We’ve looked at arguments against gay marriage and arguments in favor of it. In each article, I presented a radical position. In the last article, I want to take a step back and look more for a Biblical way of thinking to guide us into the future. Perhaps there is some truth on both sides, or perhaps both sides should not try as much to force the other to change.
What we see in today’s cultural climate (outside the Church) is that conservative Christians try to prevent legislation to make a favorable turn for the gay community (and by now, it is clear that those efforts have largely failed in America). They talk about the gay agenda and the attempt to destroy the family. On the other side, you see deliberate attempts on the part of the gay community to portray conservative Christians as bigots and backward idiots. Christian companies are sued for not wanting to provide services to gay members of society. Is there an impending witch hunt on the way? It’s all very unhappy, unnecessary, and destructive.
Here are a few guidelines to help the discussion and help people, both conservative and liberal Christians, think with a little more generosity on the subject.
1. How the Bible Cannot be Used
We first need to understand how the Bible cannot be used. Contrary to popular thought, the Bible is not an ethical textbook. The Bible is not like a puzzle that once solved provides a perfect moral set of rules. Using the Bible like that is doing a disservice to the complex nature of the book and potentially leads to destruction of human well-being. Let me give a few examples that show that the Bible is not an ethical textbook.
- The Bible contains speech acts and narrates events that are absolutely horrific. Some of these are presented as though they are normative for the behavior of the human community. Think of the stoning of a young man who had used the Lord’s name in vain (Leviticus 24:23). Think of the command to kill all the people of Jericho during the conquest of Canaan. What a terrifying ethics. And the people who killed men, women, and children thought they were doing the will of God. Think of the debased practices presented in the book of Judges (chapter 19) or the behavior of some of the Kings. Apparently, God has no problem with polygamy (2 Samuel 12:8).
- There are many ‘ethics’ in the Bible. The ethical framework of the patriarchs is different from that of Israel in the desert. The norms and values of Israel during the period of the Kings is markedly different from that during the time of Jesus, while Jesus’ own moral belief system is radically different from that of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Once Paul gets the Gospel going in the Mediterranean world, the ethics of the Gentile Church becomes different from that of the Jewish Christians. You can go on and on.
- Perhaps, more strikingly, we should note that the Mosaic law was abolished as a requirement for becoming a believer. This results in two insights: the moral framework of the Church in the New Testament is radically different from that of Israel in the Old Testament. Saying that the difference only pertains to the ceremonial aspects of the law won’t do. The second important insight has to do with what replaces the Mosaic Law in the New Testament. The replacement is not some new law, like Paul’s law or even Christ’s law. The new law is the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who teaches (see John 14-16), the Spirit who guides (see Romans 8:1). And this means that different opinions will exist about what the Spirit is telling the Church.
- Lastly, nobody lives by the ethical code of the Old Testament. Even Jesus didn’t. When Jesus’ opponents brought to him an adulterous woman, the practice of stoning had already been abolished. They just wanted to see if Jesus was willing to strictly apply the law. He didn’t, of course for entirely different reasons than the Pharisees and scribes who had gathered to trap Jesus.
The Bible is not an ethical textbook, it is a collection of narratives and discourses by people who belonged to the community of faith. They struggled to understand who God is and what God wants. The Bible is also the Word of God. But
2. How the Bible Ought to Be Used in Ethics
But then how do we read the Bible when thinking about ethical formation with regard to homosexuality? How can we know God’s will with regard gay marriage? Well, instead of discovering absolutes in the Bible we need to search for the will of God through the Spirit. Part of this process of being filled and guided by the Spirit is to be led by the Spirit in
One thing we learn from reading Scripture is that human beings always fail and that God is infinitely gracious. We also learn that the most religious are often the most hypocrite and wanting, ethically speaking. Ethical formation is something the people of God must learn by doing and living. But we can’t use the New Testament as if it were some kind of Mosaic law.
The implication for homosexuality is that it is impossible to determine from Scripture alone (without listening to the world in which we live and without being guided by the Spirit) whether gay marriage is right or wrong. We can only search and discern.
3. What Ethics is All About
Christians in conservative circles often assume that ethics is primarily about sexual behavior. This is not the case. Leviticus 18, which describes all kinds of sexual deviations, aside, Scripture primarily focuses on social justice, righteousness, and care for the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the alien. Even the commandment against adultery (in the Decalogue) is first and foremost about the sanctity of someone’s possession (In this case the woman is the possession of the husband so you can’t just take her).
If we don't heed this insight, we could be stuck in a situation where the Church decides to exclude the gay neighbor on the basis of sexual ethics and, by doing so, is in violation of the ethical demand of justice and care for one's neighbor. Interestingly, the sin of Sodom was not primarily about gay sex (or even not at all); it was about not caring for the alien in their midst. It was about the lack of hospitality and oppression of the poor (See Isaiah 3:8-15).
4. Ethics is a Process of Learning
We've seen then that ethics is a process of learning and discerning, of discovering patterns in Scripture, of being guided by the Spirit but also attentive to the real lived experience of human life on earth. We notice that we can easily get trapped in certain ideas about ethical formation that are self-serving and self-affirming whereby we condone our own practice while judging others who are different from us.
Because it is a process of learning and discerning there is a progression from A to B and B to a next stage. This is not saying that morality is relative but that it is something that needs training and needs to be discovered in each context anew. It also means there will be different communities with different opinions. This, in turn, entails that if a society moves to a different moral position this is not necessarily wrong. It may be the expression of new insights.
It is clear what this entails for the debate around homosexuality. Some communities will be open and welcoming to the gay Christian; others will reject gay marriage as a viable option.
There will be differences of opinion and this can’t be avoided. On the other hand, our culture’s acceptance of gay marriage may well be a desirable change that was long overdue.
5. Sexuality Will Always Be Policed
We also need to understand that sexuality will always be policed. This is because sexuality and sexual behavior are social, have social implications, are deeply woven into the social fabric of human community. And society needs to be regulated. There must be rules and laws for communities to function.
One important implication of this is that it is rather hypocritical for society to look down upon conservative Christians and condemn them for not allowing gay marriage in their church communities. What is the difference between not condoning gay marriage and not condoning public bestiality, for instance? Now, I hear people saying that the difference is a matter of social justice. Sure. But by the same token, both camps employ rules, on both sides there are dos and don’ts, and both camps have no absolute ethics to fall back on.
Understandably, the gay lobby won’t be happy that some folks are still not on board with their agenda and indeed gay people who are committed members of conservative churches are having a hard time. But sexuality is going to be policed by any social groups. And just like the gay lobby shudders at the thought of the ‘fundies’ gaining power in order to legislate gay marriage into oblivion, so conservative churches are rightfully concerned whether their religious freedom is at stake with what’s going on in our society.
6. The Church Is and Ought to Be Free Not to Condone Gay Marriage
This leads us to one important conclusion. On the one hand, it is true that because absolute ethics is not possible, the Church is free not to agree with the liberal stance on gay marriage. Since ethics is such a complex process, nobody knows for sure who is right.
On the other hand, it is true that because absolute ethics is not possible, the Church should aim to maximize justice for a maximal number of people. In the absence of the possibility of absolute moral claims, the Church should definitely search itself to see if there is an opening for change on this topic.
It should also be noted that the Church’s business is not to prescribe how we should live but how to live out the love of Jesus. This does not mean that the Church is an a-moral community. quite on the contrary. The Church’s ethics, however, should primarily be characterized by the self-giving and all-inclusive love of Jesus Christ. This entails a lifestyle that is minimally prescriptive and maximally inclusive. This means embracing the other, the stranger, the outsider, the outlaw, the despised, the gay!
7. The Possibility of a 3rd View
There is, then, an opening here for conservative churches to bracket and suspend their ethical opinion about whether the gay lifestyle is right or wrong and embrace the homosexual neighbor in love. It is, on this notion, possible to think that homosexuality may not be God’s perfect plan for human sexuality but that we live in a world in which such realities simply exist and need to be taken at face-value because the love of Christ compels us to do so.