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The biblical case for same-sex marriage

illustration of a christian cross with lgbt triangles etched into the design

The word of God might not mean what you think it means.

When Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis elected to serve time in jail rather than certify same-sex marriages, her argument was, at its core, religious. 

Davis’s faith precluded her doing anything that would support, or even appear to condone, same-sex relationships. Her argument was that the Bible is unequivocal in its stance against homosexuality. Therefore, any devout Christian necessarily has as an obligation to fight against marriage equality.

Matthew Vines would very much like to disagree.

“Even though same-sex marriage is not discussed in the Bible, it can fulfill the deepest principles and the deepest essence of marriage, according to scripture.”

Vines is the author of the book God and the Gay Christian and founder of The Reformation Project, a nonprofit group that aims to give LGBT people in conservative, Christian communities and their straight allies the tools necessary to argue in favor of gay rights on strictly biblical terms.

For Vines, being gay and staying true to his Christian values aren’t mutually exclusive. He sees a pro-gay interpretation of biblical scripture, one that respects the reverence many evangelicals feel toward the text itself. Vines is pushing this reading of the bible not just because he sees it as a lifeline for LGBT people in religious communities who are unwilling to make the choice between their identity and their faith, but also because the message is effective. 

Vines knows it works because he is living proof.

Vines spent his formative years ensconced in a close-knit, extremely conservative Christian church in Wichita, Kansas. His father, Monte Vines, was an elder in the church. Church was central to Matthew’s life. It was where he learned how to read the Bible and about the importance of faith. By the time he was sophomore at Harvard, Vines had come to terms with his sexuality. He was gay, and he wanted to be open about it to his community, but there was no precedent for that.

Other young people who had grown up in his church and then come out immediately separated themselves from the spiritual family that had nurtured them. It was terrifying for Vines to know that he was about to go back to place not set up to support who he was. He didn’t want to deal with the inevitable drama he knew would ensue after coming out. 

The prospect of years of intense, exhausting conversations with dozens and dozens of people in his community about how he had somehow let them down by simply being himself seemed daunting.

“But there’s really no way around it. This is what you are,” Vines said. “This is where you are in life. You just have to make do.”

Vines started with his parents. When he told them, they weren’t happy. However, they were open to listening and learning. Monte’s biggest concern was reconciling the religious doctrine at the center of his life with the person his son was. The two of them decided to embark on a rigorous Bible study—Monte to show Matthew the error of his ways and Matthew to show Monte that the Bible had room for acceptance. Matthew treated the process so seriously that he took a semester off from college to focus on it.

They narrowed the Bible’s prohibitions on same-sex relationships to six individual passages, three in the Old Testament and three in the New Testament. As they dug into the text, and the historical context around it, they came to realization that the bible’s prohibitions against same-sex intimacy—and especially loving, committed same-sex relationships—weren’t nearly as clear cut as many LGBT rights opponents, like Kim Davis, believe.

These scriptural arguments have formed the core of the work that Vines has done in the years since, the work that he eventually dropped out of college entirely to focus on. The Daily Dot caught up with Vines to get a sense of what the Bible actually says about same sex marriage and why this interpretation is so crucially important.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is it so important for LGBT people, and their allies, to make this argument on scriptural terms?

Matthew Vines: In more conservative faith-based communities, conversations pertaining to same-sex relationships have long dead-ended around six passages in scripture. All of those passages speak negatively toward same-sex behavior. That’s the basis of many people’s religious objections to same-sex marriage, or really any support for LGBT equality across the board.

The first big obstacle so many LGBT people in these communities have is that they need to learn what to say about those passages in a way that does not dismiss or disrespect the Bible. In a lot of more progressive Christian communities, people may make arguments along the lines of, “Well, you’re right, some Bible authors said negative things about same sex relations, but Jesus didn’t talk about it, so we’re just going to go with the broad principles of Jesus’s ministry and teaching. We’re going to acknowledge some parts of the Bible really aren’t up to snuff.”

“The first big obstacle so many LGBT people in these communities have is that they need to learn what to say about those passages in a way that does not dismiss or disrespect the Bible.”

While that type of argument can be effective with certain, more progressive, Christian communities, it falls on deaf ears in conservative communities. One of the most important tenants of a lot of conservative Christians’ approach to their faith is their commitment to the whole authority and inspiration of the Bible. That means that even if Jesus did not speak to something, if other biblical authors did, their teachings and writings carry authority to the lives of Christian believers. “We’re not free to simply say that we disagree with them, so we’re not going to be bound by them today.”

The first and most important step for a lot of people is finally learning how to talk about these six main passages in a way that clearly respects the authority of the entire Bible, but also opens up space for looking at those texts in different ways that are not completely exclusionary to LGBT people and couples.

Can we go through those passages and give us a sense of what your suggestions are for how people can interpret them in a way that isn’t hostile to same-sex relationships?

In the Old Testament, there’s the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. And there are two prohibitions of male same-sex sex in Leviticus 18 and 20. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul condemns lustful same-sex behavior in Romans 1:26-27. And there are also two brief terms that are used in 1 Corinthians 6:10 and 1 Timothy 1:10 that may encompass forms of same-sex behavior as well.

Probably the most infamous of these texts is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. That’s where the term “sodomy” came from. However, that term didn’t come from that story until the 11th Century. Even though that is the most well-known, in some respects, it’s really not the heart and soul of really anybody’s theological position anymore. Even a lot of conservative Christians who are against same-sex marriage—not all of them, but many of them now will acknowledge that text is not the best support for their position.

In that text, you specifically have a threatened gang rape. You have a whole town of men who are threatening to rape these angel visitors who are coming in the form of men. That’s pretty abhorrent and also has very little to do with same-sex relationships based on consent.

There are two prohibitions in Leviticus that are also pretty well known. “Do not lie with a male as if with a woman, it is an abomination.” These are posted on different placards and signs at protests at pride parades and whatnot. A lot of LGBT advocates, who aren’t deeply involved in faith communities, sort of assume this is the primary basis for conservative Christians’ opposition to same sex relationships. That’s not actually the case either. The primary basis is a New Testament text by Paul. The reason why, even though those texts from Leviticus are quite stark and negative, they’re part of a law code that Christians have never been bound by.

The way New Testament authors have interpreted Jesus’s words is that Christian believers do not have to follow the more than 600 rules, commandments, and prohibitions that the ancient Israelites had to follow under the Old Testament law code. There’s a whole narrative about this from Acts, chapters 10-15, which is the first major controversy of the early Christian church.

They decided gentile converts to the faith did not have to follow all of these laws. That doesn’t mean there aren’t many things in the Old Testament law code that Christians would nod in agreement with today and would be in accordance with Christian teachings. But that fact that [these statements] are in the Old Testament is not itself the reason why. Everything in the Old Testament, from a Christian standpoint, has to be assessed through the lens of the New Testament in order to discern it’s applicability for Christians today.

“Same-sex attraction and behavior was widely understood to be the product of excessive sexual desire and lust on the part of anybody who did not keep sufficient self-control of their desires.”

Like how critics of anti-gay religious arguments will point out the hypocrisy of how people will pick and choose which parts of the Bible they want to follow to the letter.

That’s all well and good, but a lot of people seem to assume that’s the end of the conversation. By pointing out hypocrisy in the way some Christians will apply Leviticus, therefore, shows their theological case is invalid. That’s fine. Some people are inconsistent and hypocritical in how they deploy those verses. To bring up other parts of Leviticus that Christians no long follow, that’s perfectly valid, but it’s not sufficient to be making a case that’s actually going to change anybody’s mind. At the end of the day, the New Testament texts are the ones that matter the most.

In the New Testament, the key text is written by the apostle Paul in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans. [He writes that gentiles] actually, originally worshiped God and praised God, but then they turned away from God to worship idols. As a result of their decision to turn away from God, God gave them over to all sorts of vices. He gave them over to the lust of their hearts. To the dishonoring of their bodies, one with another. To a debased mind, to do things that ought not to be done. He lists at the end of this chapter 21 different vices—things like envy, gossip, and greed to murder and hatred of God.

In the middle of this section, in Romans 1:26-27, he elaborates on some of the sexual licentiousness of people once they’ve turned away from God. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In like manner, the men abandoned natural relations with women and became inflamed with lust, one for another. They committed indecent acts with other men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. Those two verses are the longest reference to same-sex relations in all of scripture. The reference to same-sex relations is quite negative and comes in the context of a spiral of moral depravity.

What I think is important and revealing is not to ask whether Paul was opposed to same-sex relations, which he clearly was, but to ask why Paul was opposed to same-sex relations and whether that rationale extends to the same-sex marriages we’re talking about in our public discussion today.

The argument I make is that, in the ancient world, and specifically among ancient Jews and Christians, same-sex relations were not understood to be the product of a unique and exclusive sexual orientation of a minority of people. Instead, same-sex attraction and behavior was widely understood to be the product of excessive sexual desire and lust on the part of anybody who did not keep sufficient self-control of their desires.

I list a couple dozen ancient texts, from Greco-Roman authors to Jewish authors to early Christian authors, that describe same-sex behavior as basically something akin to drunkenness or gluttony. People are engorging themselves, wanting to try out new, rarer challenges and pleasures. There are some authors—like Plato—who explicitly describe people who are just having wild parties, getting extremely drunk, engorging themselves on food. Their appetites are no longer satisfied by those things, so they keep adding new kinds of condiments and different flavorings for appetites that are insatiable.

In the same way, there are men who are having sex with women, but that’s no longer enough for them. They need more. They want something more exciting, so they’re going off and having sex with males. Either other men or teenage boys. The moral here is usually that these things don’t satisfy.

If you look at the specific language of Paul’s writing in Romans 1, he specifically uses words about how these people are consumed with their lust and consumed with their passion. This is language of excessive pleasure-seeking—of fleeting acts, not of people seeking to channel their special attractions of desires in long-term committed ways. Not people seeking to reign in desires in a more responsible way, channeling it in love and faithfulness to other people. That’s not on the radar screen. Paul uses the specific verbiage that is going in a very different direction.

The point is not to say that the ancient Jews or ancient Christians had anything other antipathy toward same-sex relations—because they did—but, their entire framework for thinking about and discussing the ethics of same-sex relationships has fundamental dissimilarity to our modern frameworks. It’s not a one-to-one comparison in any sense to say, “Well, Paul condemns same-sex relationships that he understood as stemming from out-of-control lust and being oriented [to] self-seeking self-gratification and also a lack of respect for social norms. Therefore, Paul would weigh in negatively toward same sex relationships between equal-status partners that are based on, in many cases, lifelong commitments to fidelity and love.”

So, what’s really important here is going back to the core values that the Bible generally wants people to follow?

“If you look at the specific language of Paul’s writing in Romans 1, he specifically uses words about how these people are consumed with their lust and consumed with their passion.”

We ask how applicable they can be. Even though the marriage conversation in the Bible talks about husbands and wives, especially in the New Testament, the teachings of Jesus, the teachings of the apostle Paul, and of the other biblical authors, show that the core, the very essence of Christian marriage, from a religious standpoint, is that it’s about making and keeping a covenant with your spouse in order to reflect God’s covenantal love for humanity. It’s fundamentally about the ideals of permanence, commitment, and faithfulness.

Procreation, even though it was a centrally important part of what it meant to be part of God’s people under the old covenant, is relative in its importance under the new covenant. That’s why Jesus said in John 3 that you didn’t just have to be born into the kingdom of God, but actually you have to be born again. It’s not just about being born through physical procreation into God’s family anymore, it’s about being born through spiritual regeneration into the people of God through making a profession of faith.

That is why the first gentile convert to the Christian faith as recorded in the Book of Acts is a Ethiopian eunuch, who would have been barred from entering the assembly of the lord, according to Deuteronomy, under the old covenant. Under the new covenant, he is welcomed as he is. He is not expected to procreate in order to be a faithful member of the church. It’s not that procreation doesn’t matter, it’s that procreation is not essential either to all people in the church or to all marriage relationships in the church.

For a marriage to be a marriage, from a Christian standpoint, according to the teachings of scripture, is based around that covenantal commitment and love to one’s spouse reflecting God’s covenantal commitment and love for humanity through Christ. That’s why, even though same-sex marriage is not discussed in the Bible, it can fulfill the deepest principles and the deepest essence of marriage, according to scripture. That’s why Christians can make room for the acceptance and the equal blessing of same sex marriages in their churches while still holding on to the bible’s authority.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin is a former Senior Staff Writer at the Daily Dot who covered the intersection of politics, technology, online privacy, Twitter bots, and the role of dank memes in popular culture. He lives in Seattle, Washington. He joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2016.