07. Remedial Reading
Previous articles in this series (The Sex Articles) examined the various “causes” or goods or ends of marriage, as laid out in the preface to the marriage liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer, and how these same goods or ends might conceivably find a place within the context of a same-sex relationship. I have argued that such a relationship is capable of providing mutual joy, comfort, and human society no less than a mixed-sex marriage, and is capable of fulfilling some of the ends of procreation, certainly no less than an infertile mixed-sex marriage. In the previous article I addressed the symbolic weight assigned to marriage in the Christian tradition and explored a number of ways in which similar symbolic value can be borne by a same-sex relationship that is equally loving, permanent, and faithful.
I have noted that our present Prayer Book marriage liturgy reintroduces these arguments in favor of marriage — arguments which had been removed in the 1789 revision (the prevailing rationalism of the day felt a supporting case for the institution was unnecessary). However, one of the “causes” from the 1662 version (in use at the time of our ecclesiastical and civil independence) was not restored. This is ironic, because it is the “cause” with a strong scriptural basis, playing a significant part in the most extensive biblical reflection on the institution of marriage, and offering a rationale for the continuance of an institution to which the apostolic church in general gave otherwise only luke-warm endorsement. This is marriage as a “remedy for fornication” — as described in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (7:1-9, which I cite here from the Authorized Version):
Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency. But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.
This passage is significant for a number of reasons, not least for the way Paul describes celibacy as a gift not all possess. Paul recognizes that sexual desire is not only powerful, but that it has an appropriate outlet for those who lack the gift to contain themselves in celibacy: marriage. It is in large part from this biblical source that we see marriage described in the Anglican tradition (Articles of Religion XXV, XXXIII) as a state of life allowed in Scripture. The purpose of the authors of the Articles of Religion was not to find Scriptural validation for an institution that had existed in most human cultures in one form or another (validation was dealt with in the expansive Preface to the marriage rite); rather it was to distinguish marriage from the Two Sacraments of the Gospel, and to assert that it was permitted to clergy.
Paul similarly explicitly permits, rather than commands, marriage, and clearly wishes all could be celibate, as he is. But he recognizes the inappropriateness of demanding celibacy from those incapable of living within its constraints.
From the Pauline perspective, then, marriage is, among other things, a license to have sex. It authorizes something that without such authorization would be sinful. It is, in short, for the vast majority of people, who approach the altar as former virgins, a way of blessing sin — and thereby removing its sinfulness. They are permitted to perform (or continue to perform) what before would have been (or was) sinful. Marriage may not cover a multitude of sins, but it covers at least one: fornication (loosely, and from a biblical perspective rather incorrectly, defined as “sex outside of marriage.”)
Stopping the allowance
So can a similar allowance be made for same-sex relationships? Some will at this point say that same-sex relationships cannot be permitted now because they were not “allowed” in Scripture then. They hold that the prohibitions on homosexuality render such an approbation permanently impossible. I will address these negative texts more extensively in the following reflections; here I want to deal with the absence of approbation rather than the purported prohibition.
To understand the biblical (especially the Pauline) view, we must recognize that marriage was a civil institution, a civil option for Jews and Christians. Paul, in particular, recognizes it as the civil option, as well as the moral one, as it counters promiscuity and prostitution (both legally permitted and regulated under Roman law, though widely held to be moral failings). Paul allows participation in this civil institution of marriage even if he does not encourage it.
Same-sexuality fell into the same category as prostitution under Roman law — regulated and in some cases permitted, but seen, especially by Stoics and other moralists, as a failing. Same-sex marriage was not a civil norm in the cultures amongst which Judaism and Christianity came into being. Although same-sexuality existed in many cultures of the ancient world with which Judaism and Christianity were familiar — including, in spite of the protests, Jewish cultures — the phenomenon of lifelong and exclusive same-sex relationships was very rare (or to be more precise, rarely recorded, so that there is little evidence of it), and civil recognition in the form of marriage even rarer. Mixed-sex marriage, on the other hand, was a recognized institution — and although the differences between Jewish, Roman and Christian marriage customs were in some conflict (as Jewish law allowed polygamy and divorce, and Roman law forbade polygamy though it allowed concubinage and divorce), the early Christians accepted the Roman rule and Jewish ideal of monogamy, but frowned upon concubinage and divorce, largely following the opinions of the more moralistic philosophers and legislators of the time.
Thus the marriage of which Saint Paul speaks is marriage as it existed in the civil state, under Roman hegemony, which in the time of Augustus and Tiberius exalted values of hearth and home — even if the emperors themselves often failed to live up to the principles in practice. There was, in Paul’s time, no equivalent for same-sex marriage, even had he been of a mind to recognize it.
Applying old advice to a present situation
So it is very unlikely that Paul understood or grasped the possibility of people wanting to live in a life-long same-sex union. Some have suggested that Paul was aware of sexual orientation, but I find there to be little evidence to support even this claim, let alone any awareness of whatever same-sex marriages might have existed. There are still, after all, a few skeptics around even today who deny that sexual orientation exists, or who say that there is no need to grant “special” recognition to same-sex relationships since all people are free to marry a person of the opposite sex. (It is especially ironic that some who on one hand will deny same-sex orientation exists will on the other posit that Paul knew about it and rejected it.)
Regardless of such glib dismissals, many others have recognized that homosexual orientation, and the desire to which it gives rise to express one’s a love for a person of the same sex in a physical way, is not any more likely to be combined with a gift of celibacy than is heterosexual orientation. (Some conservatives claim that homosexual men are “by nature” more promiscuous than heterosexuals. Their evidence derives largely from anecdotal evidence, or discredited research.) But many have noted — even among the conservatives who reflect upon this issue — that it is irrational as well as unjust to suggest that gay and lesbian persons should be held to a standard in effect stricter than the one applied to heterosexuals; that is, to demand permanent celibacy for all gay and lesbian people, especially while tolerating less than punctilious observance of the same biblical standard for mixed-sex couples, many if not most of whom engage in premarital sex, occasional affairs, or serial monogamy through the unbiblical provision of divorce. For even if many people are promiscuous, there are others who wish to be faithful.
A more tolerant view within church or state does not necessitate the recognition of same-sex relationships as either marriage or matrimony, that is, as either civil or sacred in exactly the same way and to the same extent as mixed-sex marriage. But some form of recognized permanent commitment can be seen to be appropriate as an application of Paul’s teaching that “it is better to marry than to burn” to a situation which Paul himself may well have found inconceivable. Some, such as the Rev Fleming Rutledge, have reflected on the question in this way:
I have great respect and reverence for people who maintain celibacy if they are unmarried, divorced or widowed. This certainly remains the classical Christian standard. However, I do not believe that many people are granted the gift of celibacy. Even St. Paul, who put a high value on celibacy, recognized this in his teaching on marriage. I therefore believe we must find a way to support healthier lifestyles for Christian gay people who are beset every day by invitations to participate in the anonymity and promiscuity of the street, the bathhouse, the bar and the club. We will do well, I think to make an honored place for the devoutly Christian gay people who sincerely want fidelity and stability in their lives insofar as that is possible for them. These couples are in the distinct minority and it seems to me that we should support them in their wish to carve out a more responsible style of life. I therefore agree (I think) with those who say that we should be discussing the possibility of some sort of blessing for gay couples who fit this description not because the culture is demanding this, but because the church has been thinking about this for some time now. (From a December 2003 presentation to a parish facing division on the issue of homosexuality).
Although she stops short of supporting same-sex marriage, then, Rutledge is willing to recognize the human damage caused by unreasonable expectations or requirements, and the moral danger of a double standard (as evidence shows only a “distinct minority” of heterosexuals actually adhere to the rules of stability and fidelity). However, if “marriage” can be understood in the many forms the institution has taken (some of which would now be held to be immoral if not illegal) it appears to me that it is quite possible to apply Paul’s allowance — “If they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn” — to a situation he would not have been capable of imagining — at least in his own time.
What would Saint Paul do — today? Is this a reasonable question, and to what extent are speculations about what Saint Paul might have thought or done — apart from what we actually know he said or did — relevant to the present discussion?
We do not know what Saint Paul would say today, assuming he were supplied with all the relevant information concerning human sexuality and psychology of which he was ignorant. Doubtless Saint Paul, in his own culture and time, would not have applied this rule of “let them marry” to same-sex couples. There is no evidence that he had any awareness or understanding of sexual orientation. On the contrary, his only extended comment on male homosexuality in Romans 1 describes it as an unnatural perversity attendant upon idolatry. (Aside note: I follow Saint Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence 2.20, in thinking “their females” who have “exchanged the natural use for the unnatural” are not lesbian. Rather, they are women who allow their husbands to use the opening that is “along side the natural” i.e., generative, one; the husbands then, having abandoned what is “natural with females” turn on each other and “similarly” take advantage of this newfound versatility. This is how Augustine reads the passage, and in support of this reading I suggest it to be unlikely for a biblical or rabbinic Jew — and Paul was both — to think lesbian sex and gay sex are “similar” — one was subject on rabbinic grounds to chastisement, the other on biblical grounds to capital punishment. Saint Augustine himself regarded lesbianism as a far less serious matter than male homosexuality: see Letter 211.14 where he refers to women’s “shameful frolic and sporting with one another” as unseemly for married women and thus much more out of place in nuns! Similarly, the [vague and inaccurate] term sodomy classically referred to all sorts of non-procreative sexuality whether between men and women or only between men, or men with animals — but with very few exception not generally to lesbian sex. “Homosexuality” as a category including men and women is a relatively modern invention; the Mediterranean cultures of the ancient world regarded lesbian sex as in quite a different category altogether from male homosexuality — as, indeed, these cultures regarded women and men very differently in most aspects of life.)
Still, some argue that Paul knew about homosexual orientation and intended explicitly to reject it. Those such as N.T. Wright and R. Gagnon, who argue that Paul must have been familiar with Plato’s Symposium, and Aristophanes’ myth to explain varieties of sexual orientation (or at least preference), are on very shaky ground, as Paul’s writings reveal little or no familiarity with Plato — as if he would take such pagan (and satirical) speculation seriously even if he were familiar with it! However, Paul may have known nothing of Plato at all, as Plato was, outside of Alexandria, long out of fashion in the philosophical world with which Paul was likely familiar — including that of the Stoics, whose thinking is consistent with (though not necessarily a source for) what Paul concludes in Romans 1.
Rather than making questionable surmises about what Saint Paul might say, given his particular gifts and limitations, we should instead look to him for the moral value of what he said, concerning the role of sex within the context of the only kind of faithful, life-long sexual relationship with which we know he was familiar, as a means to cement the relationship and prevent wandering outside it.
Now that we have a better and more accurate understanding of the reality of sexual orientation (quite apart from whether it is genetic — which is actually irrelevant to the discussion), it makes more sense to apply the underlying principles of Paul’s teaching accordingly, much as we apply other underlying principles of scriptural wisdom to changed cultural contexts.
It seems to me that it is better for the church, and for society, to encourage the recognizable biblical virtues of fidelity and mutual support in same-sex relationships, than to hold all gay and lesbian persons to a rigid standard few heterosexuals are able to maintain.
Thus far I have examined the traditional rationale for Christian marriage and sought to examine the ways in which this rationale can be applied to same-sex relationships. There should be no doubt that from the secular perspective of civil marriage, the state has no compelling interest in prohibiting same-sex marriage any more than it would have in prohibiting mixed-sex marriage in which the couple is incapable of having children. On the contrary, the civil interest in a stable society represents a positive rationale for the provision of civil marriage to same-sex couples, as a preventative to promiscuity (to the extent, of course, that people remain faithful to their vows: no covenant will of itself cause obedience).
When it comes to children, there is no indication (on the basis of many studies and meta-studies) that same-sex couples are any less able to raise their own, adopted or foster children than mixed-sex couples, regardless of any biological connection with the parents. Society provides ample role models apart from biological or foster parents — and in any case many children spend much of their childhood and infancy under the care of adults other than their parents. Need I also note that Scripture provides one particularly striking example of foster-fatherhood. Clearly an increase in the number of stable same-sex couples could be a boon to finding loving homes for unwanted or orphaned children.
When it comes to the religious and moral values imputed to marriage, I have shown that the ability to bear children is universally held to be optional — that is, no Christian tradition of which I am aware requires fertility prior to allowing marriage, or childbirth within marriage as a condition for its continuance. Procreation is thus not an essential element of marriage.
I have demonstrated that the concept of fleshly union is ambivalent, and that the argument against same-sexuality from a purported complementarity of the sexes is specious; and that same-sex couples can enjoy a mutual union that expresses joy, delight, and the self-giving love that is the object of marriage. I have shown that such relationships are capable of bearing symbolic weight in reflecting the goodness of God in relationship to the church, but more importantly the ideal of Christian love within the church. Finally, in this essay, I have reflected briefly upon the stabilizing influence that the recognition of same-sex relationships might provide within ecclesiastical as well as social contexts.
Although I have touched upon them briefly in these essays and in the responses to the many comments these articles have elicited, I have not directly addressed the purported scriptural objections to same-sexuality, which some would hold to render moot all of the discussion up to now. In the next sections of this reflection I will address the content and force of the scriptural case — both against and for same-sexuality — at greater length.
Tobias Haller BSG
The Scriptural discussion begins in the next section of this series, Scripture and its Witness.