Whatever happened to the Bible in the marriage canon debate?

by Sylvia Keesmaat

This is an article from the Empire Mixed website.  It is part of a series in response to the debate in the Anglican Church of Canada to changing its canons to open marriage to same-sex couples.  It is part of the increasingly strong argument for looking again at the traditional ‘clobber’ texts, and also examining the ways that some in the Church use them to demonize and hurt the LGBTI communities.  The other articles in this short series will go up in due course.

Dr Keesmaat taught Biblical Studies and Hermeneutics at the Institute for Christian Studies for ten years. In 2004 she left full-time academia to pursue her interests in sustainable living. In addition to being Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity College and Wycliffe College (Ontario), Sylvia has also been an instructor in the Creation Care Studies Program in Belize as well as the Biblical Scholar in Residence for the Victoria-Haliburton Deanery and, currently, at St James Anglican Church, Fenelon Falls, Ontario.

As the Anglican Church [of Canada] draws closer to General Synod and an impending vote on changing the marriage canon, it is startling that those on the conservative side of the debate have abandoned the Bible in their opposition to same-sex marriage. As three recent blog posts on The Living Church site have demonstrated, argument has now shifted to more theological and somewhat tendentious discussions about the nature of the church and the supposed sanctity of genealogy. (You can read responses to these articles here and here). It is somewhat perplexing that a debate that seemed originally to be rooted in certain biblical passages has now – at least by its leaders – been shifted into the realm of theology, ignoring biblical texts altogether.

However, for many people in the pews, the people with whom I have spoken on this topic across the country, there is a hunger for solid biblical engagement with the texts that supposedly forbid same-sex relationships. In order to meet that hunger, this piece will briefly consider the classic texts that are used to oppose same-sex marriage.

We need to start our discussion of these texts where we start with any other interpretation of the Bible: with the differences between our context and the context in which the Bible was written. For instance, when we talk about the clear depictions of tax-collectors as sinners in the gospel accounts, we put that in its context. We describe the way that tax-collectors were collaborators with the occupying Roman forces, and how these taxes impoverished the people of Galilee and Judea. If we are doing responsible reading, we are careful to distinguish those tax collectors from the people today who work for Revenue Canada or the Internal Revenue Service in the United States. This attention to context and the difference between ancient and contemporary context is part of the task of interpretation.

How does this affect our discussion? First of all, in biblical times the idea of same-sex orientation would not have made any sense. The assumption was that men were attracted to women and vice versa. This was the natural order of things. The idea of having a sexual orientation towards people of the same sex was unknown because any notion of sexual orientation was unknown. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t homoerotic sex going on. Temple prostitution was a common place for that. In addition, in the Roman world, the world of Paul, the sexual abuse of boys, slaves and freedmen was widespread and accepted. Such pederasty and sexual use of slaves and freedmen was considered perfectly natural by most of Paul’s contemporaries. Does this context have any implications for interpreting our texts? We will see that it does below.

I also need need to point out that sex was often rooted in power in the ancient world. (Of course, this is true not just in the ancient world.) Sex was often used as a tool to demean and humiliate.

That humiliation is at the heart of some of the texts that have traditionally been appealed to in the debate over same-sex marriage. For instance, consider the story of Sodom, where the men of the city demand that Lot send his visitors outside, so that the townsmen could gang rape them (Genesis 19). These were not gay men, looking for a good time. They were men who were interested in humiliating and demeaning the strangers who had come to their town. And the fact that Lot offers up his virgin daughters to them suggests that he knew they weren’t looking for gay sex: they were looking for violent and abusive control. (Just as an aside, have you ever wondered why Lot’s despicable offer to send his daughters out to a bunch of gang rapists gets rather less air time than the issue of homosexuality in our discussions? Why isn’t this flagged more often as a deeply troublesome part of this story?)

In Judges 19 we have a similar story, where the violence is heightened. When the men of the city demanded to sexually abuse a visiting Levite, the man’s concubine was pushed out the door to satisfy their violent demands. She is gang-raped all night long and dumped on the doorstep in the morning in an act of derision: if you come to our town, here is what will happen to your possessions. Clearly these were not men looking for other men to satisfy their sexual desire; they were men looking to engage in an act of violent humiliation. That story escalates into more and more violence, particularly against women. You can read the disturbing tale in Judges 19–21. Neither of these texts are about gay sex: they are both about using sex in violent and humiliating ways to assert power and control.

Interestingly enough, when later biblical passages talk about Sodom, they never mention homosexuality. Here is what Ezekiel says about Sodom: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16.49). It is pretty hard to help the poor and needy if your attitude to strangers is a violent one.

In Jude 7 Sodom and Gomorrah are condemned for sexual immorality and going after other flesh – a good description of gang rape. In fact, the use of sarkos heteras in Jude 7 emphasizes that this is different flesh, not defined by sameness. Some suggest this may refer to the angelic flesh of the visitors, or to the fact that they were strangers. At any rate, homosexuality does not seem to be in the sights of Jude either.

There are two other Old Testament texts that have traditionally been used to argue against homosexuality: Leviticus 18.22 (“You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination”) and Leviticus 20:13 (“If a man lies with a male, as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them”). As we have noted above, there were power dynamics involved in sex in the ancient world. When a man and a woman engaged in sexual intercourse, the man was considered dominant, and the woman submissive. This was the “natural” order of things. For two equal men to engage in a sexual act meant that one would be submissive, and thereby “unnatural.”

Most scholars on both sides of the debate agree, however, that these texts in Leviticus refer to to cultic prostitution, and are therefore condemning the use of slaves and men by other men as temple prostitutes. This is such a far cry from a conversation about committed same-sex marriage, that it is clear these texts are not applicable in this discussion. In addition, the language of abomination is applied in other texts in Leviticus to those who do not distinguish between clean and unclean animals (e.g. Leviticus 20.25), a distinction that the church abandoned in New Testament times. It is difficult to insist that one thing is an abomination if another is not. It is no wonder that these texts are no longer appealed to on the conservative side of the conversation.

More common is an appeal to the New Testament texts, particularly Romans 1. We begin, however, with 1 Corinthians 6.9–10 and 1 Timothy 1.9–10. Essentially the issue is how to translate two Greek words: malakoi (in 1 Corinthians 6.9) and arsenokoitai (in both passages). A cursory glance at various English translations will see that there is no universal agreement on the translation of these words, but that they are individually and sometimes together often translated with reference to homosexuality. The NRSV translation of these words in 1 Corinthians 6.9–10 can be representative for this discussion: “Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes (malakoi), sodomites (arsenokoitai) … none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” While the translation of malakoi as “male prostitute” has some merit, the very use of the English word “sodomite” is deeply problematic. As we have seen, the story of Sodom does not refer to gay sex. By using the ill-conceived English term ‘sodomy’ the translators end up stacking the translation against homosexuality.

However, it isn’t easy to say exactly how these terms should be translated. Malakoi carries with it a sense of someone who is soft, lazy, self-indulgent and given to decadent living. That much is pretty clear from any lectionary. Arsenokoitai seems to be a word coined by the apostle that brings together the unusual combination of the words for ‘male’ (arsen) and ‘bed’ (koitē). Since the same words appear in the Greek translation of Leviticus 18.22, it is possible that Paul simply put them together into a new compound word.

This, then, is a clear reference to some sort of homoerotic act. The question is, what kind? While scholars on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate agree that Leviticus is referring to cultic prostitution, it isn’t clear whether Paul is talking about cultic prostitution here. The historical context, however, and the combination of arsenokoitai with malakoi in the Corinthian reference, both suggest that Paul is talking about some form of pederasty, some form of sexual predation on pre-pubescent boys. The malakoi, the “soft ones”, are likely the boys who were used for sexual pleasure by the arsenokoitai. So translating malakoi as “male prostitute” might have some merit, though not all of these boys were paid for their services. But if they are male prostitutes then this gives an even more disturbing overtone to the meaning of arsenokoitai. In 1 Timothy 1.10 arsenokoitai appears in a list between “fornicators” and “slave traders” (NRSV), or “whoremongers” and “men stealers” (RSV), suggesting that these are men who delight in unbridled sexuality and will even stoop to enslaving little boys into prostitution to fulfil their desires while also filling their pocketbooks.

While these verses clearly refer to sex between two men, the context of pederasty and prostitution bears no resemblance to our discussions of committed same-sex marriage.

But what about Romans 1.26 & 27? This is the New Testament text that the debate is currently focused on because it appears to refer to sexual acts involving two women as well as sexual acts involving two men.

In Romans 1.18–31 Paul describes how the wrath of God is revealed against the injustice and ungodliness that is evident all around him. In this passage Paul assumes that anyone can see and has seen that idolatry and ingratitude to God will invariably descend into sexual debauchery, and an unrestrained ruthlessness and violence in everyday life. But where would Paul’s readers have seen such a clear and pervasive outworking of the wrath of God? Where would they see people whom God has “given up” to the excesses of insatiable sexuality, together with the kind of violent injustice that he here depicts? For those who received this letter, who lived at the heart of the Roman empire, it is evident that Paul’s language in these verses would most naturally be seen as referring to the decadent and sexually excessive lives of the Caesars, particularly Gaius [Caligula] and Nero.

Caligula (reigned 37–41CE) lived a life of violence and extravagance, not least in matters of sexuality. He not only engaged in incest and the rape of elite women, he also engaged in sexual escapades with various men, acting as both the passive and active partner. It is no surprise that Caligula was stabbed through the genitals when he was murdered. One wonders whether we can hear an echo of this gruesome story in Paul’s comments in Romans 1:27: “Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own person the due penalty for their error.”

When Caligula was succeeded by Claudius (41–54CE), things didn’t get much better, especially in terms of a rule of extreme violence that did not leave exempt members of his own family. As we have seen from the story of Caligula, those who live by violence and deceit invariably breed a violence and deceit that rebounds upon themselves. Claudius was poisoned by his wife Agrippina, so that her son, Nero, could become emperor (54–69CE). Nero continued with a life of sexual violence and excess, raping both men and women and engaging in humiliating sexual predations on those around him.

In these verses Paul is condemning the sexual violence and excess that Nero and the other emperors engaged in, including the deliberate use of oral and anal sex to overturn the “natural order” of things and to deliberately demean someone.

It is important to remember in this discussion how differently sexual acts were viewed in the first century than they are today. For instance, oral sex and anal sex were considered “against nature” when they happened between people of equal status. To penetrate another person anally or to have someone else perform oral sex on you was to be in a position of superiority over that person. To flip it around, as it were, is to be submissive, either receiving an aggressive sexual penetration or performing the embarrassing act of oral sex. This was acceptable if it was a young boy or a woman or a slave on the submissive side of things. But when Nero committed such acts against other men who were free Roman citizens, then this was “against nature.”

So when Paul described men who “committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error,” people in Rome would not have thought of any kind of homosexual marriage, but of the kinds of unequal and oppressive sexual behaviour witnessed in pederasty, and the homoerotic excesses seen in the imperial household during their own time. Take a look at Nero’s court! Look at how he flaunts in public his sexual degradations! Look at this out of control sexual licentiousness!

But they didn’t have to look even that far. The exploitative sexuality of the imperial rulers was mirrored in the exploitative sexuality of the regular household, where the Paterfamilias, the master, had sexual rights over not only his wife, but also all of his slaves, both male and female. Moreover, when a dinner party was held, the slaves of the household were made sexually available for the dinner guests as part of their duties. It was also the case that masters often sexually used both their female and their male slaves; and occasionally their male slaves were made to dress like women, for the sexual enjoyment of their dinner guests. In short, this was a society where sexual abuse of boys and slaves of both genders was widespread and usual.

When Paul wrote in Romans 1.27 about men giving up natural relations with women, and committing shameless acts with men, this is what his hearers would have thought of. Nothing even remotely like a homosexual orientation or a committed same-sex relationship would have been in Paul’s mind.

And although many modern commentators have seen references to sex between two women in verse 26, a look at the church fathers reveals that they interpreted this verse to refer to acts between men and women,” particularly the idolatrous sexual practices of the goddess religions where women would engage in oral or anal sex with men in ways that were considered “against nature”. Athanasius in Contra Gentes and Chrysostom in his Homily on Romans both clearly thought that these verses referred to cultic prostitution and the sexual rites in festivals to pagan gods. It wasn’t until the late 4th century that this verse was first interpreted as referring to same-sex relations between women, and when that interpretation was introduced, it had to be argued for.

This verse is not only inapplicable to a covenantal same-sex marriage, it appears that Paul did not even intend for it to refer to women engaged in sexual acts with women, but rather in “unnatural” sexual acts with men.

If none of the traditional texts that are used to condemn same-sex marriage actually apply to same-sex attraction, or to same-sex marriage, then on what biblical grounds can the church make a decision on this issue? For those on the conservative side who are no longer discussing these classic texts, there has been a shift first to the text of Genesis 1 and the creation of male and female in the image of God, and secondly to a broadly theological argument about marriage that seeks to root God’s salvific work among us in the institution of marriage. The latter argument has been superbly critiqued by Christopher Brittain here. The former argument will be addressed in a forthcoming post on this site.

In conclusion, let me say only this. As faithful Christians, who seek to ground our lives in the grand sweep of the biblical story, any use of the text that fails to take the context of the biblical texts into consideration is deeply suspect. Faithful reading always occurs in the context of the whole narrative, centred on Jesus. In a subsequent blog post, we will show how that grand narrative can help us move forward in the path of faithfulness.

For a more in depth discussion of Romans 1 and creation order in relation to gay marriage, see Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh, Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice, chapter 9.