The Debate: The Bible and Gay Marriage

Last week, Newsweek's cover story on the biblical case for gay marriage resonated on TV stations, throughout the blogosphere, and in the inboxes of many NEWSWEEK employees as Christians and nonbelievers alike sounded off on the editorial decision to run the story. Of the tens of thousands of letters we received, some argued that the Bible clearly proscribes homosexuality, while others applauded author Lisa Miller's argument on such a controversial subject. But many expressed a desire for a deeper exploration of the subject—a conversation among biblical scholars on both sides of the divide.

NEWSWEEK's Kurt Soller found two experts to do just that, e-mailing throughout the weekend (even into the third Sunday of Advent!) about their conflicting viewpoints. On the pro-gay marriage side: Bill Wylie-Kellerman, a United Methodist serving as pastor at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Detroit. His sparring partner: Dr. Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention, which addresses how Christianity should be applied to life. Read on to see how each views the Bible, what they believe Scripture has to say about gay marriage and where they think this debate will be headed (at least, in church) in the next decade. Excerpts:

Bill Wylie-Kellerman: I found the cover story by Lisa Miller quite good over all, and stimulating, raising a number of things about which I'd like to talk, beginning with the very nature of marriage in church and society. That is actually a matter of some theological confusion. I love the Bible, and stake my life in the biblical witness, and it is that which calls me to the struggle for full inclusion of gay people and their gifts. I know we disagree.
Barrett Duke: Greetings. I look forward to our conversation. This is a very important topic, not only for the church but also for our culture. I believe Christians must submit to the Bible's teachings, and I believe the Bible is unequivocal in its teaching that homosexual behavior is sinful. That being the case, it is impossible for me to accept same-sex marriage, which legitimizes a sinful behavior.

I think Lisa Miller's NEWSWEEK article was atrocious. It was obviously biased in its attitude from the start. It is evident to me that Lisa already had her mind made up and was simply interested in trying to convince her readers that she was right. Of course, she is within her right to do that, but she was hardly honest in her treatment of the Bible in the process. She dismissed it without even giving it opportunity to speak. Her comment, "Religious objections to gay marriage are rooted not in the Bible at all, then, but in custom and tradition ..." was offensive and uninformed. My objections to same-sex marriage are very much rooted in the Bible. If NEWSWEEK actually intended to be an honest mediator of this issue, they should have published pro and con articles by respected Bible scholars rather than engage in such blatantly obvious opinion journalism.

Wylie-Kellerman: By laying out a clear argument, public conversations are invited. I also know it was a great breath of air for gay folks to read a theologically literate argument on their behalf. They are so constantly hit over the head with Scripture, to which we must surely come.

Ms. Miller called the mix of civil and religious elements of marriage an often "messy conflation of the two." I agree. On the one hand, a marriage is a civil contract between two people and the state with certain rights, responsibilities and privileges implied. On the other, it is also often an act of worship between two people before God, surrounded by prayer and support from a worshiping community and with the presence of ongoing pastoral care. It seems to me only over the former that the state should have authority. In the Episcopal Church, for example, marriage is one of the sacraments. In Methodism, it is a service of worship. This means we have the intrusion and participation of the state in a sacramental act of worship. That's more than messy.

Duke: I'm sure some considered the article a "breath of air," but they have not been well served. It is not a theologically literate argument. It didn't even deal with many of the key Bible passages. Reading Ms. Miller's article, one could get the impression that the New Testament is silent about the subject of homosexuality, which of course it certainly is not. Furthermore, my objections to same-sex marriage are not based solely on the Bible's teachings. The Bible informs my opinion about this issue, but the question I think we are trying to answer is, what does God have to say about this? It is clear that the Bible condemns homosexual behavior. Since I believe that the Bible is God's word, and I have good reason for this belief, then it must mean that God condemns homosexual marriage, so the Bible cannot be used to help create an argument for same-sex marriage. Whether one wants to create a nonreligious, i.e., civil, marriage or not, it doesn't change what is the clear biblical teaching about homosexual behavior.

Wylie-Kellerman: I want to go forward here speaking out of the conversation which I hear going on in Scripture, one pertinent to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people. The direct sanctions in the Levitical code against male homosexual acts arise during the period of the

exile. They are part of the purity code that set boundaries against assimilation into Babylon. Much of those laws concern dietary restrictions. Think Daniel and Meshach and friends and their refusal to consume the imperial diet. The boundaries of the community are being proscribed and protected by the code. As I understand it, the body itself becomes the image of community. So all of the body's entry and exit points, all orifices are regulated: what goes in as resistance to the empire—like kosher table—has served Judaism's cultural identity throughout the Diaspora. By the time of Jesus, however, these boundaries had been turned on their sides. The purity code was turned against women, the sick and disabled, and poor people. They were the unclean.

At great personal cost, Jesus set about in his life and ministry to welcome the unclean into his community and to his table. He violated the purity code with his body, even finally on the cross. In the Book of Acts (chapter 10), the Holy Spirit urges Peter in a vision to eat unclean foods, and he says that would be an "abomination." Precisely so. But the Spirit persists, and he accedes, which really means he is able to welcome and eat with a gentile, Cornelius, otherwise unclean, then on his way to visit. St. Paul spends a lot of his correspondence thinking this through in writing about the law (more than the purity code, but really set in motion by its stricture). For him the issue is whether the "wall of hostility" (Ephesians) would run down the middle of the common table, even the communion table, dividing Jews and gentiles in the Christian community. In the church, the movement is toward fuller and deeper inclusion. It is that which culminates in Paul saying there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female for we are all one in Christ. In the context of the American freedom struggle, this was understood by the church (sometimes poorly and certainly belatedly) to imply, there is neither black nor white. Today I hear the summons to say, in Christ, there is neither gay nor straight.

Duke: Much of what you argue rests on the dating of the biblical texts. The Leviticus text you reference presents itself as a much older text than that, from the time of Moses, as you know. If this is true, then the social location argument you are making is untenable. There is no tradition that claims that these Leviticus texts are exilic in origin. There is no reason not to assume that they are as old as they purport to be. On the other hand, to adopt your view, we would have to believe that an exilic author deliberately made up material about the Mosaic period, and made it look older than it is in order to give it authority for his contemporary audience. This would certainly not be the act of a virtuous person. Essentially he would be deceiving his contemporary readers in order to gain a desired outcome. I think it is more believable to simply say the text is Mosaic in its origin.

I agree that the legalists of Jesus's day made a real mess of things, and that Jesus had to straighten them out. I'm glad he did. Nevertheless, though Jesus helps us understand that we should be more accepting of others, he never said to disregard the teaching of Scripture in order to do that. He did give us a new understanding of what God meant by some of what he said, and we should do all we can to apply that understanding to current situations. But he never told us to accept homosexual behavior. And the further teaching of the New Testament tells us that Jesus didn't expect us to apply this attitude to homosexuality. Nowhere does the New Testament condone homosexual behavior, but it does often condemn it. When one puts the teachings of Paul on the same authoritative ground as the teachings of Jesus, one must conclude that God does not condone homosexual behavior. The Bible does not suggest that there are two levels of spiritual authority in the Bible—the more authoritative teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Paul and the other New Testament writers. They are all equally authoritative. Consequently, I cannot see any biblical justification for condoning homosexual behavior.

Wylie-Kellerman: No, actually, I don't believe my line of thought is contingent on that initial dating. (You present yourself as not knowing the wide and longstanding scholarly consensus about the date of Leviticus. Though perhaps you are just arguing in this way against it?) Even if you locate the Levitic purity code (including the uncleanness of certain homosexual acts) in the wilderness covenant, the theological movement I describe remains. The early church understood that the wall of hostility between clean and unclean persons had been broken down in the crucifixion of the Lord. And Paul wrestled long and hard to understand and explain that. That wrestling continues with the Living Word.

In the biblical witness and method, its not devious or disingenuous to remember and speak in the voice of a figure in faith, but it can be risky. John the Baptist assumes the guise of Elijah, dressing up in camel hair and eating locusts, crying out in the wilderness. And he pays the price. The authorities take the threat and execute him. A recent example of someone speaking in the voice of Moses would be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He went to the mountaintop and looked over to the Promised Land. He didn't expect to get there with us, but such days do come. The mantle of Moses is one I believe he can truly bear. The authorities took the threat and he was killed as well. This is what I mean about listening for the Living Word.

Since I've mentioned the wall of hostility in Ephesians 2, it's only fair that I address, as you've asked, the marriage instructions in the household code, which is in Ephesians 5 and 6. I agree this is problematic at best. The opening line (Ephesians 5:21) about mutual submission to one another out of reverence for Christ is great. It actually connects to the "Mutual Joy" of Lisa Miller's title. And it is counsel I would give to either a heterosexual or gay couple preparing for covenanted partnership. But the further instructions are heavily patriarchal: the wife is to be subject to the husband, but the husband is to love the wife. The Bible, beginning with the old covenant is, to be frank, fraught with patriarchy. Happily there are voices throughout the biblical conversation countering it. But this is another "mess" which Jesus has to clean up by his treatment of women. (I commend especially the Gospel of Luke in this regard). But reading further in Ephesians, the code goes on to address how slaves are to obey their masters. What do we do with this these days? I confess what scandal this is to a Methodist. At the behest of our founder, John Wesley, we began in England as abolitionists, but in America dissembled and compromised with chattel slavery, even preaching these very texts shamelessly. I know it is a painful scandal for Southern Baptists as well. Happily things change. The Living Word of God opens our hearts.

Not to go too far sideways, I want to mention how institutional marriage figured into the maintenance of chattel slavery. African-American slaves were forbidden by state law to marry. It would have implied their full humanity, even social inclusion, and complicated the market. After being denied access to the institution, they developed alternative union rituals like "jumping over the broom," a practice still included in many African-American weddings to this day. And marriage laws figured into the maintenance of Jim Crow and American racial apartheid: can you believe it was not until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned state laws banning mixed-race marriages? But things change. Thank God the Word Lives.

Duke: Good points. I am very familiar with scholarly opinion about the date of Leviticus. I do not consider it to be a consensus, however, and I do not accept it, as many others do not. The dating of all these pieces is not a matter of certainty even among those who take this kind of approach to the text. By your own admission, the Holiness Code is assigned by some as an exilic text and by others as a much older text.

I agree that ultimately the Leviticus text is about what is clean and unclean. When the Leviticus prohibition was written, it is evident that homosexual behavior was an unclean activity. I also agree that Jesus broke down many barriers about what was to be considered clean and unclean, but he didn't declare everything clean. In Peter's vision, God helped Peter understand that God could accept any person, but he didn't tell Peter that they all were automatically accepted. During his earthly ministry, Jesus still denounced sin, and told people to stop sinning. Acceptance by God was even predicated on a person's willingness to change. He told the rich young ruler to give up all his money. He told Jewish leaders to repent. I think a principal difference between your understanding of the Bible and mine is that you can refer to it as a "Living Word." I think you see it as a text in constant change as new communities interact with it and make it their own. I approach the Bible as a fixed product. It presents universal truth that each new community must adopt and apply to their own life situation. Communities don't adapt it; they adapt to it.

Of course, you are right that the Bible describes practices that we would certainly not consider appropriate today. Your example of slavery is a good one to consider, and you are right; many of our Southern Baptist forebears were terribly wrong on the question of slavery. The Bible acknowledges the existence of slavery and does not condemn its practice, but we certainly don't believe that we should be enslaving people today, fortunately. I think the analogy with homosexuality is not accurate, though. The Bible does not tell people what their attitude toward slavery should be. It tells them how they should treat slaves, since slavery was part of the cultures in which these people lived. In other words, the Bible accepted the existence of slavery as a fact of life, and instructed people on how to treat slaves in a humane way if they were going to have slaves. Even so, the Bible helped to undermine the practice of slavery. After all, it was Christians who led the way in ridding the West of this deplorable practice. Tragically, of course, other Christians used the Bible to insist on their right to enslave others. When you read the arguments they made, though, it is evident that they were simply using parts of the Bible to justify their immorality. They were not grappling with the full teaching of the Scriptures.

Contrary to how the Bible addresses the issue of slavery, the Bible condemns homosexual behavior. It doesn't say how to engage in the behavior in an appropriate manner or that it should be accepted. To come to a different conclusion, one would have to say that the Bible is mistaken, or at best simply the product of a less enlightened age that no longer has any relevance on the subject. It appears that you share one of these opinions when you talk about Paul's wrestling with Jesus' teachings. I think you are saying that Paul made some progress, but didn't get it quite right, that the church is still working its way toward getting things right. You certainly say that with your comments on the Ephesians 5 passage. Neither I, nor many millions of others, believe that Paul's teaching about the proper relationship between husbands and wives is no longer valid. I believe that Paul's teachings were inspired by God, and were based on theological tenets. If Paul got this wrong, then we certainly couldn't believe that he was inspired by God to write this. If he wasn't inspired here, then it is difficult to have confidence in any of his other writings. Experience shows us that the nature of the relationship between husbands and wives that Paul describes, if applied faithfully, results in very successful marriages. Of course, all Scripture must be applied in order for this to happen, including the mutual submission passage you point out.

Furthermore, we are talking about the subject of same-sex marriage. It isn't a matter of freeing people to exercise their right. It is asking society to extend the right to the institution of marriage to same-sex couples. It is asking society to redefine marriage, to give homosexuals the right to an institution not extended to any others. If we redefine marriage contrary to how the Bible defines it and to how society has developed it, why should we stop with homosexual couples? What prevents it from eventually including polygamy? Nothing. And those who attempt to say that the Bible does not have loving, committed homosexual relationships in mind when it condemns homosexual behavior are engaging in untenable linguistic wrangling that cannot be supported exegetically or historically. The Bible does not accept homosexual behavior of any kind, nor does it call on Christians or society to treat homosexual behavior as normal.

Wylie-Kellerman: Thank you for this. We are actually engaging one another. By my lights, a rarity between our sorts. Please forgive me for being surprised. Our conversation may be more important than I first guessed. And I'm going to be emboldened to say some hard things in response.

From my perspective, it seems to me that you want trust of the text without having to wrestle with it, which is to say, without having to bring yourself to it. All you want to know is: can I trust this written text? Texts are vulnerable to interpretation. There is no certainty in that easy sense. All we can do is bet our lives and trust ourselves to the judgment and mercy of God.

It also means you take the text more seriously than you take the life and humanity of a gay brother or lesbian sister. Let me tread carefully here. I know you'll disagree. From the standpoint of the Living Word, I bring the reality of my beloved brothers and sisters to the study table. They are part of how I read. I can't sit next to them in worship, know their faith and integrity, witness the loving fidelity of their relationships (despite the lack of institutional support), feel the pain of rejection or theological bludgeoning, recognize their gifts and graces of ministry (as well as their human failings and frailty) and not hear that "in Christ there is neither gay nor straight."

I also think, like myself, you pick and choose your texts. There are certain passages that I love and return to. I don't find everything in the Book of equal value to my life and heart, though as a discipline, I try to attend to it all. I think that's true for you as well. And I'd actually invite you to be honest about that. From a standpoint of doctrine, you contend that it is all superintended by the Spirit and equally valuable. But, since Jesus is entirely silent on homosexuality, you have a proclivity of Pauline passages.

You do mention his denouncing of sin and telling people to stop sinning—and I don't think we can come to this conversation without dealing with sin. I take your reference to be the story of the woman caught in adultery. It is actually a marriage controversy, where the sanction of the Levitic code is at issue and Jesus is being put in a calculated political bind. Will he join in the condemnation of her sin? Notice that the man is nowhere around. He's not on the hook here. I should say that this is actually a "text of terror" for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi- and Transgendered) folks because it gets used as the classic, love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin example, which actually rejects them yet again. But notice further, he flips the script. Jesus holds the mirror up to their faces—let the one without sin cast the first stone! It's no longer about her, it's about them. It's about us! Our condemnation exposes us. And he does not condemn her either.

Sin, in Paul's writing, is not so much a discrete act as it is separation from God. In league with the Law, in Paul, and also with the Power of Death, it forms a kind of triad of Powers, a social matrix in which we live and move. It is inauthentic existence. It is our complicity with the principalities and powers. All of us are caught in it. "Sins" tend to be violations of the law, not so much separating us from God as violating the rules. Such actually tend to be how the powers that be conform us to them.

I understand the careful distinction you make about slavery and certain homosexual acts. (Though I actually believe there is no greater condemnation of slavery than the Exodus account of God hearing the groans and bringing the Hebrews out of bondage. American slaves certainly understood it; the exodus is central to the African-American cannon in music and text). The way sin figures in, however, has not just to do with slavery but with racism, as well, which devalued and dehumanized human beings.

The same is true here. I'm going to mention homophobia. I'm not suggesting you are engaging in it. But I do believe you would acknowledge the reality of it. In those who suffer it, I wonder if you would also acknowledge how they can "use parts of the Bible to justify their immorality?" I know that's a tougher question.

I think of homophobia as a power, like racism. In the church, it functions as a demon which suppresses charismatic gifts. Where people are called by God to ministry, where they have the gifts and graces, as it were, that call and those gifts can be denied and refused by a church which suffers the demon of homophobia.

Duke: I think I'll take our conversation too far afield to engage every point you make here. For the most part I accept your characterization of my relationship to Scripture, and I agree that I must eventually interpret and apply. I have no doubt that I tend to prefer some parts of Scripture more than others, but, as you also acknowledge, that doesn't mean that I consider those neglected portions less inspired. All Scripture is equally inspired. I do consider it an objective authority to which I must do my very best to submit. I'm sure you're right that I am leaning on Paul's teachings more than the teachings of Jesus in answering the question of homosexuality, but I don't consider that to be a weakness. I look to the passages that are the most clear before I go to those less so. When the clear passages speak clearly, I see no need to try to interpret them by other passages that may or may not apply. By the time I study Leviticus 18:22, Romans 1:24-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, I think it is clear what the Bible teaches about homosexual behavior. When I read the Genesis account of human origins and the New Testament teachings about marriage, I think it is clear that God didn't intend same-sex marriage.

If I were to take the teachings of Jesus about mercy and compassion and interpret other clear teachings in the Bible in light of them, I could end up saying that any activity ought to be winked at. I believe that I must be gray where God has chosen to be gray and black-and-white where God has chosen to be black-and-white. I think he is clear about the issue of homosexuality, so I must be as well. Furthermore, I do not see how we can take the silence of Jesus on any subject as indication that he didn't have an opinion about it, or felt that the issue wasn't that important, or that he intended me to apply his message of mercy and compassion to anything condemned elsewhere in the Bible. Jesus didn't speak directly on many subjects, but that doesn't mean he would always default to the mercy and compassion theme when presented with those issues. The Book of Revelation also tells me about Jesus, and it is quite evident that He is coming back in judgment. Mercy and compassion just won't work in every circumstance. I wish it would, I really do, but there is also holiness, justice, and God's unerring standards, which apply not only to Sin but also to sins. Jesus said God would judge men for their deeds, (Matthew 16:27). Other Scripture writers declare the same: (2 Corinthians 5:10).
I fully understand and appreciate your concern for homosexuals. It might encourage you to know that neither I nor most Southern Baptists believe that homosexual behavior is the unpardonable sin. Since there are 16 million of us, I can't speak for all of them, but I don't know of any who believe that. However, I don't think we do homosexuals any favors by accepting what God does not accept.

I understand that this is a much more difficult issue for homosexuals than for other sinful behaviors that we don't condone. Homosexuals don't choose to have same-sex attractions. To my knowledge, most homosexuals try very hard to deny their same-sex attractions initially. Eventually they give in and accept those attractions as what seems to them to be their natural orientation. For them, it seems natural to be attracted to members of the same sex. I recognize that. I wouldn't say that all Southern Baptists recognize that, and some would disagree with me, but I have spoken to enough practicing and former homosexuals to know that this is true. (I do not believe that God intended humans to be homosexual. Scripture just does not support that possibility.)

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is trying to help Southern Baptists understand the causes of same-sex attraction. Even though we recognize that homosexuals believe that same-sex attractions are normal for them, we do not believe we are helping them by affirming them in this state. If God has declared homosexual behavior to be sinful, we don't help homosexuals by telling them everything is all right as long as they engage in homosexual acts within a committed relationship. We only help them by telling them what God has said about it, and then offer them a safe, loving, compassionate environment in which God can help them change. This is something many of our Southern Baptist churches need to work on as well.

I recognize that many homosexuals do not believe they need to change, and are offended by my and others' claims that they need to. This is the point at which feelings and personal preferences must not be allowed to trump the clear teachings of Scripture. There are other people who engage in some sins that homosexuals would themselves find offensive and in need of change. Yet some of these people would also say that they couldn't help what they feel naturally inclined to do. Homosexuals would not consider their claims that these inclinations are natural to be an adequate defense of their behavior or reason to affirm them. So, it is with homosexual behavior. God has declared it sinful. If I affirm what is sin, I have not helped someone, but have actually endangered him or her.

I consider my opposition to same-sex marriage and to homosexuality in general to be an act of love toward those who are living in this lifestyle. I do not help anyone by affirming what God has condemned. I must make sure that I come across as loving when I speak to homosexuals or about them, though, something I confess I do not always do adequately. I think this cuts both ways, but I can only work on myself.

Wylie-Kellerman: I guess the last thing to say is that I don't know the judgment of God. None of us do. So say the Scriptures in various places. But I do trust myself to that judgment, knowing I'll be surprised on the last day at the truth of my life. We've been asked where things seem to be headed. I'm coming to wonder if ten years from now we might still be in conversation. Though our answers may get shorter.

I do believe that before ten years is up gay marriage will be an accepted reality in society, and in many, but not all, churches. We may see the further separation of civil unions from the marital sacrament or worship. I suspect that in many churches there will be services of repentance and reconciliation, just as we have seen in relation to slavery and racism in recent years. I am virtually certain that will happen in United Methodism. I think the Holy Spirit is on the move.

I think ultimately the inclusion of gay and lesbian folks will strengthen the institution of marriage, though it may first be weakened. There are many enduring, and faithful gay partnerships—-sometimes closeted, generally under pressures from family church and society, often without pastoral care or community support. They are an amazing witness of live. However, there are many other relationships that suffer break-up and breakdown for these very assaults. Relational fidelity in the culture would be greatly enhanced and increased by including lesbians and gay men in marriage. It would strengthen the institution.

Secondly, I believe that heterosexual couples of faith and conscience are more and more questioning their own participation in an institution that excludes so many. To be honest, that is true for me. As a pastor, I'm in premarital preparations with a couple right now and I find myself having questions about what it means to preside in a ceremony denied others. We're talking about that in counseling. Even more personally, my wife Jeanie has crossed over to God. Now three years since, I find myself open and hungry for new partnership. However, and this is very difficult to say or imagine precisely what it would look like, I don't believe I can, in good conscience, personally partake the institutional privileges of marriage while they are denied to gay and lesbian people. In the interim, there may be a small movement of nonviolent heterosexual resistance, as it were.

Ultimately, however, the inclusion will strengthen marriage. Marriage will change, as it has repeatedly during and since the biblical era. I believe this and welcome it. Pray for the day.

Duke: I think we've had a very good exchange. Thanks for being open with me, and letting me understand your thinking. I hope I have adequately communicated why I take the position I do on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. I think God has spoken on this issue and we know what His judgment will be. I know that I am not perfect, that's for sure. I am sure I'll have plenty to answer for myself. While I continue to work on myself, I will try to help others know God's standards and expectations so they can avoid as much of his judgment as possible as well.

Judging from voter reaction on marriage amendments around the country, I'd say the American public is not ready for same-sex marriage. The majority of people in California are not even ready. It will be a shame if the homosexual community pursues this through the courts. They should learn from the terrible division court-mandated social change wreaks by looking at what has happened with forced legalization of abortion. If the homosexual community really wants respect, they should pursue a path toward public acceptance, not judicial fiat. There is no homosexual right to marriage. Marriage is the union of one man and one woman. Same-sex partnerships were never part of that. Homosexuals and those who support their goal are asking for a new right. Rather than using the courts to force same-sex marriage on the country, they ought to try to convince the majority of Americans that they should have this right. While they try to persuade Americans they should have this right, others, including me, will continue to help Americans understand why this is not good. This is as it should be in this great country!

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