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Commentary: What do Bible, tradition say about gay marriage?

8/12/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

A head-and-shoulders photograph of the Rev. Tex Sample is available. A contrasting viewpoint on this issue is provided in UMNS #403.

A UMNS Commentary By the Rev. Tex Sample*

The case of Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Church raises the issue of whether a bishop engaged in a homosexual relationship ought to be confirmed. I contend that on a matter of this kind, the primary focus of the church needs to be on marriage, and in this case, homosexual marriage.

Let's look at this question in terms of Scripture and the tradition of the church.

The term "homosexuality" as we understand it today appears nowhere in Scripture. In fact, the word was not coined until the 19th century. Moreover, there is no evidence that the Scripture addresses the matter of sexual orientation as that characteristic is now understood. In Scripture, the attention is given to same-sex practices. It is a minor concern and appears in only five passages. (I exclude two passages on same-sex rape that are not under consideration here. Rape of any kind is wrong.) Biblical scholars hotly contest all of these passages.

Two passages in the Hebrew Scriptures prohibit same-sex practices. These passages, in Leviticus 18 and 20, are known as the "Holiness Code." There is little question that a good deal of the Holiness Code has been surpassed and transformed by the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament church - for example, the code's purity guidelines and drastic punishments that are not in the spirit of Christ. Much of the code is not regarded as authoritative for the church today. To make a case against homosexual marriage, one must go beyond these texts.

In the New Testament, three passages cast same-sex practices in a negative light. I Corinthians 6:9 names two groups that will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Two Greek words are used for these groups, and their translation is a matter of contention among New Testament scholars.

One of the words, "malakoi," means "soft" and "effeminate," morally and in other ways.
The translation of the other word, "arsenokoitai," is highly contested. Its meaning is not clear. This second word is also used in I Timothy 1:10. Some claim that it refers to an active or superior man engaging in intercourse with a passive, inferior one. Others maintain that it is a reference to same-sex prostitution. Still other studies suggest that the acts cited in these passages involve some kind of economic exploitation, and so on.

In none of these cases can one move to a blanket condemnation of all same-sex practices. Too many kinds of same-sex activity fall outside these prohibitions.

The most important text is Romans 1:24-27. Here, Paul is addressing the idolatry of Gentiles. In this idolatry, God gives these Gentiles up "to degrading passions" expressed in same-sex relations by both men and women (this is the only time women are addressed in terms of same-gender sexual acts in Scripture). The same-sex practices in this passage result from idolatry.

Moreover, Paul sees sexual desire as of one kind. That is, same-sex desire is not a different sexual orientation in Paul, but rather an inordinate and excessive desire. The desire that, say, a man has for a woman is the same desire in same-sex desire, only of greater degree. So, because of their idolatry God gives up the Gentiles to this excessive desire and same-sex practices.

To be sure, sexual practices growing out of idolatry should be condemned, whether they are homosexual or heterosexual. This prohibition, however, does not address a host of same-sex practices, as it does not address heterosexual practices that do not result from idolatry.

In short, all of the references to same-sex activity in Scripture are negative. It is not condoned anywhere. Yet, each passage either occurs in a biblical context that has been surpassed and transformed (the Holiness Code), or it addresses specific instances that can't be generalized.

To address Christian homosexual marriage, one must look at the tradition of the church. St. Augustine is the major figure in the church's teachings on marriage. For him, marriage is an office, a duty in which one serves the church and the larger society. He sees marriage serving three purposes.

· Raising children for the Kingdom of God. For Augustine this does not mean primarily having children of one's own in a biological sense.
· Enabling couples to learn faithfulness to each other and to God.
· Fulfilling a sacramental end, in which Augustine emphasizes that marriage cannot be dissolved.

These three ends are sustained in the later Middle Ages. In the Reformation, they are basically accepted but with modifications. Marriage as an official sacrament of the church is rejected, but it continues to be sacramental - that is, it can point to God, especially in the mutuality and companionship of couples with each other.

Centuries later, when John Wesley edits the Book of Common Prayer and sends it to the United States in 1784, he keeps the section that lays out the three purposes. However, in a 1792 revision of the marriage liturgy, U.S. Methodists drop these three ends. Since then, marriage as loving companionship has been central, though fidelity and the indissolubility of marriage are not absent. The procreative end is no longer or seldom used.

The point is that marriage in the Christian tradition serves a number of purposes: procreation, fidelity, sacrament, mutual support and companionship, mutual society and loving companionship. What is striking is that all of these ends can be met by homosexual marriages, even the procreative end when the procreative end is understood as raising children for the Kingdom of God and not primarily as a function of nature.

On these grounds, it is appropriate for gay and lesbian Christians to be married in the church, and it is not in violation of Scripture or tradition.

Some Christians object to this argument by raising up Mark 10:7-8, in which Jesus states, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." The argument is then made that this is the only form scriptural marriage can take.

The issue addressed in this passage, however, is divorce. Jesus is responding to a hard-hearted test of his authority. Extending his response to a blanket denial of homosexual marriage goes well beyond the text. Moreover, it is uttered by a single Christ who did indeed leave his mother and father to engage in his incarnate mission. So long as we are dealing with a single Christ who left father and mother for a different reason, we must be open to other possible options, especially options that fulfill the ends of Christian marriage as it is traditionally understood.

Biblical teaching does not address a host of same-sex practices, among them homosexual marriage. Moreover, the ends of marriage as understood in the tradition of the church are ends that homosexual marriage can fulfill.

So the issue in the confirmation of a bishop in a homosexual relationship is not whether he or she is gay, nor even whether he or she is a practicing homosexual. The question is: Is he or she married to this partner, and if so, does this marriage meet these ends?
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*Sample is the Robert B. and Kathleen Rogers emeritus professor of church and society at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person and coordinator of the Network for the Study of U.S. Lifestyles in Phoenix. In this commentary, he is indebted to the work of Daniel M. Bell Jr.

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church. For an overview of the United Methodist Church's stands on homosexuality, go to online.

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