The Bible and Same-Sex Marriage: A Response to Robyn Whitaker and Amy-Jill Levine

Bible with wedding rings (scholar's edition)A big thanks to the ABC for publishing my recent article about a hot topic in Australian political and social life: The Bible and Same-Sex Marriage: A Response to Robyn Whitaker and Amy-Jill Levine.

The pull quote summarises the issue:

Despite claims sometimes made, the question for Christians is not really “What does the Bible really say?” That’s reasonably clear. Rather, it is: “What are we going to do with what the Bible says?”

Here’s the full text of the article:

The Bible and Same-Sex Marriage: A Response to Robyn Whitaker and Amy-Jill Levine

by Lionel Windsor | ABC Religion and Ethics | 28 Aug 2017

Christians seeking guidance in the upcoming same-sex marriage ballot will naturally turn to the Bible. But what does the Bible actually say about marriage and sexuality?

It can be confusing when there are so many claims circulating about biblical scholarship on these matters. However, the Bible itself is clearer than often claimed. The real question is not simply what the Bible says, but rather what we do with what it says.

Last week, the ABC republished an article by Robyn Whitaker, claiming to be a “summary of critical biblical scholarship on the issue.” Whitaker reviewed six biblical passages that mention homosexuality. She claimed that these passages are addressing specific issues that are not directly relevant to modern concepts of sexual orientation or same-sex marriage.

She asserted, for example, that “it is unlikely Paul had any concept of sexual orientation,” which means that the biblical texts cannot be read as speaking straightforwardly to our modern questions. She also noted that there are only a small number of passages about homosexuality in the Bible, compared to the many passages about other topics such as love and justice.

A second article, by Amy-Jill Levine, while more nuanced, repeated similar claims about the cultural limitations of the biblical texts. For example, she claimed that “the ancient world had no concept of sexual orientation.”

Claims such as these may seem to offer a lifeline to Christians who are struggling with deeply-felt matters of identity and desire. However, the claims do not in fact represent the best current critical biblical scholarship on the issue. Indeed, I was astonished when Whitaker chose to single out one particular scholar – William Loader – as a primary representative of the kind of scholarship she was seeking to summarise. Loader is indeed a leading scholar in the field, but his published scholarship directly rebuts the key claims Whitaker makes.

For example, in a recent top-level peer-reviewed journal article, consistent with his previous publications, Loader analyses Romans 1:26-27 in its ancient context. He demonstrates that in the ancient world, consensual adult same-sex relationships were well known, and there were indeed “claims that some are naturally homosexual.” Loader straightforwardly argues that the apostle Paul – the author of the letter to the Romans – would “doubtless have known such claims,” but would, like many other Jews of his time, “have almost certainly rejected such a distinction as in conflict” with Genesis 1:27 (Genesis 1:27 speaks about humanity being created “male and female”).

Thus, Whitaker’s assertion that her article “represents a summary of critical biblical scholarship on the issue,” with special reference to William Loader, is highly inaccurate.

It’s important to emphasise that Loader is not a confessionally “conservative” scholar. He does not actually agree with what Paul says in Romans 1:26-27; he is just seeking to represent Paul’s views accurately. Loader is certainly not alone in this. Indeed, John Pike is probably right to claim that the “vast majority” of serious scholars in the area, whether conservative or progressive, understand Paul similarly. While it is true that various ideas have been floated in scholarly writings to suggest that Paul’s statements are more limited in scope and so inapplicable to our modern questions, these ideas do not represent anything like the kind of scholarly consensus that Whitaker’s article implies. In fact, Loader himself is aware of the various claims that are often made, but states that he “can only stand and wonder at the extraordinary manoeuvres which have been undertaken to re-read Paul as not condemning homosexual relations at all.”

What do we do with the Bible?

Despite the claims that are sometimes made, the key question for Christians is not really “What does the Bible really say?” That’s reasonably clear. The key question is: “What are we going to do with what the Bible says?” Of course, it’s obvious that the Bible doesn’t have a section addressing specific changes being proposed to the Australian legal definition of marriage. But that doesn’t mean it can’t speak to those issues. How, then, does it speak to them?

Whitaker suggests that the biblical concern for justice, economic equality and fair treatment of the vulnerable constitute an “overarching demand” that should guide all our reflection on these matters. She notes that the small number of verses about homosexuality pales into insignificance when compared to the large number of verses that address these larger matters.

Of course, whenever we seek to understand any text – or any person for that matter – it’s very helpful to work out what the main concerns of the text are, so we can understand the details in their proper context. However, there’s a danger in this approach too. The “overarching” idea (for example, economic justice) can sometimes become so overarching and fixed that it gets a life of its own, and is used to cancel out any details that seem to conflict with it simply because they don’t have the numbers (in this case, the verses about homosexuality). This is not a good way to read texts; our big idea either needs to make some sense of the details, or we need to modify it.

Reading these verses in light of the gospel

Yet there is a big idea that Christians down through the ages have recognised as making sense of the Bible, both its overall message, and its details. That big idea is, in a nutshell, the message about Jesus Christ. This message – often called the “gospel” – is about Jesus’s past, present and future; and it’s about the implications of Jesus for our own lives.

Seeing the “gospel” as the big idea is very helpful when we read Paul’s statements about homosexuality, especially when it comes to his letter to the Romans. That’s because Paul explicitly announces to his readers that his letter is all about “the gospel” (Romans 1:1, 16). Paul’s statements about homosexuality (Romans 1:26-27) are meant to be read in light of that much bigger idea: the gospel about Jesus Christ. When we do this, a picture emerges that makes sense, not only of these verses, but also of the other biblical texts concerning marriage and sexuality. We don’t need to resort to reinterpreting or marginalising these texts. Rather, we can read them in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So what does Paul say about the gospel of Jesus Christ in Romans, and how do these verses about homosexuality (Romans 1:26-27) fit in to it?

Romans 1:26-27 appears in the opening section of Paul’s argument (Romans 1:18-32). In this section, Paul is claiming that God’s “wrath” is being revealed against all kinds of human “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness.” Paul lists many wrong acts and attitudes, including greed, slander, arrogance and lack of mercy. These kinds of sins were sometimes seen by Jewish writers as typical of “others” – which is to say, non-Jews. Paul, however, doesn’t allow his readers to entertain any such “us and them” attitude for long. In the following chapters, Paul attacks judgmental attitudes, and argues that every human being is guilty before God and in need of forgiveness (Romans 3:19-20). This forgiveness comes, not through doing good works, but through Jesus’s death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. Those who trust Jesus are completely forgiven, ushering in a whole new way to live in “righteousness” and a great hope of eternal life for the future when our bodies are raised from the dead.

So the verses about homosexuality, within the opening section of Romans about “unrighteousness,” all fit into this bigger picture of “the gospel”. This helps us to make sense of the verses in their context.

The fracturing of God’s created order

There is a certain logical order to the way Paul describes human unrighteousness in the opening section of Romans (1:18-32). First, humans suppress the truth about God. Second, humans “exchange” the worship of God for the worship of creation – this is the essence of idolatry. Third, this “exchange” of creator and creation is manifested in an “exchange” of the natural created order for what is against the natural created order – this is where homosexuality is mentioned. Fourth, all kinds of wrong acts and attitudes are described, in a list that seems to get worse and worse – including such things as greed, murder, arrogance and lack of mercy. This list climaxes in a final “exchange” of good for bad, where humans not only do such things, they also approve of them. In all this, God is described as “giving people up” to their own foolishness.

Homosexual actions, then, are not singled out as worthy of greater condemnation than other acts or attitudes. However, they are not condoned either. Rather, they are described in a particular way: as a kind of reversal of God’s created order. They involve the exchange of what is “according to nature” for what is “against nature.”

This is where the words of Jesus about marriage in Matthew 19:1-12 are very helpful. There, in answering a specific question about divorce, Jesus points back to the more basic original intention of God in creation. According to Jesus (quoting Genesis 1-2), God has made a world in which marriage is designed for a lifelong union of “male and female.” This is consistent with Paul’s view in Romans (as well as in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy): Paul is saying that sexual unions involving “male and male” and “female and female” are a fracturing of God’s created intention. Thus, they are against “nature” – which for Paul means the natural order intended by God in his creation.

Whitaker claims that Paul is only talking about people “swapping out their usual partner for one of the same gender.” Some scholars, it is true, have argued that Paul is simply talking about custom, or about a person’s individual “nature” in these verses – and since he had no idea that some people are “naturally” homosexual, he can’t be addressing that issue. However, as Loader and others have shown, this argument makes little sense. There was an awareness of homosexual orientation in the ancient world (see for instance Plato’s Symposium, 189-93; or Philo’s Contemplative Life, 50-63).

Paul, like other Jews such as Philo, would most likely have been aware of such claims; yet like other Jews he would still have regarded such a concept as covered by the categories he describes here – namely, as against God’s created order (that is “against nature”). This is because Paul does not believe that the orientation of a person’s desire is a reliable guide for what is good or “natural.” In fact, especially when it comes to things such as greed and worship of the creation, he regards certain desires and orientations as fundamentally wrong.

This means that our current experiences of desires aren’t necessarily a reflection of what is good according to God’s design; according to the Bible, our desires may in fact reflect the fractured world we now live in, a world that is under God’s “wrath” (Romans 1:18).

The restoration of order

So these verses in Paul’s letter to the Romans cannot easily be read in terms of an endorsement of same-sex relationships, even of those relationships which are consensual expressions of individuals’ deeply-felt sexual orientations. Rather, such relationships are described by Paul as one expression of a world under God’s condemnation.

Of course, it’s vital to remember what Paul goes on to say next: everyone, no matter their moral stance, is under the same sentence of condemnation from God (which rules out any “holier-than-thou” approach to others); and everyone needs the forgiveness and the right standing before God that comes, not through doing good works, but through trusting in Jesus’s death on the cross. Still, those who trust in Jesus have a new life to live. The shape of that life involves giving ourselves – including our bodies – over to “righteousness” and not “unrighteousness” (Romans 6:13).

That means the opening section of Romans about “unrighteousness” – including the verses about homosexuality – continue to speak directly to Christians’ lives today. We are to live lives of “righteousness.” And this will not be easy. Paul goes on to talk about the struggle all Christians face as they seek to live righteous lives and work against wrong desires, while they wait for a new, far better creation.

In the meantime, we are called to love one another, and our neighbours – which ultimately means seeking what is best for others despite the cost to ourselves (a reflection of God’s love for us; Romans 5:8). All these aspects of the gospel of Jesus Christ and its implications will be relevant, in various ways, to Christians in Australia today as they approach the upcoming postal ballot.

Lionel Windsor is a lecturer in Greek and New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.


For a bit more detail on the scholarly issues, see my previous post Marriage redefinition: What does Romans 1:26-27 really have to say?

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