The Gospel Changed Marriage, Not the Gays

Ryan Scott

Surprisingly, the most compelling scriptural argument for Christians to affirm marriage between two men is our understanding of women.

During my time in seminary, I dove deeply into the scriptures for support of our denomination’s stance on gay marriage. If I was going to be a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene, I wanted to be prepared not only with a statement, but with a solid explanation for our beliefs. I found, though, the more I studied, scripture gave me fewer and fewer reasons to oppose same-sex couples and more and more reasons to affirm them.

At the core of everything is our understanding of marriage itself.

When it comes to a theological argument about LGBTQ+ inclusion, you can throw out the issues of sex and biology—the Church of the Nazarene already affirms that the most appropriate context for sex is within a committed, Christ-centered marriage. The answer to who should be sleeping with whom is simple: spouses.

From there, the only remaining questions are ‘Who should be in a marriage and why?’

If you look at the history of marriage and the evolution of theology both in scripture and after it was written, you’ll see a stark difference in how God’s people have answered those questions. There’s an obvious movement from marriage as a social institution to marriage as a fully religious commitment, and it mirrors the movement of women as property to the recognition of women as full equals (at least in theory).

While our wedding liturgy talks about Genesis 2:24 as the foundation of Christian marriage, citing Adam and Eve becoming one flesh, it’s an interpretive leap that may not be wholly appropriate.

There’s no mention of marriage at all in Genesis 2 (there’s no separate word for ‘wife’ in Greek or Hebrew, it’s the word for ‘woman’ that becomes the English ‘wife’ when translators think it’s appropriate). In this passage we find only the kind of holy commitment to one another we now associate with marriage. But it took human society, as well as the Church, a long time to get from one to the other.

Early human marriage was a simple transfer of property. Women were objects to be owned—first by their fathers and then by their husbands. In fact, this social arrangement was so unseemly to God’s people that priests wanted nothing to do with performing or solemnizing marriages until the late Middle Ages, when the power of the Church was waning and requiring clerical approval of a marriage proved a particularly effective means of social control.

The religious rules around marriage all had to do with property rights. Fornication was a violation of a father by ‘defiling’ his property (daughter) and adultery was a violation of a husband by ‘defiling’ his wife—again, a property crime.

There’s no scriptural prohibition of extra-marital sex by men, so long as these other rules are observed. There was no written recrimination for, say, a man sleeping with a prostitute or his own servant girl, until Paul started calling it out by name in 1 Corinthians.

Modern conservative Christian sexual ethics essentially took the scriptural chastity rules for women and applied them to men, where it just as easily could’ve gone the other way (which is essentially what modern liberal Christian sexual ethics look like). In either event, things changed because we went from viewing women as property to viewing them as people.

Galatians says there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” It’s not saying that these distinctions don’t matter, that men and women are the same; it’s saying these distinctions are not of degree. Jews are not better than Gentiles. Slaves do not have a different status from free people. Men and women are not fundamentally different in value.

Many use this verse to support LGBTQ+ inclusion. I do not. I don’t believe inclusion can be proof-texted, just as exclusion cannot be derived from any one or series of verses. Affirmation of gay marriage arises as the necessary theological conclusion of broader arguments made in scripture. Our understanding of marriage has changed because of the massive theological shifts made in the process of God’s people better understanding how God has called us to live.

We see, even in the Hebrew scriptures, the beginning of the marriage analogy for the relationship between God and God’s people that continues through the New Testament. The Church is the bride of Christ and God’s faithfulness to us becomes the template for our marriage relationships with one another.

Paul introduces the notion of mutuality in marriage that was earth-shattering for the time. 1 Corinthians 7 teaches that women share ownership, not only of their own bodies, but of their husbands’ bodies as well, and that sexual practice in marriage should be by mutual consent. He’s tearing apart the notion of marriage as property exchange and recognizing the relational aspect, something we take for granted today, but is a relatively recent development.

Up until the last 100 years, almost no one married for love. Sure, spouses might have loved each other and certainly love can grow in any relationship where it’s fostered. But love as a primary motivation for marriage wasn’t even contemplated at any point in the Bible’s writing.

The point of marriage was to solidify or improve social conditions, to secure peace between powerful families, or to enhance the economic status of one or both parties. This was built primarily around having children. The purpose of marriage was to produce heirs, which is why barrenness is seen as such a curse throughout the bible.

For most of human history, if you wanted love, you looked outside your marriage. This is, again, why Paul’s words are so ground-breaking: husbands love your wives as Christ loves the Church. For Paul, and subsequently for Christian theology, marriage was not just about meeting your wife’s physical needs to enable child-bearing, but to care for her as a person. Your beloved is God’s beloved, and you must care for them the way God cares for them.

This modern, thoroughly scriptural, thoroughly Christian understanding of marriage is then read back into Genesis 2. As God declares “the two become one flesh,” we understand a far deeper meaning than anyone at the time of its original writing could’ve comprehended.

Genesis communicates the human need for connection and community. We are not designed to be alone. We need partners. We need each other. Marriage has become our best earthly approximation of the connection we were created to have with each other.

We embrace Jesus’ teaching from Matthew that in the Kingdom “people will neither marry nor be given in marriage,” because we’ll be able to love everyone as God intends. Until that time, we commit to focusing on one relationship above all others.

Thus, our understanding of Christian marriage is about as far from the social regulation of female property transfer as it could possibly be. We have completely transformed the institution into something beautiful and important and good, but also something unrecognizable to the writers and first readers of scripture.

So, no, Paul doesn’t talk about gay marriage, likely because he couldn’t envision it. It wouldn’t make any sense in his social context. He was just beginning to apply Christian principles to what was an entirely secular economic and social system. At the same time, though, gay marriage makes perfect sense in our contemporary context, largely because of the ways in which Paul himself reframed the Christian understanding of marriage.

The final piece of this puzzle is gender. Genesis talks about a man and a woman. Male and female biology fit together for procreation in obvious ways. The analogies in scripture are gendered, referencing husband and wife. But, if Christian marriage, as we understand it, is two people committing to God, and to each other, to love their spouse as God loves God’s people, does it matter what gender those two people happen to be?

It can’t matter—not unless we’re willing to require men and women to inhabit specific and differentiated gender roles. If there is some innate difference (beyond our sex organs) that makes men and women truly unique from each other, then there’s some reason to make a gender requirement in marriage.

But scripture doesn’t support that differentiation, not anywhere from Genesis to Revelation.

Sure, scripture was written in the midst of a patriarchal society; but much like the theological evolution of marriage, it also challenges the faithful to a broader, more egalitarian understanding of men, women, and humanity in general.

There’s insufficient space here to fully explain the equality inherent in Genesis 2, but the literature is voluminous that the spouse God crafted for the first human was an equal and complementary being. For years, we’ve gendered this complementarity, relying on stereotypes that women are sensitive and men are strong, women are carers and men are conquerors, that women and men possess uniquely different traits that must fit together for marriage to work.

We don’t have to deny this complementary picture of marriage to expand its definition beyond a man and a woman. If anything, those gendered stereotypes limit both men and women from being the full, beautiful creation God intends them to be. How much pain and misery have we caused by communicating there are only certain ways to be “real” men and women?

Things are never that simple.

I do most of the cooking in our home. I do the shopping, and I stayed home when our daughter was young. My wife asks for power tools for her birthday, makes most of the money, and enjoys getting her hands dirty far more than I do. Yet she’s also the decorator, finely attuned to aesthetics, while I spend much of my free time watching sports.

We don’t fit any gendered stereotype or its opposite. We’re unique individuals who happen to be male and female. What’s more important is that we complement each other in ways that make our marriage stronger than either of us could be on our own. We got married because we were convinced we could do more for God’s Kingdom together than we could do separately.

I know plenty of same-sex couples for whom the same is true, whose marriages are a blessing to them, to God, and to the world. I see no reason to deny them an equal place in the Kingdom of God or in the Church of the Nazarene.

Christ calls us to break down barriers, cross lines of division, and embrace that self-giving love of God which is the only hope for the salvation of the world. The Church should be at the forefront of recognizing, affirming, and embracing marriage for all people as it is the natural next step in the Spirit-led transformation of marriage from misogyny and oppression to freedom, equality, and love.

Adam, Isaiah, and Paul may not have understood what they were starting at the time, but God is always at work among the faithful to transmit and transform God’s world into what it was created to be. Recognition and affirmation of LGBTQ+ couples is not a capitulation to culture, but a gospel-infused counter-cultural movement to further welcome God’s coming Kingdom.

Ryan Scott is a writer and substitute teacher from Middletown, DE, where he lives with his wife and daughter in The Nest, a 140 year old fixer-upper and hub of hospitality, which also hosts Middletown Church of the Nazarene, where he serves as pastor. Ryan is Lead Columnist for and can be found online almost anywhere as @RyanAlanScott.

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