Scripture and the “gay marriage” debate

I had an unexpected visit from a friend this evening. Among the wide-ranging and inspiring (as well as depressing since we talked of the plight of the Rohingya) topics we addressed was the question facing the Baptist Churches of NZ of what to do faced with many churches who believe that to perform the marriage of a gay couple would deny the truths taught in Scripture and other churches convinced that to refuse to perform such marriages would in itself be a denial of truths taught clearly in Scripture.

I do not want to address this issue directly, but rather the similar issue of divorce – also a question of sexual ethics that can be addressed from Scripture fairly directly.

The Bible seems to me to speak with only two voices on divorce.

Deuteronomy 24:1 “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house…” which allows divorce. The translation of the grounds is open to some debate (for an idea of the range cf. NIV and NRSV) but but in Jesus day the issue resolved into a debate between “conservatives” who only allowed unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse, and the “liberals” who allowed divorce for “any reason” (pretty much the position the laws of most Western countries take today.

Jesus seems (Matt 5:31; 19:7; Mark 10:4) to take a hard line. Arguing that divorce contravenes God’s intention expressed in Gen 2 and concluding: Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Mark 10:9)1

I am ignoring Mal 2:16 as this passage (in which God says “I hate divorce”) may not be speaking of literal divorce but rather Israel’s unfaithfulness to her covenant partner, God.

In terms of a Christian position on this issue I can see no justification for setting aside Jesus words and returning to the law of the Old Testament. One common approach to the “problem” of OT law for Christians is to argue the opposite, that only what is affirmed in the NT applies to us. I believe that position to be wrong, but still cannot accept setting aside a saying of Jesus (repeated three times)  in favour of a difficult to translate OT law.

Yet somehow almost all churches today in NZ accept divorce certificates issued by the NZ state as a result of a “no fault” process. They then remarry these divorced people.

I would be grateful for someone who can explain to me how the hermeneutics that allows this flagrant breach of Jesus’ clear and strong teaching applies to “gay marriage”!

[This is a genuine question, I am still unsure where I stand on the question of churches performing “gay marriages”, but I am quite clear on the biblical teaching on divorce. I do not understand how one can allow churches that practice the remarriage of “no fault” divorced people to remain in communion yet argue that churches that practice “gay marriage” should be excluded.]

  1. There is a case to be made that Jesus’ position is not as stark as it seems but that he was siding with the “conservatives” and only allowing divorce for unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse. []

13 comments on “Scripture and the “gay marriage” debate

  1. Gene Lawrence

    Hi Tim. I have often wondered if the divorce statements of Jesus are amongst many other statements to which all could gasp and ask “Who then can be saved?!” To which Jesus would respond “What is impossible with humans is possible with God.”

    1. tim

      I am convinced by David Instone Brewer’s arguments that Jesus is entering the debate about no fault divorce “for any reason” and is saying that no fault divorce (divorce for “any reason”) is not allowed, but that he (therefore) would still allow divorce for unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse. That is I think his saying is thoroughly contextual. But I have yet to hear the arguments that allow churches to accept no fault divorces.

    2. Deane Galbraith

      It appears that Paul took Jesus as stating a workable ethic, Gene. He mirrors Jesus Iin Mk 10:1-12 in instructing that there be no divorce and that remarriage is a sin. With the proscription of remarriage, there is no mention of fault or not.

      Interesting question, Tim. I expect some hermeneutical slipping and sliding…

  2. Jason

    I’m the Senior Minister at North Avon Baptist, since 2008. In 2010 I married. My wife was previously divorced by her husband because he felt he no longer loved her. I raised this very argument before our church when we were engaged and the feeling from the community was one of support. I am still wrestling with the answer as you are. I’ll be following your post with interest.

    1. tim

      Thank you Jason, this is a really helpful contribution. It reminds us of the human reality of what we are discussing. Too often “theologians”, whether amateur or professional, get so excited by our ideas of what God requires we forget the people involved.

  3. Paul D.

    Of course, there are and have been countries (mainly with Roman Catholic heritages) that banned divorce for this very reason. I believe the Philippines are the last holdout. (Malta also did not allow divorce until 2011.)

    But even churchgoers have mostly figured out that allowing people out of unhappy or abusive marriages is the practical, loving thing to do. In time, most will figure out how to allow love and empathy to overrule (presumed) biblical proscriptions on gay marriage.

    1. tim

      Yes, I suspect that this is the reasoning that did in fact drive the tide to turn on the “issue” of divorce. But that seems to mean that people like Baptists (my denomination) who hold that Scripture is the authority, for Christians, on such issues have to adjust to a more nuanced approach to applying Scripture.

      My point is that we need to make the hermeneutics of our position clear. People who are happy to “overrule” the Bible in the name of love have no such problem.

  4. rob kilpatrick

    Very interesting Tim. And what do you think is the reason behind Jesus firm rebuttal of ‘no fault’ divorce? Is it some aspect of sexual morals (about ‘knowing’ too many people) is it about keeping vows made to God, is it about communal stability? – all this assuming its not just that God made rules for the hell of it or to frustrate overwrought libido. I tend to see the gay marriage issue as more of a justice thing. Others clearly see it as ‘moral’ and some see it as pastoral. I wonder where we class divorce and if people’s divorce and gay marriage philosophical understandings align?

    1. tim

      Good questions :) The scriptural context (as well as the social context) of Jesus’ sayings is also useful to examine. Maybe a followup post.

  5. Bob MacDonald

    But we have the mind of Christ. Is this the same thing as saying that we see into the mind of Jesus? What is this Anointed mind? How does it operate?

    Did I ever listen to the works of Benjamin Britten – like the war requiem? Britten was a man in a lifelong partnership with another man Peter Pears who wrote against our glorification of war and the violence of our severe desires to be right and dominant at all costs. Yes I did, and I love Britten’s music. But he was a homosexual. I then am a hypocrite. Is Jesus a hypocrite? Is the mind of Christ confused?

    As a part of that body of the Anointed, was I confused? You bet I was. But my confusion was nothing compared with my ignorance of the gifts of the Holy Spirit related to my own person and the power that was both in me and on me of the intent of the love of God toward me. As a member of that body of Christ, I could not hold to those things that were contradictory in me. I cannot hold a law against tenderness. I do have a law against exploitation, violence, self-protection, greed and so on. But against compassion, tenderness, mutual support, commitment, and love, there can be no law.

    This is the mind that is over me in the assembly. But it is clear that the assemblies are in disagreement. Where does that come from? Does it only come from those who have or take power over others? But he says, It will not be so among you. There are good reasons for some power. Perhaps the authority knows something more about our sexual nature that cannot be expressed and that says – don’t do this. You will regret it in the long run. Your desire is deceptive in you.

    But how do we exercise such knowledge in the trust of God? Where is our ultimate amen? I have people talk to me of their trust in God through the Anointed Jesus and they are ‘gay’. Will I trust God for them? Or will I say to them, you are not acceptable in my sight? Or I know more than you do about this and I have control over myself. But would I say this? Would I say that you must be ‘celibate’. It may be that even if I have superior knowledge, that I really still cannot force my knowledge on them whether negatively or positively. I sing their music, I am at the Lord’s table with them. I am the one at fault, not them. It is my mind that needs changing. So what do I do? I live with my questions and I change my mind so I can live with myself.

    It was not long ago that I had a similar attitude towards women in the assembly. I learned to reread the Scriptures and question every assumption that was in the minds of the translators, whether of the dominant role of men, the power over slaves, the divine right of kings, or ancient attitudes concerning sexual behaviour in others as far as we are able to perceive them. I learned to read the silences. My Lord has not abandoned me for so doing. Whatever you bind on earth … whatever you loose on earth…

    It was not long ago that others had that attitude to circumcision. But we are circumcised in the death of Jesus (Colossians 2:11).

    I did ask one of my gay friends if he wanted children. He said he might – who knows if he will not find a woman and such a commitment also? Perhaps he will. I know committed same-sex couples with adopted kids. As a child from out of a Dickensian school, I might have followed many tortuous paths. How indeed can anyone have a view of compassion given our shared human history of violent self-interest?

    There is no longer male and female. οὐκ ἔνι ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ, but you are all one in the Anointed Jesus through his death and by the operation of Adoption through the Holy Spirit.

    What we fail to teach in the churches – though there has been some difference recently – is the consecration of our own bodies in that death of Jesus. We are all made holy in him – how then do we seek the purity that God seeks to form in us? Not by might, nor by power, nor persuasion, nor imposition by authoritative colonial structure, but through that same Spirit that is known through the death of Jesus. Let this mind be in us…

    1. tim

      Wow Bob, that is a long and full response. I think (at least for those of us with Johannine minds) your approach works well. BTW I have started reading, and really enjoying your novel I hope to post about it soon, though our son heading overseas has priority for a while.

      The trouble with such a Johannine approach is that we also have (among Baptists) people whose faith works differently, and need to hear Matthew (not John) on such topics, because they want clear “laws”.

  6. Bob MacDonald

    Tim – you move me to consider if I have treated Matthew fairly in my thought – maybe I need another book. I started one on the Gospels many years ago and this might be the stimulus that makes me add to the project I am doing. I do not for a minute think that ‘jot or tittle’ is in a legal framework, rather I expect it is a metaphor for the closeness that our Lord knew, in the time of his humanity, of Torah instruction from all the books of the OT. In Johannine terms, this is being ‘in the bosom of the Father’. I expect he would have read them in Hebrew and not in Greek, but what order would he have considered canonical? – perhaps no order. Still would he see the scrolls of the Prophets and Psalms as the keys to Torah (law, instruction), i.e. the books of Moses? That would make Torah not equivalent to an abstract “nomos” as the Greeks have it, but rather a living “logos”. Still I think we can reconcile Matthew and John.

    While I agree we need “laws” (and social conventions and mutual deferments), many of our jots and tittles must be left unwritten. It’s a problem of completeness. If any word I use is overloaded for me, it is that one, completeness, תמם in Hebrew. I am reminded of Psalm 19, English v13 which KJV has as “upright”, but I think this word “complete” is a theme. What constitutes completeness for the individual and indeed for the each part of our corporate body (i.e, family, community, church, business, nation, and world)? – what a difficult question.

  7. Heather Roberts

    I have wondered the same thing. I am very uncomfortable with the idea of a church happily marrying people who have been divorced yet refusing to marry gay couples, as the Biblical case against divorce seems to much clearer to me than the case against gay marriage. I’m pretty sure I’m part of one such church but since neither issue has ever been openly discussed so it’s hard to be sure. Like you, I have been unable to decide whether or not churches *should* marry gay people, but I’m bemused by our comfortable position on marrying those who have been divorced given our strong stance on the other issue.