Scripture scholars recognize that biblical texts must be interpreted in view of the biblical narrative as a whole and informed by underlying biblical affirmations. They also tell us that specific instructions can only be accurately interpreted and applied by understanding their historical setting. Some teachings on Christian practice found in Scripture are context specific and appropriately revised in view of new historical circumstances and God’s work in our world.
For example, the New Testament presents a complementarian rather than egalitarian vision of male and female roles. While equal in value and dignity, men and women have different roles in the family and church, with overall leadership being given to men.
Pulling this set of instructions out of its original historical context actually gives us a perverse result. The instruction was intended to urge the early Christians to respect the social rules of their own time and place, in order to be an exemplary witness to society at large and better commend the Gospel to their neighbors. Applying this teaching literally in our own egalitarian society shows disrespect for today’s cultural norms (at least in “Western” culture) and brings the Gospel into disrepute — the very opposite of the instructions’ intent.
The Scriptures’ instruction on male leadership and women’s roles is only one example. Another is the teaching allowing slavery, instructing slaves to submit to their masters even when ill-treated, and not to become runaways. Yet today all churches universally condemn slavery as an unmitigated evil and applaud the leaders of the Underground Railroad who violated the apparent letter of Scripture by helping them escape. The inspired biblical instructions applied to the churches’ situation in ancient Roman society and culture, but are not intended for other contexts.
The churches have to discern which Scriptures on Christian moral practice are universal and which are culture-specific, as well as how to apply and revise the latter in very different societal contexts. Such discernment has been used throughout the history of Christian orthodoxy on a variety of issues.
So the question is, do the biblical instructions on same-sex relations apply to all forms of such relationships in all cultural contexts, or are they directed to specific behaviors and contexts. On the surface they appear to be universal, but so do the teachings about gender roles and slavery, among other issues that the churches have determined to be culture-specific. Here are some indications that what Scripture says about same-sex relations is at least in part culture-specific and not applicable to Christian same-sex marriage today:
- In Romans 1 Paul explicitly identifies unbridled lust as the motive for the homosexual behavior he condemns (Rom. 1:26-27). That motive is animating much homosexual – and heterosexual — practice in our society today. But it doesn’t fit the reality of Christian same-sex couples — and some non-Christians– who are motivated by the same quality of love heterosexuals have to commit themselves to a faithful, monogamous, life-long relationship. Affirming such marriages is not a matter contradicting or violating Scripture, because we are addressing a different context and different patterns of behavior.
- Many scholars point out that in Paul’s usage — and that of his philosophical contemporaries – of “nature” refers to the established order of things, and not to biological creation or God’s design. For example, Paul also writes that “nature” teaches that it is shameful for men to have long hair and women to have short hair (1 Cor. 11:14).
- The scholarly debate about the meaning in 1 Cor. 6:9 of the two Greek words translated in “male prostitutes” and “sodomites” by the NRSV, by the single phrase “men who have sex with men” in the NIV and variously in different Bible versions. Some scholars think these two very specific Greek words denote two different kinds of behaviors, and may refer to the passive and active partners in the typical Roman unequal same-sex relationship. Similarly in 1 Tim. 1:10 the word translated “homosexuality” is the word used in 1 Cor. 6:9 associated with the passive partner. Some scholars link this in 1 Tim. 1:10 with the subsequent word, usually translated “kidnappers/slave traders,” to refer to the perpetrators of the sex trade in young kidnapped boys. Thus these condemnations may not be relevant to the mutual, egalitarian same-sex unions of Christians today. Again, the text seems to be condemning a different kind of behavior than we are addressing.
- The cultural distance between our society and the Old Testament is even greater. There are only two Old Testament verses that explicitly condemn same-sex relations as such (Lev. 18:22; 20:13). Some scholars believe that this culture-specific prohibition was rooted in the pervasive connection of homosexual practice with cultic prostitution and idolatry, the degradation inferred for a man to take the sexual role of a woman, and the non-reproductive nature of such relations. These reasons don’t carry over to our own context, or even in part to that of the New Testament. Certainly there is much in the Old Testament behavior codes that no longer applies to God’s community in Christ.
- Same-sex marriage can fulfill the purposes of marriage as given in the NT. In the NT, the purposes for marriage are given as the control of sexual desires via monogamy and reflecting the union of Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:21-32). Mutual self-giving love can and does occur in a marriage between two Christians of the same gender, reflecting the union of Christ and the church. That is, a couple of the same sex can meet the “sacramental” requirements of marriage, illuminating Christ’s presence and serving as a means of grace to the world. No less than heterosexual marriage, such unions can be exclusive, permanent and issue in shared lives of service to God. In addition, procreation/“filling the earth” does not carry over to the New Testament as a reason for marriage or as important to God’s plan. We should also note, too, that there is no marriage in God’s coming Kingdom. Marriage is a temporary arrangement for purposes related to “this present age” only. It is not a permanent part of God’s new creation.
- Gen. 2 is foundational to a biblical vision of marriage, and presents heterosexual marriage – not homosexual marriage — as God’s intent and standard. However, while also teaching the permanence of marriage, this passage doesn’t rule out the possibility of an exception under some circumstances. Moses of course gave several exceptions. Jesus himself, while referring to Gen. 2 as foundational, gives adultery as an exception to the permanence of marriage. Paul gives an exception of desertion by an unbelieving spouse. (And Calvin, Zwingli and other Reformers gave additional exceptions, found nowhere in the text.). These NT passages show that the foundation laid in Gen. 2 is not intended as absolute in all contexts. If there can be an exception to Gen. 2 for divorce and remarriage, an exception for same-sex marriage under some circumstances may also be possible.
- Both Jesus and Paul recognize that not every believer has the gift of celibacy. And the evidence clearly indicates that many Christians with a same-sex orientation, like many who are heterosexually oriented, have notreceived this gift from God. What are they to do? Paul writes, “It is better to marry than to burn with passion.” It is not God’s will for believers to live in chronic frustration and distraction, which undermines mission, or in promiscuity, which destroys holiness.
- Scripture tells us that the witness of God’s acts in the world were an important consideration for the Jerusalem Council in their discerning that God was accepting uncircumcised Gentiles as full and equal members of the body of Christ. It is increasingly apparent that many Christians in covenanted same-sex/married unions manifest the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in their lives and ministries, just as Peter recognized the work of the Spirit in uncircumcised Cornelius. This witness is significant because the Holy Spirit’s presence suggests a life in relationship to God, and because the Holy Spirit often runs ahead of the churches’ formal decision-making. First came the Holy Spirit baptism of Cornelius and the irruption of the Gentile churches, followed by the Jerusalem Council’s process of discernment and authoritative decision.
These passages alone don’t prove that God accepts same-sex marriage, but they do raise the question and show that the churches should engage in a process of discernment as modeled by the apostles in Acts 15 in the Jerusalem Council. Jesus provides for such discernment processes. Because we would encounter new and complex moral dilemmas’ Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit to “guide [us] into all the truth (John 16:12-15).” And he gave the church – the community of his disciples — the responsibility to “bind and loose” (Matt. 18:15 – 20). This is not arbitrary power to decide whatever we wish, but the responsibility to make Holy Spirit-inspired moral judgments according to God’s will in a particular set of circumstances.
In Jesus’ time binding and loosing referred to the rabbis’ power to provide authoritative moral instruction. To “bind” was to forbid a particular practice; to “loose” was to permit it. Jesus gave such authority to his disciples, saying “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” By authorizing binding and loosing, Jesus affirms that it may not always be immediately clear whether a given action in a specific context is a sin or not. The gathered believers will have to make a Holy Spirit-guided judgment about God’s will.
The Jerusalem Council on Gentile admission in Acts 15 is an example of the earliest church applying binding and loosing. When the Apostles and elders of the Jerusalem church heard about Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit without being circumcised and forming churches, they had a special gathering to discern whether this new phenomena was within the will of God. They prayed, talked together, related their experiences and discussed relevant passages of Scripture.
Only by prayerfully recognizing the context-specific nature of some biblical instructions and paying respectful attention to the Holy Spirit’s new work in their world could the Apostles have reached the shocking conclusion that Gentiles can be full and equal members of the covenant people of God without being circumcised – thus revising a command as old as Abraham that was an “everlasting ordinance” according to the Scriptures (Gen. 17:13). Only thus could Paul have made Sabbath-keeping – one of the Ten Commandments and rooted in the creation account — optional as a matter of individual conscience (Rom. 14:5-8, Col. 2:16-17).
The Apostles’ interpretations were far from obvious and overthrew a millennium of understanding about the nature of God’s covenant people and the meaning of holiness. Given their method of interpreting Scripture and the conclusions they reached, it is easy to see why the “circumcision party” so vehemently opposed them. How many of us would have been in that camp?
Like the early church, we are called to address disputed matters of Christian practice through holy, courageous and humble conversations of community discernment in which churches consider the relevant biblical material, listen to the testimonies of God’s people, seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and accept our responsibility before God to issue by faith our best collective judgment. Such community discernment requires reflection together on Scripture and attentiveness to scholars on both sides of an issue, as well as to observe, as Peter and the Apostles did, God’s new actions in the world. Guided by the Holy Spirit we must be prayerfully open to hear anew from God through his written Word and living Spirit something we may not have understood before.
It’s past time for Christians to stop arguing about same-sex marriage and start praying. Churches can address the growing anger and hardening of positions — and perhaps avoid tragic divisions — by following the Apostles’ example, seeking together as church with the guidance of the Holy Spirit God’s will on the challenging matters before us. Faithfulness means accepting with utmost seriousness the responsibility given us by Jesus himself to discern God’s dynamic work in and through the church today. And only if we truly listen to one another, love God and are committed to God’s will above all else can we hope to reach a faithful conclusion.
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