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.).