Where does the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage really rest?
The disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage tends to revolve around the interpretation of the few passages that come closest to the topic: Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-28, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, and some include Genesis 19 as well. We then ask questions like, How should we translate this word? Exactly which sex act does the author describe in this passage? Can we infer from the social setting whether the sex is mutual? These are good questions, and they will matter to some degree at some point. However, we need to start with the wider narratives of Scripture, which ground and frame the particular, topical passages. For example, it doesn’t matter what the Levitical commands in 18:22 and 20:13 prohibit until we hash out, generally, how the book of Leviticus fits into the wider arc of Scripture, and how and why the teachings of Leviticus would matter today.
I do not base my position on Christian same-sex marriage on the outcome of the six exegetical debates. That approach would oversimplify the problem and understate what is at stake. Anyways, I think those passages could all be missing from the Bible and we would still get to the same conclusions, affirming or not — just as a hypothetical seventh prohibition would not necessarily tell us anything more. Instead, I base my position on wider theological convictions that come through a reading of the whole Biblical story and the place of procreation in that story. This method drives us much faster into the heart of the disagreement.
Procreation in the Hebrew Bible
In the beginning, God created humanity in the image of God, and blessed them to rule over the animals and the birds and the land. Genesis 1:26, whether read from a creationist or evolutionary perspective, tells us about the goal for which God created humanity. We are to reflect God back to the world by exercising wise stewardship over the world. The next two verses continue this point: in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said, be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. Just as in 1:26 God gives humanity a vocation to steward the earth — to act like God himself acts towards the earth — in 1:27-28 God gives humanity a vocation to populate the earth — just as God himself did when he created humanity in the beginning. We can see this concept linguistically in our latinate word “procreation,” creating forth something new. When we procreate, we participate in the work of Creation that God has already begun, continuing it, blessed to do so as if we were God, in our role as divine image bearers. Verses 27-28 cannot be separated from 26 because the unit 26-28 together claims that God created humanity to extend his own work in Creation. God made us in his image to steward the world (26) which requires sexual difference (27) for the purpose of procreation (28) to fulfill this stewardship of the world.
The rest of the Hebrew Bible illustrates and confirms this theology of procreation. God plans to redeem humanity from its fallen state by saving one man, and through him, one nation, and through that nation, one Messiah. God calls Abraham, creates a covenant with him, and blesses him with a promise to have “more descendants than the sand on the shore, than the stars in the sky.” Barrenness, decedents, legacy, familial blessing, and God’s gift of fertility dominate the pages of Genesis to follow. These themes continue to dominate the Hebrew Bible after Genesis, becoming even more prominent in times of national destruction. Ironically, the national destruction itself usually comes from kings taking many foreign wives, attempting to build massive households with hundreds of descendants. Procreation is a blessing, and when pursued in violation of Torah it becomes a curse, but either way it remains the center of the narratives. Remember the ancient context as well. Israel was a hard and rugged place. You would simply not survive if you could not have kids. Because Israel was always only one generation away from siege, pillage, exile, and destruction, the covenant with Abraham would have given promise for security and hope for a better future. The Hebrew Bible’s extensive genealogies also show us the importance of procreation. Long lists connect everyone in the nation to Abraham, to verify their membership in the promises God made in the covenant. They also helped Israelites who grew up reciting their genealogy to remember that the promise would one day extend through them to their children.
Most people agree up to this point. Few in the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage jump ship before here. (James Brownson and perhaps Sarah Coakley are two notable exceptions). This is because the above is, in my view, incontestable. The themes are too consistent and pervasive to ignore. The disagreements I want to consider in the next section are the ones which start when we move from the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament. Does the New Testament teach that procreation is normative? What could change that would nullify the former teaching, which crucially is rooted in our portrait of Creation?
Procreation in the New Testament
Let me give four examples of the kind of analysis that complicates the procreation mandate. Two on each side.
On the one hand, we see continuity with the former portrait. Years ago in a seminary class on Biblical Theology and Interpretation, D. A. Carson took us to Mark 10 to illustrate this continuity. Have you not read? Jesus asks. Jesus uses Genesis 1-2 for the moral question of divorce and draws directly on the older narrative without qualification. He also intentionally undermines the exception that Moses made in Deuteronomy 24. This draws us away from a possible trajectory where if something is true in Creation, but precedents are set later on, we can expand outward following the later precedents. No, Jesus avoids the later legal precedent and builds his command on Creation.
On the other hand, we see discontinuity when it comes to procreation itself. What happens to procreation in the New Testament? Why does it vanish almost entirely from the text? There are a few mentions of children here and there, about allowing them into the Kingdom, about discipling them wisely, to bring them up in the way of the Lord, and so on. These teachings help people who already have children, but they tell us nothing about the procreation mandate. Now consider 1 Corinthians 7, one of the few extended texts about sexual practice in the New Testament. Paul bases his sexual advice on martial duty (1-3), mutual consent (4-5), temptation from Satan (presumably to adultery or fornication) (5-9), God’s call to live at peace (15-16), our freedom in Christ (21-24), the coming apocalypse (25-31), our undivided focus on the Lord (32-35), and the honor of virgins and of singleness as a widow (36-40). Paul’s advice comes from numerous places in moral theology and gives us a rich picture of complex wisdom, as well as the types of sources we should value in making these complex decisions. But where is procreation?
Returning to the first hand, the relationship between early Christianity and the Mosaic Law is difficult, but not really on this question. The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 decides to integrate Gentiles into the people of God and commands them to do four things: abstain from meat that has been strangled, abstain from meat that still has blood, abstain from food sacrificed to idols, and abstain from sexual immorality. These commands probably express something like the Law of Noah (though this was not explicitly developed until the early Talmudic Rabbis over a century later), which means laws God gave to all humanity through Noah, the father of all later humans. These kinds of laws are not detailed in the actual text of Genesis 6-9, but the concept lurks behind Acts 15:23-29 and Romans 2:12-16 to provide grounding for universal moral commandments. The fourth command in Acts 15 simply prohibits “sexual immorality,” but presumably all Jews would flesh out this term with Leviticus 18, where the Torah gives a detailed list of what practices count as sexual immorality. By declaring sexual immorality a universal prohibition (not limited to Jews), the Jerusalem Council made it impossible for Gentiles to use an “abolition of the Law” type argument to get around the Leviticus prohibitions.
Returning to the second hand, because Gentiles in the New Testament are “adopted” into the family of God, the need for procreation to advance the ethnic people solely of Israel has faded. The procreation mandate may seem to vanish from the New Testament, but in reality it has been transformed into the evangelism mandate. Converts are like children in the faith, raised to maturity by our faithful parentage, to become bearers of the good news of the Gospel, resulting in their own spiritual children one day. Gentiles receive paternity in Abraham by adoption through Christ (Romans 4), and so procreation is no longer necessary in its function to expand the people of God. You can draw this distinction against the Hebrew Bible too sharply — there are a few non-Israelites who join the family of God, such as Rahab, Jethro, Ruth and Naaman. But overall it seems that the multiethnic movement that begins in the New Testament accompanies the transformation of the procreation mandate because they are inherently tied together. The New Testament’s theology of adoption, then, decenters and transforms the procreation mandate.
Where do we disagree?
My reading of the disagreement leads me here. How you square these circles will determine whether Christian same-sex marriage can be morally good. Does the procreation mandate persist in marriage, or does it fade away with the coming of Messiah? Better, does the current apocalypse (1 Corinthians 7:17-31) interrupt the procreation mandate as a whole, or does it interrupt procreation within marriage? This distinction makes or breaks Robert Song’s argument in his book Covenant and Calling, which I recommend reading. If the apocalypse disrupts the need to procreate generally, then celibacy is affirmed because marriage is not required. But if the apocalypse disrupts the procreation mandate in marriage, then constitutionally non-procreative marriages can become morally neutral or good.
These questions can hinge on the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, not to mention the even wider theological topics I have not addressed here. What about natural law theology? What about gender complementarity beyond procreation (such as gender roles)? What about the sacramental end of marriage, which is that marriage signs to us Christ’s own relationship with the Church? What about gender at the resurrection? Needless to say this disagreement is complicated to an almost endless degree. It works at some of the core questions scholars pose about the relationship between the early Jesus movement and the Jewish context from which it came. The complexity of our disagreement should humble us. When you dismount your moral high horse, it becomes easier to see others eye to eye and recognize the good-faith effort they make, even when they come to conclusions you do not. This complexity may even allow for church membership across the affirming disagreement, since we already have membership with many who disagree on questions much more weighty than the technical issue with Robert Song’s argument above. For example, if your church includes Calvinists and Arminians as members, I find it difficult to exclude those who disagree in good faith on some of the biblical-theological specifics outlined here. However, traditions with a rich confessional heritage will likely come to a narrower set of conclusions, and from there we need to debate the traditions and their confessions on their own merits as such. Like all disagreements in Christian moral theology, the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage leads us down a path, bounded by Tradition and Scripture, to the God with whom we seek one common life.
My point in this post is to encourage Christians to think more widely than the six topical passages in isolation — to attempt to see those passages within the totality of our Christian moral vision and the Scriptural narratives that ground and frame that moral vision. Focusing on those passages alone allows us to misconstrue their value and place within Christian thought, as well as over-interpret them to say what they may never have meant. Submitting the meaning and function of these passages to what we already know is like building your house upon a rock: working from the firm foundation of the most central and clear parts of God’s Word to the peripheral and unclear parts. We already do this on so many other topics. Stronger biblical-theological reasoning could help the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage reach greater understanding, mutual respect, and precision. By the Spirit who guides the church into all truth, it may even lead to resolution.