Despite the increasing number of those who hold other faiths or no faith, Christians still wield substantial influence on our nation’s cultural and ethical norms. After all, 73% of Americans still identify as Christian, according to a 2012 Pew Forum Study. So the fact that many churchgoers have changed their views about gay civil rights in recent years is one of the major under-reported reasons why same-sex marriage is now legal in nine states. It is also one of the reasons that the constitutional challenge to Proposition 8, which took away gay Californians’ right to marry, may get a hearing in the Supreme Court this term (an announcement is expected on Monday).
According to the Pew Forum, a majority of mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics now favor legalizing same-sex marriage. So when our more conservative Christian kin claim that gay marriage is against God and against the Bible, we beg to differ. And since Christians are a “people of the Word,” we look to the Bible to justify our thinking. That’s essential to Christianity, although all too often we get it wrong, at least at first.
In various eras, those who claimed to follow Christ used specific Bible passages to argue that the Inquisition was God’s will, the Crusades were a good idea, slavery was legitimate, women should not be allowed to own property or have the right to vote, disabled people must have sinned to deserve their disabilities and God hated Jews.
Although each of these beliefs was based on the literal words of a particular Bible passage, all of them were in opposition to the message and life of Jesus and the prophets. So when Christians eventually rejected these positions, they returned to the Scriptures, in their original form, to reconsider the text.
This time around, it’s the same process. Most New Testament Greek scholars now point out that there are only three passages that deal with homosexuality in the New Testament — Romans 1:23-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 — and those passages don’t deal with homosexuality as we define it today but rather with temple prostitution and other abuses. Because of dated (and often loved) translations, many versions of the Bible imply otherwise.
As for the Old Testament, some Christians cite Leviticus 20:13, which commands death for men who lie with men. But most of us acknowledge that if we took all of the Old Testament’s orders literally, at least half of us wouldn’t make it to age 40, because of commands to kill those who commit adultery (Leviticus 20:10), kill rebellious sons who disobey their parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), kill anyone who works on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15) and the like.
Jesus never addressed the subject of homosexuality, other than what can be inferred from his example of loving and accepting everyone, especially the oppressed and those whom the religious establishment considered unclean.
Some Christians will disagree, pointing out that Jesus said marriage was between a man and a woman. What they are referring to is Mark 10:2-12, where Jesus protested the practice of men getting rid of inconvenient wives by simply handing them a certificate of divorce.
In this passage Jesus is objecting to a system that excessively penalized women, often causing financial devastation, loss of children and other unjust consequences. He was not saying anything about same-sex marriage, which didn’t exist at the time.
Jesus never spoke against homosexuality, but he did speak very clearly against divorce. Yet the majority of churches today — including those who view same-sex marriage as a sin — not only accept divorced members but also allow them to be church leaders. Why? Because marriage and divorce were different institutions in the time of Christ, and there are valid reasons for contemporary cultures to allow divorce in certain cases.
If you surmise that in 30 AD two men or two women marrying would have been anathema had it even been under consideration, you’re probably right. But why not make the same cultural allowances for gay couples 2,000 years later that Christian churches have long made for the divorced (as well as women, the disabled, and others who faced discrimination back then)?
Literalism, says LGBT activist and Episcopal priest Susan Russell, leads to using Bible passages as weapons. “Instead of taking the Bible literally,” she says, “we should take it seriously, with deep faithfulness to the Old and New Testaments’ core values of compassion, justice and peace.”
An ever-growing number of Christian clergy and lay people now believe that rejecting gay civil rights because of a literal adherence to certain verses directly contradicts these themes. They point out how these views are hurting all of the church, especially its most vulnerable members: young gay people who are convinced that their very essence is sinful. Furthermore, they can no longer support unjust laws that penalize committed same-sex couples and their families.
As more and more church members thoughtfully and prayerfully confront the evidence, it will only be a matter of time before the majority of Christians of all stripes become allies rather than antagonists for justice and equal rights for gay people. Then we will come out on the right side of history once again.
C.S. Pearce is the author of This We Believe: The Christian Case for Gay Civil Rights, and the director of media relations for Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University