By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
Many Christian colleges and seminaries are wrestling with the LGBT issue. Frequently in my visits to these schools over the last two decades this ubiquitous issue has come up, even when it is not on the agenda.
I remember one time I was doing a workshop at a very conservative Christian college. Inevitably, our conversation “went there.” I recall this crystalline observation from a philosopher on that faculty: “The problem is that we know that homosexuality is wrong, but we don’t know why anymore.” And philosophers, of all people, know that if you can’t make an argument for your claim, but can only make an assertion, you are in an untenable position.
Parents know this too, in their own way. I remember participating in a parenting seminar grounded in materials written by a quite conservative evangelical. One of the things I liked about that material was the author’s emphasis on parents giving reasons to their children for the rules they were imposing, instead of just offering dictates by fiat.
So: those who are ineradicably gay or lesbian in their sexual orientation must never develop romantic-sexual relationships, because … why, exactly? What are the reasons? What might make such relationships sinful? To use James Brownson’s phrase, what is the “moral logic” of this prohibition?
The Bible says so. Okay, which passages exactly?
• Genesis 19/Judges 19/Jude 7. But these texts teach how horrible it is to gang-rape visiting men/angels; unfortunately, Sodom became associated with “sodomy” for a thousand years. These texts are generally viewed by scholars today as of little relevance to the contemporary LGBT issue.
• Leviticus 18/20. These texts say men lying with men as with women is an “abomination,” but scholars differ as to what toevah really signals and the context and reasons for this ban; my essay discussed the complexity of developing Christian ethical norms from these and other Old Testament legal texts. The texts are most relevant to the contemporary discussion if we read them as tied to a creation/design theme, which is one possible interpretation.
• 1 Corinthians 6/1 Timothy 1. These texts offer two Greek words whose meanings are somewhat unclear and doubtfully translated, and place them in vice lists with context clues that are sparse and debated. If arsenokoitai is a reference to Leviticus 20:13 in the Septuagint, as many believe, and if that Leviticus text is linked to the creation/design theme, as some argue, that could help clarify both the meaning and context of these passages.
• Genesis 1-2/Matthew 19/Romans 1 (maybe also Leviticus 18/20, 1 Corinthians 6/1 Timothy 1). These texts can be read to say that same-sex relationships violate God’s design in creation, often described as sexual complementarity, even though such readings of these texts are also debatable. Still, this is the strongest “why” on the traditionalist side. In my last essay I offered three possible responses to this strongest reason to morally reject all same-sex relationships (and in essay No. 12 I discussed very important cultural background factors contributing to Paul’s treatment of same-sex issues in that crucial Romans 1 text).
Traditionalists sometimes express wonderment about how any Christian could reconsider their view on the LGBT issue. Given calcified traditional readings of this handful of texts, that’s understandable. But here’s one source of the reconsideration: upon examination, the biblical reasons for the ban on the only kind of helper-partner-romantic relationships that gay and lesbian people could ever pursue mainly come down to a single core theological claim based on Genesis creation texts and a handful of probable echoes and allusions in the rest of the Bible.
And on the basis of this reading of these few scriptural texts, reinforced through Christian tradition, wired into the power structures of very-difficult-to-change ecclesiastical authorities in global Christianity, creating a deep inertia in Christian ways of thinking and acting, entrenching resistance to counter-evidence available in people’s lives and in current research, a small 3 percent to 5 percent minority of our brothers and sisters in Christ have been morally excluded from full acceptance into Christian community. All too often they have been disowned and hounded out of their own families. They have been subjected to severe psychological distress and driven to self-harming and suicide. And in society gays and lesbians have suffered civil discrimination for centuries, which is only now easing, with some Christians fighting any such easing tooth and nail.
Having reviewed the relevant texts carefully, and affected by the suffering just described, I now believe that what has been viewed as unassailable biblical evidence for the moral marginalization of LGBT persons or those in same-sex relationships is not so indisputable after all. It mainly depends on whether, in light of all relevant factors known to us today, we can think differently about how to relate our Christian account of God’s design in creation with the existence of a small minority of LGBT neighbors, some of whom are devout followers of Christ. Certainly I believe such a conversation should not be impossible; the matter should not be beyond dialogue and study, some of which I have attempted here.
Move forward with me toward another fork in the road. Let’s say we pull LGBT people back from outer darkness and include them in Christian community like everyone else. This does not resolve the question of what the Church is to teach about what LGBT persons are actually supposed to do with their sexual and romantic longings. Let’s say the total ban based on incorrect sexual orientation is provisionally lifted. What goes in its place?
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Much of contemporary western culture would say: an appropriate sexual ethic is to do whatever you want to do sexually if it doesn’t hurt anybody who doesn’t want to get hurt while having sex — or perhaps, with a bit more refinement, if it doesn’t involve the exploitation of a minor or an impaired person or doesn’t risk pregnancy or disease. Let’s call this the mutual consent ethic. Other than that, anything goes.
Some, refining their ethic to a somewhat higher and more demanding level, would say: an appropriate sexual ethic is to find a person to love, and to restrict sex only to that person for as long as that relationship shall last. Let’s call this the loving relationship ethic.
Christianity has historically said: God’s plan for sexual ethics requires a man and a woman to make a binding lifetime marriage covenant with each other (before God, church, and state, representing civil society), and to remain faithful to the promises of that covenant, including fidelity and exclusivity, until one partner dies a natural death. Let’s call this the covenantal-marital ethic. It bans all non-marital sex, extramarital infidelity, and divorce (with rare exceptions for the innocent party victimized by spousal abandonment, adultery and abuse), making celibacy the only alternative to marriage and monogamous fidelity the only version of marriage. It also anchors procreation and childrearing firmly within marriage.
Each sexual ethic corresponds to some need in human life, but each successively requires more of the “Genesis 3” human beings to whom it is applied.
The mutual consent ethic recognizes profound human desires and needs for sex and only sets restrictions related to coercion, abuse and harm (and pregnancy prevention). It has a wide impact on our contemporary culture. This is the ethic being taught on our secular college campuses, not very successfully, with one out of five college women reportedly experiencing sexual assault while they are in school.
The loving relationship ethic recognizes the same profound human needs for sex, but adds a human capacity for love, and recognizes the human connections and therefore vulnerabilities created between people in an intimate sexual relationship. It recognizes therefore that relationships do better if they are monogamous as long as they last, but it does not expect them to last. This is the ethic taught in most of our love songs.
The Christian covenantal-marital ethic recognizes those desires for sex, and that capacity for love, and that need for trusting fidelity, and the procreative power of sex — and also the profound joy possible in a lifetime relationship. But it demands that such relationships take the form of marriages, and that marriages be sacred covenants that actually last for a lifetime (with rare exceptions), even though that is very, very hard for fickle, combative human beings to accomplish. Thus the Christian tradition once surrounded its adherents with legal, moral, communal, and ecclesial structures to make us hold fast to our commitments even when we did not want to do so. And it promised the aid of the Christian church and the God we worship for those who sought to make and keep marital covenants.
The covenantal-marital ethic formerly taught by Christian tradition gradually collapsed in the mid-to-late 20th century. You can see it in the generations. My father recently buried my mother. They were married for 53 years. They did it right. But few of the generation currently under the age of 35 will ever see a 50-year marriage again. My take is that the mutual consent ethic challenged the covenantal-marital ethic in the 1960s, and the effort of many to compromise with a loving relationship ethic failed badly, producing only serial monogamy at best. But marriage is not really marriage when it is serial monogamy, and the collapse of the very concept of binding, faithful, lifetime covenant has damaged marriage at its foundations. This broad social collapse of the concept of lifetime covenant marriage is without question the greatest sexual-familial ethical issue of our time, and it is the issue that should attract the moral scrutiny that has instead come to be focused on the LGBT issue, which directly affects a much smaller percentage of the population.
In a culture with collapsing (or never-formed) marriages it is children who suffer the most. The forgotten element in contemporary Christian thinking about marriage is children. It is as if the adults of the 1960s just forgot the procreative power of sex. Adults could have sex with whoever they wanted whenever they wanted because the pill or the condom would take care of it.
But it didn’t. Half of children in the U.S. are conceived accidentally, about 40 percent are born out of wedlock, and about one out of five pregnancies end in elective abortion. Divorce is pretty much ubiquitous. And so all over America, and all over the “advanced” world, if they survive pregnancy, powerless children are tossed like flotsam and jetsam in and out of the chaotic sexual lives of their parents. The cunning genius of the older marital-covenantal ethic was that it was at least as much about the well-being of children as adults. But now children seem to be pretty much an afterthought.
I am a marital-covenantal sexual ethics guy. I think this ethic emerges from Scripture in texts like Malachi 2, Matthew 19/Mark 10 and Ephesians 5, among other places. Anybody who has ever read anything I have previously written on this subject will know that my ethic is strongly covenantal and marital. I loathe the mutual consent ethic; I think it is disastrous. I am sure the loving relationship ethic ultimately fails as well. I think that the best reading of the witness of Scripture, as well as the evidence available to our own eyes, is that human beings — adults, and children dependent on adults — need marital covenants that last a lifetime. I am at the 30-year-mark of my own Christian marriage covenant. And I am the very blessed recipient of the great covenant made by my parents.
The explorations of these many essays have not shaken that commitment in the slightest. I am a strict covenantalist and have little patience with Christian churches that lack the confidence and rigor to take a demanding covenantal approach. I also think that their moral looseness has badly hurt the serious Christian LGBT community that wants in on classic Christianity (minus the anti-gay stuff). We don’t do them any favors when our welcome to them comes accompanied by the abandonment of that very ethic.
There are, however, some liberal gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians who want me and other Christian pastor-scholar types to offer unequivocal “welcome and affirmation” to whatever sexual relationships they feel like embarking upon. They will not find it from me.
But there are also LGBT Christians who want to make — and some in fact have made — a lifetime covenant with one person, in an effort to be faithful to the witness of the Christian tradition. This is admirable, and far exceeds the moral rigor of most Americans, including many American Christians. It is striking that the interest of some devout LGBT Christians in gaining Christian support for their efforts to meet the covenantal standard of classic Christian sexual ethics — especially when they do so in part to secure the well-being of the children they are raising — would be such an unspeakably scandalous idea to many Christians.
In exploring the LGBT issue here I have never been asking whether the disciplined marital-covenantal standard in Christian sexual ethics should be weakened to “affirm” whatever casual, exploitative, experimental, out-of-control, drunk, hookup, polyamorous, sex-while-dating or follow-your-heart sexual practices are bouncing around American culture. I am instead wondering whether the LGBT issue offers all of us an opportunity for Christian moral renewal toward a much more rigorous practice of covenantal sexual ethics.