05/21/2012 11:56 am ET Updated Jul 21, 2012

What Matters: A Christian Pastor's Thoughts on Same-Sex Marriage

I hear that some Christian pastors are having a problem with President Obama's support of gay people's right to marry. Why? What does the Bible really say about gay relationships?

The Book of Leviticus is often quoted to justify objections to same-sex love. Leviticus 18:22 clearly states: "Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable." OK, but...

Have you read the Books of Leviticus? There are 27 chapters, each containing a boatload of prohibitions. Leviticus 1 is all about the correct way to administer burnt offerings. But we don't do those anymore, do we? Leviticus 17 consists of prohibitions regarding food, like, "Any Israelite or any foreigner residing among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth." Really? I should bury my chicken in the back yard before roasting it?

Leviticus 19: 27 commands: "Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard." So, whaddya think? Why are we not passing laws against the cutting of sideburns, or the eating of venison? Few Christian preachers in Texas and Arizona seem to feel bound by Leviticus 19:34, commanding, "the foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born." Why do biblical literalists consider some of these injunctions still in effect, while disregarding others? The answer is obvious: Prejudice against gays has nothing to do with either Scripture or so-called "traditional" marriage. It has to do with fear and hatred, neither of which is a Christian value.

Marriage has taken various forms in different eras and cultures. According to biblical accounts, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines and slaves. Sexual fidelity was not expected of men; the Israeli prohibition against adultery applied only to married or betrothed women. David's sin with Bathsheba was because she was married, not because he was. He was encroaching on another man's property, which was a violation of Biblical law -- even for a king. According to Jay Michealson of Religious Dispatches, "In biblical society, when you conquered another city, tribe, or nation, the victorious men would 'win' their defeated foes' wives as part of the spoils. ... if a man died, his younger brother would have to marry his widow and produce heirs with her who would be considered the older brother's descendants." Those were the "traditional family values" of that day. There were even laws governing the proper treatment of the first wife, should a man decide to take a second one -- customs from more or less the same era as the oft-cited Leviticus passage. Mitt Romney's claim that marriage has been between one man and one woman for 3,000 years (an odd assertion for the great-grandson of a man with five wives), is about as historically accurate as "The Flintstones" cartoon.

It is only since the relatively recent end of feudalism, and the ideas of the Enlightenment, then the coming together of birth control, women's economic independence and moving into a non-agrarian society, that marriage has evolved into a voluntary union, based on love and choice. Like all living systems, it is continuing to evolve, this time, to include same-sex unions.

So what, in the 21st century, should marriage consist of?

I would argue that marriage should be a sacred covenant and legal contract between and among any consenting adults who choose it. A child is not a consenting adult; nor is a dog,
nor an inanimate object. Such a covenant need not always involve sexual relations, but rather, the long-term commitment to love, honor and mutually provide.

Consider: It was not so long ago when many women died in childbirth. It was common then for the unmarried sister of either the man or the deceased wife to reside with the family to help raise the children. Was this not a legitimate family?

Families come in all shapes and sizes. I have friends (yes, in California) who have a long-term group marriage. Two of them are lawyers, one is a high-tech entrepreneur, one was the mayor of their town, one is a teacher, and one, a financial planner. They are homeowners, pay their taxes and have cohabited for some 20 years, raising their children and providing a stable base for all family members. There have been rocky times, as with any marriage, but they have weathered them, and they are still together. It looks like a marriage to me.

Of course, there are prohibitions against homosexual acts in the New Testament as well as the old. The most often cited is Romans 1:24-27, in which Paul rails against "vile passions ... against nature ... leaving the natural use (sic) of the woman, burn(ing) in their lust one toward another, men with men working unseemliness, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was due." But Paul was railing against a particular group of people, who apparently were disregarding all moral codes and love of truth, in their decadence, not people who loved and wanted to commit to one another. And Paul was a man working to build a movement and a church, inside the biases of his time. He was not God.

Jesus, on the other hand, was not building a church. He was building the Realm of God. He had little to say about sexual practices. I believe this is because such things were of minor concern to him. Nor did he espouse traditional family values. To the contrary, when told by disciples that his mother and brothers waited for him outside, he pointed to the group he was teaching, saying "these are my mother and my brothers," indicating that love of God and truth trumped family.

Jesus was more interested in love than he was in rules. That was what got him into so much trouble with the fundamentalists of his day. It was love that justified his healing on the Sabbath. It was love that called him to break bread with people who were considered socially unacceptable: tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, revolutionaries and Samaritans. Who do you think would be at his table today?

Obama did what was right, and I believe he made the call as a person of faith. For this one precious moment, I am proud of my president, proud to be a citizen of a country in which change is possible, and proud to be a red-letter Christian, helping to usher in the Realm of God, where all are valued and love trumps dead rules. I think that Jesus would feel the same.

And that's what matters.