Over the past few weeks, on Wednesdays, we have been discussing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5) I chose this particular book because I think it provides the most accessible and personal introduction to the biblical and historical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, and because Matthew is a theologically conservative Christian who affirms the authority of Scripture and who is also gay. His research is sound and his story compelling, and he’s a friend—someone I like and respect and enjoy learning from.
This week we wrap up our discussion with a look at Matthew’s argument in support of marriage equality in Chapter 8 and his concluding remarks in Chapters 9 and 10.
The Biblical Argument for Marriage Equality
In Chapter 8, Matthew tackles a big question: can same-sex marriage fit a Christian basis for marriage?
“Our question is not whether the Bible addresses the modern concepts of sexual orientation and same-sex marriage,” he writes. “We know it doesn’t. Instead, our question is: can we translate basic biblical principles about marriage to this new situation without losing something essential in the process?”
That’s a complicated question for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the reality that Christians themselves disagree on exactly what constitutes “biblical principles about marriage”! I know plenty of people who would describe my marriage with Dan as “unbiblical” because it functions as a partnership rather than a hierarchy, with our roles determined by gifting rather than gender. So we’re wading into tricky territory here, but Matthew handles it gracefully.
He begins with Ephesians 5, where the apostle Paul describes marriage as a “profound mystery” pointing to the ultimate union between Christ and the Church. “In marriage,” writes Matthew, “we are called to reflect God’s love for us through our self-giving love for our spouse.” This is something same-sex couples can do just as well as heterosexual couples, he says. Matthew then goes on to address three common objections to same-sex marriage: procreation, gender hierarchy, and gender complementarity.
One of the most common reasons for opposing same-sex marriage cited by non-affirming Christians is that only a man and woman can biologically procreate. Appealing to Genesis 1:28 as a direct command rather than a creative blessing, they argue that the capacity to procreate is critical to a God-honoring union.
While much of Hebrew Scripture focuses on God’s covenantal blessing to Israel through biological procreation, “the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus ushered in a host of transformative changes,” writes Matthew. “And one of the change is vital to our conversation: Biological procreation no longer determines membership in God’s Kingdom. Spiritual re-birth through faith in Christ does.”
To support this, Matthew points to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, as well as his statement in Matthew 12:46-50 that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” This new emphasis on being “grafted in” to the family of God brought those who had traditionally been left out—eunuchs, for example—in. Furthermore, despite the significance of procreation in the Old Testament, Matthew argues, infertile marriages were not considered illegitimate. Take Abraham and Sarah, for example, or Elkanah and Hannah. Song of Songs beautifully celebrates the joys of erotic love for their own pleasurable merits, not simply for the purpose of procreation. And neither Jesus nor the apostle Paul suggest that non-procreative marriages are illegitimate or that procreation is the only purpose of sex. “From a theological perspective,” Matthew concludes, “marriage primarily involves a covenant-keeping relationship of mutual self-giving that reflects God’s love for us….Marriage is only secondarily—and not necessarily at all—about having biological children.”
This, in my opinion, is the big one. Because some Christians interpret the New Testament household codes as prescribing hierarchal gender roles wherein wives function as subordinates to their husbands, their challenge to same-sex couples is, who’s in charge?
We discuss the New Testament Household Codes here, and at length in our series on the subject, here, but in summary: Just as the New Testament household codes assume a hierarchy between master and slave, they assume a hierarchy between men and women. It would be silly to expect anything else to emerge out of writings from the Greco-Roman culture. What makes the New Testament household codes powerful and countercultural is that they actually challenge those hierarchies by instructing all members of the household—even the masters, who in that culture held unilateral authority over their slaves, wives, and children— to imitate Jesus Christ in their relationships by modeling his self-sacrificing love.
Matthew points out that in his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote that three types of hierarchies would fade away in Christ. One was that of male and female. The others were distinctions between Jew and Gentile and distinctions between slave and free. “In opposing slavery,” writes Matthew, “Christians in the 19th century took that message to heart. Since there will not be a distinction in God’s kingdom of slave and free, Christians decided to abolish the inhumane institution of slavery in the West….Christians did not work for change so that slaves would be regarded as having equal value while maintaining a subordinate status and role in society. They chose to abolish the subordinate status altogether.”
And yet many today continue to argue that Galatians 3:28 only refers to salvific status when it comes to women, that Paul is simply granting women access to salvation, not equal status with men. (This doesn’t make much sense since women were already regarded as having access to salvation.) But if this thinking were applied to slaves, who are mentioned in the very same verse, then Christians could not appeal to Galatians 3:28 for the abolition of slavery. In other words, “neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female” has to mean something more than shared access to salvation. It has to mean something radical about how relationships among Christians in this patriarchal culture were to change.
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it a million times more: What makes a marriage holy and sacred isn’t the degree to which it reflects a rigid hierarchy, but rather the degree to which it reflects the self-giving, self-sacrificing love of Jesus. It’s not about putting Jesus at the top of a flowchart, with the man next in line, and the woman at the bottom. It’s about putting Christ at the center. That, I believe, is the truly radical message of the New Testament Household Codes that so often gets drowned out by advocates of Christian patriarchy. And I see no reason why the self-sacrificing love of Jesus cannot be modeled in a committed same-sex relationship as well as it can be modeled in a committed heterosexual relationship. (After all, if anatomical complementarity alone were what sanctified a marriage, then an abusive heterosexual marriage would be considered more “sanctified” than a loving homosexual one.)
[For more on the New Testament, check out our "Submit One To Another" series.]
A final argument against same-sex marriage is that two people cannot become “one flesh” if they do exhibit anatomical complementarity. Here Matthew cites Jim Brownson’s Bible, Gender Sexuality, where the Bible scholar argues that such an interpretation of Genesis 2:24 over-sexualizes the phrase “one flesh,” which in the Bible is used metaphorically to describe ties of kinship between all sorts of people. (In Genesis 29, Laban describes his son-in-law Jacob as “my bone and my flesh,” for example.) “Becoming ‘one flesh,’” Matthew argues, “encompasses much more than the act of sex. It includes the entire covenantal context in which God intends for sex to take place.”
In Ephesians 5:31-32, the phrase “one flesh” is said to be a mystery of marriage that relates to Christ and the Church. "Not only does Ephesians 5 never mention gender-determined anatomical differences, it focuses instead on the fact that husbands and wives are part of the same body…So according to Ephesians, gender difference is not necessary to become one flesh in the Bible’s understanding of those words.”
Matthew concludes this chapter with a stirring call: “In God’s glorious, limitless love, he has imparted to us that most precious and humbling of gifts: our own capacity for love. Not all Christians are called to marriage, and the church must uphold the validity of celibacy for those who are called to it. But for those who do not sense a calling to celibacy, God’s gift of sexual love in marriage should be affirmed. There is no biblical reason to exclude the covenantal bonds of gay Christians from that affirmation.”
I suspect that as marriage equality continues to spread across the country, the Church’s conversation around LGBT inclusion will change. Will churches that oppose same-sex marriage encourage married couples to divorce? Will they turn away gay or lesbian couples when they bring their kids to Sunday school? Will they deny that Christ-imitating, self-sacrificing love is indeed present in many same-sex relationship and continue to advocate against ensuring gay couples can visit one another in the hospital? God has this strange habit of using “outsiders” to school the “insiders” on what it really means to love and serve. I suspect it will be no different in this case.
The Image of God and LGBT Christians
In Chapter 9, Matthew makes a strong case that being created in the image of God cannot uniquely be tied to heterosexuality and points to the Trinity to show that part of being created in the image of God is longing for intimacy and relationship. It’s too much to reiterate in the limited space we have left, so I urge you to pick up God and the Gay Christian for the full argument. I would simply add that, having had a conversation just yesterday with someone who is intersex, it is time we accept the reality God has not created a rigid, one-dimensional world when it comes to gender and sexuality. As someone put it the other day: Acknowledging the existence of twilight doesn’t require rejecting the existence of day and night.
Matthew addresses the incredible damage done by Christians who teach LGBT people to hate their sexuality, which cannot so easily be separated from their very selves. “When we tell people that their every desire for intimate, sexual bonding is shameful and disordered,” he writes, “we encourage them to hate a core part of who they are. And when we reject the desires of gay Christians to express their sexuality within a lifelong covenant, we separate them from our covenantal God, and we tarnish their ability to bear his image.”
Then Matthew concludes with this little truth bomb: “Instead of asking whether it’s acceptable for the church to deny gay Christians the possibility of sexual fulfillment in marriage, we should ask a different question. Is it acceptable to deny gay Christians the opportunity to sanctify their sexual desires through a God-reflecting covenant.”
Questions for Discussion:
1. Are there same-sex couples in your life whose relationships reflects the self-giving love of Jesus? Tell us about that.
2. As more states embrace marriage equality and civil rights for LGBT people, how do you think the conversation regarding their inclusion in the church will change?
3. Finally, as we conclude this series, do you have any lingering questions, thoughts or ideas you would like to discuss? Has this conversation changed anything for you, and what would you like to see happen moving forward—both on the blog and in the wider Church?
Finally: I'd like to issue a big thank-you to our friend, Matthew Vines, who not only wrote a great book for discussion, but who has jumped into the comment section several times to respond to your questions and ideas. I've gotten to know Matthew a little better over the course of the last few weeks and I have to say, his guy's stubborn sense of hope, joy, and commitment to Jesus continues to inspire and challenge me. Let's be in prayer for his efforts at The Reformation Project's Regional Training Conference this week.
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