Several days ago, a historic vote in the state of New York, pushed aggressively by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, legalized the practice of same-sex marriage. Such an action was certainly a momentous decision for marriage equality rights in the LGBT community. The vote was not exactly sui generis, but the fact that it occurred in a large and populous state in the country drew more media attention than, say, Vermont. The media focus is a double-edged sword for the issue of same-sex marriage: it exhibits an enlightening progress in our culture concerning the LGBT community, and it also gives voice to the cacophonous opposition, not only directed towards same-sex unions but towards same-sex orientation itself.
Such opposition quite often utilizes religion as a bruising hammer to drive home their message, and often the Bible is invoked to justify any anti-gay argument. Groups opposed to same-sex marriage cite Biblical passages to endorse their rejection of any marriage amendment while condemning same-sex practice in general on the basis that the Bible "says" it is wrong. Now that the celebration of the New York vote has receded past the front page of most papers and news sites, we have an opportunity to examine the Biblical argument against same-sex marriage (and against same-sex orientation) in context. If anything, this exercise questions whether we should develop stances based upon what the Bible "says." Simply put, the Bible is a complicated collection of documents that was never meant to "speak" to our contemporary situation, but groups often speak through the lens of the Bible and lob textual grenades on issues like same-sex marriage.
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 virtue.
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 specific practice.
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 faith.
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.
For further reading:
There are voluminous secondary sources to consider, but one of the concise and best treatments (although dated) can be found in Victor Paul Furnish's The Moral Teachings of Paul: Selected Issues (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1979)