A Time to Embrace – part 1

For thoughtful Christians wrestling with questions of sexuality and same gender relationships I really can’t recommend William Stacey Johnson’s book A Time to Embrace highly enough. As both a theologian (Princeton Seminary) and a lawyer he’s uniquely situated to offer insights into the complex world’s of not only church history and biblical interpretation but politics and the interpretation of law as well.

One of the more helpful moves Johnson makes is to bring some much needed nuance to the various arguments on the issue of same gender relationships. He notes that the broader cultural level debate, likely for political reasons, is often cast in simplistic terms: you’re either for gay marriage or against it, period. It’s polarities like this that get people to the voting booths or the protests downtown. Unfortunately it’s not a helpful way to spur discussion or wrestle through questions for churches. To that end he outlines 7 positions that he feels most Christians would find themselves within on this issue as it relates to the church:

  • Prohibition: does not approve of and would bar same-gender unions
  • Toleration: does not approve of, but would not prosecute or reject gay and lesbian people
  • Accommodation: does not approve of ordinarily but would allow for exceptions on a “lesser-of-the-evils” rationale
  • Legitimation: wants to include gays and lesbians in the community, and wants to prevent them from being singled out and condemned unfairly.
  • Celebration: believes same-gender unions should no longer be scorned but affirmed as good.
  • Liberation: perceives societal attitudes concerning gays and lesbians as being caught up in wider injustices, which need to be remedied.
  • Consecration: argues for the full religious blessing of same gender unions.

Johnson fleshes out each of these seven positions chapter by chapter, however for the sake of brevity I’m going to focus on the prohibitive stance which is supported by four interconnected layers of argument: marriage as an order of creation, arguments from nature, arguments from tradition, and arguments from Scripture – although this last one (Scripture) will be covered in a separate post.

Marriage as an Order of Creation
The first argument for the prohibitive stance is institutional in nature: marriage as an order of creation. The point here is that a marriage between a man and a woman is the only context for a healthy and appropriate sexual relationship. Obviously, this position draws on the early chapters of Genesis as a way to establish the marital norm and then goes on from there to invoke other verses in the Old and New Testament that reflect this structure.

Johnson’s major push back here is that while it’s perfectly acceptable to understand the early chapters of Genesis as establishing some sort of theology of marriage, what’s impossible to establish from the biblical record is, as the resoundingly un-biblical conservative bumper stickers announce, “MARRIAGE = ONE MAN + ONE WOMAN.” What we find in the biblical record, especially the Old Testament, are the following arrangements:

  • marriage = 1 man + 1 wife
  • marriage = 1 man + many wives
  • marriage = 1 man + many wives + many concubines

Based on this these arrangements we’re assuming good Christian women won’t object if their men embrace a truly biblical stance on this topic.

Arguments from Nature
The second argument draws on the natural-law position from the ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers -  which was later picked up by Saint Thomas Aquinas and made normative in the Roman Catholic tradition. The argument goes something like this: a marriage creates a “one-flesh” union between a man and a woman that is by definition committed, exclusive and indissoluble.  Within this context the sexual relationship is, what the natural-law philosophers call, an intrinsic good. This means it’s something good in and of itself, as opposed to instrumental goods which are pursued for some other good external to themselves. In this way of thinking masturbation, sex outside of marriage and gay sexuality are all instrumental goods because their only purpose is to seek pleasure, however marital hetero-sex (I’m not sure if that’s a word – but it should be) is an intrinsic good because it promotes a one-flesh union that intrinsically brings new life into the world. Johnson writes, “In short, the purpose of marriage in the natural law tradition is procreation.” Incidentally, this same argument is used by Roman Catholic leaders to denounce birth control because by effectively ending the procreation aspect of marital sex you’re changing it from an intrinsic to an instrumental good.

Here’s the push-back. Although this is a legit philosophical argument, to really work it has to be made consistently. In other words, while many conservatives are quick to embrace it in relation to the gay marriage debate, most balk at the idea when it’s used to argue against the use of birth control by hetero-sexual couples. Why? Because most of us don’t really believe sex is solely for procreation. Also, keep in mind that Thomas Aquinas believed masturbation was more evil than rape because a “sin against nature” was less serious than a “sin against reason.” Needless to say, for all his brilliance on other theological issues I’m afraid Aquinas got slightly screwed up on this issue by his appropriation of Aristotle, so I’d encourage a wee bit of caution prior to jumping on board with anything Aquinas has to say about sex.

Arguments from Tradition
The third argument prohibitionist’s appeal to is one from tradition. They say that for thousands of years the Christian and Jewish traditions denounced homoeroticism in the strongest terms. Yes, a quick review of church history would seem to indicate that the argument from tradition is on the prohibitionist’s side but I’d offer two short responses.

First, queer studies/theology has done some really interesting work the last few years to dispute the idea that the church has been monolithically against same gender relationships since Jesus rose to heaven. Google the names Serge and Bacchus for a good historical example and checkout this book for a more detailed analysis.

Second, and I think this is the strongest of the two arguments, is that the statement “But this is how it’s always been.” isn’t particularly Protestant or Christian. As Christians we are people of the Spirit, people grounded not just in what God has done in the past, but what She might be up to in our present day. The perfect New Testament example is the inclusion of Gentiles in the early church. As Johnson states on page 142:

“In the 1990′s some Christians, among them New Testament scholars Luke Timothy Johnson and Jeffrey Sikers, began to ask whether the movement of the Holy Spirit among gay and lesbian people was analogous to the early church’s experience with gentiles, among whom God was performing ‘signs’ and ‘wonders.’ The earliest Jewish Christians had assumed that, if gentiles were to enter the fellowship of the church, they could do so only by first becoming Jews, that is, by observing the Jewish laws concerning circumcision, dietary requirements, and so forth. This assumption was based on texts such as Genesis 17:9-14, which demands circumcision of all males, including foreigners. From their experience of gentile conversion, both Peter and Paul came to a different conclusion: gentiles were permitted to enter the church as gentiles without being circumcised or conforming to kosher laws, though they were of course expected to put aside immorality.”

In the next post we’ll move to the biggest sticking point for most Christians – arguments from Scripture.

4 thoughts on “A Time to Embrace – part 1

  1. Josh Tilford

    Big topic. Thanks for hashing this out bro. Under the order of creation argument, do most view that as a pro-gay point, or just an argument to shoot down the “marriage = 1 man + 1 woman” argument?

  2. Brett Post author

    Hey Josh, it simply shows that there are a handful of “biblical” marital scenarios. In that sense it’s purpose isn’t to be “pro-gay” or “pro-polygomy” but simply to show that the question can’t be brushed aside with ignorant bumper stickers about “what the bible says.” Hopefully that clarifies.

  3. Pingback: A Time to Embrace – part 2 (Scripture) | Brett Tilford

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