In my experience, the conservative stance on the issue of same-sex marriage really isn’t founded on the handful of passages from Leviticus and Paul. Yes, those get quoted a lot, but the interpretation of those passages is often driven by a larger prior conviction, namely, that Jesus clearly stated that marriage is between a man and a woman, thus creating an unbreakable norm for Christian ethics.
The key passage can be found in Mark 10:
1 Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.
2 Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
3 “What did Moses command you?” he replied.
4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”
5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied.6 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this.11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
I must say that in my own struggles in understanding this issue, this passage is the one that caused me to hold on to a conservative stance for a long time. I understood that the other passages involved a great deal of interpretative ambiguity, but this seemed pretty clear to me. Here you have Jesus making a statement about the nature of marriage that he grounds in the creation story. It does, it must be admitted, seem like a pretty strong case against the progressive view that still wants to take Jesus seriously.
I have come to think, though, that we must go beyond Jesus in our thinking about the morality of same-sex marriage, and that we have a good biblical precedent for doing so.
Let me first explain what I mean by “go beyond Jesus” and then I will get to what I see as the biblical precedent for this line of argument.
I do not mean that we have to disagree with Jesus, nor do I mean that what Jesus says is no longer relevant for us. By no means.
I simply mean that as we struggle with the question of should the church celebrate and consecrate the unions of individuals of the same sex who want to give their lives to one another, that we must go beyond the words of Jesus about marriage as they are recorded in the Gospels because they simply do not address the question we are asking.
I think we can all agree that an answer should be interpreted in the context of the question that prompted it. The question that the Pharisees asks is not, “Tell us if two same-sex attracted women that want to pledge their love and life to each other can do so?” The question is about heterosexual divorce. It makes sense, then, that Jesus would express God’s ideal for heterosexual marriage when asked a question about the grounds for divorce in such a marriage. The main point is that God’s ideal for heterosexual marriage is a life-long commitment and covenant.
In Jesus’ discussion on marriage and divorce, heterosexuality is part of the framework of the question, not the main point of the answer.
I think we can also all agree that many of us on the conservative side (myself included for a good while) are not beacons of integrity and consistency in the way we interpret and apply these teachings. There is no questioning that there must be a male and a female for it to be a marriage, and yet when we get to Jesus’ words about divorce (if we read that far), we assume that these verses “must mean” something other than what they appear to mean. How could Jesus be so harsh as to forbid all divorce? Surely he didn’t mean that!
While not all of us may have close relations or friendships with gay people, we all have either experienced ourselves or know people who have resorted to divorce, and we believe, given the circumstance, it was the right thing to do. Jesus uses very sharp and harsh language to set forth the ethical ideal (as he often did), but we all know that life isn’t ideal, and we have decided to interpret Jesus’ teachings about divorce and remarriage within the larger framework of his message of grace, forgiveness, and new starts. This, I believe, is something Jesus approves of. No interpretation of his teachings that would harm people can be the correct interpretation. (“You will know a tree by its fruits,” “do unto others,” etc.)
As has often been pointed out by scholars, the very first followers of Jesus struggled to take his idealistic teachings about marriage and work them into the complexity of diverse relational situations (see Matthew’s modified version in 19:9 to allow for divorce because of adultery). In one of the most notable examples we have of this in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul wrestles with the Jesus tradition handed on to him about these matters, and he acknowledges that in some situations we have to go beyond the words of Jesus as we have them. Since Jesus didn’t specifically address the situation of a marriage where one of the spouses is a believer and the other isn’t, Paul has to work through it best he can guided by the Spirit. Paul concludes (contrary to the unqualified words of Jesus) that if an unbelieving spouse leaves the marriage, then the other person is no longer bound, meaning that he or she is free to remarry.
This much is commonly recognized What is often overlooked in this passage, though, is that Paul reveals the principle that guides him in how he interprets and applies the teachings of Jesus on marriage. After his discussion, he says, “God has called us to live in peace” (v15). God desires wholeness and well-being for us. God desires for us to live in peace. As Paul struggles with this, the guiding principle is: what would make for the most peace?
In our time, the great moral question isn’t about divorce, but about the union of two people of the same sex. In the church, the more specific question is: should we celebrate and consecrate the union of two Christian people of the same sex who want to share their lives and love with one another? This is not a question that was being asked in Jesus’ day, and so we do not have a definitive answer from Jesus. So, in that sense, we must go beyond Jesus.
Perhaps in doing so, we should go beyond Jesus the way Paul went beyond Jesus, asking the question: what would make for the most peace? For the life of me, I cannot see how telling a gay person that God wants them to either change their orientation or be celibate will make for much peace. The evidence consistently shows this to bring destruction and despair into people’s lives, not wholeness and peace. Channeling eros into agape through covenantal commitment is the path of peace, not the denial or suppression of eros.
Sometimes we can quote the words of Jesus in such a way as to go against the spirit of Jesus.
This certainly happened when pastors and church people counseled women to stay in abusive relationships because of Jesus’ absolute ban on divorce in Mark 10. Many of us believe this is happening now as the church continues to tie up heavy and cumbersome loads and put them on the shoulders of gay people, while we refuse to lift a finger to move them (Matt 23:4).