As I have written about before, I believe that one of the most important aspects of approaching scriptures is to be looking for how it reveals God’s purpose, demonstrating his character and His vision for us. As we consider various rules from scriptures, the difficulty of understanding the underlying purpose can vary greatly. If we read stories, and even obey rules, without looking to understand how they reveal God and His purpose, we are missing the entire point. And, there are some commandments, like prohibitions against murder and theft, where we can clearly see the purpose and benefit, that God lovingly intends towards society. These could be called transparent commandments, because we can clearly see the purpose. However, many commandments are opaque, and it is difficult to see beneath the surface. In this post, I wanted to consider Biblical mandates on sexual immorality, including homosexuality, from this perspective.
Much has been written defending different positions on sexuality and especially homosexuality of late, but it seems they we rarely engage with the preeminent goal of looking for purpose in these mandates. I have seen countless articles, books, and discussions defending a position, and using scriptures to back their polemic. But the actual intent of these scriptures, to reveal the vision and character of God, seems almost completely unexplored. And when we fail to follow Christ’s mandate to look for purpose, and instead jump right to conclusions, we can be almost guaranteed that we will get it wrong (or get it right, and still miss the point). It is amazing to me how little interest there is in the actual purpose of these teaching. Because of this, rather than taking an asserting position, and then trying to defend it with some selected passages, instead I want to start with broader teaching on sexual immorality, and progress to more specific mandates, to try to understand these underlying purposes. And only after considering purposes, can we actually assess further implications.
So why does the Bible condemn certain sexual practices as immoral? These can indeed be opaque commands. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t follow Jesus’ clear directive to seek to understand the purpose here. There are two common errors that can come from failing to go deeper. Some apply a surface-level understanding without any consideration of other factors that deeper understanding can inform. This is incongruous with Jesus’ lesson from the Sabbath, that we are not simply supposed to legalistically follow rules. And others simply throw these opaque commandments out. This does not adhere to Jesus’ upholding and careful observation of the law (Matt 5:17-18).
Consequently, I will give my best effort to understand the purpose of sexual moralities mandates, and the potential implications of different purposes. Again, let us begin with general commands about sexual promiscuity including adultery, sex outside of marriage, etc. What are the possible purposes of these commands?
- It is the physical act itself, that is immoral. Obviously, this is nonsensical, since the physical act of sex between an unmarried or divorced couple is physically identical to that of any married couple. Married couples don’t use different organs to accomplish the act. It is the same act, it is the meaning or context of the physical act that actually differs. As Paul said, these physical acts are “just a shadow” (Col 2:16-17). This is clearly not the purpose.
- The primary underlying purpose of sexual morality mandates about adultery and pre-marital sex seems rooted in the purpose of relational faithfulness. Or the converse, is that sexual immorality leads to relational brokenness. The impact of the tragedies of divorce are easily measured in terms of negative impact on children. Sex, is a powerful act of intimacy, and it undeniably leads to a deeper level of relationship. These relationships that are characterized by trust and faithfulness towards each other are far more fulfilling, broken relationships are one of the most painful human experiences.
- Sexual immorality objectifies woman. If we need objective evidence of this, we need to look no further than the tragedy of the global human trafficking, which is quite clearly driven by prostitution and pornography as well. Of course the extreme cases of sexually driven oppression don’t just happen out of nowhere, there is a clear pathway to this. Every time we treat a woman as simply a tool for sex, whose value was found in physical pleasure, rather than relational value, we further contribute to the objectification of women, and further encourage her and others towards the consumerist treatment of women that has led to misogyny, inequality, trafficking and sex slavery.
- Romantic relationships make us less available for others. Businesses often discourage romantic relationships, particularly hierarchical ones, because they know that it can interfere with the focus on productivity, and remaining available to help each other. By restricting romantic relationships to a single monogamous relationship, we retain greater availability for helping others without the confusion or awkwardness of romance.
I think these last three are reasonable ideas for the probable reasons behind some of the rule behind sexual morality.
However, these reasons don’t necessarily give a good explanation for homosexuality. Let’s specifically look at the possible reasons for the Bible’s statements against homosexuality:
Possible Purpose: God is disgusted by the physical act of homosexual act.
This is probably the shallowest possible conclusion. Looking at the purpose behind rules should reveal the wisdom and glory of God, but this idea suggests nothing more than an arbitrary dislike. Col 2:16-17 again makes it clear the laws are not about physical actions, but are shadows of deeper realities. This idea seems further improbable from a God who purposely associated with people and areas that the dominant society found disgusting (Heb 13:13). And if this type of sexual morality is similar to adultery, it would further point away from just the physical act. Using this as the reason for the prohibition against homosexuality is pretty absurd, and contradictory to the rest of scriptures. Let’s try to look deeper.
Possible Purpose: Homosexual relationships are less committal.
The idea here is that the purpose of the prohibition is to avoid relationships where the commitment to each other is more likely to broken. This idea gains further merit because it aligns well with reasoning about sexual immorality in general. Prohibitions against adultery and fornication seem to be at least partly for the purposed of fostering stable, committed relationship.
This idea suggests that we can verify that straight couples are more faithful, and indeed, empirical data and studies do seem to have some support for the idea that homosexual relationships tend to be much shorter and more transient (about 4 times shorter, from what I can tell). But, it is certainly not always the case, and it is worth noting that the significant exception is gay marriage. Gay married couples have actually been equal or even slightly more faithful than their straight counterparts. However, this may be due to the resistance to gay marriage that has resulted in a selection bias (only those that are really committed go to the effort of finding a place to get a marriage certificate), but their faithfulness can’t be ignored.
This idea has interesting implications. If homosexuality is to be avoided because of infidelity, than it means that the homosexual relationship isn’t the real sin, but rather the likely infidelity. And if this is the case, the immorality is intrinsically tied to its realization: a straight couple that divorces is guilty of the same root sin of infidelity that statutes on homosexuality are trying to prevent, while the gay couple that remains faithful to each other, have actually avoided the deeper issue of a broken relationship. And if this is the real reason, than encouraging a gay couple to separate would actually be more sinful than staying together. Another interesting implication is that homosexuality is morally equivalent to any other risk factor of divorce (including things like different professions and emotionally instability), although in differing degrees.
If this is true, than discouraging gay marriage is actually counterproductive to the purpose of encouraging relational faithfulness. To discourage homosexuality for the sake of discouraging relational separation, and then turn around and discourage the institute of relation commitment is contradictory. If homosexuality is immoral because of its reduced likelihood of relational faithfulness, than discouraging gay marriage (an institution which certainly encourages relational faithfulness) is immoral for precisely the same reason. Interestingly, most Christians tend to believe that while the Bible condemns divorce and remarriage, they don’t believe that those who have remarried are actively living in sin. But if the statutes for divorce and remarriage serve the same purpose as homosexuality, then the same logic should be applied.
Possible Purpose: Homosexuals can’t reproduce.
This is probably the most illogical idea. This notion effectively diminishes the purpose of marriage down to procreation. Not only is this incredibly dishonoring to the concept and greater purpose of marriage, it also absurdly implies that marriage with an infertile person would be equally immoral. I would hope no one would be so cruel as to label the inability to bear children as immorality.
Demonstrating Culturally-Specific Uprightness
Possible Purpose: Christians are to exhibit the highest of their cultural values so as to reflect positively on the church and God, and homosexuality was prohibited because it was culturally considered to be perverse, and the authors of the Bible wanted the Christians to be above reproach.
This idea fits well with the context of the prohibition of 1 Corinthians 6, as Paul suggests disassociation, which seems to be more aimed at presenting the church as clean from such behavior that was considered dishonorable, than it is at correcting such behavior. And in fact 1 Cor 6, as well as later sections of this letter, are clearly aimed at helping us to understand how our actions are viewed by outsiders (speaking in tongues, lawsuits, head covering). In fact, the rules on head coverings found just a few chapters later in chapter 11 are almost universally understood to be a cultural-specific way of showing honor and respect, and not to be literally carried out in the same form today.
One of the difficulties of this view is that prohibitions against homosexuality were written to multiple cultures/cities (OT Israelites, Romans, and Corinthians). Did these cultures just happen to have a similarity among each other, that is not shared with modern cultures? It is possible, but this makes it less likely. And further, the language of other passages makes it harder to believe this is culturally specific. Why would Paul (and the OT) so harshly condemn and ostracize people for their orientation, just for the sake of the church’s image, particularly when the Bible usually sides for the marginalized?
Appeal to Nature/Design
Possible Purpose: Homosexuality isn’t according to His design.
As a direct reason, this is a poor reason, but it does have some indirect value. Simply put, God created man to be creative himself. The world is full of the beauty of art, technology, architecture writings, and other delegated creations that were absent from any account of God’s initial creation. These continually creative works of man, are reflections of the brilliance of God in creating man to be participants in the on-going, dynamic creation process that continues to this day. Art, technology, and architecture are not evil because they weren’t a part of the original creation, and it is equally illogical to think that homosexuality is wrong simply because it was absent from the account of the original creation. iPads were just as absence from “original creation” as homosexuality, but one can not logically draw a conclusion about the morality of either simply by claiming it is not natural. Essentially, this is the appeal to nature fallacy, and I have written before how this logic contradicts the theology of creation.
However, God’s creation can be viewed as revealing God’s concept of beauty. As we look at nature, we can see diversity, reproduction, fractal complexity, and countless other elements that reflect on God’s ideas of beauty. Creation can be an indirect perspective on gaining more understanding of what God finds beautiful. However, like looking at the rules in the Bible, this too, requires that we look below the surface, to see what is being revealed. It is not a direct proof of God’s desire, but an indirect indication. But this perspective may give us additional insight for moving forward.
Possible Purpose: Homosexuality doesn’t express the diversity and complementary nature of the male and female.
This idea can find substantial Biblical support if we can compare community of marriage to the community of the church. Paul goes into detail in various occasions about the purpose of different gifts (Eph 5, Rom 12, etc.) in the body complementing each other for the purpose of a healthy community, where different strengths work together for the greater good. This is a pretty strong theme in scriptures, and can be seen in the beauty of nature as well. It would certainly seem to follow that marriage should also be a showcase for diverse gifts being brought together for complementary purposes. If this is true, this idea definitely has the largest and most substantial portions of scripture for backing, with so much emphasis in the New Testament focused on the coming together of diverse gifts and peoples.
However, this too has some very profound and challenging implications and difficulties. If diversity is such a key element of marriage, this should likely apply to more differences than just gender. Is a couple with duplicative gifts, rather than complementary gifts and talents acting immoral in the same way as a gay couple? Should we be just a careful about commending marriage of people that have distinctive perspectives as we are about different genders? Anyone with more than a few dozen friends could probably find at least one pair of same gender match and a differing gender match, where the former’s distinctive traits outdid the latter. And if this is indeed the key principle, are we not obligated to apply this outside marriage as well? If a family really needs to be led by both a female and male, how much more so a church (where often only male leadership exists)? Is an ethnically homogeneous church amidst a diverse community, immoral in the same way as homosexuality? Is church leadership where only a single ideology or eschatology, is represented, equally immoral?
While these are indeed pretty challenging implications, in reality this is probably more surprising to our own church culture. From the perspective of the Bible, this is may well be the most scripturally consistent reason, these implications are not inconsistent with how NT described the formation of the church. Still though, carrying out the implications of this reasoning to its conclusion is pretty radical, and I am not sure if it is completely reasonable. (It is also quite interesting that the motivation for diversity is same reason given for gay equality).
It is certainly reasonable to look at these possibilities and simply say that we can’t be sure of God’s exact purpose. Indeed these scriptures are opaque, and having an appropriate level of humility about how to understand these passages is definitely appropriate. However, recognizing our limited ability to precisely determine the purpose does not mean that we can ignore the likely purposes and their implications.
These are my best guesses of what is being revealed by the Biblical teaching on homosexuality. In review, I would believe that commitment/faithfulness and diversity are probably most likely, and culture may have had an influence in some of the language of some of the passages. However, in the end, I simply don’t know, and I don’t know if anyone really knows for sure. So what to do we do when we don’t know? First, we rarely go wrong with simple obedience while we strive to understand further, and I would certainly commend simple obedience to a literal understanding of these passages, if you can’t understand more deeply.
However, the vast majority of us are not facing the question of whether to follow homosexual urges, but rather are more likely to deal with the questions of how to interact with those that they are gay, how to react to homosexual’s in leadership, or if we should pay any influence in legislative issues on the subject. These are all issues that do not simply logically follow from the basic statute. These are all issues that require logical implications to determine the correct answer, and without understanding the purpose behind these Biblical rules on sexual immorality, we are very likely to reach the wrong logical conclusion. Without any inquiry below the surface level reading of these passages, we will probably be as wrong as the Pharisees, and their interpretations that Jesus so harshly condemned.
One of the most discussed issues is if it is helpful to define legal restrictions on marriage so that it is limited to heterosexual union. Again, we can’t assume that a Biblical prohibition implies that legal restrictions are helpful. In appealing to the government to influence behavior, we always face a tension. We want the government to protect the individuals from harm from others, but we also want people to freely make decisions to do right. So does homosexuality actually harm others? We have discussed the possibility of fidelity being a reason against homosexuality, but marriage itself, among gay couples, has actually been shown to be very faithful.
However, the Bible actually seems to give a very explicit answer to the question of whether this type of sexual immorality harms others, in 1 Cor 6:18: “Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” Paul seems to make it clear that the immorality discussed in this chapter (including homosexuality), is mainly about sinning against oneself, and not others, which means it requires the government to go beyond its normal, limited role of preventing harm to each other.
Furthermore, there is no evidence that any such legislative actions are really even effective. It is almost comical to think that anyone has changed their orientation due to government’s restrictions on marriage. The only implications that have resulted from legislative efforts have been driving people away from the church. Many feel that they are taking an important stand, but taking a stand for something that has been demonstrated to have no moral impact, is pointless. It is logically incoherent to think that defending legislation X, if X has no affect on moral behavior, is there somehow moral.
Perhaps an even more important issue to consider here is the significance of God’s ultimate purpose. The Bible consistently teaches that the highest cumulative purpose of God is to glorify Himself. God’s purpose is not moral compliance, but His glory, and He is glorified when people freely choose to follow Him and His ways. As with any laws, one of the drawbacks we face is that when we restrict people’s actions, we restrict their free agency in choosing to obey God. God wants and is glorified when we choose to obey Him, solely because of how good He is. When the choice to obey is partially driven by legal constraints, we are effectively diminishing that free choice towards Him, and diminishing the glory He might receive from that decision. While it may always be appealing to want to maximize Christian moral influence, ultimately we need to decide whether we want to put greater priority on our influence, or greater priority on God’s glory, as found when people freely choose His ways without any coercion.
The Definition of “Marriage”
An important issue in the debate on gay marriage has been the definition of marriage. However, this emphasis on preserving the meaning of the word, has itself been a denigration of the Biblical marriage. It is critical that we understand the purpose of language. Language exists to convey meaning and describe concepts. We use language best when we use words in such a way that others understand the concepts we are trying to describe. Language has always been a product of culture, defined by what meaning people in culture understand from different combinations of letters or sounds. Language is always evolving as culture evolves. A great danger we face in using language is when we equate a word with a concept. When we do this our definition of the concept becomes tied to other’s understanding of the word. When we equate very deep and meaningful concepts, particularly like Biblical concepts of grace, the gospel, God, or even marriage to a single word, we belittle these concepts, turning them into a shifting idea, constantly redefined as culture evolves. If we care about any concept, we must never distill it to a single word, we must care enough about it to describe it with the variety of words necessary to communicate it to the culture around us.
Next, it is also critical that we understand the difference between meaning and context. Many have asserted that marriage is defined as the union of a man and woman. However, in reality, this isn’t exactly the *meaning* conveyed by marriage, it is a combination of the meaning and the context. A simple test can demonstrate: If I were tell your Jim and Bob got married, I don’t think anyone would honestly think I am trying to tell you that one of those men had suddenly turned into a woman. Purpose of the word “marriage” isn’t to communicate the gender of couple, but to indicate they are entering into a committed relationship. The traditional context of the word marriage is indeed between a male and female, but that is distinct from the meaning, and you, as well, as anyone from the 20th century, 19th century, or any other English-speaking culture would have a very good idea of what I meant when I said that Jim and Bob got married. The meaning is distinct from the context. You certainly may get some odd looks from people of different times or cultures if I told you Jim and Bob got married, as again, traditionally the context for marriage has been between a male and female. But one of the most important characteristics of language is to be able to use words, and carry their meaning into new contexts. Our entire vocabulary of being able to meaningfully describe technology because of the flexibility of taking old words and applying them in new contexts, to help communicate new concepts. It is critical that we understand the distinction between context and meaning, in regards to marriage. Seeking legal means to define marriage is a pointless exercise, because not only is it the traditional context instead of the meaning, but it undermines the purpose of language which is about communicating ideas using the the meaning of words ascribed by culture and your listeners.
Now while I am generally critical of efforts to curtail gay marriage, I would also note I don’t find the pursuit of gay rights very compelling, because of lack of comparative and objective benefits. I think it is helpful to make a simple comparison to an other issue that I believe is much more important: the number of undocumented immigrants in America is roughly similar to the number of LGBT that might seek marriage (about 10-20 million). However, the types of rights that are denied undocumented immigrants is not even comparable to the types of rights that are debated for LGBT. Access to a driver’s license, health care, voting, are vastly larger challenges than lack of ability to get a marriage license. These types of rights are not even being discussed for gay equality, no one is even considering denying LGBT access to a driver’s license or any of the other basic opportunities that are denied immigrants. I am hopeful that the recent SCOTUS decision will let us move on to the much more important policy issues of immigrant rights.
In examining these scriptures, by trying faithfully to follow Jesus’ exhortation to look for purpose, there are a variety of interesting and challenging possibilities. I don’t know the exact answers, but I believe the possibilities that exist must guide our response and interaction with the LGBT community. And I also must conclude that attempting to employ the government in preventing gay and lesbians from marriage is likely to be counter-productive to God’s purposes of relational faithfulness, and the pursuit of His glory. I would encourage Christians to consider giving higher priority to the glory of God, and His purposes, and choosing not to compromise the pursuit of God’s purpose for the sake of moral influence.