— Here’s why.
By Ryan Sanders
Last week, Pope Francis announced that the Catholic Church will allow priests to bless same-sex couples, a move that is already drawing a ferocious backlash. That same day, The New York Times published another report on the slow-motion implosion of the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination, largely over the issue of gay marriage and LGBTQ rights. While the legal standard of marriage equality in America was decided in 2015 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges, debate in the religious sector still rages.
That’s because in these circles, the highest authority isn’t the Constitution, it’s the Bible; and the issue of marriage isn’t just about equality or progress, it’s about interpretation of ancient Greek and Hebrew texts.
Eight years is plenty of time to establish legal precedent, but in the project of redefining an institution that has lasted millennia, it’s the blink of an eye.
Having worked in church ministry for a decade, I’m familiar enough with the arguments around this issue to offer a short explanation of them. I’ll seek to be fair to all sides.
Both testaments of the Bible contain condemnations of gay sexual behavior. In the Hebrew Bible, the practice is explicitly forbidden: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman,” Leviticus commands its male readers. In the New Testament, it’s issued as a warning: “Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Gay sexual activity is variously labeled detestable, unnatural, or an abomination depending on the translation. In fact, nowhere does the Bible mention homosexuality in a favorable light. Reflecting those teachings, the modern Vatican has pronounced gay sex “intrinsically disordered.”
But there’s more nuance in this issue than it may seem. Eight years after Obergefell, the various interpretations of these passages have sorted the faithful into several overlapping factions.
Behavior vs. identity
One dividing line is about proclivity. There are generally three camps here.
Camp 1: Homosexuality is sin
Not only is gay sexual activity condemned in the Bible, but so is the desire for it. This isn’t explicit in any biblical text, but this camp infers it.
Backing off the popular 1980s talking point that sexual orientation is a choice, this group has shifted the choice issue away from attraction to identity. They assert that if orientation isn’t a choice, embracing it is. A Christian who experiences same sex attraction shouldn’t identify as gay. They should reject that identity and fight the gay agenda that seeks to normalize homosexuality.
This is the camp that has produced conversion therapy programs that seek to “pray the gay away.” This is also the camp that most often makes arguments about church purity, asserting that the presence of gay people in the church endangers children or dilutes the church’s witness.
This camp can’t condone LGBTQ people in any sort of church leadership.
Camp 2: The Bible condemns gay sex, but not gay people
Sexual desire toward a person of the same sex should be treated like any sexual desire. It should be categorized under “temptation” and kept under control.
Indeed, there are many places where the Bible preaches this very thing, regardless of gender or circumstance. The faithful are told to “flee from sexual immorality,” “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires,” “abstain from sexual immorality” and “put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”
For people in this camp, orientation itself is not sinful, but succumbing to temptation is. But there’s one big caveat: since no sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage between co-religionists can be condoned, that means celibacy for the gay Christian. This camp promotes what are called “Side B” Christians: openly gay and celibate.
It also means this camp can support ordaining gay celibate ministers.
Camp 3: The Bible doesn’t condemn monogamous gay relationships
This camp is small and often misunderstood. Opponents of this view often assume that departing from a traditional view of marriage means abandoning Biblical teaching. But people in this camp point out that there are extenuating circumstances in many (though not all) of the Bible passages that condemn gay sex.
For instance, in the famous story of God’s judgment at Sodom — the passage from which we get our word sodomy — there were several awful things going on, not least of which was gang rape.
So biblical injunctions against gay sex are really about other things like rape, pederasty, promiscuity, excess, idolatry, syncretism or even being inhospitable. Monogamous gay marriages weren’t part of the cultural imagination for the Bible’s human authors. They can be blessed by Bible-affirming churches.
This camp sometimes notes how uneven biblical examples of marriage are. For instance, polygamy is common in the Old Testament with no condemnation of the practice. So are arranged marriages. And there’s no small amount of hypocrisy in modern Christians who oppose gay marriage laws but do not oppose no-fault divorce laws.
A related topic here is the degree to which ancient culture may have influenced the writers of sacred texts. That’s an important point though a fraught one because it opens other large topics for debate: namely, the authority of Scripture itself, the authority of church leaders (or anyone else) to interpret it, and the question of whether modern culture is influencing a more inclusive interpretation.
Civil vs. religious marriage
Parallel to the debate over behavior and identity, there’s another dispute over the definition of marriage and who gets to choose it. Here, there are at least four camps. Maybe more.
Camp 1: Marriage must align with traditional biblical interpretation
God has given us moral standards for our own good. Societies thrive when they follow them. A nation whose laws and customs adhere to biblical standards will be a nation with less injustice and more flourishing. Therefore, society should define marriage the way the Bible defines it.
This approach often leaves little room for minority biblical interpretations like those from Camp 3 above, and often leads Christians to wage culture war.
Camp 2: The traditional Christian view of marriage must compete in a marketplace of worldviews
God has given us moral standards for our own good, but to impose those standards on a society where not everyone is Christian contradicts the meaning of free exercise. Faith cannot be coerced. In a pluralist society, a nation must define its own standards of good behavior. If religious people want those standards to adhere to their sacred text, they can influence the cultural debate like any other group.
This approach often leads Christians to support organizations that promote strong marriages and healthy families within the church.
Camp 3: Christians shouldn’t expect governments to affirm their beliefs
On many issues, not just marriage, Christians should not expect the moral standards of their nation to match their own. The church was always meant to be a minority voice, “salting” society with a countercultural way to live.
This approach allows Christians to embrace legal standards for gay marriage, while rejecting it in their faith communities. People in this camp see no reason the church’s definition of marriage should match the government’s.
Some readers might be surprised to learn that this was the approach favored by the famous apologist C.S. Lewis. Though the context was divorce, not gay marriage, Lewis wrote, “There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.”
People in this camp may see an opening for churches to “bless” unions endorsed by the government without upending church doctrine.
Camp 4: The traditional way is not the loving way
The church must reexamine its doctrine of marriage and bring it up to date.
Redefining marriage to include LGBTQ people is not a diversion from biblical teaching but a reclamation of the biblical message of love that has been stained by ancient patriarchy or Victorian prudishness.
Churches in this camp are often described as “gay-affirming” and preach that the Bible’s message of love is Christianity’s central theme and overrides competing passages about sexual ethics, which are culturally bound.
Finally, there is a debate over the church’s purity.
The traditionalist blogger Luigi Casalini called the pope’s announcement heresy last week. “The church is crumbling,” he wrote. Another called it “an invitation to schism.” Indeed, a 2021 missive from the Vatican’s own department of doctrine said the church couldn’t bless gay unions because “God cannot bless sin.”
The logic here is that people in same sex unions are openly embracing behavior the Bible condemns. The church can’t bless that attitude, just as it can’t bless an open marriage or the marriage of two atheists. The issue is not sexual orientation, it’s alignment with the church’s core beliefs.
The counter argument is worth mentioning: All people in all unions are sinners, and churches seem to have no qualms about blessing the marriage of a man and woman who both drink too much, for instance, or who cheat on their taxes, or who hate their enemies, without contrition.
When you start withholding sacraments as a strategy for behavior modification, you lose the grace that underlies the sacraments.
Still, many who may agree with blessing gay unions rather than performing gay marriages may fear that one will lead to the next.
These three debates are independent of one another. Being in the most conservative camp on one issue doesn’t necessarily place you there on another issue, though there is certainly lots of overlap on that Venn diagram.
It also must be said that each of these views can be held in good faith by people of genuine devotion. Being in Camp 1 doesn’t make you a homophobic hatemonger, and being in Camp 3 doesn’t make you a godless apostate.
Do bigots and apostates use theology as cover? Of course. But these kinds of debates require precision, not bad faith assumptions.
Finally, as should be clear by now, these ideas are debated only among people who must square their lifestyles and viewpoints with the Bible. Adherents to other religions have their own, similar conflicts (the Quran also condemns gay behavior, for instance). And secular readers aren’t affected. In fact, to someone who doesn’t recognize any moral authority in the Bible, all of these arguments must seem hopelessly backward.
For each of the viewpoints above, there are mountains of writing and research: points, counterpoints, sermons and tomes. There are also lots of related topics that get pulled into these debates, from anthropology to tax exemptions.
But these are the undercurrents of the conflict. When churches split or priests vent about marriage and sexuality, these are the waters they are treading. They are troubled waters, indeed.
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