So does the Bible have anything to "say" about gay marriage? The Bible is not specific, literate, or even concerned with what we call same-sex orientation or gay marriage. But the state of New York recently had quite a lot to say about gay marriage. Those that would insert the Bible into this debate would do well to reflect upon the text itself. If only we quit focusing on what the Bible didactically "says" and converse with the text in its broader cultural context. Then one can realize the multivalent value of such a book that a narrow reading cannot service.
The anti-gay, anti same-sex marriage proponents are very quick to extrapolate verses out of context to justify their biased stand against equality. Here are a few of the most used examples as explained by Lee Jefferson, Professor at Centre College:
First, the institution of marriage is a secular and social institution.
In different ancient cultures, marriage was more of a business
arrangement, joining families together for mutual benefit. Under Roman
law in the first centuries of the Common Era, there were proper
opportunities for divorce and the dissolution of a marital union for
both parties. However, as the Christian church grew, marriage became
more ecclesiastically governed; the church dictated the rules of
marriage (as well as the rules of dissolution, as many remember Henry
VIII's desire for a papal annulment of his marriage to Catherine of
Aragon). The Christian governance of marriage fractured during the
Protestant Reformation. Figures like Martin Luther and John Calvin
recognized marriage as a civil matter, a worldly affair, and not under
the aegis of the church. Still there are many Catholics and
non-Catholics alike who recognize marriage as a Christian affair, and
further, believe it is divinely endorsed as a heterosexual institution.
In my local paper in Kentucky, a letter was sent in to the editor
lambasting the New York vote, claiming that marriage was created by God
since the story of Adam and Eve is the proof-text. Advocates of this
position should note, that Adam and Eve would still need to purchase a
civil marriage license if they sought to get married today.
Second, the Bible does not clearly endorse one form of marriage over another.
Adam and Eve as the divine groom and bride is one Biblical arrow in
the quiver of same-sex union opponents. The Yahwist creation story in
Genesis (the second creation story) has God forming Eve out of Adam's
rib, and Adam exclaiming their unity ("this is at last bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh"). This is a gender creation story, not a
creation of marriage story. Adam and Eve do not exchange rings, say "I
do" and have a jazz band reception in Paradise.
Third, the Biblical arguments against same-sex marriage are not
proffered from texts that deal with marriage, but from texts that
purportedly deal with same-sex orientation. Same-sex marriage is
rejected as un-Christian and immoral on the basis of a myopic reading of
a very few Biblical texts. And the texts in question are scant indeed.
The most referenced texts are Genesis 19; the holiness codes of
Leviticus 17-26, and in the New Testament, Paul's First Letter to the
Corinthians 6:9 and his Letter to the Romans 1:26-27. Not only does one
have to "hunt" for references to same-sex practices, but there are no
gospel texts that treat the matter. There is nothing attributed to
Jesus of Nazareth that has anything to do with same-sex orientation.
According to the gospels, Jesus never commented on same-sex practices;
that fact certainly bears repeating to anyone criticizing the gay
community on Christian grounds. Largely, same-sex practice is a topic
of little interest to the Biblical authors.
The Biblical texts that are most often cited in the same-sex debate
deserve some explanation in order to reduce their citation for hurtful
purposes. For example, the text of Genesis 19 centers upon the story of
Lot's visitation in the city of Sodom by two angels. The men of Sodom
tell Lot to hand over the male visitors so that they may "know" them,
i.e. sexually know them (giving rise to the term "sodomy"). Lot
bargains with the visitors, quite horribly to a contemporary reader's
eyes, by offering the men his virgin daughters instead. However, any
reader of ancient literature (of which the Hebrew Bible is a component)
would realize the familiar motif concerning hospitality. For example,
the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes would frequently disguise themselves as
humans in order to ferret who among their supplicants were truly
hospitable. The story is not one denigrating same-sex practice; instead
it upholds the incredible (and ludicrous) hospitality of Lot as a
Similarly, the holiness codes of Leviticus thread down from an
all-encompassing mandate to behave distinctly from their foreign (and
depraved) neighbors. Leviticus 20:13 that proscribes the death penalty
for same-sex relations is quite related to codes that condemn
bestiality, invoke dietary restrictions, and order the wearing of
certain fibers. The codes make the Israelites unique from their
neighbors, and they reflect a particular time and place in Israelite
history. Any contemporary critique must note this reality before
invoking the codes as ammunition against same-sex practice.
Fourth, any reference to same-sex practice by a Biblical writer or
a Greco-Roman writer has no knowledge or understanding of the concept
of "same-sex orientation." There is no Hebrew or Greek cognate word
in the Biblical text to reflect the modern term "same-sex orientation"
or "homosexuality." Moreover, there were no discussions or arguments
concerning sexual orientation in the ancient and late ancient world,
conversations that would only arrive in the modern era of psychology.
Instead, ancient writers believed any wanton sexual behavior of any
variety is a mismanagement of one's appetites. The apostle Paul, in the
New Testament, follows this pattern.
The Pauline letters that are raised in the same-sex debate are part
of Paul's understanding of sexual immorality in the first century CE.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul includes in a laundry list of
vices "male prostitutes" and "sodomites" (as malakoi and arsenokoitai
are translated by the NRSV; 1 Cor 6:9). These terms are injected along
with many other vices: "fornicators, idolaters, adulterers," and Paul is
addressing the issue of a church member sleeping with his stepmother.
In other words, Paul is addressing ALL deviant sexual and immoral
behavior, not just that of a same-sex variety. In his address to the
Romans, Paul describes the root sin of the Gentiles as idolatry, and the
consequences of idolatry are vices beginning with women and men
"exchanging" natural intercourse for unnatural. While Paul is
describing this behavior as the result of wayward passions, the chief
sin is idolatry and separation from the one true God. While the Romans
text offers the longest discussion of same-sex behavior in the New
Testament, it is unclear whether it truly is a condemnation of a
The above discussions will likely never satisfy any opponent of gay
rights or of same-sex marriage to any degree. When teaching Biblical
material to undergraduates I am always anxious when approaching the
issue of same-sex orientation and the Bible, especially teaching in the
Bible Belt. But many of them question the validity of basing every
aspect of their lives entirely on what the Bible "says." They realize
that the Biblical material is very diverse, and also very condemnatory.
For example, Jesus reflects on the Adam and Eve passage cited above to
insist to his listeners that those that divorce and re-marry commit
adultery (Mark 10:1-12; Matt 19:4; also Luke 16:18). The Bible "says" a
lot of things but perhaps we should treat the Bible less like an
authoritative contract with God and understand it more as a
human-authored, divinely-inspired, document that arouses a life of