Last week, Kevin DeYoung over at the Gospel Coalition wrote “Five Questions for Christians who Believe that the Bible Supports Gay marriage.” I found his questions relevant, as they are probably questions that the wider Christian culture is asking, so I thought I would oblige and give my answers.
Before I do, though, let me clarify my credentials: I am a yoga teacher finishing up a degree in classical vocal performance (read: I am not a pastor, scholar, or theologian, and I have no formal education in theology.) These answers do not come from any formal credentials, but instead from my life as a gay man struggling to understand his faith. I am in process, still struggling to form my beliefs and navigate my theological world. As such, my responses are more a conversation and less an answer.
Question # 1: On What Basis do you insist that marriage must be monogamous?
DeYoung goes on to ask,
Presumably, you do not see any normative significance in God creating the first human pair male and female (Gen. 2:23-25; Matt. 19:4-6). Paul’s language about each man having his own wife and each woman her own husband cannot be taken too literally without falling back into the exclusivity of heterosexual marriage (1 Cor. 7:2). The two coming together as one so they might produce godly offspring doesn’t work with gay marriage either (Mal. 2:15). So why monogamy? Jesus never spoke explicitly against polygamy. The New Testament writers only knew of exploitative polygamy, the kind tied to conquest, greed, and subjugation. If they had known of voluntary, committed, loving polyamorous relationships, who’s to think they wouldn’t have approved?
These aren’t merely rhetorical questions. The issue is legitimate: if 3 or 13 or 30 people really love each other, why shouldn’t they have a right to be married? And for that matter, why not a brother and a sister, or two sisters, or a mother and son, or father and son, or any other combination of two or more persons who love each other. Once we’ve accepted the logic that for love to be validated it must be expressed sexually and that those engaged in consensual sexual activity cannot be denied the “right” of marriage, we have opened a Pandora’s box of marital permutations that cannot be shut.
I sympathize with this question, and it was one that caused me some discomfort when I held the traditional view. If I’m honest, I am still sorting out this question, and I think that I am not alone in my theological questioning (not to mention the fact that I am trying to square my conviction that monogamy is ideal with the fact that polygamy is practiced and never condemned in Scripture.) I think the modern church is only just now beginning to ask this question, so whatever theological answers we have at present will be incomplete.
While I may not be able to give a totally clear answer on this question, I can perhaps offer a few observations.
First, dismissing something because of what it might lead to is a logical fallacy. If something is right or wrong, determine that to be so based upon its own merits, not upon what may (or may not) happen afterward. A slippery slope fallacy means that we don’t ultimately judge the morality of the thing in question (homosexuality), leading us to judge the morality of the bigger, scarier thing down the “slope” (polygamy.) The end result is that we have not truly engaged with the deeper questions raised by homosexuality – we were too busy asking questions about incest, polygamy, a “pandora’s box of marital permutations” – the things that frighten us. While I believe that homosexuality, polygamy and incest are tied together by the common theme of human relationship and sexuality, I also believe that they are ultimately different scenarios with different implications for people’s lives. Tying them to each other in a slippery slope ultimately muddies the issue, and has inhibited the Church’s ability to look clearly at the issue of homosexuality itself.
When we ask people to abstain from polygamy, we are not asking them to forego a marital one-flesh bond for the rest of their lives. When we ask someone to forego incest, we are not also asking them to give up marriage entirely. But that is precisely what we are asking of most gay people when we tell them that they must never experience a same sex love.
This is a subtle but monumental difference. Mandatory gay celibacy takes the question of homosexuality out of the realm of preference and into the much more fundamental, elemental territory of the human need for kinship, partnership, one-flesh union, and family. To say that a man cannot marry one woman because she is his sister is not the same as declaring that he may not marry any woman at all. Sexual union and family are available to people even after we have forbidden polygamy and incest. It is not available to most gay people for a myriad of complex reasons after we have forbidden same sex relationships. This distinction requires us to ask a different set of theological questions about the implications in people’s lives. Conflating the acceptance of polygamy or incest with the acceptance of homosexuality is misguided, then, because they are completely separate pastoral issues with very different implications for the lives of individuals.
As I have said numerous times throughout this blog, I believe that a celibacy mandate for all gay people is absolutely deadly, and is an urgent pastoral issue. I believe that forbidding people from making meaningful, monogamous, family units together creates a culture of disease, abuse and promiscuity because sexuality is such a ferocious force of nature that when it is practiced outside of marriage-like bonds it destroys us. I believe that this is precisely what has happened in the gay community. When we prohibit a significant percentage of the human race from marriage, the entire population suffers. Prohibiting polygamy or incest does not have such dire pastoral implications.
Several months ago I asked James Brownson (author of Bible, Gender, Sexuality) about polygamy, incest and pedophilia in relation to homosexuality. I would encourage everyone to read the full interview (and to read his book), but here are his thoughts about polygamy:
Polygamy enters the argument in a somewhat different way. Among the many possible forms of this argument, let’s explore this one: If marriage is not exclusively between a man and a woman, but can exist between any two people who desire to be together, what is to prohibit polyamorous relationships, say, between two men and three women? If they all want it, and accept the implications of the commitment, who is to say no? At the root of this complaint is the worry that the approval of same-sex relationships represents a capitulation in our culture to the idolization of personal preference, and the loss of any objective standards against which those preferences are to be measured. I’m somewhat sympathetic to this concern, but I think it needs to be expressed more clearly. I don’t think that the church should consider accepting same-sex relationships simply because “people should be able to do what they want, as long as everyone agrees and no one is harmed.” Rather, the question is whether for gay and lesbian people, as for straight people, erotic love can be drawn into sacrificial relationships of devoted love and concern for the other that reflect divine love. If these same dynamics can work in same-sex relationships, then these relationships can be sanctified and drawn into divine love. I’m not convinced that polyamorous relationships can reflect divine love in quite the same way, though that, of course, is a rather long discussion in its own right!
Question # 2: Will you maintain the same biblical sexual ethic in the church now that you think the church should solemnize gay marriages?
The short answer is that yes, I will.
Deyoung further asks:
After assailing the conservative church for ignoring the issue of divorce, will you exercise church discipline when gay marriages fall apart? Will you preach abstinence before marriage for all single persons, no matter their orientation? If nothing has really changed except that you now understand the Bible to be approving of same-sex intercourse in committed lifelong relationships,we should expect loud voices in the near future denouncing the infidelity rampant in homosexual relationships. Surely, those who support gay marriage out of “evangelical” principles, will be quick to find fault with the notion that the male-male marriages most likely to survive are those with a flexible understanding that other partners may come and go. According to one study researched and written by two homosexual authors, of 156 homosexual couples studied, only seven had maintained sexual fidelity, and of the hundred that had been together for more than five years, none had remained faithful (cited by Satinover, 55). In the rush to support committed, lifelong, monogamous same-sex relationships, it’s worth asking whether those supporters–especially the Christians among them–will, in fact, insist on a lifelong, monogamous commitment.
Really, my morals have not shifted much since becoming affirming. I still believe that we are all – gay, straight, married, single and celibate – called to practice chastity. I believe that chastity means abstinence before marriage, and fidelity in marriage. That is what I strive to practice, and that is what I preach to others. It’s been difficult for me and a refining cross to carry, as I’ve struggled to integrate my faith and sexuality, but it is a cross for everyone.
Just because I believe God may bless gay marriage does not mean I believe sexuality is suddenly meaningless, or without power. Affirming gay marriage does not strip sex of its gravitas. Chastity is necessary precisely because sexuality is significant and can make or break lives. In my experience, many gay people experience such promiscuity because we have been told that our sexuality is meaningless, broken, and can never be a channel of grace. Why, then, should we be careful in the use of our bodies? There is a deep, unverbalized, intuitive question in many gay people I have met: if I cannot be sexually united to another in a pure, sanctified way, then what is the meaning of my sexuality? How can any expression of my sexuality be good, even celibacy, since healthy celibacy requires a healthy relationship with one’s sexuality?
In my own journey, I struggle deeply to integrate a sexual ethic into my life that makes sense and is not rooted in fear. As a gay Christian, I have received little from the church beyond, “don’t be sexual”, “be straight, or at the very least act straight,” and “be very afraid.” I knew that my promiscuity was wrong, but I could not truly articulate how or why, especially when it seemed so helpful for me and felt so good. (only in the moment. Afterwards I felt used up, beat up, and discarded.) I started to find some direction when I finally read Dr. Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality, in which he says,
We cannot say with our bodies what we will not say with the rest of our lives. Bodies are not indifferent, and what we do with our bodies is not indifferent. Sexual union is deeply metaphorical, and when we strip sexual union of the wider metaphorical kinship meaning intended by Genesis 2:24, we cease to live in the “real world” governed by God’s purposes and decrees (…) sexual unions are thus a sort of bodily language in which meaning is enacted and conveyed.
In other words, I must not say with my body what I cannot say with the rest of my life, precisely because my sexuality is significant, is bestowed with meaning, and can be a vessel for grace. It has a language and I must not misuse that language: it is not meaningless gibberish.
I found further guidance in Rowan Williams’s The Body’s Grace, in which he states,
Any genuine experience of desire leaves me in this position: I cannot of myself satisfy my wants without distorting or trivializing them. But in this experience we have a particularly intense case of the helplessness of the ego alone. For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, must be perceived, accepted, nurtured. And that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable. To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body. As Blake put it, sexual partners “admire” in each other “the lineaments of gratified desire.” We are pleased because we are pleasing.
I am still exploring and developing my sexual ethic, but I maintain traditional sexual ethics for both gay and straight people because I believe that both gay and straight sexuality is significant and powerful, touched by sin but also capable of redemption and sanctification through Christ’s great grace. I still believe that sex is deeply metaphorical, and creates a one flesh bond.
Before I conclude the discussion of this question, one last thought: it is true that there is a great deal of promiscuity in gay culture, and I will personally attest to the truth that it is hard to be chaste in certain parts of gay culture. However, I have come to believe that this is a cultural problem, not a gay problem. In my experience, gay people are just as capable of fidelity as straight people; infidelity is not so much a gay problem as it is a human problem. The rampant promiscuity in the gay community is the result of the cultural values of an extremely secular community, not of homosexuality itself. Certainly, gay people will struggle with chastity and fidelity as much as the rest of the human race, but I know many gay couples who have been monogamous throughout their relationships. When a couple pursues discipleship, shared values, and faithfulness, I have watched the promiscuity of the gay culture fall away.
(To be continued…)