Sunday, February 1, 2015

Love, Marriage and Homosexuality

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Perhaps the most volatile topic in religion and law today is the legitimacy of same-sex marriage.  The Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an support the marriage of a man and a woman and condemn homosexual relations, while Jesus never addressed the morality or legality of homosexuality. Today homosexuality, like blasphemy, is a capital crime in some Islamic nations like Saudi Arabia.  If homosexuals are our neighbors, then making them criminals is a clear conflict with the mandate to love God and neighbor in the greatest commandment

            Love is a term with several meanings that are differentiated by the Greek of the Bible: eros, the love associated with sexual desires, philios, or brotherly love, and agape, the altruistic, unconditional and sacrificial love taught and exemplified by Jesus.  Agape love is the opposite of those human appetites or selfish desires commonly referred to as love in our hedonistic culture. 

            There is no evidence that Jesus ever experienced erotic love or was ever married, but he affirmed the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman and condemned divorce (Mark 10:5-12).  Jesus also spoke of the dangers of sexual desires when he condemned sexual immorality, lewdness, lust and adultery (Mark 7:17-23; Matthew 5:27-30).  But Jesus never addressed homosexuality, and he once spoke favorably of eunuchs in advocating celibacy (renouncing marriage for the kingdom of heaven) for those who could accept it (Matthew 19:11-12). 

            Unlike Jesus, Muhammad was married more than once, giving him personal experience with sexual relations.  The Qur’an allows Muslim men to have up to four wives (Sura 4:3) and to have sexual relations with slaves “held by their right hand.”  It also gives husbands the power to discipline their wives by striking them, and requires women to “cover their adornments” to avoid exciting the sexual desires of men.  Both the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an provide extensive laws on marriage, divorce and sexual relations, while the teachings of Jesus say little about sexual issues and instead emphasize forgiveness and agape love for others without making any distinction for sex. 

            Mosaic Law describes homosexual behavior as detestable with offenders to be cut off from other Jews and even put to death (see Leviticus 18:22, 29 and 20:13).  Both the Hebrew Bible and Qur’an include stories about the “wickedness” of homosexuality in Sodom and Gomorrah before Lot (Lut in the Qur’an) and his family left and those cities were destroyed by God (see Genesis 19:4-29 and Suras 7:81; 11:78,79; 15:67; 26:165, 166; 27:54, 55; 29:28, 29).  The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah did not mark the end of Lot’s sexual immorality; after his wife died Lot slept with his daughters and sired two sons by them. (Genesis 19:30-38).  

            While Jesus did not elaborate on how love related to intimate personal relationships, the Apostle Paul did so, even though he, like Jesus, was never married.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians: Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.  (I Corinthians 13:4-8)  And Paul later wrote to the Romans that love fulfilled Mosaic Law. (Romans 13:8-10)

            Paul also described marriage in his time and place, with wives having subordinate roles to their husbands similar to those provided in the Qur’an (Ephesians 22-33); and Peter described the duties of husbands and wives in much the same way. (I Peter 3:1-7)  These men were describing the cultural standards of their day, which have changed dramatically since then.

            The above are a sample of the religious standards of legitimacy for marriage, divorce and sexual relations found in the Hebrew Bible, the Qur’an and the teachings of Jesus.  Obviously, they should not be considered immutable moral or legal standards today.  The principle of agape love, however, has passed the test of time and is the standard by which we should determine the legitimacy of all human relations, including marriage and sexual relations.  Our current laws on marriage, divorce and sexual conduct may have been influenced by ancient religious laws, but they were made by elected representatives and are continually being modified to reflect changing cultural standards.

            The debate over same-sex marriage should not be governed by ancient religious standards of legitimacy that condemn homosexuality as a sin or crime, but instead by the timeless principle of selfless love that tolerates differences and puts the interests of others ahead of our own preferences and religious traditions.  It should be expected that cultural standards of marriage and sexual relations will change over time, and that the standards of legitimacy that govern them will have social, political and economic consequences that are as relevant to those changes as traditional religious standards.

            Homosexuality has come out of the closet.  While some believers consider homosexual acts a crime and others consider them immoral or abnormal, in the U.S. a person’s sexual preferences are now considered in the same category as a person’s religious preferences, so that homosexuals are entitled to equal treatment under the law.  The current debate is not over the right of homosexuals to have a legal union, but whether that union is considered a marriage.  That is a complex legal issue with Constitutional implications that will ultimately be decided by the courts, not the church.                 
Notes and References to Resources:

For the teachings of Jesus on marriage and divorce, see Mark 10:5-12 and Matthew 19:3-9 and commentary for Lesson #6, Marriage, divorce and human sexuality at pages 39-42 of the J&M Book.

On the teachings of Jesus on celibacy, see Matthew 19:10-12 in Celibacy and sexual preference at page 165 of the J&M Book.

On provisions in the Qur’an and the Hebrew Bible on marriage, divorce and sexual morality, see Selected provisions of the Qur’an on family law at pages 491-497 and Selected provisions of Mosaic Law on family law in the Appendices to the J&M Book at pages 578-584.

Jesus once addressed an ancient Jewish variation of marriage known as levirate marriage in which men were required to marry the widows of their deceased brothers.  Once Jesus was asked who would be the husband of a woman in heaven who had been married to seven different brothers during her life.  Jesus told them: “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” (Mark 12:25; see Life after death and resurrection at pages 74-77 in the J&MBook)  Apparently angels in the kingdom of heaven are like eunuchs and have no sex.  The Gospel of Thomas suggests as much when it has Jesus say: "...when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male and the female be female, ...then you will enter [the <Father's> domain]." (Thomas 22:4, 5, 7; see also Thomas 106:1 and 114, at page 40 of the J&M Book.).  


  1. Jesus' saying that in heaven people "will neither marry nor be given in marriage" seems like another of his "everything you think you know is wrong!" statements--along the lines of his "the last shall be first and the first last" paradoxes. I suppose it's his embrace of paradox--his continually opposing worldly, customary, civic virtues to something more radical and mind-blowing, like servants becoming masters, or letting the dead bury their dead--that makes it seem that his principles still apply now, when homosexual relations have gained (and in a really short time, as such political changes go) widespread public support. In other words, I think Jesus' teachings seem more appealing, more applicable, to any given political moment because they were so deliberately out-of-time. The other teachings you cite seem, on the other hand, actually to be trying to weigh in on the practical matters of day-to-day living for their followers. Which necessarily means they'll look dated two thousand or so years later. (This is arguably like the difference between reading Shakespeare and reading some legislative decree from Queen Elizabeth's court.)

  2. Thanks for your insightful comments. The response of Jesus to the question about marriage in heaven could have been typical rabbinic paradox or an artful dodge by Jesus of a spurious question from Sadducees who did not even believe in the resurrection of the dead; but it could also have been the revelation of a startling realty of a kingdom of God where eternal beings or angels have no sexual identity. That out-of-time or timeless revelation would be consistent with humans being created in the image of a God who can be either male or female (i.e. the Sophia of Proverbs). After all, the purpose of sex is to procreate the species and that is a mortal human characteristic that would be irrelevant in heaven; and we all know that sexual desire can lead to pain as well as pleasure. Still, I must confess that I cannot imagine myself or others without a sexual identity, nor can I imagine a culture that is not based on sexual identity. Is that what we are praying for when we pray, Thy kingdom, come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?

  3. Having worked for a while now at Williams College, which is the kind of school where they have a department that teaches Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (which is to say, a school like any other well-funded liberal arts college in the country), and having hung out with some of the faculty in that department (who are among my favorite people and best friends here), I would submit that Jesus' overthrowing the importance of sexual identity looks like just another step in his asking us to radically reimagine ourselves, outside the conventional differences and boundaries of our social identities. That's how "gender difference" gets taught in classes here: as a social identity that has some grounding in biology, but that is much more flexible than we all assumed. In other words, you could use this line of reasoning to put Jesus ahead of the political curve on this front, too.
    I'm also reminded of the statue of an angel in the church I attend here sometimes. It's the only good thing in the building to gaze it, in my opinion. I'm not crazy about the picture of Mary and baby Jesus, and the crucifix at the head of the sanctuary isn't that appealing, and none of the stained glass windows strike me as artistically compelling. The angel statue looks sort of womanly, but not exactly. It's a very tall graceful figure with an arm stretched upward, robed but not at all curvy (in fact totally flat-chested). The angel has classically good bone structure in its very peaceful and androgynous face. After spending some Sundays trying to decide if it was a male or a female, I gave up, and now just enjoy looking at it as neither: just a calm angel.

  4. A few scattered items that may help push the discussion further:

    I'm conflicted about the priority of agape in marriage. On the one hand, it's in marriage where you get great opportunities to love the neighbor--the neighbor who steals the covers, leaves dirty dishes in the sink, or wrecks the car. Someone in a faraway country isn't going to give you that opportunity. On the other hand, though, marriage is about philia and (particularly) eros, two types of love that Jesus doesn't have a lot to say about.

    Candida Moss, a NT scholar at Notre Dame, had a column on this same point published yesterday: It's hard to find the "traditional marriage" anywhere in the bible.

    If we want to talk about "what God intended" for human relationships, and we look to Genesis 2, we find that God initially intended the unisex "man" to be content alone, and then to find companionship with one or the other of the animals, and only after that didn't work did God provide the man a wife.

    You are pretty tough on Lot. Does the bible hold up Lot as righteous? He is spared the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and 2 Peter 2:6-8 indicates that he was righteous. His daughters got him drunk and basically raped him so that the family line would continue. (I've also heard it argued that the sin of S&G was inhospitality. Lot was greatly hospitable to the visitors; the others were, shall we say, not.)

    Eugene Rogers, who teaches at UNCG (and was on my dissertation committee at UVa), has thought through issues of love, sex, same-sex relationships, natural law, and the Triune God more than anyone else. If you want to follow up on these issues some more, you could read his books.

  5. Jon has just pointed out that the angel statue is most definitely St. Raphael (this church is named for St. Patrick & St. Raphael). Who is definitely masculine. But who cares about facts! The statue itself still seems to me to exude a grave-but-soothing, gentle-but-powerful, combination of gender attributes, and I will continue to see it as neither/nor (or both/and).