Key Arguments in the Debate on Same-Sex Relationships

This is the third post in a five part series on same-sex relationships. The series is intended to be read in order. Each essay is essential for understanding the full picture. Click here to see all posts.

Note: This post is two in one. I have intentionally placed the key arguments for both sides in one post as I consider it best to read them together.

Recently, I attended a public meeting at a church whose denomination is debating the morality of same-sex relationships. Two high level officials in the denomination were invited to give a presentation on the topic. I was curious how they would handle the issue. They addressed it with grace and respect, but I was dismayed by the simplistic and outdated information. The presentation summarized six verses commonly cited to prohibit same-sex relationships (see footnote for guide to all verses on homoeroticism).[1] The same content could have been heard 30-40 years ago. These six prooftext verses have been rehashed countless times over the past few decades. In fact, despite the proliferation of books on the Bible and homosexuality, most of them regurgitate the exact same thing. Yet, these six verses are not the sticking point of the current debate. As indicated in the last post, there is much agreement between traditionalists and progressives on why the biblical authors condemned same-sex intercourse (at least for men). Rather, the debate centers primarily on gender and anatomical complementarity. This post will present common key arguments from both sides. First I begin with the traditionalist point of view, followed by the progressive perspective. 

Key Traditionalist Arguments on Same-Sex Relationships

Key texts: Genesis 1-3; Matthew 19:1-6; Mark 10:1-9; Romans 1; Ephesians 5:22-32; Revelation 19:7-9. Secondary texts: Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Mark 7:17-23.[2]

1. Heterosexual marriage is a creation ordinance and, therefore, not culturally relative.

The key traditionalist argument is built on an overarching understanding of marriage. Applying a canonical reading (interpretation of the whole of Scripture in its final form), various texts are pulled together to paint an integrated portrait of God’s design for marriage. The Genesis creation narratives are essential to this view. In the beginning, God created humankind, “male and female, he created them” (1:27). God had a purpose in designing two sexes, including the unique capacity to procreate and bring life into the world. Male and female are intentionally differentiated. The woman is like the man (“flesh of my flesh”), but also different because she has been separated out of man and set opposite to him. The Hebrew word kenegdo captures this distinction of being opposite. This reading is reinforced by other pairings in Genesis 1, including light/darkness, earth/sky, sun/moon, and land/sea. Thus, based on sexual differentiation and its procreative gift, a man “leaves his mother and father and clings to his wife” (2:24). Marriage is inscribed in creation itself as a union between male and female. Same-sex relationships are a violation of God’s purposeful design for sexuality.

The New Testament supports this view. When addressing why people should remain married and not divorce, Jesus argued, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt 19:4-6, NRSV; see also Mark 10:1-9). Jesus was addressing a question about divorce, but in the process clarifies God’s will for those “joined together.” He quotes two different texts: Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. Even if these two chapters derive from different ancient sources (as most scholars believe), Jesus reads them together as a unified text. Thus, we should follow his interpretive approach. Moreover, Jesus could have made his argument using only 2:24 (one flesh), but chose to include the additional comment about male and female.

2. Marriage is ordered toward procreation, but procreation is not required to validate a marriage.

As Genesis indicates, God made male and female and commanded them to multiply and fill the earth. All marriage should be open to and ordered toward procreation. Our bodies tell us that male and female are sexually complementary. Sperm is produced and delivered via the male sexual organs (testes and penis). The vagina receives sperm and channels it toward fertilization of an egg. Male and female sex organs don’t fully make sense apart from each other. Their reproductive function is contingent upon one another. To pretend our bodies say nothing about God’s (or even biology’s) design for sex is asking too much.

This attention to bodily complementarity of male and female is also why traditionalists bless infertile couples to marry even if they cannot procreate. The creation design is not merely procreation itself, but also the anatomical complementarity that leads to that result. Infertile heterosexual couples can still use their bodies sexually in the intended complementary way. They can become “one flesh” as Genesis describes. Infertile couples can also still participate in gender complementarity, which for some traditionalists is grounded in certain understandings of male and female roles (a wife’s submission to her husband, etc). As the creation narrative states, woman was created to be “a helper suitable” for the man (Gen 2:18).[3] However, gender complementarity can be egalitarian as well and merely understood as basic differences between men and women beyond sex and reproduction. Such distinctions can be controversial, but are generally recognized even if not easily defined.[4]

3. Same-sex desire is the result of the Fall.

According to Genesis 3, disobedience to God led to a fallen, disordered world. Our sexuality is affected by this and needs to be redeemed. In Romans 1, Paul casts same-sex desire in the context of this Fall. Romans 1 has Genesis as a backdrop. Allusions can be seen in the phrases “creation of the world” and “the Creator” (Rom 1:20, 25), the use of terms “male” and “female” per Genesis 1:27 rather than “men” and “women,” and echoes pertaining to images and animals.[5] For example:

Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

Romans 1:23: “. . . .and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.”

Moreover, Jewish writers around the time of Paul, including Philo and Josephus, as well as some Greco-Roman writers, referred to “natural” and “unnatural” (para physin) in the context of procreation, which requires anatomical complementarity. Paul does not specifically mention procreation in Romans 1, but there is no reason to believe that his use of para physin is completely divorced from how it was understood by other Jewish and Greco-Roman writers who made an explicit connection between the phrase and procreation. This is especially true when Paul’s allusions to Genesis are acknowledged.

Since Romans 1 denounces same-sex intercourse based on the order of creation, the prohibition cannot be reduced to only exploitative relationships characteristic of pederasty, prostitution, or master and slave. Also, the inclusion of women as guilty of unnatural intercourse indicates that all forms of same-sex relations are in view since female-female relationships did not manifest in the same way as male-male relationships in antiquity.

4. Heterosexual marriage is a living icon or symbol of the union between Christ and the Church.

Marriage is meant to be a living icon of the beautiful relationship between God and humankind, as well as the relationship within the Trinity itself. Marriage between a man and woman is a symbol that witnesses to the world important divine realities.

The Bible starts and ends with marriage. At creation, Adam and Eve are brought together in a complementary union (Gen 1-2). At the end of time, Christ, the groom, is united with his bride, the church (Rev 19:7-9). In Ephesians 5, Paul drives home this connection of marriage between man and woman and marriage between Christ and the church:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. . . . For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church” (vv. 25, 29-32).

The metaphor only makes sense if differentiation is present. Christ, who is God, is united with human beings. Same-sex marriage would be akin to saying Christ married Christ or the church married the church. Same-sex relationships do not reflect the essential “otherness” and, thus, cannot serve as a living symbol of Christ and the church.

Scroll down for key arguments on the progressive side of the debate

Further Reading for Traditionalist Biblical Interpretation:

Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? (Part 1 only; pages 1-59. Part 2 not recommended)

Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. For an abbreviated version of his arguments see his essay countering Dan Via in Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views

Wesley Hill, “Christ, Scripture, and Spiritual Friendship” in Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, 124-147.

Christopher C. Roberts, Creation and Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage

Preston Sprinkle, People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue

William Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals

N.T. Wright, “What Is Marriage For?” Plough Quarterly 6 (2015): 38-43

Key Progressive Arguments on Same-Sex Relationships

1. The biblical authors held some views on marriage that are not accepted by most Christians today.

Traditionalists portray a grand narrative of marriage, but that narrative is a product of later interpretive constructs rather than the biblical authors. For example, N.T. Wright describes how marriage bookends the Bible, showing up at the beginning and the end, as a way to emphasize its sweeping symbolic significance. However, the book of Revelation did not exist at the time of the Israelites, Jesus, or Paul and such a canonical reading would not have been in their view. In fact, Revelation was a contested book for hundreds of years with Martin Luther wanting to remove it from the Bible entirely.

Israelite perspectives on marriage are not nearly as romantic as traditionalists portray. Polygyny (1 Sam 25:39-43), levirate marriage (Gen 38:6-10), and rapist-victim marriage (Deut 22:28-29) were all acceptable. Men could also have sex with women other than their wives, including slaves and concubines.[6] Sexuality did not become more restricted for Jewish men until perhaps the 2nd century BCE. Significantly, it was Greek culture that promoted marital monogamy in the ancient Near East. Only in the Greco-Roman period do we see extra-biblical Jewish writing that aggressively argues against polygyny.

One man/one woman marriage or sex is not the only form sanctioned in much of the Bible. The significance of this observation is that interpretation of the Bible involves decisions about what forms of marriage and sexual activity we accept (or not) from the biblical authors. Even traditionalists do not agree with everything the biblical authors propose about marriage. New Testament views are closer to traditionalists’ arguments than the Old Testament, but even here we might disagree with certain conclusions, including Paul’s instruction that a man could force a woman to remain unmarried if he decided that fate for her (1 Cor 7:37). We might also disagree with Paul’s reading of the Genesis narratives when he concludes that women are more easily deceived because Eve was deceived—a claim not supported by modern research (1 Timothy 2:12-15).

2. Paul’s understanding of same-sex attraction does not describe the reality of gay and lesbian people today.

Just as we might not agree with every perspective the biblical authors had on marriage, we also need to take into account Paul’s particular understanding of same-sex attraction. Like other Jewish writers of his time, Paul believed homoeroticism was a pagan problem caused by rejection of God. In Romans 1, he describes those with same-sex desire (not just behavior) as Gentiles who are “futile in their thinking” and “senseless” because they exchanged worship of God for that of images of human beings and animals. The language of idolatry in this passage is akin to what we see in Ezekiel or Wisdom of Solomon:

“So, I went in and looked; there, portrayed on the wall all around, were all kinds of creeping things, and loathsome animals, and all the idols of the house of Israel” (Eze 8:10).

“But the idol made with hands is accursed, and so is the one who made it—he for having made it, and the perishable thing because it was named a god. For equally hateful to God are the ungodly and their ungodliness; for what was done will be punished together with the one who did it. Therefore there will be a visitation also upon the heathen idols, because, though part of what God created, they became an abomination, snares for human souls and a trap for the feet of the foolish. For the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life” (Wisdom 14:8-12).

Even if we universalize Paul’s statements to all humankind based on his inclusion of Jews in Romans 2 (or for the less likely reason that Paul is referring to the Fall), he still has in mind people who are unbelievers. In fact, that is the straightforward reading of many conservative Christians. Until recently (and still), many Christians have assumed that gay people are heathens outside the church. Romans 1 has been cited as evidence for this understanding.

Today, we know that people do not experience persistent same-sex attraction because they have rejected God or have out of control sex drives. The etiology appears to be a combination of inborn and environmental factors.

3. Biblical marriage emphasizes commonality and loyal love, not sexual differentiation.

Traditionalist objections to same-sex relationships are based heavily on the Genesis narratives rather than the actual texts that prohibit same-sex relations (the prohibitive texts do not provide a strong enough argument by themselves). But, the creation story of Adam and Eve actually plays very little role in Israelite theology. The biblical authors don’t talk about Adam and Eve in the rest of the Old Testament texts or refer back to them as examples when discussing marriage.  Contrary to the impression traditionalists give, the writers of Genesis were not expounding a theology of marriage.[7] As most scholars agree, Genesis 1-3 are an Israelite explanation of human origins, how the earth was populated, and why evil exists in the world. The portrait of a single biblical marriage model is a later theological construct. However, if traditionalists approve this type of interpretive approach to the Bible, then it’s only fair that progressives can do the same. Namely, biblical theology emphasizes marriage as commonality and loyal love, not sexual differentiation.

The traditionalist argument hinges on sexual differentiation. Robert Gagnon suggests that Adam and Eve were created from an androgynous being and, through marriage, male and female are two halves reunited into a “single composite being.”[8] Setting aside the negative implications for unmarried people as incomplete, such an idea is an innovation not stated in Scripture. It stems from Greek philosophy (see Aristophanes’s speech in Plato’s Symposium). The Genesis account describes a lonely male Adam (not androgynous being) who notices the animals are not similar to him (2:18-20).[9] When Eve is taken from the man’s very own body, Adam exclaims that she is the same (vv. 22-23). Unlike the animals, the woman is a fellow human being suitable for companionship. Thus, biblical marriage is founded on what the two have in common as the means to alleviate aloneness. When Adam marvels that Eve is “flesh of my flesh,” he is announcing a kinship bond, formally recognizing Eve as his family. For example, Laban similarly tells Jacob “Surely, you are my bone and flesh” (Gen 29:14).[10]

Traditionalists also impose the concept of sexual differentiation onto a reading of Ephesians 5, arguing that married couples must be male and female to adequately represent the “otherness” of the divine/human union.[11] However, nothing in Ephesians 5 requires or even suggests this emphasis on otherness. In fact, as James Brownson points out, a man is to love his wife as his own body, which highlights sameness, not difference. Also, Christ and the church are metaphorically imaged as one person, not differentiated beings. Christ is the head on the shoulders and limbs of the church that is his own body.

Ephesians 5 is a rich metaphor. Paul is not arguing that marriage is an icon for literal sexual differentiation. His point is that husbands should love their wives in a self-sacrificial way just as Christ loves the church. As with the marriage metaphor in the Old Testament, the Ephesians metaphor is predominately about loyal love. Marriage is an icon of this profound kinship faithfulness. As such, same-sex covenanted relationships can exhibit and witness to divine realities through the same self-sacrificial commitment.

4. Procreation (and sexual differentiation) is minimized by the New Covenant.

Genesis 1 emphasizes procreation as the primary purpose of sexual differentiation. Similarly, in Romans 1, Paul states that he objects to homoeroticism because it is “unnatural” (para physin). As already discussed, and as traditionalists also acknowledge, this phrase includes concern for non-procreative sex.[12] Jews of the 1st century (as well as certain Greco-Roman writers) believed marriage should be ordered toward procreation. Today, some traditionalists also argue that marriage must include procreative potential to be valid, thereby ruling out same-sex relationships. However, procreation is minimized by the gospel’s hope of immortality.

One of the reasons procreation was crucial in Israelite and Jewish theology was the ability to live on in one’s offspring. Children carried on a man’s name and legacy. Thus, Jesus said, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed, they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection” (Luke 20:34-36). The reason for no marriage at the end of the age is because people will not die. In other words, marriage which currently perpetuates life through procreation will not be necessary. Immortality will perpetuate life.

Jesus and Paul embraced this eschatological reality in daily life by living as celibate men. In antiquity, celibacy was necessary to avoid procreation and family entanglements that came with it. However, modern contraception opens doors to non-procreative marriage in a way not possible in the 1st century. We already see that infertile couples enjoy tremendous blessing from marriage. Couples without children are also unencumbered to serve the Kingdom in selfless ways that families or even unmarried people cannot. If that is the case and procreation is no longer required because of the hope of immortality, consideration can be made for same-sex couples.

But, even if one takes the position that marriage is to be ordered toward procreation, the church across time has made an exception for infertile couples on the basis of mercy.  The Catholic church states, “Sterility neither prohibits nor nullifies marriage” (Canon 1084.3). And Protestants regularly affirm the value of marriage apart from procreation. While procreation is often used by traditionalists to argue against same-sex partnerships, that argument is not consistently maintained. Couples that cannot procreate are permitted to marry. Thus, the argument against same-sex partnership is actually based on anatomical complementarity in and of itself: the penis fits the vagina.

Paul’s use of para physin likely included affirmation of male-female bodily complementarity. However, it’s not clear the biblical authors were concerned about this fittedness apart from procreation. As mentioned in the last post, texts that prohibit homoeroticism do not usually have male-female complementarity in mind, but rather concern for male procreative seed and gender norms for men. That is why almost all (if not all) biblical texts that prohibit homoeroticism are directed exclusively to men. If complementarity in and of itself was the concern, we would expect to see equal attention to women.

Paul’s use of para physin should also be understood in its cultural context, which was influenced by Stoicism. That means for Paul para physin meant any behavior that “places humans out of sync with both the cosmos as a whole and with the deepest and truest aspects of themselves as persons . . . ” [13] However, for the gay person “to embrace the ‘natural’ union of male and female in marriage, often leads to profound dislocation.” In other words, Paul assumed that every human being was heterosexual, and to achieve a rightly ordered self a person must conform to heterosexual desire and behavior. But, for a gay person, trying to force oneself into this “rightly ordered” heterosexuality actually creates tremendous discordance. Not only is it impossible for most, but it often leads to disorder and despair for that person.[14]

What side of the debate resonates with you the most so far? Either way, the discussion doesn’t end here. Next up is how we should appropriate ethics from the Bible in the first place.

Further Reading for Progressive Biblical Interpretation:

James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships

Deirdre J. Good, Willis J. Jenkins, Cynthia B. Kittred, Eugene F. Rogers, “A Theology of Marriage including Same-Sex Couples: A View from the Liberals” in Anglican Theological Review 93 (2011): 51-87

William Loader, “Homosexuality and the Bible” in Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, 17-48.

Robert Song, Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships

Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships

See also these two articles below on the problem of superimposing gender on God, which traditionalists tend to do in order to make a case for sexual differentiation and marriage. Also, DeFranza’s book adds nuance to the concept sexual differentiation in our world.

D. Glenn Butner, “Eternal Functional Subordination and the Problem of the Divine Will,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 58 (2015): 131-49.

Fred Sanders, “You, Me, and the Heavenly Three?

Megan K. DeFranza, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex

[1] These six proof-text verses are Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and Timothy 1:9-10. Some proof-text lists also include Deuteronomy 23:17-18, and Jude 1:6-7. For a comprehensive list of all possible references to homoeroticism in the Bible see this Quick Guide. However, note that the center of the debate is not on these verses (except Romans 1), but rather relies heavily on the Genesis narratives and the concept of complementarity.

[2] The Levitical laws are important to the traditionalist position because the text condemns both partners, suggesting a consensual rather than exploitative relationship. The laws also do not have any qualifiers that conclusively suggest prostitution. Traditionalists also point to Mark 7 as implicit evidence that Jesus denounced homoeroticism. He is having a conversation about sex with other Jews and thus, discussing a shared understanding of Jewish sexual ethics (e.g. Levitical law), but he also indicates that porneia defiles a person. In the 1st century, porneia referred to all manner of prohibited sexual behavior, including homoeroticism.

[3] An egalitarian might point out that the Hebrew word ezer, often translated as helper, is always used of God intervening to deliver humanity from distress. A better translation would be “powerful ally.”

[4] Traditionalists acknowledge that aspects of gender are socially constructed. But they  argue that scientific studies and basic observation demonstrate that men and women are not the same, if for no other reason than the way the brain develops in utero or hormonal influences. The existence of transgender people also indicates gender is not merely socially constructed or entirely flexible. Transgender people have a very strong sense of gender that seems to be wired in some way. Although, traditionalists tend to see the transgender experience as psychological.

[5] Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 289-91.

[6] For an overview of Israelite/Jewish sexuality in antiquity see Karen Keen, “Sexuality, Critical Issues” in the Lexham Bible Dictionary.

[7] For example, word repetition in Genesis 1 suggests God as Creator is the focus. The word God appears 35x. The number 7 is also repeated in creative literary ways, highlighting Sabbath and creation’s completion. Moreover, Genesis 1 stresses the reproduction of not only human beings, but plants and animals as well.

[8] Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 61. Via and Gagnon, Homosexuality and the Bible, 61.

[9] Paul also interprets Genesis as saying the female was taken from the male who was created first, rather than male and female created from splitting an androgynous being. See 1 Cor 11:12; 1 Tim 2:13.

[10] The wording of “one flesh” and “flesh of my flesh” refer to kinship. See Gen 29:14; Judg 9:2; 2 Sam 5:1; 19:12-13; 1 Chron 11:1. See also James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality, 29-38.

[11] The theology of marriage as “otherness” is not found in Scripture, but rather has been popularized by theologians Barth and Balthasar (who was influenced by Barth). Both focus on  gender and sexual differentiation between men and women as representing the relationship within the Triune God and the relationship between Christ and the Church.  This differentiation is understood within traditional gender roles (man as leader and woman as submissive). In the process, gender and sexual differentiation between men and women get tangled up in their theology of the Godhead. Traditionalists assume such differentiation is literally essential to presenting the icon of Christ and the church and, therefore, marriage. For further critique on this see Kilby’s discussion of Balthasar, as well as the suggested further reading list above for resources addressing the problem of superimposing gender onto the Trinity.

[12] As also mentioned, the concern also includes violation of hierarchical gender norms, and therefore gender complementarity. I do not spend much time on this as many traditionalists also acknowledge the problem of patriarchal attitudes in Paul’s time. However, for complementarians who do subscribe to hierarchical gender norms, I recommend Sarah Sumner’s book Men and Women in the Church: Building Consensus on Christian Leadership, as well as William Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals.

[13] James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality, 231-32. Brownson also writes: “[A]lmost none of the texts cited by Gagnon to support his notion of ‘anatomical complementarity’ say anything about actual body parts. Instead, almost all of these passages speak negatively of how the passive partner in male-male sex is degraded, and either forced or deceived into abandoning his ‘natural’ manliness and acting like a woman instead. Jewish writers are particularly derisive of those passive partners in male-male sex who exhibit feminine appearance or behavior. In other words, what these early Jewish texts have in mind is not anatomical complementarity but the violation of socially normed gender roles . . .” (242).

[14] Paul may have known about theories akin to sexual orientation, but he certainly didn’t subscribe to them. Like Philo, he did not believe some people are not heterosexual. (William Loader, Homosexuality and the Bible, 29).


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