It is a claim I've run into often in church debates. Earnest opponents of marriage equality stand up and declare, "Jesus condemns same-sex marriage in Matthew 19, and so as a committed Christian I couldn't possibly support it."
I am all for Christians following the Bible, but in this particular case, peoples' good intentions are leading them astray. The claim that Jesus condemns same-sex marriage is a false one.
Matthew 19 in fact records an occasion when Jesus references the Bible story about God's creation of Adam and Eve. Quoting Genesis, Jesus says,
Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. (Mat. 19:4-6, New Revised Standard Translation)
Opponents of marriage equality claim that Jesus here confers his own stamp of approval on marriage between a man and a woman, and in so doing rules out the possibility of faithful, loving same-sex partnerships among his followers.
There are multiple problems with this claim.
In the first place, the claim is based on a logical fallacy. Jesus without question speaks approvingly of heterosexual marriage. But does that mean he automatically condemns same-sex relationships? If I go to a restaurant with a group of friends and speak approvingly of the Bavarian triple-chocolate layer cake, does that mean I automatically condemn anyone who orders the cherry cheesecake for dessert instead? Of course it doesn't!
It makes no sense to say that because Jesus approves of heterosexual marriage, he necessarily condemns alternative patterns of life. If that logic were true, we would also have to say that Jesus condemns people who choose to remain single, which is yet another alternative to heterosexual marriage. But in that case Jesus would be condemning himself, because Jesus chose to remain unmarried!
The problems with the anti-equality interpretation of this passage don't end there. If we read the passage in context, we discover that Jesus isn't discussing sexual orientation here at all; he is talking about divorce. The whole point of his Genesis quote is that God wants married people to stay together: "What God has joined together, let no one separate."
It is highly ironic that people use this passage to condemn same-sex marriage, because in doing so they completely ignore the strict teaching against divorce which the passage does contain, and instead read into it a condemnation of same-sex marriage that it does not contain.
This hesitancy to embrace the actual message of the passage is understandable. Jesus' uncompromising teaching about divorce here can be a bit alarming. A false interpretation that condemns people who are different from me is much more comfortable than an accurate interpretation that might call my own life into question!
If we take the time to read further in the passage's context, however, we discover we are not alone in our discomfort with Jesus' teaching about divorce. Jesus' own disciples found the teaching disturbing, too. Hearing him speak, they responded that getting married wouldn't be worth the risk if divorce resulted in our automatic alienation from God (v. 10). Jesus responds by softening the application of his teaching. He says, "Not everyone can accept this teaching... Let anyone accept this who can" (vv. 11, 12).
This combination of a strict teaching and a softened application actually makes good sense. No loving parent wants to see a beloved child go through the pain of a divorce. I have been part of the wedding celebrations for my two daughters, and I fervently hope and pray that their marriages will be happy, fulfilling and lasting. This is the strict part of my own feelings about divorce -- I care about my children deeply, and this means I absolutely despise the thought that they would have to go through a divorce one day. But if disaster were to strike and one of their marriages should fail, that same deep caring means I would continue to love and support my children. The "application" of my fervent desire that they not have to experience a divorce is softened by my love for them, which continues through good times and bad. So it is with God's love for us.
But this combination of a strict teaching and a softened application disappears from the Matthew 19 passage entirely when people use it to condemn same-sex relationships. The anti-equality interpretation falsely portrays Jesus as condemning same-sex marriage strictly and without qualification. The softening effects of divine love vanish from the scene.
In sum, the claim that Jesus condemns same-sex marriage in Matthew 19 fails on at least three counts:
• It depends on a logical fallacy
• It ignores the actual subject of Jesus' teaching in favor of a foreign agenda.
• It contradicts Jesus' own direction on how his teaching should be applied.
This damaging and misguided interpretation vividly illustrates of how our understanding of Scripture can go astray when we read biblical fragments out of context and without any reference to the Bible's overall message of God's love.
Unfortunately such errors of interpretation are more than a mere academic problem; they are doing positive harm in the lives of a great many people. It is time for committed Christians to set aside the errors and misinterpretations that lead LGBT people to feel like second-class citizens in the household of God. In my recent book I show how a faithful and responsible reading of the Bible's message reveals God's fervent desire to bless everyone's marriages, both gay and straight alike.