Listen to article
Let me begin by warmly thanking Matthew Tuininga, who has become my good friend, for the generous spirit of his response to the talk I gave on same-sex marriage at Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, on October 13 last year. Would that all discussions of this intensely controversial topic breathed such a spirit of respect and friendship!
It will help the reader understand my response to Tuininga if I briefly summarize what I said in my talk: I began by declaring that I would not be speaking as an authority on the issues surrounding the topic of same-sex marriage but would instead speak autobiographically, narrating what led me to move gradually from a traditional view on these matters to my defense of same-sex marriage. Though I have read a fair amount of gender and sexuality studies and consulted a number of biblical commentaries, I am not an authority.
To universalize the proscription on homosexual conduct and not the other proscriptions would be to engage in cherry-picking.
The main question I addressed was whether justice requires the acceptance of same-sex marriage by state and church. During the past decade, I have published a number of books on justice. Friends and acquaintances began urging me to explore how justice bears on the issue of same-sex marriage. My talk was a response to their urging. As I composed the talk, I found I had to say more about the legitimacy of same-sex marriage than I had anticipated, with the result that I had to severely condense what I had to say about the bearing of justice on the matter.
AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ACCOUNT
It was mainly two developments that led me to reconsider my traditionalist views on the matter. First, I learned of relatives, friends, students and former students who were homosexual in their orientation, and I became acquainted with some who were married. I listened to their faith, their agony, their hopes, their affections. Second, I read around in the literature of the past 50 years or so on gender and sexuality. What I took away from this literature, among other things, was that there is a spectrum of sexual orientation, from those who are intensely heterosexual to those who are intensely homosexual, and that one’s location on the spectrum is not a matter of choice. Though there are those who disagree with these positions, it is my impression that they are now dominant, both among Christians and non-Christians.
I then asked myself whether homosexual orientation is a disorder, a mark of the fallenness of creation, or is instead what the report on these matters to a 2016 meeting of Classis Grand Rapids East of the Christian Reformed Church called a “creational variance.” Kleptomania is a disorder; those who suffer from it should try to restrain their impulse to steal. Is homosexual orientation like that?
Kleptomania is a disorder because stealing is a violation of the love command. Is homosexual conduct also inherently a violation of the love command? Are even those who are joined in a loving covenantal homosexual relationship violating the love command? It didn’t seem to me that they were. But perhaps I was overlooking something. Perhaps Scripture teaches that it is in fact a violation of the love command in a way that escaped my attention. Or perhaps Scripture teaches that God forbids it even though it does not violate the love command. So I turned to Scripture to look at the famous seven passages condemning homosexual conduct – four in the Old Testament and three in the New. Before turning to the passages, I affirmed the insistence of the Reformed tradition that we reject proof-texting and interpret the passages in context.
The Old Testament passages to which most traditionalists give most weight are Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13, in both of which male homosexual conduct is condemned. The context is the holiness code Moses delivered to Israel on God’s behalf. Two themes stand out in the code. One is that Israel is to follow God’s rules for ritual cleanness and purification; the members of Israel are not, for example, to eat pork. The other theme that stands out is that Israel’s way of living is to be sharply distinct from the practices of the Egyptians and Canaanites. They are not, for example, to wear garments made of two kinds of material nor are they to tattoo their bodies. It is in the context of injunctions to avoid these and other practices of the Egyptians and Canaanites that the passages forbidding male homosexual conduct occur.
Can we conclude that these passages teach or imply that homosexual activity is always and everywhere wrong? I think we cannot. You and I don’t universalize the other proscriptions in the holiness code; no doubt most readers of this essay eat pork and some are tattooed. Absent some additional considerations, to universalize the proscription on homosexual conduct and not the other proscriptions would be to engage in cherry-picking.
When the issue arose in the early church whether Gentile converts were required to keep the Mosaic law and be circumcised, the Jerusalem Council decided that all that was required was that they “abstain from things polluted by idols and from fornication, and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:20).
As for the New Testament, the passage to which most defenders of the traditionalist interpretation give most weight is Romans 1:26-28. I concluded, after looking closely at these verses in context, that in this case too we cannot conclude that what is taught or implied is that homosexual conduct is always and everywhere wrong. Later, in this response, I will get to why I came to that conclusion.
THE GOODS OF MARRIAGE
After concluding that, so far as I could see, Scripture does not teach or imply that homosexual conduct is always and everywhe re wrong, I turned to the CRC’s Form for the Solemnization of Marriage and noted that all the goods of marriage mentioned can be exhibited in a loving, covenantal same-sex marriage, with the exception of the good of providing “a secure environment within which children may be born.” But the CRC does not regard the capacity and intent to procreate as a condition of marriage. I concluded that it would be unjust for the state or the church, including the CRC, to deprive homosexual couples of the great goods of marriage.
I closed by saying that I had reached this conclusion reluctantly; I honor the tradition of the church. But in this case, as some years back in the case of women’s ordination, I found myself led to dissent. What I did not say but wish I had said, is that it is my earnest hope and prayer that this issue not tear apart my denomination. The denomination currently has a new committee assigned to study what Scripture has to say about gender and sexuality, with the instruction that their interpretation be consistent with the denomination’s 1973 declaration condemning homosexual conduct. I hope that the committee will listen respectfully to the different responsible voices in the denomination and try to find as much consensus as possible. I expect that I will agree with a good deal but not all of what they conclude and recommend. I will live with that, as I have lived these many years with the ’73 declaration.
The main burden of Tuininga’s response is that my consideration of biblical context should be more expansive than it was. He is right about that. The talk I gave was a relatively brief, 45-minute, public event; I could not possibly, in that time frame, consider the full biblical context. Let me now consider the additional passages Tuininga points to. I thank him for challenging me to bring these passages into the discussion.
The passages can be divided into two groups, those that I will call the “one flesh passages” in Genesis and the New Testament, and the wider context in Romans 1 of what Paul says in verses 26-27 about homosexual conduct. I will take them up in that order. These passages have all become the subject of an enormous amount of commentary and controversy.
The “one flesh passages” are Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:6, Mark 10:8, I Corinthians 6:16 and Ephesians 5:31, along with the context of each of these. The Genesis passage especially is cryptic at several points, leaving room for different possible interpretations; I will present the interpretation that I have come to regard as the most plausible.
IN GOD’S IMAGE
Before we turn to Genesis 2, let’s remind ourselves of Genesis 1. God, says the writer, created human beings in God’s image. Then, lest there be any doubt on the matter, the writer immediately adds that God created both male and female in God’s image. Women are the equal of men in the most fundamental respect possible: They are created in God’s image. After creating men and women in God’s image, God blessed them saying, May you be fruitful and multiply, and may you exercise dominion.
In the creation narrative in Genesis 2, God first formed a male human being “from the dust of the ground.” Then God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So God created the animals and brought them to the man. The man named them but did not find “a helper as his partner.” God then took a rib from the man while he slept and fashioned it into a woman. Upon awakening, the man exclaimed, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” What then follows in the text are these words: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This, obviously, is a statement of the nature or significance of marriage.
The main challenge to interpretation here seems to me to be explaining the “therefore.” Why does the writer’s narration of the man’s exclamation lead him to conclude, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother…”? Many of the traditionalist interpretations I have consulted interpret the story as if the man had said, “Now at last I have a gender counterpart.” That is not what he says. James Brownson, in Bible, Gender, Sexuality, interprets the narrative as if the man had said, “Now at last there is someone similar to me in being human who can be my helper and partner.” That, too, is not what the man says, though the run-up to the man’s exclamation leads one to expect him to say something like that. What he says is, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”
What does it mean? Given the nature of the woman’s creation, the man was speaking literally. The woman was formed from his bone and flesh. But when the locution is used in other passages in the Old Testament, it is used metaphorically to declare the existence of kinship relations, as when Laban says to his nephew Jacob, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh” (Gen. 29:14).
But why does the man’s exclamation that the woman is of his bone and flesh lead the writer to say, “therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh”? What does the man’s exclamation that the woman is his blood descendent have to do with the nature and significance of marriage?
BECOMING ONE FLESH
Quite clearly there is a play here on the word “flesh.” All societies have two kinds of kinship relations, biological and marital. In marriage, two people leave their parents, to whom they bear biological kinship, and come together to form a marital kinship. The term “marital kinship,” though accurate, is too abstract. The two form a bodily union. They leave those of whose flesh they are and join together to form one (new) flesh.
It’s my impression that many people understand “become one flesh” as meaning, primarily, “become sexual partners.” That connotation is not absent. (See I Corinthians 6:16, where Paul says, “whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body [“soma”] with her. For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh [“sarx”]’.”) But we should understand “become one flesh” as connoting much more than become sexual partners. In marriage, two people are bodily intertwined in countless ways – as they are not, for example, when they are of one mind. In Ephesians 5 Paul alludes to some of the bodily intertwinement that goes beyond sexual union: “Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it.” “One flesh” is an apt metaphor for the unique sort of social unit that is a marriage.
Before we leave the “one flesh passages” it’s important to take note of the larger context in Ephesians 5 of Paul’s reference to one flesh in verse 31. Ephesians 5:22-28 is one of several passages in Paul’s letters in which he gives instructions to members of the church on how to conduct themselves within the social structures of Greco-Roman society. The topic in Ephesians 5 is how to live within the structure of marriage. Paul uses the relation between Christ and the church to give a just as … so also structure to his advice. Just as Christ is head of the church, so also the husband is to be head of the wife. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives are to be subject to their husbands. Just as Christ loves the church, so also husbands are to love their wives.
Paul then surprisingly reverses direction. Instead of using the relation between Christ and the church to illuminate the relation between husbands and wives, he now does the opposite. Just as husbands and wives love each other as they love their own bodies, so Christ loves the church “as members of Christ’s body.” Becoming one flesh in marriage is “a great mystery,” says Paul, “and I am applying it to Christ and the church.”
About these verses Tuininga says Paul “explicitly declares that the meaning of marriage, established at creation, is not found in marriage itself, but in the union of Christ and his body, the church.” That is how I previously interpreted the verses; and the idea is, no doubt, theologically correct. But now I see, to my surprise, that Paul’s point in these verses is not the meaning of marriage but the meaning of the church – or to speak more precisely, the nature of the relation between Christ and the church. As husband and wife constitute one flesh in marriage, so Christ is related to the church
Let’s take stock. Tuininga asks, why did I not “turn to passages like Genesis 1-2 or Ephesians 5 or the myriad other texts that talk about the meaning of sexuality?” I didn’t have time to do that in my talk. Now, after his appropriate challenge to bring the “one flesh passages” into the picture, I must say that I fail to see that they talk about the meaning of sexuality. With the exception of the Corinthians passage, they talk about the meaning of marriage (and of divorce). And as for the Corinthians passage, Paul’s point is that fornication is incompatible with being “united to the Lord.”
Tuininga asks, Is it not significant “that in Genesis 2 the man is considered alone, in a way that is not good, until he is presented with a woman?” But, as we saw, when the man sees the woman, he does not delight in the fact that she is a woman, and thus his gender counterpart, but in the fact that she is bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh.
Tuininga asks, Is it not “significant that the text (of Genesis 2) tells us that it is only when the man and woman are presented to one another – in their naked bodies, with all of their patently obvious, objective, sexual reciprocity and its potential for their intimate sexual relationship and procreation of children – that they exult in the goodness of what it means to be human.” But what the writer says, after making his declaration concerning the nature of marriage, is, “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” No exulting; just no shame. The matter of shame is picked up, of course, in the next chapter of Genesis.
AN OPEN QUESTION
Now for the point of all this exegesis. Do these “one flesh passages” teach or imply that same-sex marriage is always wrong? I fail to see that they do. They leave the question open; they don’t settle it one way or the other. The sort of marriage the passages have in view is, of course, the marriage of one man and one woman. They all implicitly regard such marriages as paradigmatic. But from the fact that such marriages are paradigmatic it does not follow that all others are wrong. I do not recall any condemnation of polygamy in the Old Testament.
It’s time to turn to what Tuininga says about my interpretation of Romans 1. In my talk I said we should place what Paul says about homosexual conduct, in verses 26 and 27, within the context of verses 24-32. And I said that when we do that, we see that the people Paul has in view are idolaters whom God has given over to what can aptly be called “total depravity.” Among these depraved people are those who, possessed by “degrading passions,” engage in homosexual activity. The question is whether we can infer from this that all homosexual conduct is depraved, even within a loving covenantal relationship, and thus similar to the other evil activities Paul mentions: envy, murder, slander, etc. I said I thought we could not draw that inference. Though that inference is compatible with what the passage says, it is not compelled by it.
Tuininga rightly notes that the relevant context actually begins with verse 18, where Paul speaks about what can be known from creation. What can be known from creation, he says, is God’s eternal power and divine nature. What can also be known from creation (“God’s decree”) is that envy, murder, strife and the like are wrong. Tuininga holds that when we take into account Paul’s reference to creation, we have to conclude that Paul is claiming that all homosexual conduct is a violation of God’s creational decree. Though he doesn’t actually say so, it appears to me he thinks that Paul is not just referring to creation but is alluding, more specifically, to the text of Genesis 1 and 2 which he, Tuininga, interprets as teaching or implying that homosexual conduct is always wrong.
PAUL’S PERSONAL VIEW?
I think it is not at all clear that Paul is alluding to Genesis 1 and 2. But be that as it may, Tuininga interprets Paul as saying that the conduct of the people he has in view “is so obviously out of accord with God’s purposes in creation that it shows them to have been given over to the same sort of willful self-deception that is at the root of idolatry.” Among other forms of evil behavior, the people Paul has in view give in to their “degrading passions” and engage in homosexual conduct. Certainly such conduct is “out of accord with God’s purposes in creation.” But what about those who are joined in a loving covenanted relationship? Such people are not in Paul’s purview. Is Paul nonetheless implicitly condemning them? Is he not only condemning degraded homosexual conduct but homosexual conduct as such? So far as I can see, the passage is ambiguous on the matter. Both interpretations are compatible with the text.
Tuininga says, “in context, … Paul views homosexual practice as being, objectively considered by any impartial observer, an inversion of the natural, created relationship between the sexes, just as idolatry, objectively considered by any impartial observer, is an inversion of the principle that we should worship the creator rather than creatures.” This is a possible interpretation of what Paul is saying. But I fail to see that, even when we bring into the picture Paul’s reference to creation, and also construe him as alluding to Genesis 1-2, this interpretation is required.
Almost certainly it was Paul’s personal view that all homosexual conduct is wrong; Judaism of the time regarded its proscription of homosexual conduct as one of the hallmarks differentiating it from the surrounding Greco-Roman culture. But the church does not regard Paul’s personal moral views as definitive. Paul did not condemn the system of slavery; we do not conclude that slavery is therefore acceptable.
In the his discussion, Tuininga poses a number of important questions: “Why did God create human beings to bear his image as male and female?” “What is God trying to teach human beings through our sexuality?” for example. These are theological questions. Answering them requires considering a good many more biblical passages than I have considered and requires going beyond biblical exegesis to take into account what we can learn from general revelation. As with almost all theological issues, Scripture underdetermines theology. In the past 20 years or so, a considerable literature has emerged on the theology of sex and gender. I look forward to the contribution that Tuininga, a newly minted theologian, and others will be making to this literature.
Let me close as I began, by thanking Matt Tuininga for the gracious spirit of his response to my talk. I hope that, in spite of our continuing disagreements, the same spirit breathes in my response to him.
Nicholas Wolterstorff taught philosophy at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.
Photo: Melissa Johnson/Flickr; CC by 2.0 license.