Yesterday morning the U.S. Supreme Court delivered an historic decision that same-sex couples had the right to marry in the United States. Their decision reflects a dramatic shift in U.S. public opinion concerning same-sex relationships over the last few decades. Prior to the Supreme Court decision, nearly two-thirds of Americans favored extending the rights of marriage to same-sex couples.
Before offering my own thoughts on this decision, its important to note that the Supreme Court is charged with interpreting the U.S. Constitution, not the Bible. The Court is not asked to discern God’s will, or what constitutes ethical or moral behavior for Christians. Likewise, Christians do not determine their morals from public opinion polls.
The Supreme Court ruling does not directly address how pastors, churches, and individual Christians must or should view the issue of same-sex marriage. Pastors and churches are still permitted to refuse to marry same-sex couples, and to see the love of a same-sex couple as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The question for pastors, churches, and Christians continues to be, “What is the will of God concerning same-sex marriage?” Yesterday there was no shortage of Christians speaking up to criticize the Supreme Court’s decision and to make clear their view of God’s will on the matter. Among them, Franklin Graham had this to say, “This court is endorsing sin. That’s what homosexuality is – a sin against God…God gave marriage between a man and a woman and that’s what marriage is…God gave us marriage. Period. And God doesn’t change his mind.”
Like Franklin Graham, I read the Bible every day. I study it, memorize it, teach it, preach it, and seek to live it. It is the defining story of my life. But, 37 years of studying the Bible has also taught me that the Bible is at times complicated. Within its pages we learn of the heart, character, and will of God, but we also find on its pages things that we might question. Things that seem to reflect the culture and times the biblical authors lived in more than the timeless will of God.
We find that women were often seen as second class in much of the Bible. Concubinage and polygamy and the use of slave girls as surrogates in childbirth were all acceptable family values in the Old Testament. Slavery was found to be morally acceptable in the Old Testament and slave-owning Christians in the early church were not asked by the apostles to set their slaves free. Priests were commanded to burn their daughters alive if they became prostitutes, and rebellious children were to be stoned to death. Women who were raped were required to marry their rapist. And when Israel went off to war she believed God called her to destroy every man, woman, and child among the nations she conquered—what today we call genocide. The Apostle Paul teaches that women are to pray with their heads covered and to not wear their hair in braids. They are not permitted to teach a man, and Paul notes that it was “shameful” for a woman to even speak in church.
Here’s my point in mentioning these examples: The Bible, in its writing, content, and canonization, is wonderfully complex and we do not do it justice, nor are we always able to discern God’s will, simply by quoting a handful of verses. If it worked this way we’d still embrace slavery, polygamy, and concubinage. Victims of rape would still be forced to wed their rapists. We’d not allow women to serve as pastors; but rather, we’d require them to remain silent in the church.
At one time my views on the “issue of homosexuality” would have mirrored Franklin Graham’s. These changed over the last 25 years due to two factors: my daily study of scripture and weekly preaching from it helped me appreciate the complexity of the Bible and why it needs to be carefully interpreted; and coming to know and care for an increasing number of gay and lesbian people, hearing their stories and seeking to make sense of sexual orientation helped me to see them as human beings and to ask if it was really God’s will that they not be able to share their lives together.
One of the texts I always quote in wedding ceremonies is Genesis 2:18 where God saw that the human he had created was lonely. God had compassion upon the human and in that context we read God saying, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his companion.” This second human being was the woman, a complement to the man – a gift and blessing – that the two might be one another’s helpers and companions.
I don’t believe God makes us gay or straight. I think sexual orientation is developed in most of us at a very early age through some combination of nature and nurture. Heterosexuality is normative, but roughly 5% of the population is drawn to love someone of the same gender in the same way that heterosexuals are drawn to love the opposite gender. Is it possible that God might look at his gay and lesbian children and say, “It is not good that this one should be alone; I will make them a helper as their companion”?
I’ve spent the past week on vacation with my wife, LaVon, driving up the Pacific Coast Highway taking in the scenery and savoring sharing time with my companion, soul mate, and best friend. Very little of my relationship with LaVon is about sexual intimacy, though it is an important part of our lives. My love for her is largely about sharing our lives together as one another’s helpers and companions. It is about holding hands, sharing dreams, helping one another when one of us is struggling. It is about shared memories, companionship, and a warm embrace. It is about a deep love that we have for each other, and a commitment to act with love even when we don’t feel like it. This is what we signed on for when we married, pledging, “to have and to hold from this day forward; for better or for worse; for richer or for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until we are parted by death.” The Supreme Court has said that this kind of committed covenant love should not be legally denied to same sex couples.
Currently the United Methodist Church says that gay and lesbian couples cannot enter into this kind of covenant. They cannot receive God’s blessings upon their love within our churches and from our pastors because, according to our Discipline, to share their lives together as companions in this kind of covenant is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” We teach, in essence, that God says of gay and lesbian people that it is good for them to be alone. An increasing number of United Methodist laity and clergy, I suspect a majority in the United States, disagree with this position.
At the church I serve our members do not all see eye to eye on same sex marriage. Our pastors do not all agree on this issue. We have agreed that we will welcome and love gay and lesbian people. We’ve agreed that it is possible for faithful Christians to interpret scripture differently on this issue and still remain brothers and sisters in Christ and in the same church.
Next May in Portland, Oregon, the United Methodist Church will hold its General Conference. There 800 delegates from around the world will come together to pray, discuss, and debate a variety of issues, but none will have more attention than this one. My hope is that the Church will acknowledge the reality that faithful United Methodists disagree as to how we interpret scripture concerning homosexuality, and to make provision for local churches and local church pastors to determine how they will be in ministry with same-sex couples, including the question of same-sex marriage.
This blog post is not the ideal vehicle for fully conveying the complexities and nuances of this issue. I have but scratched the surface here. I invite you to read more in my book, Making Sense of the Bible (HarperOne, 2014). I go into far greater detail there and am able to expound upon Scriptural interpretation as it relates to this topic. I have also written on the topic here on the blog previously, if you’d like to read through these past posts for further clarity:
 This phrase is used in The United Methodist Book of Discipline
 The one exception is when Paul asked Philemon to release Onesimus, but elsewhere Paul only commands Christian slave owners to treat their slaves fairly. Paul’s commands on the subject helped insure centuries of acceptance of slavery within Christianity.