In the United Methodist Church, regional meetings called "annual conferences" are taking place all over the country. At many of these conferences, there will be heated debates over gay equality as the people of our church try to defend or change our denomination's discriminatory policies. The speeches for and against resolutions for equality are usually pretty predictable. The speeches against usually say something vague about how sacred the United Methodist Discipline (our law book) is and how the "Word of God" condemns homosexuality. Sometimes the speeches are on the "love the sinner, hate the sin" ("I've got gay friends") side. Other times they quote scripture passages in harmful ways and repeat misconceptions and stereotypes about gay and lesbian people. The speeches for these petitions are usually personal testimonies about people who have been hurt by our discriminatory policies, and secular arguments for gay equality.
But, as I wrote in a recent blog post, we progressives rarely talk about scripture, leaving the Bible to be interpreted only by people who do not favor full inclusion. But, as a lifelong Christian who has lived in and fallen in love with our scriptural tradition, I feel it is high time that we progressives "come out" as Bible-believing Christians. We need to start reclaiming scripture as a part of our movement and begin talking about how it forms the foundation of our faith and the basis of our views on gay rights in the church.
Today I will share my own Bible-based testimony for full inclusion, and I hope you will share yours in time.
Many people have written refutations of the "texts of terror" that are always brought up as proof that God disapproves of homosexuality. I will let you read those arguments, which are readily available, yourself. (Here"s a book that our church studied last year during Pride Month.) My own reading of scripture as it relates to same-sex relationships begins with a recognition of what seems important and applicable to our lives from the Bible, and what does not.
First of all, I have found scripture to be wholly uninterested in providing examples of healthy, mutual marriage relationships. As a woman, I would not want to imitate most examples of marriage in the Hebrew Bible. For the most part, women are treated as pawns in the dramas of men, with no regard for how they experience the events of marriage. Here are just a few of the marriage situations I do not want to emulate:
- Leah is pushed by her own father, Laban, to become an unloved and unwanted substitute in the marriage bed of her sister as a ploy to get Jacob to work longer for Laban (Genesis 29:1-30).
- Abram lies to the pharaoh to save his own skin, telling him that his wife, Sarai, is his sister. In doing so, he allows the pharaoh to take Sarai to do who knows what with her (Genesis 12:10-20). Abram actually does this again later, and his son does the same thing to his wife, Rebekah! Patriarchs obviously do not make the best husbands.
- Ruth marries Boaz not because they are madly in love and ready to embark on a relationship of mutuality but because without this marriage, she and her mother-in-law Naomi, like all other widows in her time and culture, would have no income, property, or other resources for survival (Ruth 3:1-4:12).
- Oh, and don't forget that polygamy, a type of marriage that is looked down upon in our society, including in most churches, is an unquestioned norm in the Hebrew Bible.
All this is to say that most of us would not look at these biblical marriages as models for modern marriage as we understand it.
Now, if you are the kind of person who favors New Testament stories and teachings over the Hebrew Bible, I have found that the New Testament is incredibly ambivalent about marriage. If God values heterosexual marriage so much, then why was Jesus, the perfect man, never interested in marriage? In fact, he devalues the bonds of spouses, parents, and children in favor of the Christian life (Luke 14:26). The apostle Paul followed Jesus' example and considered his singleness to be a great spiritual gift. He even writes that marriage should really only be a concession for those who just can't control their lustful desires (I Corinthians 7:1-7). That's hardly a ringing endorsement of the institution.
So, in my reading of scripture, God simply does not have a lot to say on the specific topic of marriage. Marriage in the Bible is just a part of the stories, not the moral of them, and it was a completely different institution from our modern images of just, loving, equal romantic relationships. The guidance we find in scripture for relating to our spouses comes from passages that refer to the ways in which we ought to relate to everyone (e.g., I Corinthians 13) -- and then, of course, there is the gold standard of marriage vows, which comes from the beautiful relationship between Ruth and Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17)!
So, while I do not find a lot of guidance around the particular institution of marriage, I do find God speaking to me constantly in scripture about inclusive and loving community. The theme of much of the New Testament seems to be the beloved community, where those who are rejected by society find welcome (Mark 2:13-16, Luke 14:15-24), where people from diverse backgrounds become sisters and brothers to each other (Galatians 3:28), where the society's conventions of family and household are broken in favor of new kinds of unconventional and intentional families (Matthew 12:46-50).
This all leads me to conclude that, while God may be ambiguous and even ambivalent about the particular institution of marriage, God is absolutely not neutral when it comes to creating an intentionally inclusive and diverse body in the church that embraces those who are hurt by the world. So when it comes to what the church should be saying and doing with people who want to love and marry people of the same sex, I hear very clear messages from scripture: Embrace, include, love, be loved, listen, learn.
If you're in New York City and don't have a spiritual community where you can observe Pride, you are very welcome to join the Pride events at Church of the Village!