We are considering one of the latest, and best reviewed, books supporting Christian gay marriage, Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.
Vines points out that in Paul’s time, Greek men often engaged in sex both with boys and women. Some men used boys exclusively. Some used women exclusively. But there was no concept of some men having a particular sexual preference. Hence,
No ancient languages even had words that meant “gay” or “straight.”
(p. 36). This is true. But it’s not true that the ancient world was unaware of men who were innately attracted exclusively to other men.
As stated by N. T. Wright,
As a classicist, I have to say that when I read Plato’s Symposium, or when I read the accounts from the early Roman empire of the practice of homosexuality, then it seems to me they knew just as much about it as we do. In particular, a point which is often missed, they knew a great deal about what people today would regard as longer-term, reasonably stable relations between two people of the same gender. This is not a modern invention, it’s already there in Plato.
The idea that in Paul’s today it was always a matter of exploitation of younger men by older men or whatever … of course there was plenty of that then, as there is today, but it was by no means the only thing. They knew about the whole range of options there. Indeed, in the modern world that isn’t an invention of the 20th century either. If you read the recent literature, for example Graham Robb’s book Strangers, which is an account of homosexual love in the 19th century, it offers an interesting account of all kinds of different expressions and awarenesses and phenomena. I think we have been conned by Michel Foucault into thinking that this is all a new phenomena.
Plato was, of course, centuries before Paul, and he was studied by educated Greeks and Romans. (I consider Plato’s Symposium’s views on homosexuality in this earlier post.) In fact, the ancients were quite aware that some men are sexually attracted only to men and that some men are sexually attracted only to women. Some cultures tolerated or even encouraged what we would call bisexuality, but that doesn’t mean that they failed to see the obvious: that some men are only sexually attracted to other men.
Therefore, it cannot be argued that Paul could not have condemned homosexual sex by homosexual men because Paul was unaware of the existence of homosexual men, this being a late 19th Century discovery by modern humans.
Besides, the essence of the argument is that Paul, as a First Century man, was too ignorant of human sexuality to accurately state God’s will on the subject — which is a low view of inspiration contradictory to Vines’ initial insistence that he respects the authority of scripture.
This means that the church’s explicit requirement that gay Christians commit to lifelong celibacy is new.
(p. 42). This is sheer sophistry, of course. The church has opposed gay sex from its inception — whether by straight or by gay men. The church has opposed both and therefore hasn’t had the need to distinguish gay sex by gay men from gay sex by straight men. It’s been irrelevant because none of the key biblical passages conditions its prohibition on the natural inclinations of the person involved.
Repeated again and again in recent debate is the claim that Paul condemns only homosexual acts committed promiscuously by heterosexual persons— because they “exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural.” Paul’s negative judgment, so the argument goes, does not apply to persons who are “naturally” of homosexual orientation. This interpretation, however, is untenable. The “exchange” is not a matter of individual life decisions; rather, it is Paul’s characterization of the fallen condition of the pagan world. … The fact is that Paul treats all homosexual activity as prima facie evidence of humanity’s tragic confusion and alienation from God the Creator.
Hays, Richard (2013-07-30). The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethic (pp. 388-389). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Just so, the Bible doesn’t distinguish the sin of drunkenness based on whether one is an alcoholic or not. The word “alcoholic” is of recent origin and alcoholism is now considered a disease. Nonetheless, drunkenness is still a sin even when the sinner is an alcoholic. Modern knowledge of human nature does not override the scriptures’ definition of what is and isn’t sin.
Celibacy as a gift
Christians throughout history have affirmed that lifelong celibacy is a spiritual gift and calling, not a path that should be forced upon someone.
(p. 44). I’m not so sure. Yes, Paul speaks of celibacy as a gift in 1 Cor 7. But the scriptures are clear that the unmarried may not engage in sex — whether or not they gifted with celibacy and whether or not they are voluntarily single.
Richard Hays comments,
While Paul regarded celibacy as a charisma, he did not therefore suppose that those lacking the charisma were free to indulge their sexual desires outside marriage. Heterosexually oriented persons are also called to abstinence from sex unless they marry (1 Cor. 7: 8– 9). The only difference — admittedly a salient one — in the case of homosexually oriented persons is that they do not have the option of homosexual “marriage.” So where does that leave them? It leaves them in precisely the same situation as the heterosexual who would like to marry but cannot find an appropriate partner (and there are many such): summoned to a difficult, costly obedience, while “groaning” for the “redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8: 23). Anyone who does not recognize this as a description of authentic Christian existence has never struggled seriously with the imperatives of the gospel, which challenge and frustrate our “natural” impulses in countless ways.
Hays, Richard (2013-07-30). The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethic (p. 402). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Adam and Eve
Vines argues that Eve was a “suitable helper” for Adam because of her similarities to
Adam and Eve were right for each other, not because they were different, but because they were alike. …
Adam and Eve’s sameness, not their gender difference, was what made them suitable partners.
This is, of course, a half truth. God made Eve out of the same material as Adam — his rib — and her suitability is stated in contrast to the animals (below Adam) and God himself (above Adam). So sameness is important. But sameness is not all that’s important. After all,
(Gen 2:24 ESV) 24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
Plainly, man and woman are not the same. It’s the man who leaves his family and holds fast to his wife. And they — by design — become one flesh, plainly a reference to heterosexual sex, but to much more. Only the wife is said to be the man’s “suitable helper” or “companion.” They are alike but different. And both their sameness and their difference are important to the author — as well as to how the text is later interpreted by Paul.
Vines argues that Jesus only imposes singleness on those so gifted. But Vines reads Jesus backwards —
(Matt 19:10–12 ESV) 10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
The disciples are complaining that Jesus’ teachings on marriage are too strict. To “receive this saying” in v. 11 is to marry — and so become subject to Jesus’ teaching against divorce. Thus, “those to whom it is given” are those capable of marrying and being faithful to their spouses. Hence, “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” refers to the decision to marry and so be bound for life to be faithful. The alternative is to become “a eunuch” (metaphor for celibate) for the sake of the kingdom.
That is, if you’re gifted to live as a faithful spouse in a lifelong marriage, you may marry. Otherwise, for the sake the kingdom, you are to be celibate.
Another way of addressing giftedness
So Jesus treats the ability to marry and be faithful as a gift. Paul treats celibacy as a gift. We imagine that some people have neither gift, putting them in a tough place. But perhaps the challenge isn’t really about giftedness but the failure of the church to meet the needs of its members for companionship in a non-sexual way. After all, in the new heavens and new earth, there will be no marriage and also no loneliness and no mourning. The church is to be a foretaste of heaven. And yet most American evangelical churches are so family focused that singles feel out of place and disconnected.
American culture — and our church culture — expects our members to engage with others and the church as members of a family — defined as a heterosexual couple with children or planning to have children. And yet 30% of American adults are single — whether through choice, divorce, or death of a spouse. We really need to seriously rethink how we minister to the singles — gay or straight — among us.
“Minister to” isn’t quite the right concept, though. It’s really more about how we relate to one another — how we form community.
And we need to take Jesus and Paul seriously when they urge the single life for some — many — Christians.
Oh, and maybe the gift follows the choice, and not the other way around, at least some of the time. Maybe sometimes God gifts us to be faithfully married or faithfully single once we decide which path to follow — for the sake of the Lord.
Paul’s position in 1 Cor 7 is that celibacy is preferred to marriage because it allows a Christian to better serve Jesus — not merely because marriage isn’t an option. Perhaps when we choose singleness, not to avoid immorality but to dedicate ourselves to service — a concept very foreign to Protestants but very present in 1 Cor 7 — then the gift will follow. Perhaps?
All I know is that the theory hasn’t been often tried.