As I write this, my denomination (Mennonite Church USA) continues in an uneasy tension over vexing issues of sexual ethics and ecclesial polity, especially concerning same-sex union, while the primary readers of this essay belong to a denomination (UMC) on the verge of dividing over similar issues. During the past few decades, such debates have swept through a wide swath of western Christianity, far beyond Mennonites and Methodists. If ever the church needed wisdom—for dealing with disagreement, for discerning God’s will—it’s now.
To discern along with the larger church, I undertook an in-depth study of this matter over several years, a process that evolved into writing a book: Marriage, Scripture, and the Church: Theological Discernment on the Question of Same-Sex Union (Baker Academic 2021). My hope is that this book might prove helpful to both professors and students in the seminary as well as pastors and parishioners in the congregation. In this essay, I aim to sketch in brief some main lines of thinking developed throughout the book.
Leaving aside issues of civil law and public policy, I focus on what I consider to be the primary question to be discerned by the church, namely, whether the church should revise its doctrine of marriage in order to sanction (declare holy) same-sex union as true marriage and bless same-sex couples with its nuptial rite. Centering discernment on this doctrinal question involves a deliberate shift of focus from the ethical question that has dominated debate in the church—whether same-sex intercourse is ever permissible or is always sinful—and thus from the typical set of biblical texts that are usually cited and disputed (Genesis 19, Leviticus 18, Romans 1, etc.). (I do address that question and those texts but in a supplement to the book [available online].)
Why discern the question of same-sex union by refocusing on the doctrine of marriage? Jesus provides us with a key precedent. Some Pharisees tested Jesus on the then-hotly debated topic of divorce, asking whether the law permitted a man to divorce his wife for any reason. Instead of answering their question directly, Jesus redirects their attention to the Genesis account of God’s creation, effectively reframing the question as a matter of marriage (Matt 19:3–9; Mark 10:2–12). Jesus tells them, in effect: You ask about divorce and then debate the law. But, first, you should ask about marriage and look to the creation account to discern God’s will for marriage—and then you will know how to properly interpret and apply the law regarding divorce.
Likewise, I suggest, we should address the question of same-sex union as a matter of marriage. To judge properly whether the church might sanction same-sex union, we must first inquire concerning God’s will for marriage. The question we must discern is not only, or primarily, an ethical matter of sex but also, and more so, a theological matter of marriage.
Historically, the church has looked first to Scripture, next to tradition, then to reason and experience (known among Methodists as the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”) to guide discernment. Framing the question of same-sex union as a matter of marriage has significant implications for discernment in each respect.
Focusing on marriage brings into view the whole witness of Scripture concerning marriage—from Genesis to the Psalms and Proverbs and Isaiah and Hosea, through the Gospels and Epistles to Revelation—as the biblical basis for discernment. This means that our discernment must take account of all the ways marriage is interwoven throughout the biblical story—as an ordering within God’s creation and a servant of God’s covenant, as a blessing for God’s people and a testimony to God’s promise, as a medium of God’s providence and an image of God’s salvation—from beginning to end.
Focusing on marriage also draws our attention to the doctrinal tradition on marriage that the church—East and West; Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—has transmitted down the centuries as a guiding resource for discernment. Engaging the church’s tradition allows us to reexamine substantive debates on marriage matters among early Christians—from the apostle Paul to St. Augustine—and thus to glean lessons from faithful forebears for our discernment.
Focusing discernment on same-sex intercourse suggests that this is a “special issue” that we may isolate and debate apart from other ethical issues facing the church. Refocusing discernment on marriage requires us to address other pressing questions of sexual discipline—pornography, cohabitation, contraception, nonmonogamy, childless-by-choice marriage, and divorce-remarriage, for example—that concern the contemporary church and that also implicate the doctrine of marriage but are often ignored by the typical debate. How we reason about same-sex union should be consistent with how we reason about other marriage matters.
Reading Scripture as the church, we begin unfolding the biblical witness to marriage where Jesus directed us to begin, at the beginning with Genesis. And regarding how to read Genesis on marriage, we take our cues from Jesus, the authoritative teacher of the church. This hermeneutical approach has significant implications for how we interpret Genesis and understand marriage.
First, Jesus interprets Genesis as revealing God’s instituted pattern of marriage. In citing Genesis, Jesus distills marriage into its essential elements—“the two” of “male and female” joined by God into “one flesh” (Matt 19:4–5; Mark 10:6–8; quoting Gen 1:27; 2:24). Reading Genesis with Jesus, we see that God’s institution of marriage joins covenant to creation, inscribing the conjugal bond of marriage (“the two become one flesh”) within the sexual form of humankind (“male and female”), so that both creational form and covenantal fidelity are integral to God’s design of marriage. Jesus’s ruling on the divorce question implies that God’s institution of marriage remains normative for God’s people in all subsequent eras of salvation history; God’s commandment on adultery reflects and reinforces God’s creation of marriage; and the case law on divorce neither overrides God’s intention for marriage nor circumvents God’s prohibition of adultery.
Second, Jesus interprets Genesis as revealing God’s intended purpose for marriage. In citing Genesis, Jesus fuses 1:27 and 2:24 seamlessly, indicating that Jesus read Genesis 1 and 2 as a unified narrative of God’s creating humankind and instituting marriage. Jesus’s interpretation of Genesis relates God’s institution of marriage to God’s creation of humankind and situates marriage within God’s purpose “from the beginning” (Matt 19:4; Mark 10:6). Reading Genesis 1 and 2 together, we see that God creates humankind male and female and institutes marriage as the sexual-social union of man and woman, to be unitive of the created sexes (“They become one flesh”; 2:24) and generative of offspring (“Be fruitful and multiply”; 1:28)—and both unitive and generative for the sake of humankind’s responsibility as God’s vice-regent (“fill and subdue”; 1:28) on earth and God’s caretaker (“till and keep”; 2:15) of earth. Reading the ensuing narrative of Genesis and beyond, we see that God incorporates marriage, with its unitive pattern and generative purpose, into God’s covenant with Israel and directs marriage into service of God’s plan of redemption, culminating in Jesus the Messiah (Matt 1:1–18). Jesus implicitly confirms this pattern and purpose of marriage, even in teaching that marriage will cease in the resurrection (Matt 22:23–33; Luke 20:27–40). God’s providence fits pattern to purpose in marriage so that marriage might serve God’s purpose in creation and promise in covenant.
Reading Genesis with Jesus makes a difference for discernment. Arguments in favor of sanctioning same-sex union must offer at least an alternative reading of either Genesis on marriage or Jesus on Genesis. Alternative readings of either Genesis or Jesus in favor of sanctioning same-sex union, however, stumble at Jesus’s interpretation of Genesis and teaching on marriage.
Some argue that Genesis is only descriptive, but not prescriptive, of marriage and thus is not preclusive of same-sex union. Others argue that Genesis is only the sexual-majority story of man-woman marriage and thus leaves open the possibility of a sexual-minority story inclusive of same-sex union. The first alternative falters on Jesus’s interpretation of Genesis as implying God’s prescription for marriage (“[God] made … and said”; Matt 19:4–5). The second alternative claims that Genesis makes monogamous fidelity the marriage norm for all it but presents male-female as the marriage norm for only the sexual majority; yet Jesus’s reading of Genesis gives the same regard to both norms.
Some argue that Jesus cited Genesis only as a rhetorical maneuver to outwit opponents and thus did not intend to teach them (or us) anything about marriage. Others argue that Jesus interpreted Genesis to accommodate the common view of his culture but did not commit him (or us) to affirming a historically limited understanding of marriage as God’s will for marriage. Yet Jesus, responding to the Pharisees’ question, does draw a substantive teaching from Genesis about marriage (“Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate”; Matt 19:6; Mark 10:9). And Jesus teaches about marriage, not from a human-historical perspective, but from the perspective of God’s will “from the beginning.” Accordingly, Jesus’s teaching on marriage and sex summons human beings to conform their ways to God’s will (cf. Matthew 5–7) rather than suggests God’s accommodation to the human condition.
Drawing primarily from the treasury of Scripture, the doctrinal tradition of the church has understood marriage to be a God-created, three-faceted reality: form, function, and figure. God designed marriage as a creational-covenantal union: unitive of the sexes, mutual between spouses, exclusive of all others, and enduring throughout life (form). God ordained and blessed marriage for serving God’s purpose in creation and covenant: man-woman partnership to generate and nurture children, rule creation, cultivate virtue, solidify society, and remedy sin (function). And God designated marriage to signify God’s promise and plan of redemption: marriage of man and woman symbolizes the covenant of God and Israel and the union of Christ and the church (figure). As symbol, marriage condenses the interconnections between creation and covenant into a revelation—a “mystery”—of salvation (Eph 5:31–32).
This doctrine of marriage is a biblical doctrine: it reflects the whole witness of Scripture in its breadth and depth, from the marriage of man and woman at the beginning (Genesis 1–2) to the marriage of Christ and the church at the end (Revelation 21–22), with the end prefigured in the beginning (Eph 5:25–32).
This doctrine of marriage is also a catholic doctrine: it meets the classical tests of universality, antiquity, and consensus; it has been believed everywhere, always, and by all Christians. The church has transmitted this doctrine via catechetical documents and theological treatises, exegetical homilies and ascetical poems, ecclesial rules and nuptial rites, synodal canons and confessional statements.
The doctrinal tradition has understood these three facets of marriage—form, function, and figure—as an integrated reality. Marriage joins covenant to creation; this creational-covenantal form fits marriage for its function; and creational-covenantal form and unitive-generative function together suit marriage for its figure. This understanding of marriage is witnessed by major theologians of the Western church. Augustine famously characterized marriage as a triad of “goods”—conjugal fidelity of husband and wife (form), generation of offspring (function), and sacrament of Christ and the church (figure)—and understood these as cooperative goods comprising an inseparable whole (On the Good of Marriage). Assuming this understanding of marriage, Aquinas maintained that the figure of marriage constrains the form of marriage: because “the figure must correspond to the reality it signifies,” and because “the union of Christ with His Church is of one Bridegroom with one Bride to be kept forever,” marriage “must be of one husband with one wife, to continue without separation” (Summa contra Gentiles IV.78). That God designed and designated marriage to figure Christ and the church, therefore, entails that marriage consists of sexual unity (“husband and wife”), exclusive fidelity (“one and one”), and enduring fidelity (“without separation”).
Sanctioning same-sex union would entail altering marriage in every aspect—form, function, and figure. Obviously, it would require subtracting “man and woman” from the definition of marriage such that the sexual correspondence of male-and-female would not be constitutive of marriage. This “de-sexuating” of marriage, further, entails the dis-integrating of marriage: it would separate the covenantal fidelity of marriage from the creational form of humankind, reversing God’s inscription of covenant within creation; it would separate unitive form from generative function, rendering procreation a peripheral or optional good in marriage; and it would separate the nuptial figure from the unitive form and generative function, fracturing the figural correspondence between marriage and salvation. Careful examination of specific proposals by Christian theologians for sanctioning same-sex union shows this dis-integration of marriage. Such proposals, explicitly or implicitly, separate the covenantal from the creational, or the unitive from the generative, or the figural from the unitive and the generative.
Viewing this matter from the perspective of doctrinal tradition, we see that sanctioning same-sex union as marriage would not only involve revising the doctrine of marriage but would also implicate the interconnected doctrines of creation and salvation. Discerning the question of same-sex union, therefore, requires acknowledging the doctrinal implications, and weighing the theological and ethical consequences, of altering marriage. In this light, I suggest, Jesus’s comment on the Genesis account—“what God has joined together, let no one separate”—takes on added meaning regarding marriage and provides a criterion for discernment: what God’s institution of marriage has joined together, let not the church’s sanction of marriage separate. This criterion pertains to whether the church should approve intentionally nonprocreative marriage or adulterous remarriage as much as to whether the church should approve same-sex union.
How, then, might we discern God’s will for marriage today? Which way is the Holy Spirit leading the church? Some have argued that, despite the witness of Scripture and tradition, the church might discern a path toward revising marriage and sanctioning same-sex union by appealing to certain precedents within Scripture.
Some appeal to Jesus’s practice of hospitality in welcoming sinners and including outsiders (cf. Luke 14), arguing that practicing such hospitality in the church today warrants not only welcoming gay believers as members but also blessing same-sex couples in marriage. This proposal rightly emphasizes Jesus’s hospitable posture and exhorts us to imitate Jesus’s example. Yet it neglects that Jesus called all to repent and enter the narrow gate that leads to life (Matt 4:17; 7:13–14), invited the “weary and burdened” to “find rest” by taking his “yoke” on them and binding their lives to his teaching (Matt 11:28–30), and taught his disciples a strict sexual discipline demanding self-denial (Matt 5:27–32). Jesus’s hospitality comprised social inclusion and ethical restriction. This proposal assumes a partial picture of Jesus derived from a selective reading of the Gospels.
Others appeal to the Jerusalem Council’s decision to baptize gentile believers without requiring circumcision (Acts 15), arguing that as the early church redefined membership as ethnicity-neutral to include gentile believers so the church today can redefine marriage as sex-neutral to include same-sex couples. This proposal rightly emphasizes the prophets’ vision for the church as the Spirit’s gathering of believers from all nations into one family and encourages us to refresh our vision of the church in light of the Spirit’s gathering of gay believers into God’s household. Yet it neglects the Jerusalem Council’s mandate, which “seemed good to the Holy Spirit,” that baptized gentiles adhere to ethical “essentials,” among which were biblical laws of sexual holiness that prohibit various forms of “sexual immorality” (porneias), likely including same-sex intercourse (Acts 15:19–21, 28–29; cf. Leviticus 17–18). The early church continued teaching this mandate of sexual holiness as God’s will for gentile believers (Acts 16:4; 1 Thess 4:3; 1 Cor 6:18; Did 2.2; 3.3; 5.1; etc.). The early church, like Jesus, was inclusive regarding ethnic identity but restrictive regarding sexual conduct. This proposal takes a narrow view of the Jerusalem Council that avoids its full relevance for the present question.
Still others appeal to Jesus’s promise that the Holy Spirit would teach the church “many things” Jesus did not reveal and would guide the church “into all the truth” (John 16:12–15), arguing that God’s blessing of same-sex union is one such truth that Jesus did not reveal to the apostles but which the Holy Spirit is now declaring to the church. This proposal rightly emphasizes the Holy Spirit’s authority in the church and urges us to “listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev 2:7, etc.). Yet it neglects that Jesus promised also that the Holy Spirit would “remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26) and authorized the apostles to testify to Jesus along with the Holy Spirit (John 15:26–27)—and that the Holy Spirit reminded the apostles of Jesus’s teaching on marriage, who testified to that teaching in the Gospels and epistles (Matt 5:31–32; 19:3–9; Mark 10:2–12; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor 7:10–11). This proposal prompts awkward questions: Did the apostles misunderstand the Holy Spirit, or did the Holy Spirit mislead the apostles? Has Jesus changed his teaching from then to now, or has Jesus’s teaching been surpassed by the Holy Spirit in a new dispensation of salvation history?
All this considered, I am doubtful whether the spirits of these proposals are from God (1 John 4:1). I thus call to mind Jesus’s parable that a “scribe trained for the kingdom” is like a household master “who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt 13:52). As wise stewards of God’s household, we would do well to soundly judge “what is new,” according to the witness of Scripture and teaching of Jesus, in discerning whether to alter or add to “what is old” in the household treasury.