issue of same-sex marriage, may be the vital social question of our time.
It’s better to have same-sex marriage than to privatize it: preserving marriage as a public commitment
In a controversial op-ed in the New York Times prominent traditional marriage defender David Blankenhorn has given up his opposition to same-sex marriage. I was not planning on commenting on this piece, but a friend urged me to consider it more seriously. I want to make a few comments with reference to those thoughtful conservatives who think government should simply get out of the business of marriage and leave it to private organizations, as well as to those thoughtful liberals who think supporting the basic institution of marriage is more important than defining it traditionally.
Blankenhorn’s op-ed is striking because he begins by reaffirming the basic tenants of his defense of traditional marriage. Few critics of same-sex marriage could make the argument as well as Blankenhorn does.
I opposed gay marriage believing that children have the right, insofar as society makes it possible, to know and to be cared for by the two parents who brought them into this world. I didn’t just dream up this notion: the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in 1990, guarantees children this right.
Marriage is how society recognizes and protects this right. Marriage is the planet’s only institution whose core purpose is to unite the biological, social and legal components of parenthood into one lasting bond. Marriage says to a child: The man and the woman whose sexual union made you will also be there to love and raise you. In this sense, marriage is a gift that society bestows on its children.
At the level of first principles, gay marriage effaces that gift. No same-sex couple, married or not, can ever under any circumstances combine biological, social and legal parenthood into one bond. For this and other reasons, gay marriage has become a significant contributor to marriage’s continuing deinstitutionalization, by which I mean marriage’s steady transformation in both law and custom from a structured institution with clear public purposes to the state’s licensing of private relationships that are privately defined.
Well put. And Blankenhorn declares that he still believes all of this. So why is he now reversing his position on same-sex marriage? Simply put, it seems that he is disillusioned with the traditional marriage cause because it is not making these sorts of arguments and it is not making its opposition to same-sex marriage part of a serious effort to strengthen marriage generally. Rather, it is relying on anti-homosexual bigotry.
I had hoped that the gay marriage debate would be mostly about marriage’s relationship to parenthood. But it hasn’t been. Or perhaps it’s fairer to say that I and others have made that argument, and that we have largely failed to persuade. In the mind of today’s public, gay marriage is almost entirely about accepting lesbians and gay men as equal citizens. And to my deep regret, much of the opposition to gay marriage seems to stem, at least in part, from an underlying anti-gay animus. To me, a Southerner by birth whose formative moral experience was the civil rights movement, this fact is profoundly disturbing.
I had also hoped that debating gay marriage might help to lead heterosexual America to a broader and more positive recommitment to marriage as an institution. But it hasn’t happened. With each passing year, we see higher and higher levels of unwed childbearing, nonmarital cohabitation and family fragmentation among heterosexuals. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to the reconceptualization of marriage as a private ordering that is so central to the idea of gay marriage. But either way, if fighting gay marriage was going to help marriage over all, I think we’d have seen some signs of it by now.
I have to say, there is something in Blankenhorn’s argument here that resonates with me. What is the point of being opposed to same-sex marriage if more than half of our children are born out of wedlock? Why waste so much money and energy on this issue if those resources could actually be directed to strengthening marriage and recommitting ourselves to ensuring that all children are raised by their two biological parents?
In short, and here I agree with Blankenhorn, it is better to affirm same-sex marriage and save the institution as a public commitment than to oppose same-sex marriage by advocating its privatization. There is simply too much at stake. Too many of our children are having their lives destroyed by selfish adults committed to sex, pleasure, and having their own way rather than to caring for others in the context of justice and accountability. It is a crime against the next generation to allow the institution of marriage to be destroyed (i.e., abandoned by the government, whose responsibility is to ensure a basic modicum of justice for the most vulnerable members of our society) for the sake of purism. Marriage is absolutely fundamental to the survival and development of both individuals and of society generally. It is patently unjust for Christians or liberals to damage the public commitment to the institution of marriage by defending its privatization.
In a recent article for the Huffington Post Esther J. Hamori, an associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Union Theological Seminary, makes an excellent case for why the Bible cannot simplistically be applied to American politics (or any civil politics, for that matter). As Hamori points out, the Bible relays so many different instructions regarding marriage and related cultural issues that it is simply impossible to be dogmatic on the application of these instructions to modern society.
Hamori describes a number of laws and marital arrangements in the Old Testament, noting especially the seeming approval of polygamy among the patriarchs. I do not agree with everything Hamori says her, but I do take her overall point seriously:
Each of these biblical standards for marriage — polygamy, marriage within the family, reproduction with a late husband’s closest kin, prohibitions against intermarriage — were seen as vital in some historical contexts as reflected in the Bible, and not in others. In times and places where marriage to a first cousin was the ideal, the Bible says such marriages are blessed by God. When polygamy was the cultural norm, that too is said to be blessed (as God blesses Jacob’s marriages with the sisters Rachel and Leah, as well as with their slaves; Genesis 30). Kinship and property are important factors in many biblical marriages; one element that rarely figures into biblical standards for marriage, however, is love.
Marriage in the Bible is also not restricted to couples who can reproduce together biologically. Some biblical couples do not have children; others use a surrogate, such as Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 16), Jacob and Rachel, and Jacob and Leah (Genesis 30). In the latter two cases, each sister explicitly claims her surrogate’s babies as her own, and all are presented as given by God.
To be sure, conservatives might quibble that the Bible tolerates polygamy but does not approve it, somewhat like divorce. But that’s the whole problem. If God tolerated and even blessed polygamy among the patriarchs and kings of Israel, is it really such a disaster if America tolerates certain practices that are fundamentally immoral? The issue of divorce is even more problematic for those who want to see the direct application of biblical morality to American politics. Jesus makes it quite clear that divorce is immoral except in cases of adultery, and yet the Mosaic Law allowed divorce for much less significant reasons. If Israel’s law had to be relaxed because of the “hardness” of human hearts, how much more that of America?
That said, Hamori stretches her case somewhat when she argues that marriage in the Bible is not necessarily between one man and one woman. As she concludes her article,
Marriage in the Bible is not restricted to one man and one woman. The biblical models for marriage include a range of relationships and combinations, and these evolve with the culture.
But this characterization is misleading. Presumably when Hamori makes this claim she is thinking of polygamy. But polygamy, say in the case of Jacob, does not refer to the marriage of one man and four women, as if Leah, Rachel et. al. were also married to one another. Rather, what polygamy means is that Jacob had four different marriages at one time. He was married to four different women. Yet he married each woman at a different time, and each marriage was still that of one man and one woman. Any other interpretation leads to absurdity.
Similarly, Hamori is misleading insofar as she implies that marriage in the Bible is ever anything other than something between a man and a woman, as if it can be between two women, or two men. The spectrum of toleration in Scripture is simply not that broad.
That said, I actually agree with Hamori’s overall point. As I have argued repeatedly on this blog, Christians should not base their case for traditional marriage primarily on the Bible. Hamori writes,
This does not mean that anything goes; it’s simply what we see in the biblical texts themselves. It does not mean that there are no standards; there were always incest taboos, for example, but what counts as incest is culturally dictated, and our society does not embrace many biblical perspectives on this (e.g., the ideal of marrying one’s first cousin). It does not mean that God is a pushover; it shows, if anything, a God who will engage people in the world in which they live.
I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Yet that is precisely why I think marriage cannot be redefined to include homosexual relationships. There are certain standards to which human beings should always hold (i.e., rape is wrong and should be prohibited by public law) no matter how much culture changes. One such standard is the idea that marriage is of concern to civil government primarily because it involves the procreation and raising of children, and this means that marriage should never be redefined so as to take the government’s focus off that purpose. As Hamori points out, the Bible does not talk about marriage primarily as an institution regulating mutual affirmations of love. At least as far as the state is concerned, marriage is much more practical than that.
It would be a great tragedy if our country transformed the institution of marriage in a way that caused harm to our own social fabric simply because we want to be affirming of particular loving relationships. It would be just as tragic if we abandoned traditional marriage simply because we want to avoid legislating the revelation of one religion. Thankfully, there is no need to take either of these steps, because the purpose of marriage is not primarily about either love or the Bible. Hamori does us a service by reminding us of this point.