A few days ago, Kevin DeYoung, author and senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, wrote an excellent article for the Gospel Coalition website entitled, “Five Questions For Christians Who Believe The Bible Supports Gay Marriage” (read it here). It is exactly the type of contribution we should be having on this important issue: clear, calm, reasonable, rational and inviting engagement. This is typical of Kevin’s style and contribution.
His five questions are really important. And they are addressed to Christians precisely like me: God-fearing, Jesus-following, Bible-believing, evangelical Christians who have become convinced “that Scripture does not prohibit same-sex intercourse so long as it takes place in the context of a loving, monogamous, lifelong covenanted relationship.” This is a topic I have spent over a decade researching, discussing and praying through, and am convinced that the traditional view on homosexuality is incorrect.
Here then are some answers, hopefully offered in the same tone as the original questions. For reasons that will become apparent, I’ll answer them in reverse order:
5. How have all Christians at all times and in all places interpreted the Bible so wrongly for so long?
Answer: Easily. Christians have a long record of doing this on many issues.
Kevin is a good scholar of church history and I am sure is aware of how many issues Christians have had to change their orthodox views on throughout history.
As Kevin himself said, one of the principles established in the Bible and reiterated strongly during the Reformation was the concept of “always reforming”. God is continuing to work with us through history, unfolding His plan for His Kingdom “to come on earth as it is in heaven”. This is not because God is changing His mind, but because we continue to develop as people and society, and God continues to work with us. We see this progression through history. To pick a few examples: Christians had to adjust their cosmology when Galileo confronted our view of our place in space. Christians had to confront their view of slavery two centuries ago. We could talk about the divine rights of kings, the role of women in society (and the church), evolutionary theory and the age of the earth, the role of the Holy Spirit, support of apartheid and racial segregation, and many other issues to prove that what Christians once took as right, good and godly has later been changed and overturned as we develop a new understanding of how to read and interpret certain Scripture verses. Not all of these issues are resolved (although I assume that flat earth thinking and slave ownership are now settled at least), but they prove the point.
And the point is this: We must take very seriously the “cloud of witnesses” from church history. To change the traditional view of the church is a very serious thing indeed. It should be done with due care and consideration. But there is ample proof from history that to do this is both possible and desirable.
To answer Kevin’s actual question directly: God, in His wisdom, decided to leave the issue of homosexuality to us and our generation to engage with. Like He asked the 19th century Christians to deal with slavery, and the 17th century Christians to deal with flat earth cosmology and 16th century Protestants to deal with Roman Catholic excess. Different generations are asked to do different things by God. The issue of gay marriage is our issue.
I believe that within fifty years, we will all be as comfortable explaining homosexuality in the Bible as we all now are with slavery (or warfare or brutality or the treatment of women or most of the OT laws). Even those who claim to take the Bible literally know how to explain how to read the Bible appropriately on these issues. Homosexuality will be on that list too, and it will feel comfortable, obvious, right, Biblical and godly.
4. What will you say about anal intercourse?
Answer: I will say as much as the Bible says on it. And then a bit more.
This is not an issue the Bible deals with. It’s a matter on which we can exercise our personal discretion and choice. We could leave it there. But to be fair, let me give more of an answer, because I actually think this is a very important question and I am glad Kevin asked it. One of the reasons some people don’t like gays is because they’re culturally conditioned to be squeamish about issues related to sexual mechanics. But we cannot talk about homosexuality without talking about sexual behaviour.
In fact, as a quick aside, I’d argue that this question gets to the heart of the issue for Christians. Regardless of whether you accept homosexuality as a “nature” or a “condition” or an “orientation” or a “choice”, the Bible makes it clear that if there is an issue of sin at stake here, the sin resides in the acting out (or thinking) of homosexuality. In other words, God will not judge someone for their orientation. He will judge actions. Even if you believe homosexuality to be sinful, it is the acting out of your homosexuality that would be sinful. Therefore, it is the acts of homosexual sex that is where we need to address our discussions.
Kevin’s question interestingly focuses the attention on male homosexuals (I have been using the phrase “homosexual” to cover all LGBT orientations thus far). If the issue has to do with the actual mechanics of sex, what would we say to lesbians? I think this illustrates the problem. The Bible does not mandate any specific sexual positions, and has very little to say on the actual mechanics of sex. Well, actually it does tell men not to “spill their seed” and for women not to have sex during their menstrual period or for a few days thereafter (it also tells them to live in a tent at the bottom of the garden during this time). But I think we know enough about Biblical interpretation to know that these instructions are not for us today.
But there are some Biblical principles to take account of. Our bodies are “temples” and must be respected and looked after. All activity to do with our bodies and the bodies of others must be beneficial, respectful and consensual. This is what we should be teaching to homosexuals about their sexual habits. The Bible nowhere mandates anything about sexual positions. Anal sex is something that heterosexual couples can engage in, as is oral sex. So too the use of sexual toys, roleplaying, and even bondage. If Kevin is this concerned about homosexuals, then I’d like to hear him talk about these sexual activities for heterosexual couples too. He may want to, but it wouldn’t be Biblical. Just practical.
With regard to the specific points that Kevin makes about health and safety concerns, he references a much quoted study by J. R. Daling et.al, “Correlates of Homosexual Behavior and the Incidence of Anal Cancer,” which appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association 247, no.14, 9 April 1982. This study is quoted in many conservative statements on this issue, especially the statistic of a 4000% increase in likelihood to contract anal cancer. The original study is available here (http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=370939), and it is interesting to note that it is based on the study of just 47 men in western Washington between 1974 and 1979. Not entirely normative. I think this study has entered the realms of urban legend, to be honest. More recent research has conclusively linked anal cancer to HPV (human papillomavirus – see for example http://www.uptodate.com/contents/classification-and-epidemiology-of-anal-cancer and http://f1000.com/prime/reports/m/2/85/). People who are unhygienic are at higher risk of HPV, and anal intercourse that is done without due hygiene or care is a higher risk factor (but between 20% and 50% higher, not the ridiculous 4000% quoted by Kevin and many others). These issues are fairly well known in the homosexual community, and can easily be taught, and damage prevented.
So how do we respond as Christians? I think the Bible does provide a framework for dealing with sexual practice. The instructions in the Bible about not having sex during a woman’s menstrual period (when last did you hear a sermon about THAT, by the way?) was largely a hygiene consideration (this is how it is typically explained by people who need to take everything in the Bible literally). The principle is that homosexuals need to be taught about these issues, and helped to have sexual relationships that are enjoyable, consensual and loving. But this is true for heterosexuals (and lesbians) as well. And is especially true for the practice of anal sex for both homosexuals and heterosexuals. Frankly, if it hurts or if it is unhygienic or if it is medically unsafe, you’re doing it wrong. But that does not make it immoral, ungodly or abhorrent to God.
So, what would I say about anal sex? Enjoy it. Don’t overdo it. Be safe. Be clean. Be consensual. Be loving. But that’s what I would say to anyone about any form of sex. I’d also say it is only for marriage, but we’ll get to that in question 2 below.
3. Are you prepared to say moms and dads are interchangeable?
Answer: Of course not. But this is the wrong question.
This is a really important question, but the intent behind the question does indicate a slight bias towards a Western, suburban picture of a family. The Biblical picture of a family is not the “father, mother and 2.4 children” in a discrete family unit we know in the West these days. There’s an African proverb which says, “it takes a village to raise a child”. That’s still true. All children need a variety of adult influences in their lives. In their teenage years, non-parental adults can be most important. So, the question is slightly biased towards a particular view of family and community which is not Biblical. As such, I could ignore the question, or at least query the worldview from which it arises. But let me try to do more than this, in the spirit in which Kevin is attempting to engage.
Men and women are not interchangeable. But neither are introverts and extroverts, by the way. What I mean by that is that all children need an environment in which they receive inputs from adults with different worldviews, approaches and profiles. The smallest such unit is a father and mother unit. This may be the “normal” unit, in the sense that most children in the world have this as their family foundation. But there are a significant number who do not. Children of single parents make up a significant proportion of the population. This may be through divorce, bereavement or just through pressures of work and migration. Research shows that there is no direct correlation between the psychological and physical well being of children and the number or gender of their adult primary caregivers. The correlation is to the level of care they receive, not from whom it is received.
Let me rephrase the question to try and make my point: Would you prefer a child to be adopted by a heterosexual couple who neglect and abuse the child, or a homosexual couple who provide loving, nurturing, but single gender care of the child? Only the most hardened conservative Christian might prefer the first choice.
Every child needs adult male inputs. Every child needs adult female inputs. I don’t see these as interchangeable, but I also don’t see this as a limiting factor in the conversation about homosexual marriage. Gay couples who choose to have children (by whatever means) must ensure that their children receive these varied inputs. So must single parents. So must all parents, actually. That’s why the church community is such a wonderful place to raise a child.
2. Will you maintain the same biblical sexual ethic in the church now that you think the church should solemnize gay marriages?
Answer: Unequivocably, absolutely and without embarrassment, YES.
This is an important point for the supporters of homosexual marriage. We often don’t take enough time to lay out what we believe the message should be to homosexual Christians once we’ve got through the debate about their acceptance. And Kevin’s point is important. The Bible teaches that God designed sex to be something special – not just a nice feeling and a pleasurable activity. Something spiritual happens during sexual intercourse that binds two people together in more ways than just the physical. Sex was designed by God for pleasure and for connection (and, of course, very rarely, for procreation – but I am glad Kevin is beyond raising this as one of his questions). But it was designed to be used in a certain context: lifelong, committed, monogamous relationship. Once we have ensured that gay couples have access to this relationship, our voices need to be as loud and clear to them as it is to heterosexuals. By the way, this should not just be on sexual issues, but on all issues related to both the rights and responsibilities of marriage. We know, for example, that God hates divorce. He will hate homosexual divorce just as much.
This message is going to be really tough for homosexual young men to hear. Most heterosexual men would probably have had sex before marriage if their girlfriend had been keen on it. This is a dangerous statement to make, and I do not at all mean to say that it is the woman who must say no, and it is her responsibility to manage sexual contact before marriage. By no means. But it is simple biology and chemistry that men are wired for sex in ways that women are not. So when a sexual relationship involves two men, the danger of going too far too fast is definitely higher. This should in no way give license to Christian homosexual men. They must be held to the sexual ethic laid out in the Bible. Not because God is a spoil sport, but because God designed sex to be something special and significant in a specific type of relationship. And that is still true.
1. On what basis do you still insist that marriage must be monogamous?
Answer: On what basis do you ignore the multitude of godly, spiritual, holy men and women in the Bible and history who were not in monogamous marriages? And what do you do with all the other forms of marriage condoned and commanded in the Bible?
So, I’ve shown my colours in my answer above. But let me try, again, to engage with Kevin in the spirit he has posed these questions. The reason I left this question to last is because it is a really tough one for me to answer. Personally, I think marriage (heterosexual and homosexual) should be monogamous, but I must be honest and admit that I am not entirely sure this is a properly Biblical position. I think it’s more cultural.
Before I go further, let me just address the typical over reaction of some conservatives to a “slippery slope” argument. From gay marriage, they often jump to the question of why we wouldn’t marry animals in the future. The answer is simple: sex – and marriage – must be consensual (at minimum – it should also be loving, caring, etc). Animals, children, the dead, severely mentally handicapped people and inanimate objects cannot properly consent to sex or marriage. On this basis, I believe, a Biblical ethic is obvious and clear.
On the issue of marrying relatives, I believe we can properly prohibit this on the basis of health issues (genetics). This falls into the same Biblical category as many of the health laws given in the OT. Some would argue these are merely health issues and not moral ones. I am not sure I could argue against that. Either way, though, I don’t think we should stone these people (or burn them to death, as Lev 20:14 says).
So, what then about polygamy and Kevin’s question? This is a valid question, because if we move away from the traditional “one man-one woman” definition of marriage, we potentially open the door to any and all forms of consensual relationship. Firstly, let’s say that the issue here again is specifically related to sex. There’s nothing stopping any group of people forming a partnership to share their lives, their assets and their futures. We do this all the time: they’re called private companies. The issue is whether there is sex – that’s the difference between a marriage and any other formal relationship partnership.
Can more than two people form a marriage bond that entitles them to have sinless sex with each other? The answer to this question, from a Biblical perspective, is that yes they can. I say this because they actually did – throughout the Bible. Regardless of what Genesis 2 says, there really is no normative marriage form in the Bible (and note that Genesis 2:24 does not imply that this is required, normative or the only model available). In fact, if we’re looking for specifically normative statements about marriage, we should also take very seriously Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 7:7-9 that it is better to be single than married (again, I doubt you’ve ever heard a sermon on this).
This may be a statement that is misunderstood, but I think it must be made: we have mythologised marriage in a way the Bible does not. The Bible does not require marriage of anyone (in fact, possibly the opposite). The Bible does not provide a consistent example of one type of marriage. The Bible even tells us that marriage is only a temporary institution – there will be no marriage in heaven. It is not part of the very fabric of creation.
Might it be then, that we have misinterpreted Genesis 2:24 to make it normative, whereas in fact it functions as something else in the narrative? When Jesus and Paul refer back to Genesis 2, both are making other points rather than specific points about marriage. Maybe everything else we read about marriage in the Bible should alert us to a misinterpretation of Genesis 2 as a normative, prohibitive structure. The rest of Scripture just doesn’t bear this out.
But back to Kevin’s question. It is the one I find most difficult to answer, because I would be personally uncomfortable with polygamy. I’d also, by the way, be very uncomfortable with levirate marriages that are actually commanded (rather than merely exhibited) in Scripture. Since you’ve probably never heard a sermon about this form of marriage, let me briefly explain: if a man dies without producing a male heir, his brother must have sex with his wife until she produces that male heir. As the father of three daughters with a brother, I can tell you that none of us are keen to follow this Biblical mandate (it’s an OT law, Deut 25:5-10, and also reiterated by Jesus in the NT in Mark 12:18-27 and Luke 20:27-40).
I am not trying to muddy the waters of this conversation, but I want to add one more contentious issue. If marriage is supposed to be only between a man and a woman, it is also supposed to be between ONE man and ONE woman for a lifetime. The Bible does speak against divorce, and for many centuries the church has seen this as a real issue. Many still do. My own father was excluded from Baptist ministry after his divorce. And yet, both of my parents have remarried, each finding their own justification for going against the literal reading of Matthew 19:9. It seems to me that we’re finding more compassionate, loving, contextual and helpful ways of dealing with divorce. We should follow that same path with the issue of homosexuality. Even if that path leads onto polygamy.
Kevin’s first question and my final answer highlights the heart of the issue of being an evangelical, Bible believer. We don’t take our beliefs from history. We don’t take our beliefs from the culture around us. We don’t take our beliefs from our personal preferences. We don’t take our beliefs from our family experiences (I am horrified at the number of conservative evangelicals who are now changing their views on homosexual marriage based mainly on the fact that one of their children has come out as gay. This is unhelpful, in my opinion, and sends many wrong messages as well meaning as they’re trying to be). We don’t take our beliefs from our church tradition. Our beliefs, our mindsets and our practices should all be based on our understanding of God’s Word – regardless of history, tradition, preference or experience. However, each of those factors has an impact on how we interpret Scripture and creates lenses through which we view Scripture and the world. We need to become much more aware of these lenses.
And that is precisely what I and many other Bible-believing Christians are trying to do with homosexuality: we’re trying to be as true as we can be to the Bible, without giving precedence to these other factors. We cannot believe that the way in which homosexuals are being treated by the church can possibly flow from the God we know and love and serve and fear. We believe the Bible has been incorrectly interpreted on this issue. But we don’t change the traditional view because we don’t like it. We change our view precisely because we have gone back to Scripture – not to twist it to our new understanding, but to look again and see that maybe we have misunderstood it as a church.
Thank you, Kevin, not just for the content of your article but its tone as well. Your questions are important and good, and we must have these conversations. Truth is at stake here, and we must work together as God’s community to make sure we get this right. Your questions aid conversation. I hope you see that there are answers. I hope we can continue the conversation.