In a recent op-ed signed by three prominent and esteemed biblical scholars, it was put forth that the Bible does not contain a single definition of marriage. They are quite right. As usual, the anti-gay rights side has attempted a rebuttal while others are more supportive. What gets lost in the middle are Christians who believe in the authority of Scripture but hope for a path forward whereby all of God's Creation is honored.
With that, I want to advance a position on gay marriage based on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience) enshrined in the United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline, a Church which I am a member of and a Church with a position on this issue I presently find lacking. In what follows, I will attempt to show how the Church could examine the issue of gay marriage, from a position of Scripture first, followed by Tradition, Reason and Experience. For believers, we are not willing to forfeit our sacred texts, but we must recognize that our views what what is said have changed. Once we recognize this, we must ask ourselves if we do not need a further change.
In the Christian Tradition, we have ample evidence of exegetes such as Origen and the whole of the Alexandrian School of interpretation who used Scripture to speak to the issues of their day by way of allegory, metaphor and almost sensationalistic claims. Are we really that different today? I am against purposely abusing Scripture and twisting it to fit our own viewpoints; however, if one can show that a passage's traditional interpretation can be changed using sound scholarship, then I must submit. One of those passages is Luke 7:1-10 with its parallel in Mathew 8. I value the unsaid alongside with that which is said, and what is unsaid here is deafening.
The Centurion in this Lucan passage moves between calling the sick person doulos (slave) and pais (son, male lover), with the latter word as something scholarship has shown to often times represent the younger male in a homosexual relationship, at least among the Greeks and the Romans. These types of relationships were common, especially as scholarship shows, considering the marriage ban for Roman soldiers. There was also a general ban against adopting the children of slaves as one's own child even if you had fathered the child. A Roman centurion, then, to have called a slave by the name given to those to whom one holds a particular, if not peculiar, amount of affection would be too far-fetched. In other words, a Roman listener hearing this story may have raised her eyebrows given the common terminology for other centurions and their sexual partners. If Luke purposely changes the terminology from slave to what we can understand to be male-lover, what does this mean in understanding what is unsaid in this story?
Can we say this affirms gay marriage? Let's not rush there just yet. There are other problems here. First, the concept of homosexuality is a relatively new concept. While Nero is said to have married a male, the concept of gay marriage is not one applicable to this time. Further, often times the pais was a slave or a younger boy. Would Jesus affirm the master's domination of the slave or pedophilia, something we actually have a record of concern in the early rabbinical and Christian communities (Mark 9:42-50)? Hardly. More than likely, if something presented itself for Jesus to preach against, he would have. So, let us focus for a moment then on a better vision of this story based on what is unsaid and what we know of the context of the passage.
I have presented Scripture and Reason. The allegorical and spiritual interpretative measures of ancient interpretations and saints provide us with Tradition. But what about Experience? The experience is nothing more and nothing less than the experience of salvation. It is this salvation Christians believe was accomplished by the Son of God becoming completely human to cleanse the human species in every way, bringing to us the fullness of what it means to be human. What God has called clean, we have no more ability to call unclean. Thus, I base my affirmation of the validity of same-sex marriages based on the experience of Christian salvation. I do not have the power to categorically deny the love, the companionship, the compassion involved in a consensual relationship of two people in a same-sex relationship. Rather, I affirm the beauty of human flourishing in this rather dark world of ours. But more, I've learned to keep my mouth shut when it is not my business.
I believe the passage in Luke gives Christians today a certain amount of pause. Let us pause and consider all of the things Jesus could have possibly said -- and yet didn't -- to the Centurion who loved his pais enough to debase himself in front of the traveling Galilean prophet. While Jesus neither publicly affirmed nor denied the Centurion's relationship with his pais, although we may allow a passive affirmation, Jesus praised the man's faith as greater than all of Israel's. Like Amos, who from outside of the Kingdom became a prophet to the Kingdom, the Centurion stands as a testament to what real Faith is supposed to be -- in that he willingly laid down everything he was an officer in the Roman army to save the person he loved.
But what does this do for the interpretation of Scripture? It beckons us always to stand willing to reform our views and theological assessments when sound scholarship presents an alternative view without going completely overboard and allowing our desires to replace the soundness of a Scriptural viewpoint. Finally, it reminds us that in Scripture, the story is not just about what is said, but often times what is unsaid.