Part 17: Dealing with Objections: Where does the Bible affirm same sex marriage? The slavery response.

SUMMARY:
The Bible does not say anything on the subject of women’s rights, and actually appears to say they should not lead or preach in church. Yet, in many churches they do. The Bible supports slavery, and never says anything to oppose it. Yet, no Christian today would support slavery (many did in the past). We can learn something from these two important social shifts that took place in the last two centuries, and how Christians had to change the way they read the Bible. These are both good analogies for what has to happen with regard to gay marriage.

In this section of our study on the Bible and LGBTQI issues, we’re looking at common objections to gay marriage. Once people have (at least sort of) realised that their seven “bash them” Bible verses don’t quite say what they thought they said, they go to the next set of arguments. We are dealing with these common objections now. The biggest one is: “where does the Bible affirm gay marriage”?

In the previous part of this study I looked at why this question is actually very bad theology. It wants the Bible to do something that the Bible doesn’t do, and it asks the Bible to provide answers for questions the Bible itself doesn’t ask. In other words, it breaks the rules of Biblical interpretation to try and answer this question in the way it has been asked. 

It is, however, a good question. After all, if we could find one verse that affirmed gay marriage, or one positive example of a gay relationship in the Bible, then there would be no argument. I agree. But, of course, if we could do that we wouldn’t have had the issue in the first place, so that point is a bit moot. 

In this section of our study I want to show you an even better way to answer this objection. Your response comes in the form of three questions: 

1. Where does the Bible affirm women leadership in churches, women’s suffrage and the rights of women to own property? 

For many centuries, and throughout Biblical times, women have been treated as second class humans. During the times of the Old Testament, almost every culture on earth treated women as the property of men. Women had very few rights, and specifically had no right to property, inheritance or involvement in the running of society.

The Bible reflects this attitude to women. For example, Exodus 22 talks about restitution when property is damaged or lost. Wives are included in this list: they were considered property. Numbers 3:15 shows that a census counted only the males over the age of one month. Females were not considered worthy of being included in the census. In Numbers 27:8-11, Moses describes the rules of inheritance that God gave him: If a man dies, his son inherits the estate; his daughters get nothing. Only if there is no son, will his daughter inherit. If there are no children, then the estate is given to the man’s brothers; his sisters get nothing. If he had no brother, the estate goes to his nearest male relative. Numbers 30 describes that a vow taken by a man is binding. But a vow taken by a woman can be nullified by her father, if she is still living in her family of origin, or by her husband, if she is married. Deuteronomy 21:10-13 describes how a soldier can force a female captive to marry him without regard for her wishes.

Things were not much better in Greek and Roman times, where even as democracy flourished, it was restricted to men. In fact, it was restricted to rich men only. Even though the early Christian church brought much freedom for women, young people and foreigners, the Bible continues to reflect these attitudes to women, with verses that specifically tell women to keep quiet and not contribute in church. For example, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” (1 Cor. 14:34). 1 Timothy 2:12-15 goes even further than this. 

As the church developed over the centuries after Christ, it mainly kept these systems and structures in place. Until the time of the women’s movements for equal rights and universal suffrage (allowing women to vote in elections). At this time, theologians began to look again at the verses above and find ways to read them differently. I am not going to go into detail here, but there are three main categories of reinterpretation:

  1. We can simply ignore these verses for today – they tell us what used to happen and how people used to think, but they don’t provide a pattern nor commands for us today. 
  2. We need to understand the context in which the verses were written. The Bible presents a picture that was a lot less restrictive than the cultures of the time. We must not read and apply the exact words of the Bible, instead we must see that the Bible is more progressive, allowing more freedoms for women and presents a better context for women than the culture of the time. It is this progressive pattern we must apply today. This approach suggested that we should look more to the verses that talk of there being no distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, and between men and women in the church. These more general principles override and inform our understanding of the context of the original Scriptures, and they suggest that the church today should be leading the way in giving equal status to women. 
  3. We have misunderstood the Bible, and if we interpret it correctly it doesn’t say what we thought it said. An example of this reinterpretation is to show that the instructions to keep women quiet in the NT are addressed to wives only. They’re told to go home and ask their husbands for explanations. This wasn’t a universal principle – it was a specific issue related to wives arguing with their husbands in public, maybe only in Corinth. We similarly can deal with OT laws by realising that some categories of Levitical law do not apply to us today. This has to do especially with Household and Holiness Codes.  

Again, I am not going to go into detail on this issue. If you have an issue with women in leadership in the church, it might be worth your while doing some more study on the topic. My point is that for many centuries the church spoke with almost universal agreement that women should not lead. And then, quite quickly, the church changed its mind. Not everyone, of course.  Those who oppose women’s rights and equal status use a number of arguments, including: 

  1. Women are not designed to lead. 
  2. Women are too emotional and can’t think properly. 
  3. Women have never had these rights, and society has functioned very well for centuries. 
  4. God designed women to be the “helpmeet” of man, not to lead. 
  5. Men and women have different roles, and men are designed to lead, while women are designed to serve men. They’re not “less than”, they’re just “different”.
  6. The “creation pattern” established in Genesis shows clearly that women are meant to serve men, not lead them.

Many churches still use these arguments, and still prohibit women from leading in the chuch. The Roman Catholic Church is the biggest example, but there are many Protestant denominations that restrict the roles that women can play in their churches. 

It really is this simple: if you read the Bible in a way that tells you gay marriage is wrong, then you have to be consistent in your approach to the Bible and also say that women can’t lead in church. Of course, some Christians are consistent in this way, and so this argument won’t work on them. But if you know that a Christian would not feel comfortable restricting the role of women in church, then you need to push them to be consistent in their Biblical interpretation. 

Here’s what happened.

Instead of focusing on the verses that appeared to restrict the role of women in church, people began to focus on the verses in the Bible that talked of equality, freedom, gifting and our roles. They also looked at examples of women in the Bible, and specifically looked at how Jesus dealt with women. 

That’s when things began to change. And once you start with a different premise – that women and men are equal, and there are no restrictions on women leadership – then, the verses that appear to restrict women are interpreted differently. 

What happens then is that people change how they engage with the Bible. We have to admit that the Bible is an ancient document, written by people who were products of the eras in which they lived. We see that the Bible does not present a unified voice on issues, but rather shows how ancient people engaged with God and each other. For example, it isn’t scared to tell us about disagreements between Paul and Barnabas, and between Paul and Peter. 

Traditionalist Christians try and paper over these cracks and explain them away – sometimes this involves mind boggling theological gymnastics. Progressive Christians, on the other hand, see this as a beautiful invitation to join the journey of the church. They look to Jesus’ words in John 14:25-26, “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

This is not to say that God will change or that we should be expecting new revelations in our day and age. Rather it means that God has designed human society to grow and develop over time, and His words will be forever relevant if we apply them appropriately. 

The Bible does not cover every possibility of what might happen in the future, as we saw in the last section of this study. It gives us principles that we need to apply. In the case of the role of women, the principles of equality override any verses about women remaining quiet.

Now, of course, you might not believe that women should be in leadership, neither in the church nor in society. If you believe that, you probably are also likely to believe that the world is about 6,000 years old, that Adam and Eve were real people and that Noah had dinosaurs in the Ark. In other words, you have an admirable consistency to your Biblical literalism. If that’s the case, I am super impressed that you’ve made it this far in this study with me (you must be praying for my lost soul). But I highly recommended you stop now – I doubt there is anything I could say that would change your mind. 

And if you’re reading this to find out how to engage with people who have these objections, then let me counsel you to walk away from a debate with a committed Bible literalist. They believe that every part of the Bible is literally true. They ignore science, and believe it is part of the Devil’s tricks to take us away from God. I am not saying they can’t be reached, but they are beyond my abilities. You can’t even start by pointing out the logical inconsistency of their views – they have concocted solutions to every one of their problems. My favourite textbook in this line is Archer’s “Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties”. I still can’t believe I used this as a source in some of my undergraduate theology assignments. Very embarrassing. 

Anyway, let’s move on to the even better question. If someone says, “show me in the Bible where God affirms gay marriage”, you should ask: 

2. Where does the Bible affirm the ending of slavery?

Nearly two centuries again, a number of really brave people, most of whom were Christians, took on the might of the British Empire and the emerging powerhouse, America, and worked hard for the end of slavery. They met tremendous opposition, not least from other Christians. The Bible was used regularly to show that slavery was part of God’s planned order for society. After all, the Bible talks of slavery from cover to cover.  The Bible is clear, slave supporters claim: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5), or “tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect” (Titus 2:9).

Historian, Elizabeth L. Jemison, writes in an article, “Proslavery Christianity After the Emancipation” (2013), that church ministers in the southern US states not only taught that slavery had divine sanction, but that “it was a necessary part of Christianity”. This was because slavery was defined as akin to a marriage: the “power of slave owners over slaves paralleled the power of husbands over wives and of parents over children.” Proslavery theology persisted even after abolition because “religious arguments had situated slavery amidst other forms of household order and had relied upon widely accepted views of women’s subordination as a corollary to slaves’ deprivation of rights.” (As an aside: isn’t it fascinating that a misguided and incorrect definition of what marriage is was one of the foundation stones of support for slavery – more on problematic definitions of marriage later in this series.)

Slavery was also used as an analogy for our spiritual lives and our relationship with God – after all, Paul uses this language of slavery in positive terms in his letters, urging us to be slaves to Christ. Throughout the Bible there are specific rules for slaves and slave owners alike, and these cannot simply be said to be rules for work relationships couched in the language of the day. Slavery is very much part of the Bible. 

And nowhere does the Bible instruct us to stop slavery. Nowhere does the Bible give us an example to follow in ending slavery. In fact, the opposite. When a slave ran away from his master and came to follow Paul, the Apostle writes a letter to his master requesting that Philemon be taken back without punishment. But – and let’s be clear – taken back into slavery! For centuries, the Catholic church refused to give communion to slaves who had once tried to run away from their masters. 

Jesus never mentions slavery. At least not in any ways that could be read as being against the practice. 

So, on what basis did Christians stand against slavery?Why did they want to change centuries of societal norms? Why did they want to overturn one of the most important societal institutions? On what basis did they think they could question what Christians had been doing for centuries? Where in the Bible does it say we should not have slaves?

Can you see the parallel between this issue and LGBTQI issues? Do you recognise the questions? And can you see that we have to approach the Bible on its own terms if we seek Biblical answers for such questions? The Bible is not a legal textbook. It is not an encyclopaedia. It is not a reference manual. It is not a book of answers to any questions you might think to ask. 

The Bible is, above all, a record of how God has interacted with his people over a period of time. God continues to interact with His people today. We learn about who God is through the Bible, especially in the person of Jesus. The Bible doesn’t necessarily answer the questions we are asking directly, but it does provide us with principles, and it gives us a pattern of how to engage with the issues we have. 

Applying the Abolitionist approaches to the Bible to LGBTQI issues

So, we look for these principles and they guide us in how we answer today’s questions. If we are dealing with issues where society is changing, we do not fear these, nor do we revert to traditionalist viewpoints by default. We look for the principles. When the abolitionists looked at the Bible to find support for ending slavery, the pointed to a number of key issues: 

  1. Freedom 
  2. Love 
  3. God’s image in all human beings (Imago Dei)
  4. Dignity 
  5. Equality

Again, can you see the parallel to dealing with LGBTQI issues? It should not bother us at all that this issue is not dealt with directly in the Bible. Not one bit. What we need to do is apply the Biblical principles, and follow the correct process of applying what we know of God to the issue. We will do this in more detail, starting in Part 24 of this study (see the index of the whole series here). But for now, let me just say this: if the principles used to support the ending of slavery are applied to gay marriage, we reach a very simple answer: gay marriage is blessed by God, if it is done right. 

Seriously, think about it:

  1. Freedom – In the letter to the Romans, where Paul starts off by pointing out the many reasons that Jews hated Gentiles (including cultic homosexual sexual practices in their temples), Paul also says: “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom. 14:14). Seriously, read the whole of Romans 14! It is written to set you free from judgement of other people’s lifestyle choices. We look at Acts 10, and Peter’s vision of what is clean and unclean, and realise that some of the restrictions of the past have been lifted in the New Covenant.
  2. Love – Although the Bible does not make love a requirement for a healthy marriage, love is the basis of all good relationships in God’s view of the world. And as both 1 Corinthians 13 and Mark 12:30-31 (“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”) tell us, love conquers all. Most importantly of all, we know that anyone who demonstrates true love to someone else can only do so because God enables it: 1 John 4:7-8, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
  3. God’s image in all human beings – If being LGBTQI is not something you choose (more on this later in this series), then it is something you are born. So either we have to say to LGBTQI people that they are born broken, or we have to say that God’s image is in them. There are no other options. 
  4. Dignity – Because we are all “God bearers”, the issue of human dignity is not merely a moral issue, but also one of holiness (being set aside of God’s purposes). Jesus was clear in His teachings that we are to treat all people with love and respect. 
  5. Equality – Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This list of “categories of equality” is not meant to be a closed list, but is rather indicative of the equality we have in Christ. There is no young and no old, there is no white and no black, and there is no gay and no straight, in Christ. The “no male and female” is meant to include the full spectrum of gender expression (more on this later in this series). 

Please note that I am not here laying out the full affirmative view of gay marriage in the Bible. I am simply showing the parallel and analogy to the issue of slavery and abolition, and how the abolitionists used the Bible even when many Christians were saying that the Bible supported slavery.

Further recommended reading: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/how-and-why-did-some-christians-defend-slavery/

3. Show me an example of a bad gay marriage in the Bible, that God condemns. 

Ok, this gets a bit cheeky. But if someone is prepared to mess around with Biblical interpretation enough to say “where is gay marriage affirmed in the Bible”, then they deserve you to be a bit cheeky and ask them, “where is it not”? Simply put, the Bible NEVER mentions gay marriage. At most, it talks about same-gender sexual activity, but it doesn’t say anything about sex. So, a gay couple could get married and never have sex, and they’d be fine – right? Try this one on a traditionalist Christian and watch them splutter away.  We’ll get back to why they splutter at this so much shortly – it’s because they don’t actually know what marriage is. But you’ll have to read on in this series to find out why.

For now, if they want to (ab)use the Bible to prove gay marriage isn’t affirmed by God, you are equally entitled to ask them where God says anything at all about gay marriage (as long as the couple remains celibate). This is not the best argument, but it is fun. The best argument is the one about slavery, above. 

Conclusion

So, we now have a whole lot of ways to deal with the objection that gay marriage is not specifically mentioned in the Bible. What else will traditionalists say to oppose gay marriage? We’ll look at the “but we’ve never done this before” and “but we’ve always done it that way” arguments next.


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Previous article in this series: Part 16: Dealing with Objections: Where does the Bible affirm same sex marriage (Part 1)

Next article in this series: Dealing with Objections: We should stick to the historical interpretation of the Bible 

Click here to see the index of the full series of blog posts on the issue of Christians, the Bible and homosexuality.

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One thought on “Part 17: Dealing with Objections: Where does the Bible affirm same sex marriage? The slavery response.”

  1. Thank you for your constant endeavor to make the scriptures and everyday happenings relevant to your readers.
    I am an 86 years old that I hope is still open to any interpretation of the scriptures that beckons me toward a deeper love for this loving triune God we serve.

    Could you help me understand the twenty some odd references to the area of divorce [old and new testament] that seems to indicate marriage is a male female agreement\covenant. There doesn’t appear to be any sign of same sex compensation if the unfortunate happens. I know it doesn’t say anything specific but using your wise assessment of [strong inference] leaning towards conclusions fits rather well.

    The leader or elder of the church also seems to me to point strongly to male female marriage.

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