Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On Biblical Marriage: Part 2, The New Testament

(Note: Though these posts are on “Biblical Marriage,” I am addressing the issue of same-sex unions as well as traditional marriage because in today’s environment we can’t seem to talk about one without including the other.  I think that one problem the church has had is that it has failed to have a strong “theology of marriage.” These posts are a very small beginning on that task – one which I hope to do much more thoroughly over time.)

In the Gospels, Jesus doesn’t speak about marriage often. However, what he does say (first in the Sermon on the Mount and later to the Pharisees) affirms that marriage is between one man and one woman.  Interestingly, Jesus quotes both Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24 in the passage from Matthew 19, bringing together the two creation stories. He also adds that God has joined the man and woman,  and no one should separate them.

Matthew 5:31-32   31"It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 19:3-9  3Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?" 4He answered, "Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' 5and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? 6So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." 7They said to him, "Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?" 8He said to them, "It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery."

Jesus is not quoting law here; he is talking about the nature of God’s creation. He sees the creation of male and female and the marriage of the two as somehow at the heart of creation (a concept I will explore more fully in the next post).  The law provided for divorce because of the brokenness of the world, but that is not the way that God intends for the world to be.  

In addition, Jesus radically redefines adultery and thus redefines marriage. 

Matthew 5:27-28   27"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  

In the Gospel of Mark, in particular, we see that Jesus makes adultery a sin against a woman as well as a sin against a man and by doing so shows the woman is an equal partner in the marriage.  

Mark 10:10-12  10Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;  12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Though many argue that the silence of Jesus about same-sex unions means that he must not have disapproved, Robert Gagnon shows the foolishness of that position: “If Jesus had wanted to communicate affirmation of same-sex unions he would have had to state such a view clearly since first-century Judaism, so far as we know, had no dissenting voices on the matter. Without a clear statement none of his disciples would have made such a logical leap.”  Gagnon, Robert A (2010-10-01). The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Kindle Locations 3829-3831). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

It isn’t just a leap, it is a huge jump across a chasm!  In a sense Jesus strengthened the laws having to do with sexual purity and marriage.  It makes little sense to say that he would have totally abrogated the one on homosexual unions.

It has also been argued that Jesus was interested in love; that the loving relationships between same-sex couples are equivalent to a faithful, committed marriage between a man and a woman. Once again, there is no evidence for that.  

This would probably be a good time to say something about divorce. I often hear the argument that “The church permits divorce; why not permit same-sex marriage? Are we not being hypocritical to allow one and not the other?”  Yes, we do permit divorce in the church; in fact, I have even counseled people to consider divorce, particularly in cases of abuse. No one should stay in a marriage where they are abused.  It is not the “Christian” thing to do. “Turn the other cheek” was not meant for abused spouses.  If your husband (or, for that matter, your wife) is abusing you, they have broken the marriage covenant already.  

However—and this is a large however—we do not teach that divorce is a happy and wonderful thing. We do not teach that divorce is a sign of the kingdom. We teach that divorce is the result of a broken world. And I don’t know anyone who has had a divorce that is proud and happy that their marriage failed. 

I suppose it would be possible to argue that same-sex marriages could be seen the same way. That it is better for a same-sex couple to marry than to “burn,” as Paul put it.  That, even though marriage would ideally be between a man and a woman, in some cases, due to our imperfect, broken world, some people are born with a “natural” same-sex attraction and should be able to be in the best relationship possible, even if it is not ideal.  Well, one might argue that—but, of course, that is not the argument.  What the LGBTQI coalition argues is that same-sex marriage is perfectly normal and acceptable. And the Christian side of the coalition wants to argue that same-sex marriage is just as representative of the kingdom as traditional marriage.  They want to say that same-sex marriage is all about love and faithful commitment and God smiles on their (sexual) relationships.  

Back to the Bible . . . 

When we look at the works of Paul we see a much more complete understanding of marriage.  Paul’s most extensive writing about marriage is found in 1 Corinthians 7.  Let’s look at it fairly carefully.  Paul is evidently writing in response to a question from the Corinthians about whether or not marriage is acceptable. He responds in the affirmative, believing that immorality would result from forbidding marriage.  What is fascinating about this passage is that Paul gives the same advice to the man as to the woman.  The man cannot deny his wife her “conjugal rights,” and the woman cannot deny her husband; unless, of course, they agree on it. And when Paul says “the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does,” a statement that sounds very patriarchal and traditional, he follows it with, “And the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does!!” (exclamation points are mine) The mutuality that Paul calls for really is extraordinary. Yes, Paul goes on to say that he wishes everyone were like him (celibate) because he is happy with his state and the fact that it allows him to focus on and serve the God that he adores. But he is fully aware that this is a gift from God.  

Paul continues his statement by insisting that believing spouses should not separate from unbelieving spouses if those unbelieving spouses wish to remain together.  Believers can “sanctify” the unbelievers, making them holy – presumably because they are “one flesh.”

I think I know what the response will be: all of these things could be true of same-sex couples as well as they could of male-female couples.  Isn’t it better for a same-sex couple to marry than to be involved in immorality? Doesn’t Paul acknowledge that marriage is itself a concession, so that same-sex marriage would just be another kind of concession?  I might agree except for the matter of Romans 1.

So let’s just address it now: what do we do with Romans 1:26-27?  I know the arguments here as well:

  • Paul was not talking about a faithful, committed, monogamous same-sex relationship.
  • Paul was talking about an exploitive relationship between men and boys.
  • When Paul mentions “unnatural” intercourse he is failing to take into account same-sex orientation, which is natural for homosexuals. 
 All of these excuses assume that Paul was unaware of orientation and committed relationships. However, the scholarship that I have read (by LGBT supporters, I might add) insist that homosexuality was well-known in the Roman empire and that same-sex relationships (male-male) were well thought of in Greek society and at least tolerated in Roman society.  If this is true (and who am I to argue with the likes of John Boswell and Louis Crompton?) then Paul was in exactly the same situation that we are in currently and was very clear on where he stood.  

I have not used a number of the “clobber passages” (as they are called) in this essay, because I don’t think they are necessary to make the case.  (My readers are, of course, free to disagree with me.) I don’t think that it is necessary to talk about homosexuality as an abomination or to argue the point about what the Greek terms ‘really’ mean.  When we come at the issue of same-sex ‘marriage’ by first looking at what the Bible says about marriage, we don’t have to demonize. And, I might add, we don’t have to require that those outside the Christian faith abide by our understanding.  While I believe that Christians need to vote their consciences, we may not have the majority.  That should not stop us from holding to our own point of view and teaching and preaching what we believe.  If we are the ones demonized because we don’t agree with the views of the greater society, then so be it.  Our call is always to approach people with love and grace, especially those with whom we disagree.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

This Changes Nothing

The apology by Alan Chambers, the leader of Exodus International, and the subsequent announcement of the closing of the umbrella organization changes nothing. Let me repeat: this changes nothing.  The apology seemed to be heartfelt and gracious and addressed the abuses that bedeviled the organization and its ministry. The leader was right to apologize for those abuses. However, the abuses themselves, the fact that a number of ex-gays have decided they are not “ex” gay after all, does not change the fact that choosing to have sex with those of the same gender is a sin.  There. I’ve said it.  It is a sin.  In fact, Alan Chambers says it as well.  In a part of the apology that rarely gets quoted, I might add:

I cannot apologize for my deeply held biblical beliefs about the boundaries I see in scripture surrounding sex, but I will exercise my beliefs with great care and respect for those who do not share them.  I cannot apologize for my beliefs about marriage. But I do not have any desire to fight you on your beliefs or the rights that you seek. My beliefs about these things will never again interfere with God’s command to love my neighbor as I love myself.   

 And as a sin, it is a hard habit to beat, especially if you have a biological predisposition towards same-sex attraction.  It is hard to beat, just as a number of other conditions are hard to beat.  When a recovering alcoholic falls off the wagon, we don’t come to the conclusion that it is pointless to try to change his/her behavior towards alcohol.  So why make the claim that “reparative” therapy is not only useless but harmful just because it fails to work in many cases? Or for that matter, one can't make the case that it doesn't work if the real problem is that it is being used abusively.  Is the claim that no one has ever changed their sexual habits?  Is the claim that no one has ever changed their sexual orientation? 

There are many things wrong with this argument, but the one that disturbs me the most is this: If the claim is that God cannot help homosexuals live a holy life, either by overcoming their same sex attraction or by choosing to live a non-homosexual lifestyle despite that attraction (the choice that Alan Chambers makes), then how can we claim that God can change anything about anyone?  That is what troubles me – I want very much to believe that God can and will change me.  Not my sexual orientation or behavior; that isn’t my particular problem.  But there are things in my life that I pray daily that God will change.  And I truly believe that over time, the promise is that God will honor such prayers and work within each of us to make us into God’s own image.  In the Methodist tradition we call it “going on to perfection” and supposedly we really believe that this is possible. So while it may be true that Exodus International is full of sinful people who get caught up in power and give in to sin, that changes nothing about what I believe God can do in a person’s life.  

Yes, I know that the opposing argument is that love is not a sin.  I agree. Love is not a sin. Sexual orientation is not a sin. Sexual activity in the wrong context is a sin.  And I agree that we should love all people—yes, I really do mean all people—unconditionally.  As it happens, I don’t find it hard to love those of other sexual orientations.  But there are people that I find it difficult to love.  I suspect I am not alone in this.  That is because what is truly “inborn” in us is sin.  I am a sinner.  I was not born a nice person or a good person, but I desperately hope that I am getting better as time goes on. I don’t say this because I hate myself or anything, but I know the secret places of my heart and I know that I am not really a very nice person.  I don’t think I am particularly worse than anyone else, mind you, but I think we all have a nasty side that will come out given the right circumstances.  We also have the image of God that can come out given the right circumstances and the power of the Holy Spirit working within us!

So let’s stop acting like the failures of the “ex-gay” organizations somehow proves that it is not possible for God to work in the lives of those who have same-sex attractions to overcome those attractions.  If you want to hold up the list of bad guy ex-gays, I can hold up lists of gays who aren’t particularly nice people either – starting with Michael Piazza  But talking about the problems of Michael Piazza doesn’t prove anything anymore than Walker Railey’s downfall proves something about United Methodist Ministers—except maybe that if we are looking for inborn traits, the lust for power is one that we should probably consider.

Friday, June 7, 2013

A 21-Year-Old’s Reaction to Annual Conference

My son came with me to day one of Annual Conference (North Texas Annual Conference). This was actually the second time he has been to AC; the first was when he was about 2 months old. He enjoyed Kenda Creasy Dean, particularly the talk she gave in the morning.  He also came to the afternoon session. But when we left that session, here was his response (imagine how this sounds in a somewhat exasperated, ranting voice, indicated by the exclamation marks):

“I’ve been hearing this for 5-10 years! In that time the youth who were studied are now in college and beyond, and nothing has changed! Too much talk; too much “rah-rah;” no action! I know it’s hard to change the culture, but do you know how quick it would change if we let the young in? It’s depressing to hear it all again and nothing happen. My suggestion – instead of Annual Conference next year, everybody come together, make actual plans for their churches and then the next year, come back and tell what has actually been accomplished. Stop imagining and start making real changes!”

Now, to be fair, my son has been hearing all this because he has heard it from me. I bought and read Almost Christian the month it came out. I gave it to my youth pastors (and tried to talk with them about it) but they ignored me and the book. Actually they accused me of not supporting their ministry which, by the way, was heavily weighted toward Moral Therapeutic Deism. And even before the book came out and Kenda gave me language to speak about all of this, I knew something wasn’t right. So though I didn’t describe everything so amazingly well, as she did, I have talked about many of the same issues.  So my son has known about this literally for years.

And we did discuss the fact that changing a huge organization like the UMC takes lots of time and lots of effort.

I wanted to share this, because it is a perspective from a young adult who cares about his faith, would like to have a place to worship, but hasn’t found a place that he feels called to be (does that make him a “none?”).  He is a young adult who would like to help the church.  He has lots of ideas, many of them quite good. When I showed him this post, part of his response was  this:
"Letting the young in as people instead of 'fun leaders' would be more helpful.  Maybe I'm seeing it only from my perspective. I don't actually know even where you'd let the young people in. I think my 'let them in as people' is pretty good."

He likes to dream big, but he also wants to get things done.  I am trying to take advantage of having my very own faithful young adult, but if anyone else wants to talk with and listen to him, let me know and I will get you in touch. (He is willing!)

Sunday, June 2, 2013

On Biblical Marriage: Part 1

Sarah presenting Hagar to Abraham

(Please note: this is really a work in progress.  It does not say everything that I would want to say, but indicates the direction of my thinking. I expect to be expanding and refining this argument over time. I also highly recommend N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God, especially for an excellent discussion of monogamy in the last chapter.)

Those who complain about Christians citing “biblical marriage” as a reason for denying marriage to same-sex couples ostensibly have a good point.  A Facebook page called:  Traditional Biblical Marriage: Trading Women for Money and Other Goods, lists lots of quotes from the Bible (mainly the Old Testament) that show women being (as it says) traded for money and other goods.  It shows that the Old Testament men had multiple wives, evidently with God’s blessing.  So why would someone who accepts the Bible as somehow authoritative think that God-ordained marriage is one man-one woman? In order to answer that question, we will have to look at several things. In this post I will address how I think one should interpret the Old Testament passages that seem to validate polygamy and buying wives.  Next I will look at some of those texts to see what we can learn about marriage.  In future posts,  I will consider the New Testament texts and, finally, I will take a look at the broader understanding of marriage that we can draw out of the creation stories and the metaphor of God as the bridegroom. 

My thesis is this: Throughout the Old Testament, men are judged by how they treat women, in marriages and other relationships.  Whenever men break covenant, fail to trust God, etc. poor treatment of women follows.

First: An Excursus on How I Interpret the Bible
I have written elsewhere about my basic method of interpretation more extensively, so here I will only give a brief summary.  I take the bible to be “authoritative” in the rich sense laid out by N. T. Wright in Scripture and the Authority of God. I read the Bible to learn about God and the relationship that God has had with God’s people.  I read to learn about the mighty acts of God in salvation history, in renewing the world.  But I also read to know God and who I am in relationship to God. For me the bible conveys information, but it also allows God to work in and through me, by the power of the Holy Spirit; it allows me to be transformed and renewed.  I take the words of scripture very seriously because I believe that it is important to understand why a passage reads one way and not another.  Why was this word used and not that word?  Why were these stories that ones that were saved and not other stories? In the end, the story of God and God’s people becomes my story, with the climax of the story being the redemptive act of Jesus on the cross and through the resurrection.  That is the highlight of history for me. 
My job then, is to live in a way that is consistent with this story; to live a kingdom life. And to do that, I have to study the bible in its cultural context, I have to read it devotionally, I have to read it both privately and together with others in the community of faith, both current and historical, I have to use it for worship.  Above all I have to ask the Holy Spirit to be at work in me as I read and humbly beg for mercy when I am inevitably wrong about some things.

Leaving aside Genesis one and two for the moment, the model of marriage in Genesis is not one that I would hold up for anyone to imitate.  However, I don’t think the point of Genesis is to present heroes for our imitation, but to present fallible human beings to show us the grace of God.  Not one of those multiple marriages in Genesis turns out well.  Abraham tried to substitute Hagar for Sarah, because he did not trust God to fulfill God’s promise to him. But God made sure he knew that Sarah was just as important to the covenant as Abraham.  Then God cared for Hagar and her son.  The conflicts that arise out of the two sons – the son of Sarah as the forerunner of the Jewish people and the son of Hagar as the forerunner of the Arab people – are conflicts that have lasted for thousands of years.  As another example of how polygamous marriage grows out of the deceit of men and causes generational conflict, see the story of Jacob.  In the story of Jacob, the conflicts between Jacob’s four wives are at the root of the conflicts between the tribes of Israel.  

In addition to the problems with polygamous marriages, sexual “impurity” crops up as a sign (not a cause, but a sign) of other kinds of moral failure.  A passage that gets used and misused extensively is Genesis 19 – the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.  I would argue that it is neither a passage about a group of homosexuals, nor just a passage about bad hospitality.  The desire of the men of the town to rape the angels is symptomatic of their desires to satisfy their lusts in other ways, indicated by the oppression of the surrounding people.  And Lot’s offer to give them his virgin daughters shows his own lack of righteousness (they get back at him later on when they get him drunk and have sex with their father in a cave). 

The poor treatment of women in Genesis in other passages – the story of Dinah and Shechem, the way that Laban tricks Jacob into taking both his daughters, and Judah’s treatment of Tamar all show problems with this family that is supposed to carry the covenant. Judah, in particular recognizes that even though Tamar has deceived him and acted as a prostitute, she is “more righteous” than he is because her ingenuity enables the family line that carries the covenant to continue.

Leviticus has several texts that the LGTB movement calls “clobber” passages, having to do with improper sexual relationships.  And many people argue that since we no longer follow all the laws in Leviticus, and these laws are culturally conditioned, we no longer need to uphold the laws that deal with sexual misconduct.  See for example Leviticus 18:4-24.  This passage begins with a list of all those relatives that you are not supposed to have sexual relations with: your father, your mother, your father’s wife, your sister, your father’s daughter, your mother’s daughter, your son’s daughter, your daughter’s daughter, your father’s sister, your mother’s sister, your father’s brother’s wife, your son’s wife, your brother’s wife, both a woman and her daughter, your wife’s sister (unless your wife dies), a menstruating women, your kinsman’s wife—all of this through verse 20.  Verse 21 forbids offering your children as a sacrifice to Molech, and then we have the famous passage in verse 22: You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.  Continuing in verse 23 the people are forbidden to have sexual relations with any animal. And verse 24 is the point of the whole thing: Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves. In other words, these are the typical practices of those who are not the people of God, particularly the sacrifice of children, lying with a male as with a woman and having sexual relations with animals.

If we are going to say that Leviticus, and in particular the text prohibiting homosexual relationships, no longer has cultural relevance, instead of citing the laws having to do with what kind of cloth can be woven together, we should look at the actually literary context of the passage.  Do we tend to accept or throw out the other laws having to do with sexual relations?  Why or why not? Let’s look again: The list of sexual prohibitions in verses 4-20 are, in a sense, very practical for keeping the peace in families and tribes and for keeping genetic diversity within the community.   Actually, for the most part, we still see the validity of most of them. The list of prohibitions in 21-24 have to do with keeping yourselves separate from the nations around you.  You are called to be different. You are called to holiness, to be holy as God is holy.  The only one of those prohibitions that is currently being called into question is the one about lying with a man as with a woman.  We are still on board with prohibition of child sacrifice and sexual relations with animals.  In the context of Leviticus, in the context of being called to holiness, if we are going to take seriously sexual holiness, we might not want to totally discard Leviticus.  (I will discuss Jesus approach to this in the next post.)

In Deuteronomy we are introduced to the concept of Levirate marriage – a man must take his brother’s wife if his brother dies.  This is not a recipe for the normative view of marriage but a protection for the women who could not survive without a family.  Any children the brother had with the woman were technically children of the dead brother.  This meant that the child would inherit the dead man’s property and thus his mother would be cared for. We may not like this way of doing things but at the time it made sense. 

Probably the most atrocious example of women (and children) being abused is found in Judges 19-21.  I won’t go into it here, but please note that the final line of the book shows the cause of the abuse: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.”  If we want to know the consequences on society of doing what is right in our own eyes, this story from Judges tells us what to expect. 

On to the multiple marriages of the Kings . . . 

The women around David are foils in displaying parts of his character.  Michal, the daughter of Saul shows that David is taking not only the spirit and the Kingship from Saul, but has taken the love of his children as well.  David cares nothing for Michal as anything but the daughter of the king; someone he needed in order to further his political ambitions.  When David takes Bathsheba in adultery, once again this is indicative of his sinful nature, not a suggestion that taking multiple wives is a good thing. The wives and concubines of David become pawns in the succession narrative; when Absalom sleeps with the women, he is declaring that he is king, he is usurping the power of his father. Later on, Adonijah tries to take control of the throne by taking control of the last woman to sleep with David (at least that is how Solomon sees it!).  And certainly the multiple wives of Solomon are a bad influence on him, leading him astray by causing him to worship other gods.

In summary, alternatives to monogamous marriage do show up in the Hebrew Scriptures.  And even “monogamous” marriages are not always models for emulation. I know that some religious traditions argue that multiple wives are encouraged by the Hebrew Scriptures, but by my reading of them, they emphatically do not encourage us to think that multiple wives are a good thing.  The practice always leads to conflict.  And even further than that, both polygamy and poor treatment of women both in and out of marriage is almost always either a cause or a symptom of men straying from the covenant and straying from trust in and worship of God.

In the next installment – New Testament passages regarding marriage.