As the United Methodist church likely reaches a point of separation of ways in the coming months, I have been left continuously reflecting off-and-on on the nature and understanding of marriage. Even as I am not presently serving as a pastor, not attending a United Methodist congregation (I am attending a Nazarene church for the time being), nor seeking ordination in the United Methodist denomination, the theological and ethical conflict still rings loud in my ears. It rings loudly because I identify myself broadly as Wesleyan and am open to joining with any traditional Wesleyan-Methodist movement in the future (although, my willingness will in part be predicated upon whether a conciliatory view towards the discussions of sexuality remains, even as the churches maintain an ecclesiology that retains a traditional view on marriage). However, it rings loudly in my ears because the discussion of marriage and sexuality is such a deeply personal topic that impacts various people. On the one hand, there are numerous voices from the LGBTQ camp that are shouting about the harm that is being done by many proponents of traditional sexuality, which is coming from even side-B celibate gays and lesbians who embrace traditional sexuality. Yet, there is a powerful voice in Scripture that lifts up marriage being between a man and a woman.
There are so many social and theological dynamics that are beyond my capacity to tease out and explain. Yet, I feel like much of the problems surrounding the question of sex and marriage roots around a conflict at a level that is much deeper than one’s views of the Scriptures. I think it is a case where there is conflicting hermeneutics between traditional and progressives that fundamentally shape how they view marriage, gender, righteousness, and sin. Yet, the conflict of hermeneutics isn’t as much on the more explicit level of what methodology people tend towards in interpreting the Scriptures, such as a preference for literal or non-literal modes of interpretation. I suggest it goes deeper than that, at the very fundamental level of how one draws theological and ethical inferancess from the Scripture to life. You might call this application, but the hermeneutical phenomenon I am pointing out is a much deeper pattern of interpretation that regularly manifests itself in the application of the Scriptures as a norm for Christian life and thinking. Upon recognition of this deeper pattern of hermeneutics, I would suggest there is an alternative style that has vast theological and ethical implications that diverge from the way many traditionalists think but still seeks to retain a traditional view of marriage within the Church.
Ultimately, what can be said to define the prevailing hermeneutics for traditional marriage is the implicit assumption that is expressed as follows: 1) the Bible gives a specific, normative model for sex and marriage and 2) deviation from this model for sex and marriage is sin. While this is assumption is relatively obvious upon first expressing it, it is not immediately apparent that this hermeneutic is entirely Scriptural. Yet, one may suggest that its basis is rooted in a *plausible* theological reading of the Scriptures in terms of creation and original sin: that God’s act of creation fully instituted a specific order within the world, which is manifest in the differentiation of the sexes, that later became broken with the fall of Adam. In this view, there is a completely realized, perfect order that was deviated from, both in terms of sin and death. Thus, the picture of Adam and Eve as a normative model for sex and marriage and labeling any deviation from it as sin is a logical outworking of this theological narrative. However, as I will seek to demonstrate, the apparent obviousness of this narrative was due to a combination of its (a) plausible reading of creation that the Western Christian tradition posited that (b) become inculcated in people in sermons, Sunday schools, etc. time and time again. As a result, this line of reasoning and interpretation is deeply intuitive, engrained deeply within the psyche of many traditionalists. Hermeneutical assumptions #1 and #2 are an intuitive outworking of this theological worldview.
Yet, what if there is an equally plausible, if not better, reading of creation and sin that does not necessarily lead to hermeneutical assumptions #1 and #2? What I would put forward is that the creation and fall narrative is not a narrative that describes a perfect order, any deviation from which is considered to be sin. Instead, I would put forward that creation itself was an ongoing, diachronic process of development towards a divine purpose that deviated from that line of development with the fall. In other words, we can understand God’s acts of creation teleologically in that God’s purpose is progressing through time.
We catch what is perhaps a hint of this in the six days of creation, where God considers what is created to be good until the creation of humans, which is very good. Sometimes taken to be a reference to perfection, the evaluation of God’s creation after humanity seems more so to designate an intensification of goodness that comes when creation begins to reach its purpose. Yet, there is still work to be done in creation that humanity is commissioned for. The goodness of the creation of humanity in God’s image is tied to their vocation to fulfill God’s commission to fill and subdue the earth. There isn’t perfection in the order, but an intensification of goodness, with an (implicit) movement towards an ideal purpose and goal. This becomes a bit more explicit in the New Testament, where creation has a specific teleological/eschatological purpose it is moving towards. For instance, Colossians 1.16 ascribes to Jesus the power of creation, saying “all things have been created through him and for him.” The last prepositional phrase (εἰς αὐτὸν) designates a purpose for creation, to be something for Jesus. This purpose becomes eschatologically realized as God purposes to reconcile all things in heaven and earth (an echo of the creation narrative!) to himself (Col. 1.20). Similarly, in Ephesians 2.10, Paul portrays God’s act of creating teleologically, as believers are created for the good works that God has designed beforehand for them to do. In other words, creation is understood as moving towards a purpose or goal in the Scriptures. We don’t catch a glimpse that God’s act of creation as being portrayed as the institution of perfect order. Rather, the intensification of goodness in the creation of humanity was tied to some greater development.
The fall of Adam and Eve was less about a dramatic change in the world order that is unalterable (sans the redemption in Christ) and more about a different trajectory in opposition to God’s purposes. In Genesis 3.22, God recognizes the humans eating of the tree of knowledge has lead to dreadful possibility: that they would continue to live forever from the tree of life in their present state. The problem God expressed is not that simply that they disobeyed, that is deviated, from His instruction, but that their disobedience had brought about an unacceptable state of affairs. Not only would sin be a possibility through the knowledge of evil, but they could retain life indefinitely in the midst of that state. God’s response is to prevent the unstated, dreaded outcome by separating them from the tree of life. Yet, as the narrative develops into Genesis 4-11, there is an escalation of violence leading to the flood and a clustering together to build the tower of Babel rather than filling the earth. When Cain murdered Abel, God protected Cain, which was then taken by Lamech as a sign he would be protected from murder others, leading to escalation of violence. After God sent the flood to sweep away the wickedness, He then institutes the lex talonis principle where those who murder shall be put to death. Yet, this leads to the clustering together at the Tower of Babel. Every action of God in response to sin leads to a different trajectory of human activity that diverged from God’s intentions in creation. What the fall inculcated was not so much a shift in the inherent order of the world as much as it changes the functioning of the world so that different trajectories of evil emerged. In other words, Genesis 3-11 is describing rapidly changing trajectories for the evil that God is constantly addressing and responding to. It is not a description of a fixed, ontological reality of sin.
In other words, creation and the fall is about human potential, both for good and evil, that would be realized in time. Whereas God created the heavens and the earth to develop towards one purpose, Adam and Eve’s disobedience marked a deviation towards a different trajectory that would be marked by increasing pain, futility, and evil. So, when understand God created humanity as male and female, it wasn’t so much about the institution of a specific, fixed order in the world, but rather the means by which the goodness that God purposed and designed for humanity would be realized. The pattern of sex and marriage in Genesis 1-2 is more about the highest good than it is describing the specific instituted order everything must fit within.
In the traditional creation and fall narrative, deviation from the pattern that God is deemed to have instituted is part of the pattern of sin. Sin is the deviance from the fixed, instituted order. In the model I described for understanding creation and fall, what is put forward in the maleness and femaleness of humanity and marriage is the good means by which God’s purposes will be realized. Marriage was not an ends to itself, however, but it served a greater purpose in humanity being fruitful and multiplying. Thus, deviance to a specific order/model is not the issue, but deviation that conflicts with and counters God’s greater purposes is the concern. Bringing this to bear on the nature of sex and marriage, the Christian witness should not be focused on labeling deviance from it as sin, but rather putting forward the union of husband and wife as a means by which God’s purposes can be instrumentally realized. Put simply, the model I put forward does not put the focus on labeling sin and what we stand against, but rather in pointing forward towards the way in which God’s good intentions and purposes can become realized in the world.
The outworking of this is that homosexuality isn’t automatically some sin. Beyond the fact that I think many of the Scripture passages that are taken to talk about homosexuality are actually referring to a married man sexually substituting another man in for his wife (that is, a sin that would be understood as a form of adultery in our era), the creation narrative should not be fit into the two hermeneutical assumptions I outlined above. A better reading of those narratives does not uphold the theology that undergirds those two hermeneutical assumptions. Instead, we can read the creation narrative as a description of how God seeks for creation to become further filled and worked upon through the marital relationships that lead to multiplication. Marriage is instrumental to God’s purposes, not the ends for which we are created. Not every individual human was created to get married to the opposite sex, even as that instinct throughout humanity is an important, but not sufficient, part for humanity to realize its creation-given purpose as being made in God’s image. If, for instance, we accept the legitimacy of celibacy in the Church, then we at one level recognize that the creation narrative is not a model for all individual people to participate in.
Of course, one might think I am making an argument against the traditional understanding of sex and marriage, but I am not. Simply because I do designate homosexuality a sin does not mean I believe the Church should celebrate sexualized relationships between people of the same sex. This is where progressive hermeneutics comes up.
In progressive hermeneutics, there is an assumption of the near-universal equality of human choice (to be clear here, I do not mean to suggest sexual orientation is a choice, but the choices one makes in one’s life). If a person chooses to be one thing, it should not be treated as better or worse than any other choice, insofar as it does not cause direct harm to persons. So, when coming to the question of marriage, they might affirm the creation narrative, but they might also deemphasize the importance of maleness and femaleness in the creation story. Marriage is itself an institution that people should feel the freedom to choose to use as they see fit. Or, they may interpret the heteronormativity of the Bible through the lens of oppression, appealing to the past ways that the Bible was used in support of slavery and the oppression of women as evidence of oppressive Scriptures. Whatever the specific way they read and apply the Scriptures, their readings are largely controlled by the assumption of a near-universal equality of human choice.
This hyper-liberal hermeneutics is a sharp antithesis to the traditional creation-and-fall narrative, which leads to diametrically opposed conclusions. Yet, this choice-hermeneutic is much less plausible within the Scriptural narrative. While we should not assume the Bible forbids anything related to personal freedom and choice because it isn’t explicit, it is a hermeneutic that does not provide a coherent reading of explicit Biblical passages. It is largely a cultural assumption. Nevertheless, if we value well-being and think it is rooted in the Scriptures, there are some solid empirical reasons to consider the way our choices and the way people treat us for our choices can influence our ethical reasoning. However, it doesn’t rise up to the level of providing a lens through which we should read the Scriptures.
Beyond that, from the model I provided above, the critique of this progressive hermeneutic is that it is not robust enough. While it avoids antinomianism by recognizing that harmful behaviors should not be deemed appropriate or equivalent to non-harmful behaviors, it lacks a robust consideration of the purposes for which we make our choices. Why do we choose to get married or not get married? Why do we choose to have sex or not have sex? The progressive worldview would suggest what makes the person happy, fulfilled, etc. is good enough reason. Yet, from the model I proposed, same-sex intercourse and marriage fundamentally fall short of the creation purpose that sex and marriage is to functionally serve. There is no functional equivalence between the two because opposite-sex intercourse and marriage fulfill God’s purposes in a way that same-sex intercourse and marriage can not. It doesn’t make it “sin,” but it doesn’t make it “good” in the sense that it serves the wider creation purposes either. Same-sex intercourse and marriage is principally about the happiness of the individuals, not also the greater good that God is bringing about through us.
This doesn’t mean, however, that this is an implicit way of calling homosexuality sin. It simply means that the Church should not regard all sexual couplings and marriages as being equal. How that is manifest within the ecclesial body would be up for discussion. I myself lean a strongly traditional manner though, as the Church’s primary vocation is to reflect the goodness and glory of God in this world. We do that in part by the way the Scriptures testify to God’s activity. Opposite-sex marriage is the way God made humanity in order to fulfill His purposes given to us. The testimony of the Church to God’s purposes within creation should be tied to this. Yet, within this, there is perhaps room to consider accommodation to others who can not happily choose to marry someone of the opposite sex or to remain celibate. To come into a committed relationship with someone of the same sex does not harm anyone else; to not do so for some people may in fact cause great harm. While in my mind, it should not be treated as equivalent in Church teaching and witness, if we don’t assume deviance is a sin and if the other Scriptures do not talk about homosexuality in general, perhaps it is something that is better understood through the lens of Romans 14.1-9. Everyone will be accountable to the Lord for their choice, so the question should be asked: are they seeking to serve Jesus Christ? If that is genuinely so and if a person can neither faithfully live in a traditional marriage nor can they healthily embrace a celibate lifestyle without deep harm, let them choose as they see fit and let God hold them accountable, because if they are genuinely seeking to serve Jesus Christ then they are still seeking to do the good word God desires within the world, even as circumstances lead them to deviate from the ideal.
I would suggest this is equivalent to how one can view divorce and remarriage. There are various instances where people can not stay in marriages without risks to their health. In such cases, we can consider them to be free to divorce. That doesn’t mean we celebrate a divorce, however. Similarly, remarriage after a divorce may be considered a personal choice, especially if a person left a previously abusive marriage or they spend much time maturing after dissolving a relationship they can not reconcile. The Church should not celebrate and advocate for remarriage, but in cases where emotional and spiritual well-being is at stake, it is best to let Jesus evaluate them and their circumstances. Divorce and remarriage deviate from the way God fashioned creation and us to realize our purposes, but we should take the realities of people’s life into consideration as to whether accommodation is something permissible to allow, even as it shouldn’t be celebrated. According to this logic, this is also the way marriages that do not intend to produce children may also be looked at: as something allowable, but not something the Church should celebrate.
In other words, perhaps there is a way to redefine the traditional understanding of marriage that is a) much more faithful to the Scriptures as a whole, b) is much more focused on the goodness that God is seeking to bring about, and c) is more merciful and compassionate rather than judgmental to those who lives and circumstances don’t readily fit the ideal of marriage in the creation narrative. It does leave a bit more ambiguity in various matters of affairs, but it does so in the service of love and grace, even as it stands committed to where there isn’t much ambiguity.