“Theological Reflection on Same Sex Marriage”

This commentary is by Dr. James H. Evans, Jr., Robert K. Davies Professor of Systematic Theology at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. 

President Barack Obama’s recent announcement of his support of same sex marriage has been the topic of much discussion and debate in our community.  Students and faculty alike have asked how are we as an academic community of theological inquiry to help our students and those who will be served by them as pastors understand and respond to this issue.  As a systematic theologian whose specialty is African American Christianity, I am especially interested in helping African American Christians to understand what is at stake here.  It is not my task to tell others what to think or to what positions to take.  My task is to help frame the issue so that it might be better understood.  I believe that what is at issue here is what we call the doctrine of humanity.  That is, who do we count as human and what does it mean to be human in the sight of God?  As I read the history of people of African descent in the United States I am reminded that barely a century ago it was the official policy of the United States that black people were less human than whites, even when those black people were Christian.  This view was supported by many white Christians through their reading of the Bible.  Black people did not have the same rights as others because of the color of their skin.  Even though some people still feel this way about black people, fortunately, racism is no longer the official policy of the United States.  I am also reminded that less than a century ago, it was the official policy of the United States that black people and white people could not marry.  Many white Christians cited the Bible to support this policy. While these laws are still on the books in some states, it is no longer the official policy of the United States.  The fact is that there are Christians and non-Christians who oppose same sex marriage.  Sometimes the Bible is cited and sometimes it is not.  There are Christians and non-Christians who support same sex marriage.   Again, sometimes the Bible is cited and sometimes it is not.  This complexity suggests that the issue is not centered in what faith we claim, but in whether we are able to grant full humanity to someone who is not like us in some way.  I believe that the answer to this question lies deep in the individual heart.

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This article is by Gail A. Ricciuti, Associate Professor of Homiletics at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. 

My own stance that same-gender couples deserve the same marriage rights (and rites) as heterosexual people has its roots in my “conversion,” if you will, to acceptance of gay and lesbian people – a conversion fueled both biblically and experientially.

I grew up in a Bible-oriented non-denominational church where I learned, particularly under a high school Sunday School teacher whose own lively faith and committed life won the hearts of her students, that scripture was non-negotiable: “The Bible says it, and I believe it. Period.”  While the Levitical laws were never subject to our in-depth scrutiny the way the Gospels were, nevertheless the fact that a man lying with another male “is an abomination” was something inarguable that everyone knew– case closed.

But there were other scriptures emphasized and studied that emblazoned themselves on our hearts and minds as also being non-negotiable: like one that leaps out even as I write in this Pentecost season, Galatians 5:22: “. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  By contrast with the “works of the flesh”– from fornication to idolatry to jealousy, anger, dissensions, envy (and the list goes on)– we learned deep in the marrow of our faith that the true and trustworthy indwelling of God’s Spirit in a believer is evidenced by the fruit of that Spirit.

So it was that later, as a seminary delegate to the General Assembly of my adopted denomination some 40 years ago, the Spirit did God’s habitual work of upending all of my long-held assumptions– converting me, yet again, via that very trust of Scripture.  There I met, observed, and conversed with a small group of gay and lesbian seminarians, brave believers who were at that time (in the early 70s) the first to come out to their church– the church that was actively barring them from their God-given vocation to be ordained as ministers of Word and Sacrament.  I discovered these men and women to be, truly, among the best and brightest: not only in their scholarship and “doctrine” but in their daily witness of faith.  In them and from them, without exception, I experienced (and was at the time surprised to experience) . . . Love.  Joy.  Peace.  Patience.  Kindness.  Generosity.  Faithfulness.  Gentleness.  Self-Control.  All of these, so evident in each “outcast” I met, the fruit– the sign– of the Spirit’s indwelling presence.  And I found myself asking, with Peter at Caesarea (Acts 10:47) “Can anyone withhold [equal participation in the Body of Christ from] these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

The question made immediately obvious by my conversion experience, of course, is how one scripture can seem to “trump” another and how, in that situation, one is to judge which text be given precedence.  Perhaps the answer is to consider the Bible’s own witness that the Spirit of God does not choose to co-exist, let alone flourish, with abomination (even though the venues in which the Spirit can work are never limited).  I could not deny what my eyes had witnessed and my ears had heard, and found myself transported to Peter’s side when he met the challenge of the “circumcised” believers back home, asking how he could possibly fellowship with the “uncircumcised.”  His quiet description of the voice he had heard?  “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 11:9)

I would never have thought it, prior to 1972: that one’s sexual orientation is not in itself an “abomination” (although “straight” no less than gay may choose to live out that orientation in abominable, rather than faithful, ways).  If God chooses to indwell, and claim for service, gay and lesbian believers, and to call them into loving and committed relationships, it is not our business to stand in the way of God’s Spirit.  Rather, we too are called to extend and enable the right of marriage for all, as a human right:  strengthening the bonds of committed love as part of the equipping of all believers for faithful witness in the world!

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“What God Hath Ordained: A Theological Look at Marriage – Same-sex and Other”

This essay is by CRCDS faculty member Dr. Melanie Duguid-May, originally published on April 12, 2011.  

One spring day in the late 1990s Virginia Davidson and I were sitting in what was then my small corner study up on the third floor of Strong Hall at the Divinity School.  During that conversation with Ginny—then well up in her seventies, but not a day diminished in vitality—this lecture series was conceived.  Significantly for this lecture in the series, during that conversation I heard Ginny state in her inimitable way: “I’ve been lay-ed for the last time.”  I must confess I was startled, simply.  She went on: “Why is my ordination as a layperson not recognized to be as valid as the ordination of clergy?  We are all ordained!”  When I came to my senses—theologically speaking—I got it: she was indeed ordained, both by virtue of her baptism (ok, that’s the Anabaptist/baptist in me) and as Elder in the Presbyterian Church, in her case by the Downtown United Presbyterian Church where she was a lifelong member.  “We are all ordained!”

I remembered this meeting and Ginny’s comment as I was preparing this evening’s lecture.  And I tell the story of this meeting not only as remembrance, but as anamnesis—an efficacious remembrance—to invoke here and now the presence of Virginia Davidson, without whose sheer stubbornness and vigor in the cause of justice for LGBT persons we would likely not be here.  I also tell the story as anamnesis in order to state my own manifesto, indeed, my own credo, for on this I stake my heart: I have been partner-ed for the last time.  I am married!  I am married legally, constitutionally, in the sight of God and the company of those who witnessed the evening of Sunday, December 25, 2009, at our home atop Redhill overlooking the Indian Ocean in Durban, South Africa.  And I give thanks to God for my amazing wife Deborah with each and every breath I breathe.

I am married.  Why do these words make many if not most people uncomfortable?  I see it. I sense it when I speak these words.  Why were these words that heard but often not responded to when they proclaimed good news in the weeks and months after we were married?  Why do I still feel like a fake when I tick the box on forms in the doctor’s office: married?

Many reasons, no doubt.  But here’s my hypothesis: these words coming from my mouth—I am married to my wife Deborah—make people uncomfortable (I have also experienced the derisive laughter they can evoke.) because marriage is still seen as a heterosexual affair.  More than this: marriage, assumed to be heterosexual marriage, is not simply the union of two persons—woman and man—who love one another.  Marriage is simply and surely also assumed to be a publically witnessed union between a man and a woman that is the very cornerstone of the vast edifice of society as we know it.  As cornerstone of society, marriage confers “a legal status and a place in society, including access to a well-defined structure of benefits and obligations” (Johnson, 29).  Marriage binds the legal, the emotional, the sexual, economic, cultural, spiritual, and religious aspects of social life.  Same-sex marriage, even if legal—in five states and the District of Columbia (now six states)—is not only still deprived of the rights and privileges (most of which are federal)  afforded heterosexual marriage as societal cornerstone; same-sex marriage subverts the binary gender system—one man/one woman; man dominant, woman subordinate—same-sex marriage subverts the binary gender system foundational to the structure of heterosexual marriage.  For even if and when heterosexual marriage is a model of equality and mutuality in practice, its structural template is the dominant/subordinate binary gender system.

Why is same-sex marriage a threat?  There’s more.  A theological look at marriage—same-sex and other—locates marriage in relation to Christianity’s living legacy of ambiguity about sex and marriage in general—a legacy evident in earliest texts and traditions. Indeed, Dale Martin, Yale University religious scholar, has spoken of Jesus as “a figure of ambiguous sexuality.” Even without turning to early texts and traditions, there is the figure of Jesus in contemporary popular novels and films: The Last Temptation of Christ; Jesus Christ Superstar; Godspell; Jesus of Montreal; The DaVinci Code. To name only the blockbusters. Our own imaginations run wild: was he married? Did he choose to be unmarried because of being about his Father’s business?  And if he was unmarried was he celibate?  Did he still experience sexual desire?  Or were the objects of his sexual desire men not women?  John the Beloved disciple who leaned on his breast not loose-haired Mary of Magdala?  Jesus is indeed “a figure of ambiguous sexuality.”

But earlier texts and traditions are brimming with similar questions. For example, the writings of the early church fathers—writings dating from the 2nd to the 4th or early 5th centuries—also articulate this ambiguity.  For example, there was widespread agreement that Jesus was celibate, unmarried.  But even so the early church fathers were notably reluctant to take Jesus as a model for celibate life.  For example, when Cyril of Jerusalem cited Jesus as a model for Christians to imitate, it was Jesus as a model of one who suffered. When Cyril cited a model for celibacy and virginity he chose certain early Christians.  Likewise, Basil the Great talked about the imitation of Christ, but named gentleness, lowliness, long-suffering endurance, not celibacy.  This ambiguity about Jesus as a model for celibate life was exemplified most of all by Tertullian, the Latin church father from north Africa. Tertullian used Jesus Christ as a model both for virgins and for married persons, for monogamous marriage. Jesus as virgin and as monogamist: Jesus Christ as “having one Church as his bride, according to the figure of Adam and Eve.”  Jesus as a virgin Christ who is a model for virgins. Celibate virgin or faithful husband.  Jesus was “a figure of ambiguous sexuality” in the early centuries of the Christian church as surely as he is “a figure of ambiguous sexuality” today.

Celibacy? Marriage? Presenting Jesus as “a figure of ambiguous sexuality” at the outset, I want to posit that “what God hath ordained” is far more a question than a declaration to be pronounced.  This theologians’ look at centuries of Christian texts and traditions leads me to say “what God hath ordained” is itself as ambiguous as the figure of Jesus has been and is.

Acknowledging this ambiguity inherent to the Christian tradition—evident in early texts and alive in contemporary imagination—indeed amid this ambiguity, this evening I offer two simple affirmation about “what God hath ordained,” affirmations as related to marriage—same-sex and other.  I offer these affirmations to deepened our appreciation of Christianity’s living legacy of ambiguity about sex as well as marriage.  More importantly, I offer these affirmations to open new ways of thinking about marriage—same-sex and other—for the living of these contentious days.

My affirmations, all-too-briefly stated, are these: first, God hath ordained that we human beings, together with all creation, are to be in communion.  Having created the earth and sky, every living thing, both plants and animals, God “created humankind in [God’s] image, in the image of God God created them.” Just as God is a relational God, we who are created in God’s image are not to be alone, but in communion. A second affirmation follows: a look at centuries of Christian tradition finds therein many, many ways of being in communion, of being in relationship, only one of which is marriage.  I invite us to survey some of these many ways of being in communion, of being in relationship, because I think they may offer a way to think and live beyond the impasse in today’s debates about marriage—same-sex and other.  I think a survey of some of these ways of being in communion may also be a reality-check.  Sharply put, I agree with Yale religious scholar Dale Martin who argues: “. . . there are more resources in Scripture and tradition to critique marriage and family than to support it.”

A look at the centuries of Christian tradition finds therein many ways of being in communion, of being in committed relationship, one of which is marriage—same-sex and other.  And as the late pioneering scholar John Boswell stated, marriage viewed in virtually any historical context is a “lively uncertainty” (1994, xxi).  But let me be clear at the outset: even as I acknowledge the ambiguity of marriage in Christian tradition, not to mention its tattered reality today, I still do not agree with LGBT persons who dismiss same-sex marriage as a hopelessly flawed institution.  At the same time, I am also not so naïve as to assume that gaining full marriage rights and privileges for LGBTi persons will be a solution to the interpersonal and structural homophobia and injustice.  Rather, as I have already celebrated, I am married: happily and subversively so.  And I speak this evening because of my commitment to new visions of committed relationship and of community—new visions of communion for couples, same-sex and other, new visions of communion for single persons, children, older adults.  I speak because of my commitment ot many new forms of communion publically recognized and respected, with all the rights and privileges and obligations conferred upon and assumed by on ly one form—one flawed form—heterosexual marriage.  For we—all of us created in the image of God—are created to be in communion.

Let me now reflect a bit more fully on what I mean as I affirm: what God hath ordained at creation is communion, communion for all human beings created in God’s image as for the whole creation. For Christians, this affirmation is founded in the affirmation that God is three Persons in One.  So saying, Christians affirm God is a personal God.  More than this, Christians affirm God is love.  God is a God who originates in love and is ever expressing herself in love by stretching out to other persons.  God is not a lonely God.  God is not a God who acts alone.  God is in himself communion: three Persons who mutually indwell each other.  God is three Persons whose being are so integrally and lovingly related they do not exist apart from one another.  Therefore God is one in a communion of Persons.  And we who are created in God’s image are created to be in communion, one with another.  To be human is to-be-a-person-in-communion.

Let me be clear: this talk about communion is not new.  It is talk that has resounded through centuries of Christian tradition. But many of us know that real life in Christian churches—in places where the communion ideal is supposed to become real—realized—has too often, too truly been hell for LGBTi persons. Hell, says the OED, is “a place in a tailor’s shop into which shreds or off cuts of material are thrown.”  Too true!  For many LGBTi persons the church has been the place of not being in relationship, of not being-a-person-in-communion.  The church has been the place where LGBTi persons are shredded, offcut, our God-given gifts and graces refused, rejected.  I recognize the reality of heel in our churches.  I know the hell of church in my own flesh and blood.

But this evening I choose to be a ragrug weaver.  Here’s the image, borrowed from a poem “Creatioex Nihilo:” “She is the ragrug woman/Gatherer of good for nothing/Weaver of worth/Expert in creatio ex nihilo/. . .Whatever is worn out she receives/Just dump it reight here on the kitchen table/Where her hands hover over the chaos/where fingers dance with scissors, thread and needle/Making strands of life emerge.”  So this evening I invite we who are created in God’s image to be-persons-in-communion, to rise up and realize this new way of living, living in communion in the church and in the world.

What does this new way of living in the church and the world look like?  Here we come to my second affirmation: there is no template for this new way of living, for being-persons-in-communion.  A look at centuries of Christian tradition finds, as I have said, many ways of being in communion, one of which is marriage.  But again, as John Boswell stated, marriage viewed in virtually any historical context is a “lively uncertainty” (1994, xxi).  A quick historical survey confirms Boswell’s comment.  Marriage has changed and changed and changed again.  It is a most dynamic institution. For example, marriage in Roman Egypt perhaps most closely resembles the contemporary ideal of affectionate, egalitarian marriage—scholars surmise this because the terms “brother” and “sister” were often used for “husband” and “wife”—while in most of the Greco-Roman world, marriage was chiefly a business proposition.  Marriage was about securing power, property, and progeny, on the basis of a binary gender order: men dominant, women subordinate.

Jesus was born into this Greco-Roman world, albeit in a remote province–ancient Palestine—living under the harsh rule of forces of occupation, just as Palestine today lives under the harsh rule of forces of occupation.  And, as already noted, Jesus as “a figure of ambiguous sexuality” has sparked more speculation than certainty.  Married? Unmarried?  We will never know. But the glimpses we get from Gospel texts confirm the “lively uncertainty” of marriage.

Think for example of Jesus, responding to his mother and brothers who wanted to see him: “Who is my mother and who are my brothers? . . . Whoever does the will of God, that one is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33-35).  Here and in other Gospel texts Jesus refused to identify himself with his biological family. His focus is instead on the eschatological community, i.e., he focused on those who gathered around him because they shared his vision of a new community, a new social order based on new transformed values: the reign of God.

Think about it: those who gathered around Jesus, who followed after Jesus, were already living within an alternate community.  This band of followers was an alternate community to the traditional, male-headed household—a wandering group of women and men who were unrelated to one another by blood or marriage, and who, from the scant information we have, had separated from their families to follow Jesus.  Jesus called his disciples not only away from their occupations but away from their households, including their marriages.  Recall the harsh—to our ears—saying passed on in Luke’s Gospel: “If anyone comes to me and does not despise [or hate: miseo, as in the earlier Aramaic text] his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, and yes his own life, he is not able to be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Jesus called his followers away from traditional ties of family and marriage, away from traditional households, and into a new community, a new social order, the reign of God.

A most gripping glimpse of this new social order is in the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles. The narrator tells about the disciples, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, meeting in different houses.  The narrator tells us how disciples sold what they owned, gave the proceeds to the apostles for distribution to those in need, held all things in common and took common meals.  Here we get a glimpse of a new social order in the shape of a new household.  No longer the traditional household headed by a paterfamilias.  But a household molded by mutuality among all persons.

Among the persons in this new household are Ananias and Sapphira.  In chapter four of the Acts of the Apostles we have learned that in the community that was gathered those who owned “lands and houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  They laid it at the apostles’ feet and it was distributed to each as had any need” (4:34-35).  But Ananias and his wife Sapphira sold a piece of property and “kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (5:1-2).  When accused by the apostle Peter, Ananias, followed by Sapphira, “fell down and died” (5:5, 10).  The “young men” carried them out and buried them.

Dale Martin reads this story as the story of a traditionally married coupel—representing the old, self-serving order of family and family solidarity, with concerns for economic stability, inheritance, continuity—being buried by “young men,” i.e., by the new, growing, communal, eschatological non-household household.  This new household was a based on assurance of the gifts of God, on solidarity with sisters and brothers, not on husbands, wife, mothers and fathers.  The married couple, says Martine, is juxtaposed to the church as the new being, the new social order that transcends traditional marriage and family of the Greco-Roman world.  The church as a new household without the constraints of the paterfamilias household.

But reading the writings of Paul we are back again to mixed messages.  On one hand, Paul clearly preferred that Christians follow his example and not marry.  Nonetheless, Paul thought some Christians were too weak to avoid sexual desire without sexual activity in marriage—“It is better to marry than to burn” (I Cor.7:9). Still the sustained tenor of Paul’s thinking is that sexual desire is part of the world Christians are called to leave behind.  The only possible reason to marry is to have sex to avoid desire. In short and in sum, Paul could hardly be enlisted as a supporter of contemporary understandings of marriage, same-sex or other, whether a love-marriage, an arranged marriage, marriage for the purpose of propagation or as a business deal.

Still in the name of Paul the gendered social system—men dominant; women subordinate—of the traditional household was reinforced in the texts scholars refer to as Deutero-Pauline.  For example, in the so-called “household code,” wives are told to submit to their husbands “as is fitting in the lord,” while husbands are told to love their wives (Col. 3:18-4:1). So we see that in time the social hierarchy of the Greco-Roman world was blessed by Christians in search of a public place to stand: God, then male head-of-household, then wives, children, and slaves. Deutero-Pauline texts go to greater and greater lengths to reinforce in the early church the familial structure found in the world around them, as Christians are enjoined to pray for “kings and all in authority” (I Tim. 2:2).

The Christian trajectory had moved from Jesus’ Gospel of liberation to the traditional male-headed household, from Jesus’ call to resurrection living in an alternate community to a concern to maintain the gender-stratified social order of things.  But this trajectory was not a straight line, as we will see; a mixed message continued through the centuries.  It is increasing clear “what God hath ordained” is far from a declaration; it is a relentless question.

And yet in the centuries that followed, mixed messages about marriage, and family, continued to characterize the Christian tradition.  So while some Deutero-Pauline texts promoted what we might call ancient “family values” lived in a traditional marriage in a patriarchal household, in the medieval era, both early and late, Christian texts and traditions mostly attest to the higher value of celibacy over marriage.  Virginity was affirmed as the original state willed by God.  Sexual intercourse came after the Fall.  In the hierarchy of virtue, sex in marriage, which may be allowed for procreation and procreation alone, was subordinate to celibacy and also to abstinence in marriage.

This presumption of the ideal of Christian celibacy began to change only with the  late medieval/early modern reform movements in Europe and in England. As the  authority of Roman ecclesiastical power and authority was thrown off, marriage slowly became the norm for virtuous Christians For example, early English divines regarded marriage as a “domestic commonwealth,” within “the interlocking commonwealths of state, church, and family as something of an earthly form of heavenly government.”  A few years later across the north Atlantic in New England, some Puritan writing referred to the household rather than the church as the primary locus of religious activity.  One Puritan cleric, Thomas Taylor preached, “Let every Master of Family see to what he is called; namely, to make his house a little Church, to instruct every one of his Family in the feare of God, to contain every one of them under holy discipline, to pray with them, and for them: that there may be a draught or Modell of a Church in his House.”

Earlier, on the European continent, the reformer Martin Luther had set the course for this shift from presumption of celibacy to marriage. Luther affirmed sex and marriage as part of God’s good creation, not as consequence of the Fall.  And for Luther marriage was a bond between two persons, publically assumed and attested, marked by love, sexual intercourse, children, obligations, and a shared life.  Luther had more to say about marriage.  He was clear that marriage was not an institution wherein the husband owned the wife as through she were a slave. Wives had rights, he declared, including sexual rights.  So if a husband was impotent he was still obligated to give nature its due, by supplying a sexual partner for his wife.  Luther’s rationale was the same rationale he used for infant baptism: in the absence of explicit prohibition, a practice was permitted.  This is to say, there is nothing in scripture to prohibit a woman who is married to an impotent husband from taking another man; therefore, it is permitted.  Luther’s rationale is well worth bearing in mind in the current debates about marriage—same-sex and other.  In the absence of explicit prohibition, a practice is permitted.

But even as the traditional household, marriage and family—most often headed by a paterfamilias—reasserted itself and was baptized once again by Christians for the sake of a public and privileged place to stand, some Christians still regarded marriage as at best a compromise for procreative purpose alone.  And some Christians continued to move along alternate paths.  Here three brief examples: one alternate path was the path of those Christians who chose priestly celibacy, voluntary cirginity, or monastic community life as authorized by the church hierarchy.  There were also communities of women—unmarried, widowed, marriage—who chose to live lives of chastity, evangelical poverty, and contemplation, but not in authorized religious houses or orders or under permanent vows.  And there were many voluntary, committed communities of men and women, for whom communal ties were stronger than those of marriage or family.

Another example was the alternate path trodden by Christians who chose “spiritual” marriage. These Christians were influenced by the force of early rhetoric that applied marital imagery to other relationships and institutions.  In Ephesians 5:22-23, for example, Christ’s relationship to the church is compared to the relationship of husband and wife.  This imagery—the marriage of Christ to the church or its people—was widely written about and depicted in early Christian art.  One early bishop, Paulinus of Nola, referred to this marriage as “the great sacrament in which the church married Christ,” and invoked it at earthly weddings.  Marriage between a man and a woman was also often spiritualized.  Partly because of the force of the rhetoric, but also because of the force of teaching about celibacy.

Men and women also chose “spiritual” marriage because of Roman law and custom, according to which it was consent and “marital affection” that constituted the essence of marriage, not cohabitation or sexual intercourse or procreation.  A number of early Christian bishops agreed.  Ambrose, 4th century bishop of Milan, insisted “that marriage consisted in the mutual agreement of the couple, not in their carnal copulation.”  Soon thereafter, the great theologian and North African bishop, Augustine, posited that marriage established an “order of love” between partners, and that a decision to refrain from bodily contact would only render this basis for union “firmer, . . . more loving, and more harmonious.”  A “spouse,” he continued, is “so called from the faithfulness of the . . . promise to marry, and need not have or have ever intended to sleep with the partner.” Also in the 4th century, in Antioch at the eastern end of the empire, John called Chrysostom taught that “it is not coitus that makes marriage, but intention.”  Consent. Not coitus but intention constituted a marriage.

There is in Christian tradition another example of alternatives traditional heterosexual marriage and family: same-sex unions.  In his magisterial study by that title, John Boswell collected liturgies for same-sex unions—translated into English for the first time—liturgies he argued were performed from Plato’s Greece until modern times, and which bear striking resemblance to heterosexual marriage liturgies.  As he presents these liturgies, Boswell noted that for the first thousand or so years the church’s blessing of marriage—same-sex or other—was sporadic at best.  Not being obligatory, blessings or offices were most often localized affairs.  But even as ambivalence about sexuality of any kind persisted, it is clear there were, from the earliest centuries of the Christian church, liturgies to bless loving same-sex unions.

Another scholar, Bernadette Brooten—1999 lecturer in this series—both critiques Boswell for his lack of gender analysis—this is to say, for commenting on love between women only as a minor subcategory of male homoeroticism rather than on its own—and confirms his basic thesis: that same-sex love and marriage were well known in the early church by early Christian theologians.  But Brooten’s assessment of same-sex unions in the early church and thereafter is more sobering than Boswell’s.  Yes, she says, there was widespread awareness of sexual love between women and, yes, there is evidence of marriages between women.  But love and marriage between women were uniformly condemned by early Christian theologians, from Paul in his Letter to the Romans to apocalyptic visions of God’s punishment for sexual relations between women to the early church fathers of the 2nd to the 5th centuries.

So what now? Amid all the mixed messages.  In view of all the alternatives.  This theologian’s look finds scant support in Christian scripture or tradition for marriage—same-sex or other.  Instead I find the affirmation that all persons are created in God’s image for being-persons-in-communion.  And I find many ways in which Christians have lived out this affirmation, all tangled with ambiguity about sexuality, about celibacy—the original state and highest virture?—and about marriage—for procreation only?  A bonds of affection between two persons? Two women? Two men? A woman and a man?

Affirmation, alternatives, and ambiguity.  So what now?  Here I want to wrap up with a recap of a couple of affirmations: I support marriage equality for LGBT persons, at state and federal levels.  This is a matter of justice. Marriage is a civil institution and it is governed by secular legal principles that apply to all citizens regardless.  Period.  This union carries with it mutual obligations of fidelity and support.  It establishes a new legal status, and bestows certain symbolic social capital.  This symbolic capital is in addition to the over 1000 rights and privileges guaranteed to married heterosexual couples by the federal government.  Access to Social Security after a spouse’s death.  Access to health insurance through a spouse’s workplace.  The right to custody of children after divorce.  Visitation rights for non-biological children. Access to adoption of children. Bereavement leave after death of a spouse.  Automatic inheritance of retirement savings tax-free after spouse’s death.  Automatic inheritance of shared assets after spouse’s death.  Ability to file joint tax returns.  Access to tax breaks for married couples.  Automatic next-of-kin status for emergency medical decisions and hospital visitation status.  Immigration and residency priority for spouses from other countries.  And so on and on.  Same-sex couples—even if legally married in the states where it is now possible, have none of the rights and privileges.  In fact, same-sex couples are not only denied equal rights and privileges; same-sex couples are actively, pro-actively penalized. Not only denied equal rights and privileges, but penalized. One particularly awful case-in-point is the separation of bi-national same-sex couples.  Debs and I receive regular updates from several Facebook sites detailing couples inability to get visas because of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).   In the name of defending marriage, in the name of family values, same-sex spouses are deported away from husbands or wives, even in times of illness and death.

Yes, I fully support marriage equality for LGBT persons—at state and federal levels.  It is long since time that same-sex marriage be recognized publically as interweaving the legal, emotional, sexual, economic, cultural, spiritual, social, and religious aspects of life.  But I worry that even if LGBT persons get equal rights and privileges, same-sex marriages will still be second-class marriage. I worry that we will have instead a caste system of first and second class marriages. I worry because marriage as we know and recognize it today is marriage as cornerstone of the binary gender system: male dominant; woman subordinate.   Same-sex marriage will still threaten this fundament of the social order of things.

Still, those of us living with the legacy of the Christian tradition have rich resources for rethinking marriage—same-sex and other—in the context of affirmation for loving, committed relationship.  We have a rich resource in the lost, if often condemned and contested, tradition of the blessing of same-sex unions.  In other words, securing fully legal, publically-recognized rights and privileges for same-sex marriage can be an opportunity to rethink marriage for everyone who chooses to be married.

In fact, this is precisely what I want to argue: a rethinking of marriage is imperative, even as we continue the struggle for equal marriage rights and privileges for all persons.  Why a rethinking? Marriage has been and is a dynamic institution.  The meanings and models of marriage have changed and changed again.  It has shifted from a focus on transfer of property or procreation to more romantic meanings.  And there have been, as we have noted, “spiritual” marriages. The meanings and models of marriages have changed and are changing.  But the binary gender system, of which marriage as we know it today is the cornerstone, has remained intact.

And this is the key point: what opponents of same-sex marriage fear most is that equal rights and privileges for same-sex couples will crack open this binary gender system.  Here I take my clue from Bernadette Brooten in her discussion of the early church fathers’ condemnation of love and marriage between women.  For these early church fathers, argues Brooten, love and marriage between women was “unnatural” (Paul’s term in the oft-cited passage from the first chapter of his letter to the Romans).  Why was it “unnatural”?  Because women loving women was women being insubordinate.  What is“unnatural”? Women’s insubordination.  Women’s insubordination to the headship of men. Sexually speaking, this meant women reversed roles with men.  “Naturally,” men “do” or “act,” while women “suffer” or “are passive.”  Men penetrate, while women are penetrated.  Love between women confounds this set up.  Women take an active role, assume a privilege women ought never to have.  Women loving women are women being insubordinate.

Likewise, men who do not play their part in the binary gender system are equally disruptive, “unnatural.” Men who are passive not active, penetrated not penetrator, subvert not only the sexual order but the social order.  These men not only break with the strict gender differentiation on which the social order is based; they fail to procreate and secure the continuance of the social order. So men who love men, along with women who love women, transgress nature as they transgress the gender stratified system.  Brooten argues that the early church fathers themselves argued not about sexual intercourse per se.  Instead, the early church fathers decisive point was this: the natural order was based on strict gender differentiation in appearance and role. This is why gendered dress codes were as important to the 2nd century Latin theologian Tertullian as were sexual mores.  And this is why John Chrysostom, among other church fathers, could say prostitution is better than homoeroticism because prostitution—although lawless—is at least natural. All the church fathers agreed: man is head of woman, man is ruler of the woman, and woman is helper to the man, submissive to the man, and receptacle to the male seed.

I suspect opposition to equal rights and privileges for same-sex married couples is as vigorous and vitriolic as it is because of this fear: that this gender system will crack wide open.  Or, as a student in my class this spring put it: fear that “some heretofore sure foundation is shaken.”  But imagine if we could clear the rubble of this gender system and open a space in which the full humanity of all persons created in the image of God could flourish.  Imagine if women were no longer persons in the image of God, under the headship of man, as centuries of Christian theologians have judged.  Imagine if men were no longer socialized to be the actors and heads who dominate and control.  Imagine if traditional heterosexual marriage—so ladened by centuries of constraint and custom that it is itself cracking—were not the only publically recognized model of loving, committed relationship. Imagine communities—Christian and other—in which all persons find a place to be home, honored for who each is: a bearer of the image of God who is being in communion.

I think a community in which all persons find a place to be home—home as a place where each is honored for who each is—is what, honored for who each is, is what Ginny Davidson longed for when she said she’d been “lay-ed” for the last time, when she affirmed “we are all ordained.”  I know it is what I long for when I say “I am married” and enthusiastically effervesce about my amazing wife Deborah.  Ginny and I—along with so many other persons, LGBT and other—seek public recognition and respect for our full humanity, long to be honored in loving, committed relationships—whether ecclesial or marital—that are rooted in God’s being in communion not in gender stratified social orders of constraint and custom.

I have lived fully enough to know—in my flesh and bones and blood–the frailty and the failure of human models of community as well as of institutions.  But created in the image of God who is not a lonely God, created in the image of God who creates us to be in communion with God and one another, I imagine.  This is to say, I look to the past, not for precedent regarding marriage, same-sex or other, but I search the past for glimpses of new models and meanings of marriage—with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereunto—in the context of loving, committed relationships for all persons. This is what God hath ordained.  Thanks be to God.


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“On Rights and Rites in the Same-sex Marriage Debate”

This is an important statement from President Marvin A. McMickle in response to the recent debate on same-sex marriage in the United States. It was previously published by City Newspaper in Rochester, New York. 

Since President Obama expressed his support of same-gender marriage there has been an intense reaction among many in our nation. This debate must run its course in our society, as all major advances in civil and human rights have done in the past. Consider such hotly debated national issues as the abolition of slavery, the right to vote for women and African Americans, the end of legalized racial segregation in public accommodations and institutions, the struggle for unions and collective bargaining, the passage and enforcement of child labor laws, the adoption of minimum wage laws and workplace safety. Each of these issues was a matter that had to work their way through an often hotly contested national debate. Equality in marriage for same-gender persons is the most recent of these issues that has fostered a debate that must necessarily run its course on the way to a final resolution.

What I wish for is a debate where neither side distorts biblical faith in the process. We must be sure that the civil and human rights promised and safeguarded by the U.S. Constitution are not confused with the religious rites and rituals that are practiced and performed by various religious communities across the country. No one is arguing or insisting that any clergy person of any religious tradition must perform a same-sex wedding if their conscience or their church policies do not support such an action. That is where the idea of a RITE or a church ritual comes in.

By the same token, people of a particular religious tradition cannot and should not expect that their interpretation of any particular verse in the Bible must be the way by which national public policy is shaped and determined. The United States is not a theocracy under which religious law takes precedence over laws passed by democratically elected legislative bodies. What is amazing to behold is how many Americans are prepared to support any bill that would ban the use of Sharia or strict Islamic law in our society, but seem quite content to impose a very conservative understanding of Levitical law from 8th century BC Israel on believers and non-believers alike in modern American society. This nation has known earlier times and struggles when selected verses of the Bible were used to support slavery, relegate women to second-class status, justify the genocidal treatment of Native Americans and promote “American exceptionalism” and “manifest destiny.” We have eventually condemned the distortion and abuse of the Bible in those instances, and we must do so again today!

There are some cautions I would extend especially to my Christian neighbors and my clergy colleagues. First, you cannot take the verses in the Bible, like Leviticus 18:22 or Romans 1: 26-27 that seem to speak against homosexuality while ignoring the other prohibitions, sexual and otherwise that appear within those same passages. How can people condemn homosexuality while continuing to engage in or remain silent about other behaviors against which the Bible speaks with equal passion? If the answer is that most of Leviticus deals with ancient practices and communal values that are no longer binding on modern society then how is it that these verses on homosexuality manage to avoid a similar cultural critique?

If Romans 1 is the basis for the condemnation of homosexuality then it must be remembered that that passage does not limit itself to same sex behavior; it goes on to speak about malice, envy, greed, hatred, murder, strife, arrogance, slander and disobeying parents. Why do we not hear the same outrage on these topics from those that are so outspoken over the single issue of same sex marriage? Is it possible they can live with all of these other things going on around them, but they cannot abide homosexuality and same-sex marriage? Now it seems it is they who are leaving out or ignoring what the Bible has stated; the exact same charge so often leveled against those who seek to defend the civil rights of same-sex couples. They cannot have it both ways.

People of religious faith certainly have a voice in all discussions about public policy, but theirs is not the only voice. That is where the use of the word RIGHTS comes in, because it is the U.S. Constitution and in this case the First Amendment and the establishment of religion clause and the Fourteenth Amendment and equal protection under the law for all citizens that is at stake. People of religious faith should not fear that they will be forced to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony if their conscience does not permit them to do so.

That being said, does our nation actually want to deny equal access to civil rights to some segment of our society that pays the same taxes, serves in the same military, worships in the same churches, lives in the same communities, sits and labors in the same workplaces and belongs to the same family units as everyone else in this country simply because of their sexual orientation?

I fear there is more hypocrisy than honesty in this present discussion. Same-sex marriage is a major shift in how our society is structured. We need to have an extended, civil discussion about this matter. What has already been resolved as acceptable by many is still a matter that remains unresolved for others. Each side needs to respect and consider the point of view of the other without condemning to hell those who happen to hold differing views. However, one thing must be kept clear; this is a matter of rights and not rites. This debate is about who we are and what we believe as Americans and not who we are and what we believe as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheist and non-believers. Democratic government is always tricky business, but never more so than when some deeply cherished religious value seems to be involved. Let the debate continue, but as it does I am suggesting that we in the various faith communities cannot pick which biblical verses we will consider and which ethical issues we will pursue while leaving many other verses and issues unaddressed and unresolved.

Finally, people need to reconsider the idea that President Obama’s position on this issue is enough to end their support of his reelection campaign. This is not a single-issue season for our nation. With high unemployment, a depressed housing market, the continuation of the costs associated with the war against terrorism, staggering levels of student debt and an unstable global economy people need to consider which of the presidential candidates seems to them to be best able to produce a positive and progressive approach to addressing these concerns. Even if persons cannot support the president on the single issue of same-sex marriage they should remember that if they decide to stay home on election day because of that one issue “they are throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

Marvin A. McMickle, Ph.D.
Professor of Church Leadership
Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School

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