A student recently asked me for some advice about how to defend same-sex marriage biblically to people who insist that the Bible is against it. My basic response to such questions is, "Don't."
First of all, there is no "the Bible." It is a collection of texts spanning millennia, recounted orally for centuries in multiple languages, finally written down in Greek and Hebrew by countless anonymous authors over the span of several more centuries, then further collected and translated into hundreds more languages in hundreds of stylistic versions. What we think of as the Christian Bible thus encompasses different things for Catholics, the Orthodox and Protestants. And second, there was no such thing as a "homosexual" identity or same-sex marriage when the various parts of the Bible were written (despite what some English translations say), so they can offer no explicit direction about it.
But putting such details aside, the Bible does, in fact, present a consistently disapproving picture of men having sex with men, or women having sex with women. Hebrew Scripture makes it clear that the job of human beings is to "be fruitful and multiply," which necessitates genital contact between males and females. The Christian testament is much more ambivalent about the usefulness of genetic multiplication, but Paul's letters nevertheless make it crystal clear that he saw male-male or female-female sex as something for pagan idolaters, not for Christian Jews or Christian Greeks. There are some fairly complicated and sophisticated theologians who make the case that Paul's arguments about God working "against nature" might allow for same-sex marriage, but these interpretations surely fail to persuade thinkers who prioritize the plainest meaning of scripture.
This begs the question as to why we care what Paul thought, or would think, about same-sex marriage. Yes, Christians consider the Bible (whichever version they prefer) to be the inspired word of God, useful for teaching and training in righteousness. But Paul lived 2,000 -- TWO THOUSAND -- years ago (Moses another 2,000 before that), in what might as well have been a galaxy far, far away. Why, then, is it so important that biblical writers agree with us?
Most Christians today disagree with and openly disobey the Bible every single day: We see slavery as a crime against humanity, lend and borrow money at interest, don't force our raped daughters to marry their rapists, wear mixed fibers, don't cover our heads, eat bacon and sometimes even mix it with cheese, and -- perhaps most shockingly, given its high priority in the Big Ten -- trample the holiness of the Sabbath with reckless abandon. (Fans of "The West Wing" will remember similar observations beautifully immortalized by Jed Bartlett.) A few authors have recently conducted high-profile experiments in living biblically and found it to be much more difficult than many "Bible-believing Christians" would have us believe.
Christians with a more nuanced understanding of biblical authority may find a different type of biblical support for the dignity of same-sex marriage, such as in Genesis chapter 1, when God creates human beings "in our own image"; or from Paul's argument that, while celibacy is the ideal for Christians, "it is better to marry than to burn." And then there are always the overly generalized love-not-hate kinds of arguments. But all of these approaches take for granted that biblical rules can no longer be taken at face value. It is utterly futile to imagine that the biblical writers would be pleased with the concept of men marrying men or women marrying women -- akin to arguing that the founding fathers of these United States would be excited to see women and African Americans voting and serving in congress. They probably wouldn't. But so what?
Those folks, those human beings, were ahead of their time in many ways, and we can be deeply grateful that they pooled the best of their wisdom together for the benefit of posterity. But like it or not, even the most inspired human authors are still only human; not only did our intellectual and spiritual ancestors get some stuff dead wrong, but they also never thought of many of the questions that we have to deal with. When such questions arise, we must courageously stand in our own time, trusting that inspiration and wisdom are renewable resources (that "God is still speaking," as one church puts it, even if some of us do have longstanding tradition on our side).
We must also accept that others in the future will surely decide that we, too, were wrong.
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