Friday 4 March 2011

Towards a Theology of Gay Marriage

As the UK Government begins to explore the possibility of new policies on marriage for same-sex couples, do we need to revisit our theology of marriage and ask "Is it really as Biblical as we think?"
I often find myself feeling sorry for the Pharisees in the Gospels.  It is easy to dismiss them as legalistic 'stick in the muds' but at least they tried their best to be faithful to the Word of God, and to hold the line against the secular influences of Roman politics and culture.
Their problem however, was that in their zeal to be faithful, they often got the wrong end of the stick.  As a result, over and over again, they missed the point of what God was doing, and ended up fighting against His purposes in the process.
It was in this context that they ran up against Jesus over and over again.
Food laws are one example - their focus on clean and unclean foods led to a theology which implied that it is what goes into your body which makes you unclean, rather than the declaration of Christ that it is what comes out of your heart that matters.
The Sabbath is another example.  They spent so much time and energy upholding the Sabbath that they transformed something which God intended as a blessing and made it a burden.  What God intended as a means to an end - that we should have time for rest and recreation - became the end in itself.   Again Jesus countered this by turning it on its head, pointing to the purpose of the Sabbath, rather than the institution.  "The Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath."  The Pharisees saw the 'end product' and allowed that to become pre-eminent, rather than seeing the intention of God.  As a result, the need which God was addressing in the creation of the Sabbath became overwhelmed by their observation of the institution of the Sabbath.
But we too can fall into the same trap when it comes to understanding marriage.
In the account of Adam and Eve we find our paradigm for marriage.  Although not the only consideration in forming our theology of marriage, it is the foundation which is taken up by both Jesus when questioned about divorce, and Paul in his advice to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5. 
In the account we observe that male and female come together in joy to 'complete' one another, and become 'one flesh' in a way which is unique in creation.  If we follow this form, then marriage must be between one man and one woman. 
Such an observation precludes, of course, any contemplation of same-sex marriage.  'God made Adam and Eve - not Adam and Steve,' is one way of expressing this, and silences all argument to the contrary.
Yet if we merely look at the 'end product' in Genesis 2, without seeking to understand God's intentions, we run the same risk as the Pharisees whose limited view of the Sabbath went so far out of kilter with what God had intended.
Genesis 2 is not primarily about understanding creation - it is about understanding relationship - our relationship with God, the world, and each other.  Neither is it about procreation - the command to be fruitful and multiply is found in the first account of creation, not in the story of Adam and Eve.  In Genesis 2, we find Adam created first and placed in the garden of God's blessing.  He has everything he needs to feed his body and a pure untainted relationship with God to feed his spirit.  Yet there is still something missing. God says, "It is not good for the man to be alone".  There is still a need for another relationship to complete the paradigm of life in all its fullness.
God created the animals, but still no suitable partner was found.  So finally God created Eve as the one who is "bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh" and  Adam rejoices in the one who completed his need for that unique relationship.  In their coming together that 'one flesh' is re-united in what we call marriage and we can all relate to that yearning desire for the one who completes us - the one with whom we fall in love, and express that love in life-long commitment.  Whilst we must recognise that not everyone finds their life-partner, there is always that hope, that possibility, of meeting the person who 'completes' us.
But what of those whose attraction is not toward the opposite sex?  What if the person who we fall in love with  - who completes that God-given need within us - is of the same sex?  Does that negate the fundamental human need which God addresses?
Those who are attracted to people of the same sex still have the same yearning for that relationship which will bring a sense of fulfilment, a sense of completeness, a re-uniting of 'one flesh' from what God has created.
By focusing on the 'end product' (male and female) rather than the need which God is addressing in the Garden of Eden (relationship), we risk making the same mistake as the Pharisees did with the Sabbath at the beginning of the same chapter.
They elevated the Sabbath to monumental proportions because they thought it was something greater that our human needs, and Jesus had to correct them by reminding them that the Sabbath was created by God to meet human needs, not to be an end in itself.
When we elevate marriage to the same monumental proportions and restrict it to our observation of Adam and Eve, we need to be reminded that marriage was ordained by God to meet a human need, not to be an end in itself.  This is radical thinking sure enough, but it is just as Biblical as the challenges which Jesus brought to the Pharisees.
Is it not possible that the yearning to find the one who 'completes' us is the same for everyone - gay straight, bi, or transgendered?  Is it not possible that God's response to that yearning is also the same for everyone, irrespective of their sexuality - the opportunity of marriage for all, with the person who 'completes' them, no matter what sex they are?
Until we are prepared to look deeper, and frame our theology of marriage around God's purposes, rather than just the 'end product' we continue to run the risk of following the Pharisees, and completely miss the point.
(Also published in The Church of England Newspaper - 4th March 2011)


  1. Benny, thanks for this. I am sure you are right to critique the absolutising of marriage in general, which also damages the church's approach to singles.

    But in the biblical account, there is more than just content of existential connection; there is also a clear focus on the *form* of relationship in which this takes place.

    In Gen 1 there is a strong focus on humanity being created 'male and female', and in the binary manifestation, not one gender alone, is found the image of God. In Gen 2, the woman is a 'suitable' helper (in older translations). The Hebrew 'kenegdo' has two senses to it—one of 'equal' (contra those who believe in gender hierarchy) and the other is 'opposite.' There is a unique partnership found in relation with a gendered opposite.

    It is pagan rejection of this divine ordering that Paul polemicises against in Rom 1—though of course he goes on, not to reject this traditional Jewish diatribe, but to turn it against his readers as setting out the case for universal sin. The sins of chapter 1 are mere pointers to us all being sinners before God.

    And Jesus specifically refers to this gendered 'equal and opposite' in his affirmations of marriage.

    1. Fair points, but they raise a particular question; who then is the 'suitable helper' and the 'opposite' of, say, a gay man?

      Adam was clearly a heterosexual male. God made the suitable and opposite person for him - a heterosexual female. This does not mean that Eve would complement all heterosexual men or that Adam would complement all heterosexual women. We are more complex than this and it is not just about simple biological gender. If it were, no heterosexual marriage would ever fail since by definition they would always perfectly complement each other.

      There is a misconception that homosexual relationships are based on an attraction of 'similarity'. They aren't. Gender is just one factor of the many that makes a relationship. My partner complements me. She is good at things I am not, has made me appreciate things that I never thought twice about before, has skills where I am lacking, challenges me when I am wrong. The fact that she is the same gender as me is a tiny thing in the sea of 'suitable opposites' that makes our relationship one of complementarity rather than similarity.

  2. This is a great post Benny, thank you. My comment is on Ian's comment: isn't Adam, 'human being', rather than 'male', at least to begin with - indeed, the female emerges from him (the rib) - so that male and female (or, more precisely, masculine and feminine) are both aspects of being human; in other words, gender stereotypes are not necessarily implied here (and many people in the Bible do not conform to them); and, if human beings reflect these two aspects of God, does it not imply that God is transgender in the sense that God transcends the male/female dichotomy (and also, by implication, that we may do so too)?

  3. Thank you Benny for a really interesting and thought provoking post. I understand the Genesis 1 and 2 accounts of creation of humankind as a paradigm for relationship between men and women with each other and with God. So it tells us something about relationships in society and the church, not just about sexual partnership. It provides a basis for the ethics of gender equality e.g. in leadership in society and the church. I agree with Ian Paul that there is a unique partnership in equality of gendered opposite, which is one reason I think women should be eligible for the episcopate, in order to complete the collegiality of bishops with suitable gender balance - men and women working together in leadership of the church. It is also why I think marriage as currently defined by the church and UK law as between one man and one woman is a unique relationship to be honoured. A committed, faithful, publicly recognised relationship between 2 men or 2 women may have much in common with marriage but it is different. I think such homosexual relationships should have equality (in law)with heterosexual marriage, but does there need to be a different (but non-stigmatising) word? 'Civil Partnership' doesn't seem all that satisfactory as a term, but I can't come up with anything better.

  4. Dear Ian
    Thank you for commenting. I do have some questions and comments.

    Gen 1 must by definition include men and women - otherwise how would they 'be fruitful and multiply'? Similarly if fullness of the image of God is seen only in the re-union between male and female, what does that say to single Christians?

    Equally, the emphasis on male and female in Gn1, as being made in God's image was overlooked by theologians for centuries, because of their preconception that women were the 'inferior' partner (made from man). It has only been comparatively recently that this has been re-examined and led to the conclusion which you rightly advocate about the equality of the sexes.

    Such re-examinations are needed as we grow in our understanding of Scripture and the will of God. Without them, the recognition of gender equality, not to mention other areas such a slavery and institutionalised racism, would never have been addressed. Unfortunately for gay and lesbian people, they do not find a unique partnership in relation with a gendered opposite. But that does not negate the power of Adam's yearning for that which completes them.

    I am interested that you mention Romans 1 - you can find my take on Romans 1 at

    Finally, Jesus affirmation of marriage is within the context of questions on divorce, so he responds in those terms. As we both know, one of our difficulties is that he said nothing on homosexuality or homosexual relationships. I am sure that we would agree that attempting to argue from silence is uncertain ground, no matter what conclusion we would like to draw.

    Do come back to me if your want to discuss more...

  5. Dear Benny, I make similar points to yours in Reasonable and Holy. The primary learning from Gen 2 is that Eve is "like" Adam, not "opposite" --- "k'negedo" is what God proposes to do, but what Adam says is "This is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh." Eve is found "suitable" by Adam because she is human, not because she is female.

    I agree with you that the notion that male and female together represent the image of God (a notion Barth brought up in his weaker moments), rather than each of them individually, not only plays havoc for single people... but what about Jesus!

  6. @ Ian P, re "the binary manifestation"

    This is a human ideological construct, not born out in biology. Sure, we may TRY to assign every baby EITHER a pink or blue ribbon---but that's cultural, not Truthful ("humanity being created 'male and female'"---but what of the INDIVIDUAL "created male and female"? I speak VERY personally!)


    Benny, this is a very good post . . . however (you knew it was coming!), I wish you wouldn't use the phrase "those whose attraction is not toward the opposite sex" or "Those who are attracted to people of the same sex".

    The word "attraction" has been used in recent discriminatory manifestos and campaigns, to *dehumanize* LGBT people. Under this POV, LGBT people are slaves to their mere "attractions" (which can be overcome, or healed . . . by Jesus of course!)

    Every person of any orientation, finds certain *individuals* as . . . Rockin' the Casbah (Da Bomb, flipping your skirt, the bee's knees, sex-on-legs, a hot tomato, built like a brickhouse, whatever). To these individuals, one may possess a strong *attraction*.

    It's not the same as a sexual *orientation* though. [Comparison: I'm attracted to Jessica Leccia ( Drool...*THUD* But I'm oriented towards women. Get it? Kinda like I enjoy, say, an "outdoors lifestyle"---but I have a LIFE!)


  7. @ Ian Paul: "It is pagan rejection of this divine ordering that Paul polemicises against in Rom 1—"

    It's interesting that what Paul emphasizes is very different from the Gospels. Very legalistic. He knocks down one set of laws, only to put his own in place.

    You write as well "Jesus specifically refers to this gendered 'equal and opposite' in his affirmations of marriage." That doesn't actually stick out in my mind; what sticks out in my mind most, over and over, is "sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven." I believe the theme of giving away all your worldly goods is mentioned over and over and over, and carried over into the book of Acts. Now there's a topic that would make a lot of people squirm in their seats: no wonder everyone glosses over it and prefers tut-tutting at others.

  8. @Tobias: Thank you for this - I have also put a comment on my Facebook page about our cultural use of the term 'opposite'sex, and the fact that it does not appear in Scripture.It goes ...

    "I am intrigued with our use of the word 'opposite' in relation to the sexes. I can't ever recall te Bible using the word to describe male and female, and yet we often use it as if it was warrented by scripture. The picture the Bible paints... is one of compliemntarity rather than opposites. Flesh from my flesh - bone from my bone. Thus a relationship between a man and woman is not one of 2 opposite halves, but of two people who complete each other. Same-sex couples also feel that they complete each other. If I am wrong perhaps you can show me where the Bible talks about marriage uniting two opposites?"

  9. @JFC: Thnks for both comments (to Ian and to me). I had certainly not wanted to imply that LGBT people are slaves to their attractions, any more than heterosexuals are. And I do not want to give ammunition to those who want to 'heal' or 're-orientate' LGBT people. So my apologies if I have fallen into that trap.

    What I do want to do, however is to move the debate away from merely 'sex' to that of love. It seems to me that we (the church) get too hung up on the 'sex' aspect of same-sex relationships, (which heterosexuals find it hard to empathise with) whereas what is really important is that we understand same-sex relationships in the context of love/attraction (which heterosexuals can empathise with).

    So that is what I am trying to do - albeit imperfectly.

  10. Benny:
    The truth is that there is no particular theology of gay marriage. There is a theology of marriage that applies to every Christian considering sexual union.

    While some of us get 'hung up' on the sexual aspect of relationships, it is the physical union (one flesh vs. one spirit only) that is considered the consummation of the marriage, not the ceremony. Paul certainly sees joining as physical (1 Cor. 6:12 - 20). He refuses to set aside pre-conversion marriages, just because one partner has found God. Apparently, the believing partner can be a source of sacramental grace.

    Should the Tables of Kindred and Affinity escape critical scrutiny, especially in the light of the discovered phenomenon of Genetic Sexual Attraction (N.B. this may result in, but is not the same as incest -

    The New Testament doesn't address it, indeed it only affects those in adoptive reunions.

    I don't assume a 'slippery slope' association with anything other sexual orientation. Anyway, most of the proscriptions against incest are simply limits on Old Testament endogamy. So, the shop-worn sabbath and shellfish shibboleths can be trotted out in defence.

    How do you believe your radically inclusive theology addresses such individuals? Should they, as consenting adults, be entitled to marry with a church blessing? Or do we resort to the guidance found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer?

  11. @Benny, thanks. I prefer "different" to "opposite." The notion that the breakdown into a binary isn't even quite true for all at the genetic level, and the whole human person can best be described along at least three axes or spectra: biological sex, sexual orientation, and societal gender.

    @David: incest is a largely socially-determined concept. Our tables of affinity, and most of our civil laws, rule out degrees of incest that are perfectly permissible under a literal reading of Scripture. (One extreme example is that the Bible rule out Aunt+Nephew but allows Uncle+Neice. Scripture allows for, and even mandates in some cases, cousin marriage -- which civil laws regulate or forbid.)

    From a moral standpoint, my question would be: if the blood-related couple didn't know they were related, and married in ignorance, would they be guilty of a moral fault? What is the "moral" issue involved? This raises questions about the contend and context of morality.

    Where the couple know they are related, much depends on the degree of relationship -- and that appears to be set by the culture at a higher level of reserve than Scripture. The concerns for society aren't moral, but eugenic, and may be sound when it comes to children being born with genetic problems due to recessive genes being amplified.

    So this is a complex moral issue, but, in my opinion, has no relation to the topic of same-sex marriage. It is a whole other kettle of fish, just as, for instance, biblical anti-miscegenation rules (at the extreme an insistence on tribal endogamy), although picked up by the culture and only overturned eventually by civil authority, has its own issues in terms of "morality."

  12. Thanks to everyone who has angaged in discussion so far - but I wonder if there are any more repsonses to the specific issue of whether my application of Jesus's principle of directing the Pharisees to look at God's purposes, rather than just the specific outcome, is a valid approach. Very few comments has addressed this so far, and have focused instead on the general issue of same-sex marraige.

    Does anyone want to offer some thoughts on this?

  13. Sorry that should read "engaged" - not a freudian slip - just a typo - honest!

  14. Benny, I think that is the principle we ought to employ, following Jesus' example rather than the Pharisees. On the whole, Jesus appears to me to commend, even when looking at the Law, to examine the purpose behind the law -- thus he can amplify the commandment against murder to be against hatred, and the law concerning the sabbath to be not about mandatory work stoppage, but rest and restoration.

    This is why I think cleaving to Jesus' method, with an emphasis on looking to the deeper significance of the law, rather than to a "taboo" mentality that accepts that X is bad because forbidden, represents a more churchly response. It is more than valid, it is right!

  15. Thanks for your comments Bennie.
    Two observations. First, according to the second creation story, God Created the animals for Adam so he wouldn't be alone, so when Eve was created it was surely more for the sake of companionship than for sex.
    Secondly, I haven't run across any comments yet about Jesus' observations about Eunuchs. They were despised in His day as much as GLBTs are today. Is this not an affirmation of sexual minorities?
    By the way my name is Bob Webster, not anonymous.

  16. @ Bob (Anonymous)
    Hi Bob - thanks for your comment.
    I am not quite sure what you are saying about animals, Eve and sex! In Gn2, Eve was created to be the one who provides that fullness of relationship which no relationship with animals could provide. This included sex but was not all about sex - just like any marriage today.
    I will look at Jesus's observations about Eunuchs, as I had not considered them before - thank you.

  17. Hi Benny,

    To answer your question regarding the Pharisees: your handling of the Pharisees seemed peculiar to me, if only because you seem to credit them with merely being naive. Do you not think they were wicked in their hearts? Were they simply literal idiots unaware?

    Also, it seems to me that "one-flesh" is by definition a heterosexual, intercourse-instigated "law" that binds the body until death (i.e. 1 Cor 6:16ff). This binding law gives opportunity for love. Love promotes life. Life bears fruit.

    Also, isn't "fruit" the evidence of life and life-giving relationship? As when the heart produces no lasting fruit and can be judged as lifeless, can not the body be compared similarly? Barren heterosexuals or even heterosexual singles, by "orientation" and anatomical design, still have the potentiality for bearing the "fruit" of a child , but only in heterosexual relationship. Same-sex relationship have no potential of being naturally fruitful and multiplying.

    And shouldn't we model with the body what is to be true of the heart, namely that we should bear fruit (or at least be "oriented" in a relational context that has the potential for fruit, both natural (i.e. child) and supernatural (i.e. Love))?

    This brings us back to Jesus' repeated indictment on the Pharisees, namely that their hearts lacked fruit. And not lacking from mere naiveté, but rather by willfully refusing a life-giving relationship with the Father.

    I've written more here on the relationship between marriage and the gospel, for consideration and edification: (

    Craig Wigginton

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