Christianity and Gay Marriage
The debate around Same-sex marriage has become one of the most complex in contemporary Christianity, primarily because it involves so many issues: human sexuality, science’s relation to Christianity, civil rights, Biblical interpretation, and the role of Scripture when establishing Church theology.
Instead of discussing same-sex parenting, this piece will focus only on marriage, as both topics would be too much to cover at the same time. It should be noted that the arguments against same-sex parenting fail when confronted with sound research showing children raised in same-sex partnerships fare just as well as in households with heterosexual parents¹.
Is being gay a Choice?
Although the origin of a person's sexual orientation is still unknown, scientific research points to genetics, hormones, and other possible influences… most likely a combination of these. While there is no substantial evidence linking childhood experiences to sexual orientation, there is a theory that in some cases environmental factors may activate an existing biological trigger. However, the fact that there are numerous gay individuals from stable families who never experienced sexual trauma -- and that there are numerous straight people from broken homes, or who experienced sexual abuse yet remain heterosexual proves that while environmental influences may be a factor for some, it is certainly not a factor for all. Whatever the cause of one's sexuality is, the outcome is clear: Being gay is not a choice.
This is a crucial argument in support of gay rights including the right to marry, and is important when looking at Bible verses about “unnatural” sexual urges. Same-sex attraction is natural for a gay person. Some heterosexuals may engage in same-sex sexual activity voluntarily, such as when young people experiment sexually. Others may engage in same-sex activities due to constraints of a situation, as is the case with prison inmates. Participating in these types of actions is not the same as being gay. Sexual identity and sexual behavior are two different things. Having a natural attraction to a person of the same sex is what constitutes someone being gay.
Anti-gay groups promote deceptive material claiming “scientific” proof that being gay is not a choice, such as in the widely circulated 2016 article by The New Atlantis, which is not a peer-reviewed science journal. There is too much flawed information in The New Atlantis' piece to cover here, but the material is extremely biased to say the least. A more detailed explanation of the New Atlantis report can be found here. In addition to credible scientific studies, there is a more important source confirming that being gay is not a choice... gay men and women. The vast majority of gays and lesbians are clear that their sexuality is not a choice. It is truly absurd that some anti-gay heterosexuals are making false claims about what gay people themselves feel.
Despite the appalling claims linking pedophilia to homosexuality by some anti-gay groups citing disreputable sources and faulty research, valid studies have shown gay men are no more likely to be sexually attracted to children than straight men.2 No mentally stable gay man or woman would support any form of pedophilia anymore than a mentally stable heterosexual would. The implication that there is a link between supporting the rights of two consenting gay adults and condoning pedophilia is both erroneous and mean-spirited.
Takeaway point: Being gay is not a choice.
Procreation and marriage
While procreation is a part of marriage for many couples, it is not a mandatory qualification for a marriage to exist. No religion requires married couples to have children. Couples who are infertile due to biology or age are married frequently, and some couples choose to adopt or remain married without children. There have been numerous prominent marriages throughout history that produced no children, yet were acknowledged by Churches and governments. Ironically, some of the most public opponents of gay marriage are themselves in marriages that have not produced children.
The claim “heterosexual marriages that don't produce children are still superior because heterosexuals in general are capable of producing children” is also invalid. If one argues that marriage exists solely for procreation, then a marriage incapable of producing children is not a valid marriage. A marriage either does produce children, or it does not. The capability of someone receiving the Sacrament of baptism is not recognized by Churches, only completing the actions is. Any obstacle would be irrelevant.
Just as infertile individuals should not be denied marriages because of a circumstance that they have no control over, gay individuals should not be denied marriages because of a circumstance they have no control over, that circumstance being their sexuality.
The role infertile couples play in this argument is significant, as over 6% of married women ages 15-44 are infertile (C.D.C., National Survey of Family Growth, 2011-13), a greater percentage than estimations of the gay population in America.
Takeaway point: No Church or government has ever made procreation a requirement for marriage.
The Biblical Definition of Marriage
The idea of today's Christians upholding the “Biblical Definition of Marriage" is almost absurd when one looks at the history of marriage in Scripture. Biblical marriages included polygamy (numerous accounts), assigning slave marriages (Exodus 21:4), prisoners of war (Numbers 31:1-18, Deut. 21:11-14), rapists and their victims (Deut. 22:28–29), and other combinations that would hardly pass muster with today's Christians. There are no New Testament laws that forbid polygamy, despite its existence in Scripture and the world during the time of Christ.
Takeaway point: Some examples of marriage in the Bible do not resemble marriage today.
The evolution of marriage
Marriage has continued to evolve since early Biblical times when polygamy was common. For over 1000 years marriage was primarily a legal contract throughout most of Europe. It was not even sanctified in the Church as a Sacrament until The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Because marriage was a legal contract focusing on transfers of property, which included women and children, prior to 1215 marriages were just as much, if not more, about one's finances than love. Individuals were frequently married against their will to fulfill contractual exchanges.
Contrary to Chief Justice John Robert's statement in his Obergefell v. Hodges dissent that gay marriage has never existed before, the fact remains that there are documented instances of marriages between people of the same sex in Medieval Christian Europe. Although some of these relationships are assumed to have had a romantic basis, others were likely about financial matters. Regardless of motivation, the fact that these were marriages is documented. Other examples of same-sex marriage, and those of a clearer romantic nature appear in ancient Greece and Rome, ancient Mesopotamia, ancient China and some early Native Americans tribes.
Takeaway point: The definition of marriage has changed over time, and has even included same-sex marriages in the past.
"The Bible says..."
A favorite rallying cry of many Christian gay marriage opponents is Matthew 19:5 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” Aside from the fact that the vast majority of couples have been and always will be heterosexual, in Biblical times there was not even the potential for gay marriage... there was not even a word for being gay. Referring to a heterosexual model was the only option when Christ spoke those words 2000 years ago about marriage and the loving life-long commitment of two people. More importantly, lines 4-5 in Matthew 19 are only part of a larger section where Christ is actually condemning divorce, not same-sex marriage. This is only one of many instances where the Bible prohibits divorce and remarriage3.
Churches opposing gay marriage cite Scripture as justification, yet most allow divorce and remarriage which are prohibited several times in the Bible3. When a Church or individual uses Bible verses to condemn gay marriage while making allowances for divorce and remarriage, it is not only hypocritical, it invalidates their claim of following Biblical standards for marriage.
Biblically speaking, a Roman Catholic annulment is no different than a divorce. Provisions for annulments are never directly mentioned in Scripture, and is made clear, multiple times, that separating a marriage is forbidden: "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matthew 19:6, Mark 10:9). Annulments are an invention of the Roman Catholic Church, not the Bible.
Divorce is an unfortunate, yet necessary part of society. If a marriage is no longer functional, a couple should be allowed to separate. No logical person would argue that any person should have to remain married to an abusive spouse or violent criminal, yet there are no Biblical allowances for divorce in these types of circumstances. If taken literally, some Biblical standards would be detrimental to society... and others would prove unrealistic to uphold.
Does merely looking at a woman with desire constitute adultery? Matthew 5:27-28 “… anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Do all wealthy people go to Hell? Mark 10:25 “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” These are only a couple of the many problematic verses in the Bible. Most people would agree that these verses should not be taken at face value. And yet, those opposing gay rights want us to take at face value the seven Bible verses that mention homosexuality, where what is being addressed are cultural practices and ritual acts from over 2000 years ago -- and are from a completely different society which held an underdeveloped understanding of human sexuality.
This leads us to two crucial questions: How do we to read Scripture properly, and what is the role of the Bible in developing a Church's theology?
Takeaway point: Permitting divorce and remarriage, yet condemning gay marriage on Biblical grounds is hypocritical and clearly invalidates claims of upholding the "Biblical marriage commandments." If reading Scripture literally, a woman can not even divorce an abusive husband. Roman Catholic annulments are an invention of the Church, and are no different than divorce according to the Bible.
Scripture and theology
To fully comprehend Scripture's meaning it is necessary to use context and interpretation when reading the Bible. The subsequent inspiration from the understanding of scripture is then used to set doctrine and beliefs. This practice was common knowledge in the original Church, was held by the people who assembled the Bible, and is still used today by the Catholic Churches, Anglican Churches, and other denominations. This is why, for example, these Churches have central beliefs not directly mentioned in the Bible like the Trinity or Sacraments. This is how these Churches can affirm evolution despite the creation accounts found in Genesis, and most Christians today are permitted to do things prohibited in Scripture like eat pork and shellfish, wear gold or pearls, braid their hair, allow a woman to speak in a church, obtain a divorce/annulment, get remarried, etc. This is also how the Churches that now support gay marriage (Episcopal, Lutheran ELCA, Presbyterian, etc.) arrived at their decisions.
Takeaway points: From the beginnings of Christianity, Scripture has been interpreted to discover the actual meaning. Reason and inspiration are used in conjunction with Scripture to set doctrine.
Scripture and theology: Fundamentalists and Evangelicals
It was not until the 16th century that Sola Scriptura, the idea that a Church's theology should be based completely on scripture alone, was created in Europe. In the United States during the early part of the 20th century, Fundamentalists took this concept a step further than its original intent and added the concept of Biblical Inerrancy which adheres to a literal reading of the Bible and the belief that the Bible is without error or fault.
The Roman Catholic Church, the original branch of Christianity, has always used Scripture as a foundation for its doctrine, dogma, and teachings... sometimes erroneously, as was the case with the Galileo debate. The Church would, however, eventually alter incorrect doctrine and teachings4 inconsistent with a literal reading of the Bible (Earth/Sun debate, evolution, etc.) because the Church never held the rigid belief of Biblical Innerancy.
The simplicity of the American Fundamentalists' message along with aggressive proselytizing have convinced millions of people that this is the only way to practice Christianity despite the fact that Biblical Inerrancy is a 20th century invention, and was never a part of Christianity for the majority of the Faith's existence. This view was not held by the very people who assembled the Bible, nor is it directly mentioned in the Bible itself. Claims that Bible verses such as 2 Timothy 3:16 are proof of Biblical Inerrancy fail on multiple levels, one being that the “Scripture” mentioned in 2 Timothy 3:16 and other passages refer to the only Scripture that existed at that time: the Old Testament. The New Testament was not even assembled and canonized until almost 400 years after Christ and hundreds of years after the New Testament texts were written. Timothy, or any New Testament author, could not be referring to Scripture that had not been canonized as Scripture yet. Furthermore, there are no supplemental statements or documents anywhere professing Sola Scriptura or Biblical Inerrancy from when the scriptures were assembled and canonized as the New Testament, and no mention of this ideology for centuries after.
Discrepancies between the doctrines of various Churches that adhere to Biblical Inerrancy prove that finding a single truth from the literal reading of Scripture is futile. If there were a single, inherent truth from a literal reading of the Bible, these Churches’ doctrines and teachings would all be perfectly consistent with one another -- yet they differ.
Problems arising from Fundamentalist views do not end with issues surrounding human sexuality; teaching Creationism and refuting science, denying medical treatment for children, deaths from refusing blood transfusions, even killing in the name of religion... these are the result of an interpretation of religion that is in conflict with reality. People of faith are not exempt from secular truths, and that holds true for all religions.
Quoting Bible verses that on the surface condemn homosexuality is not an accurate representation of the Bible’s true message. The seven “clobber verses” used against homosexuality have specific contexts (pagan ritual acts, Roman sexual practices, etc.) which place them in a different category than today’s gay relationships, much less same-sex marriage. Most importantly, they go against the overall message of Jesus Christ which is to love God, love your neighbor, and to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If truly following this commandment, it is impossible to enjoy the companionship and joys of marriage oneself, yet demand all gay people live a celibate, single, and lonely life.
It should be noted that there is growing support even among Evangelical Christians who support gay marriage using solid Biblically-based arguments.
Takeaway points: This idea the Bible should be taken literally was not a view held by the very people who assembled the Bible, nor is it directly mentioned in the Bible itself. The movement of reading the Bible literally (Biblical Inerrancy) was not formed until 20th century America. Conflicts between doctrines of Churches professing a literal adherence to scripture prove that interpretation of the Bible is inevitable. One cannot pull Bible verses to condemn things without looking at the context of those verses and the overall message of Scripture.
The Roman Catholic Church
With over 1 billion members and a 2000-year history, the Roman Catholic Church is a complex organization. Given its size and age one can understand how it has developed its hierarchy, bureaucracy, and reliance on doctrine and dogma. However, the world and society we live in today are vastly different than they were in 500 A.D., or even 1500 A.D.
The total dependence on “Mother Church” required of lay people was a factor in the 16th century Protestant Reformation, and is still one of the criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church today. This reliance is found in practices like confession, through which the Catholic Church teaches that people can only receive absolution from sin via a priest. In addition, a lay person’s beliefs are shaped by the Church’s leadership through doctrine and dogma.
The history of the Papacy and Church leadership is riddled with abuses, scandals, and atrocities ranging from indulgences, to the Inquisition, to the current day sexual abuse cover-ups. This is not brought up to degrade the Roman Catholic Church, but to point out the human fallibility in Church leaders who make decisions, set doctrine and dogma, and are the supposed sole “conduits” of God’s grace for all Roman Catholics.
Rigid and unchanging, doctrine and dogma reflect the limitations of human knowledge from a specific time. The persecution and silencing of Galileo, the Inquisition, the history of Indulgences, the refusal to allow female clergy, their continued prohibition of birth control, and the ban on using condoms in HIV stricken parts of the world… the Church's adherence to doctrine and dogma is a hindrance to progress for the Roman Catholic Faith that puts the Church's hierarchy at odds with the world around them, including their own laity. With 2016 polls showing that 82% of American Catholics support birth control, 57% support gay marriage, 59% support women in the priesthood, and 61% support a priest’s ability to marry, the Roman Catholic leadership is deeply out of touch with its own members and the rest of the contemporary world.
Takeaway point: The Roman Catholic Church's leadership that sets doctrine and dogma has a long history of being out of touch with the world around it, from Galileo, to their stance on birth control and condoms, to celibate priests.
The Christian "Yes" to gay marriage
Faulty arguments against same-sex marriage aside, what is the Christian case for same-sex marriage? There is no direct scriptural support for gay marriage, just as there is no Bible verse explicitly supporting interracial or interfaith marriages. A marriage ceremony like we have today, or anything even close to it never appears in the Bible at all, and would be unrecognizable to anyone from Christ's time. The Trinity, Sacraments, Apostolic Succession, the Papacy, even Biblical Inerrancy are all Christian beliefs of various Churches never directly mentioned in the Bible. Once again, we must look beyond reading Scripture at face value to discover the answer.
Christ was someone who questioned the Pharisees and rigid religious ideology. His central message was for us to love God and one another. Christ repeatedly taught the importance of love, and how it is paramount.
We know that being gay is not a choice. If we believe that God made humans in His image, then gay people are children of God as He wanted them to be, and they are not mistakes. We are then left with this question: How are gay people to live in this world?
The common answer from many Churches is that gays are to remain celibate. This decree of mandatory celibacy is oppressive, illogical, and often a source of great psychological distress when forced upon someone... sometimes ending in tragic results.
Most people desire a companion, both emotionally and physically. Marriage is about creating the ultimate form of a loving companionship through a committed relationship, it is not about gender. Galatians 3:28 reminds us “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We are not just our gender... we are all human beings, equal in God's eyes, and worthy of His gifts including the joy of marriage.
Marriage's benefit to society comes from the stabilizing power of a commitment built on love, not the gender of the couple. If a couple has been together for 40, 50, or 60 years, the couple’s gender makeup does not make or negate the power of that bond, the couple's shared love and commitment does.
Marriage has evolved over time. The focus has shifted from an exchange of property to love and voluntary commitment. It evolved to include a woman’s equality in marriage despite Bible verses stating otherwise. Churches have changed doctrine and theology repeatedly throughout history4 because as the world evolved it became clear that the Churches' original positions were outdated, illogical, or detrimental to society. Today, more and more Churches are saying "yes" to gay marriages and acknowledging the fact that same-sex marriage will only help the institution of marriage by producing a culture that fully celebrates committed relationships, where gay couples are a part of society and the social fabric – not outcasts.
Takeaway points: Gays are created as God wished them to be. They are not going to disappear, live lonely and celibate lives, or convert to heterosexuality. How are they to live? A gay couple in a loving, committed relationship will only benefit society and the institution of marriage. If a couple has been together for 40, 50, or 60 years, the couple’s gender makeup does not make or negate the power of that bond, their shared love does.
Christians and gay marriage
Marriage equality continues to grow in Churches around the country. The Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church, Lutheran Church (ELCA), and United Church of Christ (among others) have arrived at theological decisions supporting gay marriages and are celebrating them in their houses of worship. American Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, and Reconstructionist Judaism also allow for gay marriages. National polls from 2015 show that 63% of Americans support gay marriage. More religiously affiliated Americans affirm the right for gay couples to marry than oppose, with 47% supporting versus 45% against. Christian support continues to grow including 57% of Catholics, 56% of orthodox Christians, 62% of white mainline Protestants, and even 43% of Evangelicals age 18-34 support it.
What is especially heartening is the rate at which acceptance of gay marriage has grown in recent years. This is undoubtedly due to more and more people seeing their family members, friends, and coworkers in loving gay relationships... and now in marriages. The fact that gay marriage has had no negative effect on society, but extremely positive benefits for gay couples, their family and friends, solidifies the case for gay marriage.
Takeaway points: Several Christian and Jewish denominations now celebrate gay marriages. Gay marriages have been legal for years around the world with no negative consequences, only positive benefits.
1 “What does the scholarly research say about the wellbeing of children with gay or lesbian parents?” http://whatweknow.law.columbia.edu/topics/lgbt-equality/what-does-the-scholarly-research-say-about-the-wellbeing-of-children-with-gay-or-lesbian-parents/
Be sure to read the section “Evaluating Studies that Conclude Gay Parenting Raises Risks” that discusses the flaw in the four outlier studies, as these studies are often sited by critics of same sex parenting.
2 Article followed by study:
3 There are only two Biblical allowances for divorce: adultery, or one spouses being a non-believer. Even these exceptions are contested by some Fundamentalists. Remarriage is forbidden for the spouse who committed adultery, and no allowance for remarriage is mentioned for someone who divorces a non-believer.
4 The Roman Catholic Church states they have never changed their doctrine, which is not true. They have changed doctrine regarding slavery (The Third Lateran Council and Corpus Iuris Canonici by Pope Gregory IX vs. Catechism 2414), usury, the Galileo Earth/Sun debate (stated as doctrine by the Church in Papal Condemnation of Galileo, June 22, 1633), monarchy/democracy, religious liberty, remarriage, "Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus" (No salvation outside the Church), the Immaculate Conception, the Bodily Ascension, among others. This is in addition to teachings on matters like the Biblical flood, evolution, astronomy, and worship practices. To refute this fact, the Church uses terms like "developing doctrine" instead of "changing" and has shifted what is and is not actually doctrine. The Roman Catholic Church's doctrine can and has changed (or "developed" as they call it) to reflect an updated interpretation of Scripture.
Image at top: The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch, 1890
Updated October 2016