Richard Beck’s Experimental Theology continues to be a must-read blog. Even though I sometimes disagree. Especially because I sometimes disagree.
Richard recently posted an article summarizing four arguments for affirming same sex marriage. He did not endorse or advocate these arguments.
On the importance of vocabulary
Now, the debate regarding gay marriage is an intensely emotional one and also a highly politicized one. It this respect it’s like the abortion debate in the US. And like the abortion debate, the smart advocates battle not only over scripture but over control of the narrative and language. Hence, in abortion debates, the sides refer to themselves as “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” each capturing the most politically attractive aspect of their position in their nomenclature.
In the gay marriage debate, those who say the Bible approves gay marriage refer to themselves as “affirming,” and who could be against affirming people? But, of course, the debate isn’t over affirming gay Christians but affirming gay marriage — two very different things. But when we refer to one position by the shorthand of “affirming,” we paint with the brush of a particular narrative — whether we mean to or not.
Those who reject gay marriage think of themselves as affirming gay Christians and the scriptures. But they don’t get to use the word. And to my knowledge, this position hasn’t yet been reduced to a label — which tells me that the anti-gay marriage forces aren’t as politically astute as the pro-gay marriage forces — which likely speaks well of their integrity (they’re thinking in terms of exegesis, not voters), but it means they start the debate behind the eight-ball.
I’m going to avoid referring to the pro-gay marriage position as “affirming,” as I believe it’s contrary to scripture. We’ll go with “pro-gay marriage” or pro-GM or “anti-gay marriage” or anti-GM for value-neutral terminology.
Beck does not argue that the traditional readings of the scripture are so erroneous as to remove the gay sex prohibitions from the text of the scriptures. While most commentators would agree that some texts are not nearly as opposed to homosexuality as the traditional reading, nonetheless, even in the most pro-GM light, the text declares homosexual sexual activity sinful.
I do need to urgently add that under anyone’s fair reading of the text, being homosexual — having that orientation — is not made a sin by the scriptures. Rather, it’s the conduct — the sex act — that is condemned.
Therefore, we can fairly say that the NT affirms homosexuals, not their sexual activity, but as humans and Christians, despite their fallen natures. Of course, the same is true of everyone else.
We are all broken, fallen, sinful beings. That doesn’t make our brokenness good and holy; it just means that we all need healing by the Messiah and his Spirit. And so none of us gets to sneer at others for having a fallen nature. We all have that in common, and God loves us all anyway.
Beck also does not make the popular argument that Jesus never condemned homosexuality. I can’t speak for Beck, but there are two excellent reasons that the pro-GM advocates need to drop that one:
- Jesus condemns “fornication” (e.g., Matt 15:19), and in that time and place, any listener (or reader) would have understood “fornication” to include homosexual acts.
- Paul was inspired — and his multiple condemnations of homosexual activity are just as declarative of God’s will as Jesus’ own words.
First Argument: We understand homosexuality so much better than the ancients did
Beck writes (and you do need to read his entire article) —
1. Apples and Oranges
Similar to the Copernican Revolution, when we came to recognize that the earth revolves around the sun, humanity has only just come to recognize sexual orientation as a durable and intrinsic feature of human sexuality. That is, sexual orientation is not a choice and it’s not amenable to change.
Consequently, when the biblical authors, in both the Old and New Testaments, observed sexual activity they could only explain what they were seeing through the only lens they had, that of disordered and excessive sexual desire. That was the only reasonable explanation, in the eyes of the biblical writers, for why men would desire sex with men. Or women with women. What was being condemned in the Bible was this excessive and disordered sexual desire, desires deemed, given the science of the time, as being “contrary to nature.”
This is a testable hypothesis. Unfortunately, very few of us have any serious knowledge of the Greek and Roman literature of the ancient world and so we tend to accept the testimony of others. Fortunately, there are genuine experts, and the Internet makes it easy to check their work.
Ronald J. Sider is a popular evangelical author who campaigns for Christian social justice. He is a founding board member of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. He is also the Distinguished Professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He founded Evangelicals for Social Action.
He wrote in Christianity Today,
But two things are important about these arguments. First, Paul never argues that homosexual practice is wrong because it is pederastic or oppressive or wrong for a male to play the role of a woman. He simply says, in agreement with the unanimous Jewish tradition, that it is wrong. And second, there are in fact examples in ancient literature of long term (even life-long) homosexual partnerships. A number of ancient figures, including Plato’s Aristophanes in the Symposium, also talk about a life-long same-sex orientation.
As stated by N. T. Wright, a former Anglican bishop and likely the greatest Pauline theologian living —
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.
Wright served on the Anglican Lambeth Commission that worked to establish unity in the Anglican community after the ordination of Gene Robinson, an actively gay man, in Boston.
Both these men are far from being right-wing fundamentalists. Both are experts of the highest order. And both find the argument wrong as a matter of historical fact.
It’s easy to mention Copernicus and Galileo and to then argue that we modern folk are just so much smarter than our ancient forbears. But the ancients didn’t need telescopes to see homosexuality. The Greco-Roman culture largely approved of gay sexual relations, and yet the Jews and Christians adamantly refused to go along, not because they didn’t understand homosexuality but because they read the scriptures as declaring it contrary to God’s will.
Now implicit in the “we’re smarter now” argument is a low view of inspiration. After all, even if we were much more knowledgeable about human nature than Moses and Paul, they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Jesus was and is God the Son! God doesn’t need modern science to understand humanity well.
Also implicit is the assumption that, when it comes to these kinds of questions, modern science has helped us understand the human condition better. But those who spend much time in the classics know how untrue that is. Yes, we are much better at anatomy, medicine, and many other things. But when it comes to knowing the human heart, our modern insights are no better than those of the writers of scriptures — or even the best of the ancient Roman and Greek authors.