Thursday, May 17, 2012

Christian Opposition to Gay Marriage: A Theological Argument

Read Part I - Christian Opposition to Gay Marriage: A Constitutional Argument

In this first part of this two-part series, we looked at how religious opposition to gay marriage goes against the principles of liberty and secular government, outlined in the Constitution.  It's not that religious people don't have a right to voice their opinion or to be opposed to something they view as sinful; but when religious opinions dictate legislation (as with recent gay marriage laws), the Constitution and civil liberties are thrown out the window.

In that first part, we saw how some modern political groups - most notably the Tea Party - claim to uphold the Constitution and to be rigorous defenders of Constitutional rights, but many of those same Tea Party groups are vocally opposed to gay marriage rights on religious grounds.  I stated that this is but one way in which many gay  marriage opponents are hypocritical.

The other way, of course, is within Christianity itself.  

Most people seem to think the question of gay marriage in general, and homosexuality in particular, is a "no-brainer" as far as the Bible is concerned.  The Bible explicitly condemns homosexuality and homosexual relationships, so any self-respecting Christian should be opposed to it.  In this regard, a Christian friend of mine, who is a minister, stated: "Scripture is clear.  Homosexuality is wrong.  There is no gray area."  In another place, he stated: "I can't just accept the parts about God's love and mercy and forgiveness, and skip over the parts about His holiness and judgement."  In other words, he can't just pick the nice parts, and ignore the difficult parts.  For this reason, he says, "I can't justify [a homosexual lifestyle] with a holy God who calls it a sin."

This "Pick and Choose" argument, as I call it, is one of the most common arguments that Christians use when discussing hot-button topics facing modern society.  I have heard it used in discussions on everything from gay marriage and homosexuality, to abortion, gender roles, and whether or not Jesus is the only viable means of salvation.  Indeed, this argument may be the most commonly used weapon evangelicals wield against "moderate" and "liberal" Christians who they see as watering down the Holy Word.

The problem with this argument, of course, is that there is no such thing as a Christian who does not pick and choose what they like from the Bible and discard or ignore the rest.  Even the most stringent Bible literalist doesn't actually believe everything the Bible says, and doesn't actually follow all of the Bible's teachings.  More on this in a bit.

First, I want to briefly discuss what the Bible does actually say about homosexuality.  I have written extensively on this topic in the past, so if any reader wants more information, they can find it here: Homosexuality and the New Testament.

To put it simply, the Bible has very little to say on homosexuality - but it seems like it says a lot more.  The Torah codifies homosexuality as a sin punishable by death (Leviticus 20:13).  Other passages in the Torah also condemn homosexuality as detestable to God.  In still other parts of the Old Testament, homosexuals are either put to death or expelled from the Jewish kingdom (for instance, 1 Kings 15:12).

There is a two-fold problem here, however.  First of all, anytime critics of Christianity point out all the absurd, and sometimes even downright horrific, rules of the Old Testament, Christians will defend themselves by pointing out that the Old Testament was replaced by the New Testament, and so the rules and regulations of the Old Testament are no longer valid.  Jesus did away with them.  If that's true, of course, it also applies to the Old Testament rules and regulations about homosexuality.  After all, many modern Christians may think homosexuality is a sin, but they don't advocate the death penalty for it.  So for Christians, using Old Testament passages to condemn homosexuality is theologically inconsistent.  Those rules aren't in place anymore, having been "fulfilled" by Jesus.

Secondly, and most importantly, the Old Testament doesn't actually say nearly as much about homosexuality as it appears.  In fact, outside of those outdated Torah rules about putting gay people to death, the Old Testament doesn't ever refer to homosexuality.  In all the many passages that have long been understood as referring to homosexuality, the Hebrew word used there doesn't mean "homosexual" at all, but instead refers explicitly to a temple prostitute.  In the ancient world, fertility cults were extremely common, and part of the way these cults worshipped included ritual sex acts, involving both men and women.  In the Old Testament, when kings are shown expelling "homosexuals" or "sodomites" from their kingdom, the text is actually referring to pagan fertility cults being disbanded.  This is so widely recognized today that even the widely-read NIV and the New King James Version have translated the word as "male temple prostitutes" instead of the traditional King James word "sodomites."

At this point, you might be asking, "But what about the New Testament?"

Like the Old Testament, the New Testament only seems to say a lot about homosexuality.  Famous passages in both 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy use a Greek word that has been translated as "homosexual" or "homosexual offenders" (or the classic King James phrase "abusers of themselves with mankind"), but linguists and scholars today understand that this word's meaning is basically unknown.  It is never attested in any Greek text prior to Paul's usage of it in 1 Corinthians, and it simply isn't clear what he was referring to - it has even been suggested that Paul coined the word himself.  There were, in fact, several widely-used words in ancient Greek that referred to homosexuality - "pedophilia," which referred to men having sex with boys, and "kinaidos," which basically referred to the size of one's rectum.  Whatever Paul's word meant, there simply isn't any reason to assume it meant "gay men."  In my own study of the issue, I think the most appropriate translation of the word is "pimp" - that is, someone who benefits monetarily from sex.  The link I provided above goes into a lot more detail about this issue.

In any case, we are left, in the New Testament, with just one passage that definitely talks about homosexuality, and that is a text found in Romans 1, where Paul laments men and women who give up natural relations in order to have sex with people of the same gender.  But here, as in the Old Testament passages, this reference to homosexuality is related to ritual sex in pagan temples.  The context of the passage makes that crystal clear, and Paul almost certainly had an eye on the Old Testament passages we saw above that talk about ancient Jewish kings expelling fertility cults from the land.  And remember, Paul was writing to the Christians in Rome, where fertility cults were commonplace.  He was encouraging them not to be led astray by these false gods, which were "man-made things" made to look like birds and reptiles (think of the animal gods of ancient Egypt).

With all these issues in mind, is it actually true that the Bible is crystal clear on the issue of homosexuality, as asserted by my minister friend?  Or are the waters much, much murkier?  In fact, I think the waters are unquestionably murky.  About the only thing we can say with confidence is that the Bible clearly condemns pagan fertility cults and those who take part in them.  Just about everything else is debatable.

As such, should Christians be attempting to legislate morality on an issue that is not even particularly clear in the Bible?  Shouldn't Christians be more concerned with issues that are, in fact, clear in the Bible, like feeding the poor, helping the sick, and living a lifestyle of unrestrained love and mercy?

Of course, I think the answer to that first question is no, and to the second question yes, but my theological argument goes even farther than that. I want to turn now to the "Pick and Choose" phenomenon I mentioned above.

As I explained, one of the first arguments sophisticated Christians make when confronted with social issues is that a Christian can't just pick and choose what they want to believe.  You have to accept the whole deal; you can't just follow some things, and reject the others.  This is sometimes referred to as "buffet-style Christianity," taking what you want and ignoring the rest.

And this is where the real hypocrisy comes into play in regards to Christians who are opposed to gay marriage on Biblical grounds.  Let's agree for a moment that the Bible actually is crystal clear on the issue of homosexuality.  Let's agree that homosexuality is an unquestionable sin and should be condemned.

Of all the sins and unrighteous ways of living outlined in the Bible, why is this one so important?  Not just so important that Christians need to voice their opinion about the sinfulness of the gay lifestyle, but so important that they actually need to amend their state constitutions - and maybe even the U.S. constitution - in order to deny gay people the right to get married?  Why this sin, and not something else?

In 1 Corinthians, there is a passage that is very frequently referred to by people arguing against gay marriage.  This is one of the passages I noted above where the meaning of the word used is unclear and probably did not refer to homosexuality.  But, as above, let's agree for a moment that it does refer to homosexuals.  In that passage, Paul is imploring his audience to live righteous lives and to flee from immorality.  He lists several sins which will keep believers from "inheriting the kingdom of God."  Among these are sexual immorality, drunkenness, greed, idolatry, adultery, and homosexuality.  Why is homosexuality the most important thing in that list?  Why not focus on greed, or drunkenness?  Why not re-enact the 18th Amendment and put Prohibition back in place?  Why not amend the constitution to outlaw sex outside of marriage?

The fact is, there is no legitimate justification for putting homosexuality above the others.  There is no Biblical justification for denying gays the same rights as everyone else, even if you think it's a sin.  You may think sex outside of marriage is a sin too, but you sure aren't trying to keep those who have had premarital sex from being able to get married!

And the biggest one here, of course, is adultery.  If you judge a sin's importance by how often it is referred to or condemned in the Bible, adultery is probably the Number One Biblical Sin.

And just what is adultery, by the Bible's definition?  Quite simply, adultery is when a married person has sex with someone other than their spouse, or when a non-married person has sex with someone who is married to someone else.  At its core, adultery is about infidelity and unfaithfulness.  This is why, throughout the Bible, "adultery" is used as a metaphor for unfaithfulness to God.

In the Gospels, Jesus speaks about adultery on several occasions.  In fact, Jesus uses the word "adultery" no less than fourteen times.  One of his teachings, which is repeated in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, dealt with adultery and divorce.  Here, Jesus states that even looking lustfully at someone who is not your spouse is the same as adultery.  He goes on to say that Moses was wrong in allowing people to get divorced for any reason.  In fact, he argues, if you get divorced for any reason other than infidelity, and then get remarried, you are committing adultery.

This passage, of course, has been the basis for many rules and regulations within modern churches about divorced people.  I grew up being taught that getting divorced for any reason other than unfaithfulness was a sin, and so was remarriage after such a divorce.  I also grew up in a church that did not allow divorced people to have leadership roles like minister or deacon; many modern churches still have rules like that.  If a divorced person wants to remarry, some churches won't allow them to have the ceremony in their church, and some ministers won't marry anyone who has been divorced.      

So with this in mind, and considering that adultery is essentially the biggest sin in the Bible, why aren't Christians fighting to ban divorced people from getting remarried?  Why aren't they arguing that such marriages harm the sanctity of marriage, as ordained by God?  Why aren't they pointing out that divorced people who get remarried are living a sinful lifestyle of adultery?

Scripture is clear.  Remarriage after divorce is wrong.  There is no gray area.

I hope you get my point here.  Christian opposition to gay marriage is inconsistent with the way Christians react to other teachings in the Bible.  I don't know any Christians who are fighting to amend a state constitution to ban divorced people from getting remarried.  I don't know any Christians who would disallow a divorced-and-remarried person to  be an active and accepted member of their church community.  I don't know any Christians who are "hung up" on people getting divorced and remarried.

And yet there are millions of Christians out there trying to ban gay marriage, ostracizing unrepentant gay people from their churches, trying "cure" gay people of their sins, and who are, in general, definitely "hung up" on gay rights.

And these same people, of course, will turn around and accuse a gay rights Christian of "picking and choosing" what they believe, while ignoring the fact that virtually no Christian believes it's a sin for a woman to have short hair, or a man to have long hair (1 Corinthians 11), virtually no Christian believes a woman should not be permitted to have authority over a man (1 Timothy 2), and virtually no Christian believes that slaves should be content in their way of life and faithfully obey their masters (1 Corinthians 7; Ephesians 6).

The Pick and Choose argument, in the end, is just a lot of hypocritical smoke and mirrors to justify prejudice against gay people, and legislating discrimination based on that prejudice.  It is an inconsistent argument that makes false assumptions about what the Bible actually says about homosexuality, and presupposes that "good" Christians follow everything the Bible teaches, even though that is demonstrably not true.

In the end, opposition to gay marriage is not about religion at all.  It's about the fact that many people are simply uncomfortable with gay people, afraid of gay lifestyles, and generally find the whole issue of homosexuality distasteful.  Many of those people then simply open their Bibles to find ways to justify their prejudice.  It's a method of operation that has been going on in Christian society for many hundreds of years.  700 years ago, Christians used the Bible to persecute Jews and other non-Christians.  500 years ago, Christians used the Bible to condemn Galileo.  200 years ago, Christians used the Bible to support and condone the institution of slavery.  100 years ago, Christians used the Bible to deny equal rights for women.  And today, they are using the Bible to justify discrimination against gay people.

Fortunately, history shows that they will lose this argument as they have lost all the others.  Fifty years from now, no one will have a problem with gay marriage, except for a few nutty people on the fringes of mainstream religion.  Gay people are going to win their rights to get married, and it will eventually happen in every state.  Christians today who are opposed to gay marriage will either die out or will reluctantly give in to the changing times and the irresistible force of progress, just as they did with slavery and women's rights.  In the future, the fact that there was so much opposition to gay marriage will be an embarrassment to self-respecting Americans.            

That, at least, gives me some hope.


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