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Q&A #133 - Same sex marriage and the Bible

by Robert Nguyen Cramer (version 5.3.2.1)

This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.

 

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I pray that God will reveal to you the "truth" about same sex marriage. No place in the bible does God refer to marriage as between two men. God explicitly refers to marital relations, and condemns all sexual relationships outside of marriage. Since marriage is not ordained between two men, all sexual relationships outside of marriage are sin.

 

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Jesus' view of Eunuchs
Paul's view of same sex practices
Our course of action today
Additional resources
Other questions & responses

 

Thanks for your email. I welcome further dialog with you on the subject of same sex marriage.

The documentation presented here is very thought-provoking. Without my having any social or political agenda or any personal vested interested, that documentation has made me re-think conclusions I had reached in past years. During those intervening years my biblical research and early Christian research have continued to deepen and broaden greatly. I have read and researched much, and I have been out in the trenches in Christian ministry in many diverse and challenging environments -- including prisons, inner-city streets, subways, homeless shelters, college campuses, hospitals, military bases, and a refugee camp. Yet I always yearn for further light on the Bible and early Christianity to aid in my having an honest understanding, an honest practice of Jesus' teachings, and an honest, balanced presentation of the original texts and early Christianity. It is with such honesty that I present the information below.

Some of the biblical issues discussed in this response are are discussed in less detail on the webpages listed immediately below, but much more will be presented in my written response below.


EUNUCHS AS VIEWED BY JESUS, ATYPICAL GENITALIA, & SAME SEX ORIENTATION

It was only within the last few years that I learned that some people are born with both male genitals and female genitals, some people are born with genitals that cannot be identified with certainty as to whether they are male or female, and some people are born with genitals so small or otherwise atypical as to be somewhat or completely non-functional for reproductive purposes. I had never known before of these characteristics, which are physiologically known as "ambiguous genitalia" or "atypical genitalia." (See also a Johns Hopkins Magazine article and an index of other online articles regarding atypical genitalia.)

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus himself was very much aware of these characteristics:

There are eunuchs who have been so from birth. (Mat 19:12, NRSV)

Heinrich Baltensweiler (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume 1, edited by Colin Brown, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975, 1986) in his article on "Eunuch" (Greek: eunouchos, Strong's #2135) provides clarification of Jesus' above statement in Mat 19:12 about eunuchs (page 560):

... those who are such from birth, due to corporal malformation ...

In 1st century Jewish culture, men born with minuscule, missing, or deformed genitals were not considered full men, because they could not father children. They were not allowed to become priests or Levites, and they could not participate in the temple service. In that culture they had somewhat similar status as women and other marginalized people, even though Isa 56:3-5 had promised the inclusion of eunuchs. Like most gays and lesbians today, they also were prevented from getting married, even to the opposite sex -- again because they could not father children.

Even in recent years, George M. Lamsa, an Eastern Orthodox Christian best known for his translation of the Bible from the Syriac Peshitta, wrote in More Light on the Gospel, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968, in his commentary on Mat 19:11-12 (page 29):

Jesus' saying [discouraging divorce] does not apply to every man, because some are eunuchs, who are not fit to be married. In Matt. 19:7, he points out that there are cases where a woman can divorce her husband on the grounds of incapability, because, as we have said, there are some men who are born eunuchs, some who have made themselves eunuchs, and others who were made eunuchs by force. The Church of the East grants divorces on such grounds. The author of this article was appointed to examine such cases and report to Church authorities. There are also women who are not sexually normal to be married. In such cases both men and women can apply for divorce.

With Jesus, however, the status of men born with questionable genitals was different. The Gospel of Matthew describes Jesus as saying:

"Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery." His disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry." But he said to them, "Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can." (Mat 19:9-12, NRSV)

In Jesus' view, being fit to be a priest, a Levite, or to participate in temple worship was not a prerequisite for discipleship. He taught his followers to be led by the Holy Spirit and to find the kingdom of God that is "within" (Luk 17:20,21; non-canonical corroborative texts: Thomas 3:1-3, Thomas 113, Thomas 51:2, Gospel of Mary 4:4-5, Dialog of the Savior 9:3).

The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? (by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, & The Jesus Seminar, NY: HarperCollins, 1993) comments (page 220):

The saying [Mat 19:12] may be understood as an attack on a male-dominated, patriarchal society in which male virility and parenthood were the exclusive norms. The true Israel consisted of priests, Levites, and full-blooded male Judeans, all of whom were capable of fathering children. Eunuchs made so by others and males born without testicles were not complete and so could not be counted among true Israelites and were therefore excluded from temple service. Regulations governing priests, Levites, and the assembly are given in Lev 21:16-21; 22:17-25; Deut 23:1. If this saying goes back to Jesus, it is possible that he is undermining the depreciation of yet another marginal group, this time the eunuchs, who were subjected to segregation and devaluation, as were the poor, toll collectors, prostitutes, women generally, and children.

Eduard Schweizer (The Good News according to Matthew, by translated by David E. Green, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975) comments (page 383):

The contemptuous term "eunuch" is striking. Eunuchs are excluded even more strictly than tax collectors from the people of God; God's Law expressly forbids them entrance into the community (Deut. 23:1). A castrated animal cannot even be offered as a sacrifice (Lev. 22:24). Jesus thus takes the side of those who were scorned and written off by everyone. It is possible that opponents applied this term to Jesus himself and perhaps also some of his disciples, because they were unmarried...

The whole section shows how unlegalistic Jesus is. He can speak with equal ease of the mystery of indissoluble marriage and of the mystery of celibacy, and both sayings can be genuine sayings of Jesus. He commands neither marriage nor celibacy; either can be a state in which to serve God. It is therefore "given" to many to see the meaning of celibacy. The idea is almost Pauline. Paul, unlike official Judaism, placed a high value on celibacy; but, unlike the monks of Qumran, he did not suggest that it be required.

This may help explain Acts' account of the receptivity, delight, and conversion of the non-Jewish Ethiopian eunuch when Philip explained Jesus' gospel (good news) to him. (See Act 8:26-40.) Contrary to standard Jewish teachings and practices, Jesus and early Christians considered eunuchs as whole men and not excluded from full participation in the religious community.

There is no evidence, either pro or con, regarding Jesus' views on same-sex relations. All that can be concluded is that Jesus was aware that some people had gender abnormalities (today called atypical genitalia) and that though Jewish authorities limited their rights, Jesus was not critical of them nor did he limit their inclusion in the kingdom.

In modern times, for those born with atypical genitalia prior to the very recent past, doctors at birth would routinely perform surgery to determine/create a baby's gender -- whether that meant eliminating one of the two genitals or reshaping the one undeterminable genital into either a male or female genital. Sometimes the doctors have correctly matched the baby's genitals with their genuine sexual orientation, but sometimes they have gotten it wrong. (Those born years ago with atypical genitalia almost unanimously now advocate not performing such genital alterations at birth and leaving the decision to when the child reaches adulthood and can choose for him/herself.) In such cases, regardless of with whomever those children would later become romantically involved years later, they would be judged by some to be homosexual and not deserving of a legal union. We need to ask ourselves, "Should these people be prevented from being married and spending their lives in a committed, loving relationship just because a doctor miscalculated their gender?"

We also need to ask ourselves, "Is it possible that some people who arrived as newborns with normal genitals typical of one sex have biologically built-in sexual orientation that is different from most people with the same type of genitals?" On the basis of friends with these circumstances whom I have known -- good, caring, church-going, Bible-studying people (including those who have made a really honest, sincere, but ultimately failed attempt at heterosexual marriage), I can only conclusively answer, "Yes, it is not only possible, but it very much seems to be the case." Should they be prevented from being married and spending their lives in a life-long, committed, loving relationship just because their genuine, natural, from-birth orientation -- does not seem to match the shape of their genitals?

Again these are questions I could not even imagine asking myself just a few years ago.


PAUL'S VIEWS ON SAME SEX PRACTICES & OUR APPLICATION OF THEM

It is now important to discuss Paul's views. Around 55-56 A.D., In his first of two references to same sex practices, Paul wrote to the church in Corinth (1Co 6:9-11):

Do not be misled. Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, catamites, sodomites, thieves, rapacious men, drunkards, abusive men, and robbers -- none of these shall inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what you were, some of you; but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (C.K. Barrett's translation in his The First Epistle to the Corinthians [Harper's New Testament Commentaries], New York: Harper & Row, 1968, page 134)

On page 140 of Barrett's commentary, he explains that the Greek words translated as "catamites" [Greek: malakoi, Strong's 3120] and "sodomites" [Greek: apsenokoitai, Strong's: 733] represent "the passive and active partners respectively in male homosexual relations." For additional corroborative details on the use of these two words, see the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, based upon Semantic Domains, Volume 1, pages 772-773 (by Johannes P. Louw & Eugene A. Nida, New York: United Bible Societies, 1989).

A year or so later, in Paul's letter to the church in Rome (Rom 1:24-27), he described same sex practices as impure (Greek: akatharsian, Strong's: 167), shameful (Greek: atimias, Strong's: 819), perverted (Greek: metellazan, Strong's: 3337), and contrary to nature (Greek: para phusin, Strong's: 3844 + 5449); however, in Rom 2:1 he also concluded what started as a scathing diatribe against same sex practices with a warning to Jewish and pagan moralists not to judge others, for in doing so, they condemn themselves as idolators -- setting up themselves as gods and acting as gods. (For a much fuller discussion of this, see http://www.bibletexts.com/verses/v-rom.htm#1-26-27.)

Robert M. Grant (Paul in the Roman World: the Conflict at Corinth, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001, page 124) comments:

Obviously he [Paul] is opposed to male homosexual acts (1 Cor. 6:9), but the modest emphasis given the female in Romans is absent from the Corinthian letters. Paul shares his use of the term "contrary to nature" with at least seven Helenistic authors.

David F. Wright (Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, Second Edition, edited by Everett Ferguson, NY: Garland Publishing, 1998, pages 542-543) provides additional detail:

Paul declared both male and female homosexual activity (i.e., not merely pederasty) to be contrary to nature and symptomatic of the depravity of fallen humanity (Rom. 1:26-27). He also included male homosexuality in catalogues of vices, along line familiar from Hellenistic Jewish literature...

Stoic influence reinforced Paul's portrayal of homosexuality as unnatural, and early Christian writers regularly characterized it in these terms (Tertullian, Coron. 6; Clement of Alexandria, Paed. 2.83ff; Lactantius, Div. inst. 6:23; Ambrose, De Abrahamo 1.6.52; Cyril of Alexandria, Ador. 1). They clearly regarded it as contrary to the created constitution and function of men and women, and not merely to the dispositions of particular individuals. Their occasional objections to the passivity or effeminacy involved in such acts simply illustrate their view of them as against nature. Although antiquity was scarcely aware of homosexuality as a sexual orientation, the prominence of the argument from nature suggests that patristic judgment would have deemed it an index of the moral disorder of humanity.

The frequency which John Chrysostom, for example, attacked homosexuial behavior shows that some in the church, including monks, indulged in it.

Modern studies now indicate sexual orientations that were previously considered "contrary to nature" are in fact in accord with nature for a consistent percentage of the global population, regardless of religious or cultural contexts. In July of 1994 the American Psychological Association stated:

The research on homosexuality is very clear. Homosexuality is neither mental illness nor moral depravity. It is simply the way a minority of our population expresses human love and sexuality. Study after study documents the mental health of gay men and lesbians. Studies of judgment, stability, reliability, and social and vocational adaptiveness all show that gay men and lesbians function every bit as well as heterosexuals. Nor is homosexuality a matter of individual choice. Research suggests that the homosexual orientation is in place very early in the life cycle, possibly even before birth. It is found in about ten percent of the population, a figure which is surprisingly constant across cultures, irrespective of the different moral values and standards of a particular culture. Contrary to what some imply, the incidence of homosexuality in a population does not appear to change with new moral codes or social mores.

Even if we disregard the issue of same-sex oriented people who have physically normal genitals, the issue of atypical genitalia alone requires us to re-think sexual orientation and reconsider the appropriateness of the characterization, "contrary to nature." Here we need to take a fresh look at Paul's reasons for encouraging marriage.

Again, there is no question that Paul was strongly opposed to same-sex practices; however, in light of today's understanding of same-sex-orientation as being from birth and not from choice, Paul's teachings on marriage may provide the soundest rationale for at least recognition of permanent, undeviatingly faithful same-sex relationships. Paul wrote:

A man does well not to marry. But because there is so much immorality, every man should have his own wife, and every woman should have her own husband. (1Co 7:1-2, TEV)

A few verses later Paul quotes Jesus:

A wife must not leave her husband; but if she does, she must remain single or else be reconciled to her husband; and a husband must not divorce his wife. (1Co 7:10,11, TEV)

A permanent commitment to marriage and to undeviating faithfulness to one's spouse is a protection to all Christians -- and to the general population -- from the many problems associated with promiscuous immorality. The New Testament standards for marriage described by Jesus and Paul provide the spiritual basis and clear guidance for such protection.

Unfortunately the problems of promiscuity are rampant in both heterosexual and same-sex communities today. Under the present circumstances, may it not be the nearest right course of action to make marriage -- or at least legal civil union -- available to all who seek a life-long, faithful, intimate relationship -- regardless of orientation? Marriage may be preferred, primarily because it is unlikely that a mere "civil union" of same-sex Christians would carry the same moral and spiritual weight as "marriage;" thus, a civil union may not adequately emphasize the New Testament's spiritual basis and clear guidance needed by both heterosexual and same-sex oriented Christians. This would completely rule out premarital sex, bi-sexual relations, polygamy, extramarital sex, extra-marital affairs of the heart, or even extramarital flirting. If a Christian of any sexual orientation desires a spouse, a choice of one and only one individual needs to be made and legalized prior to beginning a sexual relationship. This needs to include an unrenegable, permanent commitment to be unconditionally faithful to that chosen spouse.

Even Jesus said that not everyone can accept the teaching that it is better not to marry. Only those "to whom it is given" can accept that teaching as applying to their lives. (See Mat 19:10-11). Where does that leave those who 'to whom it is not given,' including those who have various forms of atypical genitalia and those who have no natural sexual inclination towards those of the opposite sex? Are not they also the children of God and deserving the opportunity to have a legally and religiously recognized life-long, intimate relationship?

It is worth noting here that first century Christians and Jews were not married in church edifices or synagogues, and it was not until near the end of the 2nd century that marriages of Christians were routinely officiated or even validated by religious authorities. Since dedicated church edifices did not begin to be built until Constantine's rule at the beginning of the 4th century, marriages did not take place in church edifices until the 4th century. For more details on this, see http://www.bibletexts.com/glossary/wedding.htm.

More than a hundred years after Paul's martyrdom, quite a few of the early church writers, including Justin Martyr (writing around 160 A.D.), Athenagoras (writing around 175 A.D.), and Clement of Alexandria (writing around ca. 195 A.D.) taught that the sole purpose of marriage was to produce children. (This was also the general teaching of the Greeks and the Romans.) Clement of Alexander wrote, "Sexual relations ... are only for the procreation of children" (ANF, vol 2, page 367), and, "The man who did not desire to father children had no right to marry at all" (ANF, vol 2, page 368).

Some two hundred years later Augustine wrote (de bono conjugali [Of the Good of Marriage], part 6):

Marital intercourse for the sake of procreation has no fault attached to it, but for the satisfying of lust, even with one's husband or wife, for the faith of the bed, is venially sinful; but adultery or fornication is mortally sinful. Moreover, continence from all intercourse is even better than marital intercourse itself, even if it takes place for the sake of procreation. But even though complete abstinence is better, to pay the dues of marriage is no crime, but to demand it beyond the necessity of procreation is a venial sin, although fornication and adultery are mortally sinful.

Augustine, Justin, Athenagoras, and Clement of Alexandria all went beyond what Jesus and Paul had taught, and their teachings have resulted in severe marital guilt and untold marital tragedy over the centuries -- encouraging spouses to deny each other a sexual relationship unless in the specific attempt to have children. (See also http://www.bibletexts.com/qa/qa099.htm.) Paul's teaching was much simpler (1Co 7:3-5, TEV):

A man should fulfil his duty as a husband, and a woman should fulfil her duty as a wife, and each should satisfy the otherís needs. A wife is not the master of her own body, but her husband is; in the same way a husband is not the master of his own body, but his wife is. Do not deny yourselves to each other, unless you first agree to do so for a while in order to spend your time in prayer; but then resume normal marital relations. In this way you will be kept from giving in to Satan's temptation because of your lack of self-control.

According to Paul, is marriage to be permitted only for those who have the ability and desire to have children? No! According to Paul, marriage is encouraged for every man and woman, "because there is so much immorality." (1Co 7:2, TEV) To minimize promiscuous immorality, may it not be well to afford all people the opportunity to have a legally sanctioned, life-long, intimate relationship with a single spouse -- regardless of orientation?

(To be appropriately fair and understanding on these issues, we may need to remind ourselves that many or most of those participating in same-sex relationships are not same-sex oriented by choice but are so at birth, just as the sexual orientation of heterosexuals was assumed at birth, based upon the shape of their genitals.)

Or -- should we take Paul's instructions in 1Co 7:2 literally and expect same-sex oriented Christians to marry and have intimacy with those of the opposite sex, even though that would be personally unsatisfying or even repulsive to those same-sex oriented Christians -- just as much as it would be personally unsatisfying or repulsive to heterosexual Christians to marry and have intimacy with those of the same sex? Or -- should we expect life-long abstinence from all same-sex oriented Christians? If so, should we not also follow the lead of Augustine, Justin, Athenagoras, and Clement of Alexandria and expect life-long abstinence from all married heterosexual Christian couples who do not want to have children or who have been unable to reproduce? Or -- would not the best approach be to accept Paul's marriage guidance of 1Co 7:1-5 for all Christians -- heterosexual-oriented and same-sex oriented Christians? "Because there is so much immorality," should not marriage be allowed and encouraged -- though not required -- for every Christian man and Christian woman, regardless of orientation?


OUR COURSE OF ACTION TODAY...

How about non-Christians? Prior to 313 A.D., Christians advocated moral standards within their own Christian communities, but they did not attempt to force those attitudes or practices on non-Christians or even on other Christians outside their own church communities. Christians did feel free to include their moral and other standards as part of the gospel, the Good News, they preached to non-Christians -- but not as a judgmental rebuke, rather as joyful witness to the freedom of their own life in Christ. As Christians today, if we try to force our moral standards on the entire population of our nations or on the world, we are abandoning primitive Christianity, and we are participating in the reenactment of the Constantine's cooption and corruption of Christianity that began in 313 A.D. (See http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/313ad.htm.)

It is essential for us all to acknowledge that humble prayer, honest and inspiring study of the Bible and early Christianity, and spiritual healing can result in transformation that wakes any one of us out of non-genuine or false desires -- whether heterosexual or same-sex -- and can lead one to a new life -- and new life style -- that one's current friends (whether heterosexual or same-sex oriented friends) may not understand and may even criticize.

What is important is that Christians of all sexual orientations understand and commit themselves to adherence to and support for Christian sexual standards. Such standards include abstinence from pre-marital sex -- heterosexual or same-sex. It also includes unbroken sexual monogamy during marriage, whether heterosexual or same sex marriage --permanently and completely rejecting extra-marital sexual affairs, non-sexual "affairs of the heart," and even extra-marital flirting. Regardless of orientation, the sacredness and permanence of faithful, non-abusive marriage that Jesus taught needs to be cherished, supported, and preserved by and for all Christians.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said (Mat 13:52, NASB):

Every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings forth out of his treasure things new and old.

Eduard Schweizer (The Good News according to Matthew, translated by David E. Green, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975), a highly respected biblical scholar, in his commentary on Mat 13:51-53, wrote of Matthew's description of the Christian scribe or scholar (page 313):

Matthew obviously sees the disciples as prototypes of the teacher of the Law who becomes a disciple in the Kingdom of heaven... The true teacher of the Law has learned from Jesus to see both the old and the new together (cf. Wisd. 8.8) -- God's Law, and its new interpretation proclaimed by Jesus and realized in all that he does. Or is Matthew thinking of Jesus' own teaching, and its new interpretation in the "learned" decisions of the community of disciples (16:19; 18:18)? In either case, it is clear that for Matthew the whole collection of parables is a didactic discourse on the Kingdom of God. Such a teacher of the Law is of course no longer a "rabbi," i.e. a "great one," but rather a "disciple" in the Kingdom of heaven, i.e. one who remains a "learner" (the same word in Greek [as disciple]) throughout his life.

Such life-long openness to learning and to a willingness to being guided by the living Holy Spirit is vital to our Christian discipleship. Edifying one another along the way -- including through verbal and written dialog -- is an important part of that life-long learning process. I welcome our continuing on that road together.

The life and teachings of Jesus challenge us all to approach life -- and approach -- others very differently than what is often considered socially or religiously acceptable. In fact his parables turn the world upside down for those who truly hear them. (See http://www.bibletexts.com/texts/parables.htm.) In the gospel words of Jesus:

I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the transgressors’ [Isa 53:12]; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled. (Luk 22:37, RNC)

John the Baptist came, and he fasted and drank no wine, and you said, ‘He has a demon in him!’ The Son of Man came, and he ate and drank, and you said, ‘Look at this man! He is a glutton and a drinker, a friend of tax collectors and other outcasts!’ God’s wisdom, however, is shown to be true by all who accept it.” (Luk 7:33-35, TEV)

Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Mat 25:40)

In the face of the religious restrictions preached and mandated by the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests, and the scribes, Jesus was inclusive. He was willing to regularly suffer the humiliation, mean-spirited insults, and physical persecution resulting from his associating with -- ministering to and being ministered to by -- those disenfranchised, repudiated, or despised by others. He ate and mingled with rich and poor, young and old, men and women, those self-assured of their righteousness and those who in the eyes of others were living sinfully, the conservative Jewish authorities and the more liberal masses, those religiously and ethnically similar (Jews) and those religiously, nationally, and/or ethnically dissimilar (Samaritans, Greeks, Romans), even those who had been labeled as anti-Roman terrorists (e.g., Simon Zelotes and possibly Judas Iscariot) and those who had been labeled as supporters of Roman occupation (e.g., Matthew, a.k.a. Levi). He also spent time with his critics. How willing are we today to follow the fearlessly loving, inclusive, engaging example of Jesus? (See Joh 13:15, 1Co 1:9-13, 1Co 3:3-7, Phi 2:5, 1Pe 2:21.)

I invite you and all readers -- all of us -- to unite in regular, loving, Christianly supportive prayer for:

Then we can faithfully leave it all in God's hands -- for the kingdom, the power, and the glory are all God's.

P.S. It might be worth noting that I am the father of two wonderful daughters and two wonderful sons and happily married to my dear one-and-only wife for more than 27 years.


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Copyright 1996-2004 Robert Nguyen Cramer