05/15/2012 10:51 am ET Updated Jul 15, 2012

The Bible and Marriage Equality

As a minister and Bible scholar, I'm proud that the president has publicly endorsed marriage equality.

Some sincere and thoughtful people of faith are not convinced by clinical research suggesting that "sexual orientation" is deeply imbedded in the human psyche and largely beyond conscious control.

Others accept the research and believe that "sexual orientation" is a gift from God. They argue, however, that same-sex sex is prohibited by Scripture and tradition. This is the current position of the Roman Catholic Church, for example. It's not a sin to be gay, but it's a sin to have gay sex.

There are a handful of Scriptures that appear to say that same-sex sex is wrong, though on close examination, they turn out to be much less clear-cut than is often assumed, and none of them addresses the kind of mutually loving relationships at issue in the marriage equality debate. But even if these Scriptures were relevant to that kind of relationship, we'd still face a problem: How do you decide which Scriptures to use and which to ignore when you're making moral judgments?

Consider the oddly worded passages in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13

"You (masculine, singular) must not lie with a male, beds of a woman. It's an abomination," and "a man who lies with a male, beds of a woman, the two of them have committed an abomination. They certainly must be put to death. Their blood is on them."

I assume that most of us -- whatever we think about same-sex sex -- wouldn't favor executing sexually active gay men. But on what basis would we make the decision that Leviticus is right about sex but wrong about execution?

How do we decide what to keep and what to ignore when we use Scripture to make moral judgments? Why would we say that it's an "abomination" for a man to lie with a man, but it's OK to wear a wool-blend suit, have a tattoo, eat hybrid fruit or have marital relations when the wife is in the "unwell" part of her monthly cycle -- that is, the days of her menstrual flow plus seven days of purification after that? Leviticus says that any married couple who has sex then should be "cut off from their people" -- a euphemism for execution. Why doesn't that apply to us, if the ban on gay sex does? How do we decide which Scriptures are relevant?

The 19th century slavery debate addressed this question. Both sides quoted Scripture. Measured by sheer volume, the pro-slavery side had a slam-dunk case. From start to finish, the Bible assumes and often supports slavery. Exodus says the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and God freed them. But in the very next breath, it legalizes the inhuman treatment of slaves: "if a man beats a male or female slave with the rod and he (or she) dies under his power, he'll certainly suffer punishment. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, the owner won't suffer punishment because he (or she) is his property" (Exodus 21:20-21).

Abolitionists won the moral debate, not because they had more chapters and verses on their side, but because they finally convinced people that, whatever particular Scriptures say, freedom is the heart of the biblical story. It's the criterion by which all Scriptures are properly judged.

Exodus 21 pales before the spectacular revelation of Israel's God as the God who frees slaves (Exodus 1-15). Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 3:22 -- "slaves, obey your masters!" -- fade in the light of Christ Jesus "who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be seized by force, but emptied himself ... and took the form of a slave..." (Philippians 2). Slavery, though explicitly supported by many Scriptures, is incompatible with the witness of the Scriptures as a whole: God identifies with slaves, the oppressed, the marginalized. God values mercy and love and desires that all people live in freedom.

It may be the case that a few passages condemn same-sex sex. Leviticus apparently does so for the same reason it permits polygamy and limits marital sex to the two weeks the wife is ovulating: sex and marriage in this worldview are fundamentally about procreation, producing able-bodied children for household labor.

We, by contrast, marry primarily for companionship and love. Children are an expression of the couple's love for one another, but procreation is not typically the primary reason we marry. It makes perfect sense to us that people who can't or don't want to have children nevertheless marry. We marry for love.

As we make moral judgments on this, we should consider the primary purpose of marriage for us today, accept the insights of research, and factor in our experiences of decent, loving same-sex couples who responsibly raise children, go to church, tithe their money and contribute to the well-being of our communities.

And we should read every Scripture through the lens of a biblical story that reveals a God who creates human beings in the very image of God so they can share power in the world (Genesis 1:26-27), who says "it's not good that the human be alone" (Genesis 2:18), who liberates slaves (Exodus 2-15), who rescues the oppressed, who sets captives free, who proclaims the year of God's favor for all who are excluded (Isaiah 61) -- the story Jesus chose to preach for his inaugural sermon (Luke 4). It's the story of a God who says, "let the foreigner not say 'surely I'm separated from God's people' (though other Scriptures require such separation), let the eunuch not say 'surely I'm just a dry tree' (though this sexual minority is explicitly excluded from the community by Deuteronomy 23). I will give within my house, within my walls, a power and a name that is better than sons and daughters! I will give an everlasting name that will not be cut off! My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples. I will gather outcasts besides those I have already gathered!" (Isaiah 56:3-8).

Extending legal recognition to the sacred commitments of loving same-sex couples is a natural progression, expanding the blessings of freedom enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And it is, in my judgment, the Christian and the biblical thing to do.