[In this series, I’m exploring why, beyond Christians’ political efforts to prohibit same-sex marriage, traditional Christian sexual ethics on homosexuality (and the people who profess them) have become so offensive and problematic for people who don’t profess them. Start by reading the series introduction.]
Third, Christians have tended to undermine their own theology of sexuality through their defensiveness and their inconsistent actions, neither of which demonstrates the counter-cultural values they profess.
When I ask the following question, what’s the first answer that springs to your mind? (I’m not interested in your answer to the question. I’m interested in what refrain plays in your head when you hear this question.) “What is the biblical view of marriage?” I’d be willing to bet you’ve heard this answer at some point in the last few years: “The biblical view of marriage is one man and one woman.” According to a conservative interpretation of Scripture, that answer may be essentially correct, but it’s certainly not the best answer. I’d say it’s not even a good answer, since it’s so incredibly incomplete and limited. It’s a bit like if someone asks you, “What’s Star Wars?” and you answer, “A movie.” I suppose that answer is essentially correct. It accomplishes something by letting the other person know Star Wars isn’t a kind of food, a musical instrument, or your grandmother. But it’s not the best answer. It really doesn’t even begin to introduce the inquirer to the cultural phenomenon that is Star Wars, how Star Wars began as a 1977 space opera and became a milestone in the entertainment industry, launching a franchise with endless sequels, spin-offs, parodies, and merchandising. It doesn’t address the colorful cast of characters, the revolutionary special effects, or the iconic soundtrack. And it gives you no room to describe how Star Wars has affected you, if you’ve spent any time with the saga.
Often, when conservative Christians describe what the “biblical view of marriage” is, they’re reacting to what feels like the most pressing challenge to Christian marriage traditions. Because same-sex marriage feels like that most pressing challenge, the Christian answer to the question of the “biblical view” is a reaction: “One man and one woman.” It accomplishes something by letting people know that, as far as whoever is speaking is concerned, the “biblical view of marriage” stands in stark contrast to our culture’s evolving definition of marriage. But it’s not the best answer. It doesn’t say anything about commitment, faithfulness, submission, selflessness, or (Isn’t this a glaring oversight?) love, each of which might similarly contrast with our culture’s definition of marriage. It doesn’t wrestle with the wide variety of marriages that show up (often without comment) in the Bible and consist of something other than one man and one woman. And it doesn’t allow you to describe how you’ve developed your own perception of marriage—which families modeled healthy marriage for you, which scriptures are most important to you, and, if you’re married or planning to be, how you imagine your ideal marriage. The “biblical view of marriage” starts to sound like less of an institution rooted in history and theology and more like a subjective preference Christians are selfishly keeping out of the reach of gay people.
I don’t believe traditional Christian sexual ethics are based on fear, hatred, or ignorance. They’re based on a specific worldview that encapsulates a certain theology of gender, marriage, sexuality, creation, and human nature. I’m not interested here in whether that particular worldview is healthy or relevant; what I do want to assert is that the worldview is at least internally consistent at a theoretical level, even if many Christians and secular media outlets present a diluted and flimsy version of that theology. (You don’t have to look too hard to find shallow representations of conservative or liberal sexual ethics, especially if you’re eager to debunk the other side.) Now, of course, that theology doesn’t just have implications for same-sex relationships. It has major implications for Christian ethics related to divorce, marital faithfulness, sexual practices, etc., etc., etc. Each of those positions is based on the foundational belief that what occurs in the bedroom is more important and significant than merely the experiences of the people who participate.
The problem is that even if some version of that theological foundation is internally consistent, Christians are notorious for applying it inconsistently, especially when it comes to the behavior of actual Christians. When Christians say sex has profound spiritual implications and then proceed to have sex in all the same ways and places and circumstances in which non-Christians have sex, it severely undermines whatever elegant or inelegant worldview they’re trying to enforce. (Let’s be honest with ourselves about all the sex Christians are having outside the strict limits of marriage.) When they give significantly more of their attention to one particular component of that worldview than they do to others, they open themselves to legitimate criticism.
So, for example, one of the reactions you’ll often hear to Christians who politically oppose same-sex marriage is that, considering the relatively small percentage of people who would even consider marrying a same-sex partner, perhaps Christians should devote more attention to issues that affect a larger percentage of the population: divorce, infidelity, premarital sex, etc., especially if they’re going to rely on rhetoric about the dissolution of the family in American culture. (You won’t hear this reaction for very long, though, maybe because people don’t want to give conservatives the idea to reignite political campaigns against any of those behaviors.) Christians often have trouble explaining why they’re relatively lax on those crises, and I’d suggest it’s because our reasons are ugly: Maybe we’re too afraid to offend the folks in our pews? Maybe we’ve decided addressing those sins is a losing battle? Maybe we rather enjoy sexing whomever we’d like without feeling bad, so long as it’s not gay sex? (At least we’re getting the “one man and one woman” part right?)
I think we’re really getting close to the heart of the problem here. Because conservative Christians attribute their strictness on same-sex relationships to convictions about the higher realities behind sex, and because those same higher realities don’t seem to produce similar strictness on other sexual behaviors, the conservative Christian attitude on homosexuality reads harsh and intolerant in a culture that recognizes same-sex affection as legitimate and beautiful. I’ll put it another way: If Christians were as upset about the sexual sins of straight folks as they are about the sexual sins of gay folks, I think the traditional Christian stance on homosexuality would at least play more consistent and cohesive to non-Christians, even those who flatly reject it. (On another note, if Christians were as upset about other sexual sins as they are about homosexuality, they might concede how legislative action is rather useless to the Christian cause and even destructive for our non-Christian neighbors, which would largely settle the current conflict over same-sex marriage.) (On a third note, if all Christians were realistic with themselves about how well they’re actually upholding their sexual ethics, they wouldn’t let another day pass before either softening their expectations for gay Christians or implementing cohesive institutional support for those individuals. But I’m digressing now.)
Until conservative Christians can apply a rich theology of sexuality consistently and demonstrate how it produces measurably counter-cultural behavior among gay and straight Christians alike, their strong public opposition to same-sex marriage (as well as their tendency to enforce that opposition with their votes) will seem increasingly closed-minded and unjust as our collective understanding of human sexuality continues to evolve.
#3: Inconsistent Theology
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