In the past week we’ve seen a prominent Christian philosopher and a prominent Christian author state publicly that they no longer hold to the historic understanding of biblical sexuality. A number of excellent responses have already been written—most significantly, Wesley Hill challenging Nicholas Wolterstorff’s shallow exegesis and lack of charity, and Rosaria Butterfield reminding Jen Hatmaker that we must love our neighbors enough to speak the truth.
I’ve written before about gay marriage and about why the church can’t simply agree to disagree on this issue. And if you want more in depth discussion, I wrote a book entitled What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?. No doubt, you can find even better stuff out there from other men and women defending the historic understanding of biblical marriage and sexuality. I won’t repeat those arguments here.
But I do want to offer a few quick thoughts about the Facebook post from Brandon Hatmaker (Jen’s husband). While I commend the Hatmakers for what seems to be a serious process of reading, reflection, and prayer, I find the logic of their position unconvincing. Most of Brandon’s post is about the work they did to come to their new position. The defense of the position itself comes in these two paragraphs:
Every verse in the bible that is used to condemn a “homosexual” act is written in the context of rape, prostitution, idolatry, pederasty, military dominance, an affair, or adultery. It was always a destructive act. It was always a sin committed against a person. And each type of sexual interaction listed was an abuse of God’s gift of sex and completely against His dream for marriage to be a lifelong commitment of two individuals increasingly and completely giving themselves to one another as Christ did for the church.
But not one of these scriptures was written in the context of marriage or civil union (which simply did not exist at this time). Each act mentioned in the bible was sin, no doubt. In context, we believe the same today. Just like heterosexual sex outside of marriage is sin for obvious reasons, whether consensual or not, we still believe homosexual sex outside of marriage is a sin.
Three quick thoughts:
1. The “not that kind of homosexuality” argument has been refuted by a number of conservative exegetes and by a host of LGBT-affirming scholars. If Paul only meant to talk about pederasty, why didn’t he use the Greek word for pederasty? If he wanted to spare committed homosexual partnerships from his condemnation in Romans 1, why did he echo the language of creation and talk broadly about “exchanging” natural functions for those that are unnatural? If the New Testament only had “bad” homosexuality in mind, why do sources from the Greco-Roman world demonstrate that every kind of homosexual relationship was known in the first century, from lesbianism, to orgiastic behavior, to gender-bending “marriage,” to lifelong same-sex companionship (see Thomas Hubbard, Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents)? Non-Christian scholars know better than to try to “rescue” the New Testament from itself. Which is why Louis Crompton, a gay man and pioneer in queer studies, could write: “Nowhere does Paul or any other Jewish writer of this period imply the least acceptance of same-sex relations under any circumstances. The idea that homosexuals might be redeemed by mutual devotion would have been wholly foreign to Paul or any Jew or early Christian” (Homosexuality and Civilization, 14).
2. I fail to see how the logic for monogamy and against fornication is obvious according to Hatmaker’s hermeneutic. I appreciate that they don’t want to completely jettison orthodox Christian teaching when it comes to sex and marriage. But the flimsiness of the hermeneutic cannot support the weight of the tradition. Once you’ve concluded that the creation of Adam and Eve has nothing to do with a procreative telos (Mal. 2:15), or the fittedness of male with female (Gen. 2:18), or the joining of two complementary sexes into one organic union (Gen. 2:23-24), what’s left to insist that marriage must be limited to two persons, or that the two persons must be faithful to each other? Sure, both partners may agree that they want fidelity, but there is no longer anything inherent to the ontology and the telos of marriage to insist that sexual fidelity is a must. Likewise, why is it obvious that sex outside of marriage is wrong? Perhaps those verses were only dealing with oppressive situations too. Most foundationally, once stripped of the biological orientation toward children, by what internal logic can we say that consensual sex between two adults is wrong? And on that score, by what measure can we condemn a biological brother and sister getting married if they truly love each other (and use contraceptives, just to take the possibility of genetic abnormalities out of the equation)? When marriage is redefined to include persons of the same sex, we may think we are expanding the institution to make it more inclusive, but in fact we are diminishing it to the point where it is something other than marriage.
3. The appeal to Christ and the church does not support Hatmaker’s argument; it emphatically undermines it. Paul’s reference to the mystery of Christ and the church only works if there is differentiation in the marital union. The man loves and leads and sacrifices as Christ; the woman submits and respects as the church. However that plays out in practice, the irreducible minimum is that the two are not interchangeable. Hatmaker can say that in marriage “two individuals increasingly and completely giving themselves to one another as Christ did for the church,” but that was positively not Paul’s argument. He did not foresee two individuals acting as Christ, but one (the husband) cherishing like Christ and the other (the wife) following like the church. We cannot insert two men (or two women) into the logic of Ephesians 5 and get the same mystery, let alone a full-orbed picture of the gospel.
The biblical teaching about marriage is not an oh-by-the-way piece of ethical advice that can be easily swapped out for other arrangements. I know these are difficult, painful issues. But we have to prayerfully and rigorously think these things through. We are bound to hear more stories in the years to come about other Christian leaders and other Christian institutions celebrated for their new-found enlightenment. What we won’t hear about–though there will be plenty of examples—are the stories of all those who will continue to hold to historic orthodoxy, and do so with winsomeness and without wavering. Neither will we hear the stories of those whose Christianity ends up looking very different on the other side of their theological change of heart. If we tug at the Bible’s teaching on sex, family, and marriage–the basics of which have been affirmed for two millennia and are still affirmed by almost all Christians outside the West—we will lose more than logical and hermeneutical consistency. We lose important elements of the gospel itself.