The following blog has been co-written by Rev Dr John Squires and his wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Raine. They have a lifelong commitment to the faithful and critical study and interpretation of scripture, and to contextually-relevant missional engagement with contemporary society. They offer these reflections as a way of encouraging serious reflection on the biblical rationale underpinning the recent decision by the Uniting Church, to endorse the marriage of same gender couples alongside the marriage of a male and a female.
For people within the Uniting Church, the Basis of Union provides a foundation for careful and prayerful thinking about scripture. The Basis affirms that the witness of scripture is to be understood through the work undertaken by scholarly interpreters, by insights that have arisen in scientific and medical investigation, by understandings that have developed in society, as we better understand how human beings operate and how they function. All of these are important matters to consider when we think about human sexuality.
We need to think about the witness of scripture, and in particular, those sections of scripture which explicitly address the matter of sexual relationships between people, in the light of this way of approaching the biblical texts.
It is possible to summarise the key points of critical scholarship and the understanding of what is, and what is not, explicitly referred to in these passages.
The first thing to note is that the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek languages, so there are questions about how particular words should be translated, whether there are exact equivalences in English, and so on. Many translations use the word “homosexual” where the original language actually requires more nuance in translation.
A second factor is that we need to reflect on the cultural customs of the societies within which the Bible came to be written. It is important to consider how these cultural customs have shaped the way in which the words were written.
“Homosexuality” is a modern concept, which was not known to the writers of the biblical texts in the way that we understand it. Scripture does not include anything relating to the loving, committed, lifelong relationship of two people of the same gender.
The oft-quoted verse about same-gender sex (Leviticus 18:22) is not about same gender relationships, but about cultural shaming practices, using power to create inequality in relationship. That verse provides a critique of the practice in which a stronger male seeks to subordinate and demean a weaker male, through sexual activity. That activity is what is declared to be an “abomination”. This abusive and shaming action is not what we are talking about in discussing same gender marriage—which is a committed, loving, long term relationship between two equal people.
The same applies to the story of Sodom (told in Genesis 19). The prophet Ezekiel, inspired by the spirit (Ezekiel 16:49-50) declares that this is not about sexual sin, but about the sin of not providing hospitality. Another story, of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19), makes it clear that hostile men did use this breach of hospitality protocols as a weapon against other men, seeking to shame the strangers in this way. This, again, is not about a same-gender relationship, where equality and mutuality are paramount.
God made a good creation, and encouraged human beings to enter into positive relationships with each other within that good creation (Genesis 1–2). Our human expression of sexuality is one way of expressing the goodness of that creation. We ought not to exclude people who are attracted to people of the same gender from this understanding.
References to sexual sins in Paul’s letters (Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6) sit alongside a range of other sins, which are equally condemned, and equally challenging to our discipleship. Why single this one out? Paul related all of these sins to idolatry, which, for him, was the fundamental sin. A loving relationship between people of the same gender is not idolatrous, but rather it can strengthen a sense of the value of human life which God desires for us.
In the accounts of all four Gospels, Jesus does not discuss sexuality very often, not in much detail at all, and this area rates as of only tiny significance for him, alongside the greatest focus which Jesus had—on wealth and poverty, and the importance of serving those on the edge, those who are in need.
The way forward today From this very brief survey of key passages, we are able to affirm that the most important conclusion to draw from the scholarly explorations of relevant biblical texts, is this: what God wants from human beings, is a commitment to loving, respectful relationships, a commitment to long-term, hopefully lifelong, relationships, and that the specific genders of people in relationships is a less important matter.
In the Church, we affirm that God is faithful—that those who diligently seek to know the will of God, will be upheld and loved by God. God is not disturbed by differences of opinion; God made a diverse creation, and God honours our search for truth within that creation.
In Jesus, we see the key attributes of God, lived out in a human life. The Basis of Union declares that “in his life and in his death, he made a response of humility, obedience and trust”. These are the key qualities of a faithful life. These qualities are the controlling lenses through which we should read the biblical texts, and develop our understanding of sexuality and marriage. A heterosexual relationship, at its best, will exhibit mutual respect, deep love, faithful commitment, and personal humility in placing the other as first.
So, the various passages which describe marriage as taking place between a male and a female, provide the basis for a claim that heterosexual assumptions were normative for those who wrote the biblical texts. That makes sense, in their own time and context.
However, the insights of medical, psychological, and social explorations points to the fact that a homosexual relationship between two people of the same gender, can itself exhibit the best of human qualities, and demonstrate the finest moral values in human relationship.
It is thus possible to conclude that a relationship between two people of the same gender, at its best, can certainly exhibit mutual respect, deep love, faithful commitment, and personal humility in placing the other as first. And since this is what is at the heart of a marriage that involves a female and a male, it can also be at the heart of a relationship between two people of the same gender.
Throughout the New Testament, we can see places where NT writers offer radical reinterpretations of the norms of their cultural and religious practices. The accounts of the ministry of Jesus tell us of Jesus’ affirmation of women, his willingness to break religious law by healing on the Sabbath, and his redefining of aspects of Jewish law in the light of his message of the coming kingdom.
The accounts of the early Church include instances where redefinition and breakthrough took place: most strikingly, in Acts 10. This chapter tells the story of Peter, who was a faithful adherent to a long-established pattern of eating in the manner that was set forth in the laws of Leviticus. He was told that what he did not eat—because it was “unclean”—he was now free to eat—because God had declared such food “clean”. This opened the way, in the early church, to a new way of inclusive table fellowship where Jews and Gentiles are welcome to eat and share together.
Who is to say that the spirit, which once moved in this way, is now not able to move in a similar way, and to declare what some consider “unclean” to be “clean”—and that we can rejoice in this!
In the letter to the Ephesians, a standard Hellenistic pattern (“the household table”) is used, but significantly adapted, to instruct husbands and wives. Ephesians 5, while appearing on the surface to reinforce patriarchal norms of wives submitting to husbands, actually instructs husbands to love their wives with self-sacrificing love (“as Christ gave himself for the Church”) and encompasses all marriage relationships under the heading, “submit yourselves to one another”. This was a radical reinterpretation of the marriage relationship itself, even within the first few decades of the life of the church.
The biblical account shows that the spirit comes to faithful people, offers a vision of a new way, and opens hearts and minds to a greater vision which broadens the impact of the good news and reinvigorates missional activity. By offering ministers the freedom to decide whether they will marry same gender couples, the Uniting Church is seeking to walk in that new way, faithful to the witness of scripture, and open to the guidance of the Spirit.