A Response to the Newsweek flap: Passages vs. Principles

Newsweek‘s cover story on a the religious basis for gay marriage has been enormously controversial in the blogosphere this week.

While gay marriage continues to make headline news and remain extremely controversial in connection with the Bible and the Christian faith, other issues that once were debated with similar ferocity are now universally regarded as settled. It is worth looking at such an issue as an example, and asking ourselves how future generations may view the debates of our time.

The issue of slavery split Christianity in the United States in ways that are still visible today (e.g. the existence of the Southern Baptist Convention). I doubt very much that any Christian today would consider slavery a “live issue”, but it was not always so. What many today may not be aware of is that the supporters of slavery had in their favor those specific texts in the Bible that address the subject. They engaged in careful exegesis of the passages, which offered legislation regarding the practice rather than prohibiting it. Turning to the New Testament, they observed that Paul had every opportunity to advise Christian slave owners that they ought, as a general rule, to free their slaves, yet he did not do so.

On the other side there was a very different sort of Biblical support, including one crucial principle: “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you”. The Golden Rule, when applied thoughtfully, makes slavery all but impossible. For which of us, if we are honest, would desire to be the property of another human being? And so it is possible to argue that this one principle, admitted by most to be central to the Bible’s teaching, trumps all the passages specifically addressing slavery and, when applied broadly, undermines the institution of slavery itself.

The Newsweek cover article has created controversy as a result of the perspective if offered on the subject of the Bible and homosexual marriage. If we approach the broader topic of homosexuality and the Bible in the same way we approached slavery, we find several passages which, while their interpretation is often unclear and the subject of legitimate debate, at the very least may condemn same-sex intercourse.

On the other hand, there are once again the principles. If we consider marriage specifically, we find general principles of love and fidelity that may arguably deserve to be given precedence over any specific passage. If we ask more generally about how homosexuals ought to be viewed from a Christian perspective, here too we find some interesting and apparently highly relevant principles and precedents.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, he argued strongly for the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s people without the requirement of circumcision. The significance of this is often lost on readers today, even (perhaps especially) on so-called “Biblical literalists” (who can only claim to be that because of their lack of familiarity with the details of what the Bible actually says in many places).

In Genesis 17, it is explicitly stated that circumcision is an eternal sign of the covenant, and those of Abraham’s household, even those who are not his descendants, must be circumcised or be cut off from the covenant. The early church, to be brief, decided that it wasn’t going to apply that text. The reason for doing so, according to not only Galatians but Acts 15, was apparently experience. The early Christians had witnessed uncircumcised Gentile Christians manifesting the signs that God’s Spirit was at work in their lives, and believed that God’s “seal of approval” in the present trumped Scripture, at least in this instance.

That being the case, perhaps it should not take more than an encounter with some gay and lesbian Christians who themselves manifest the fruit of the Spirit, to persuade those Christians who value the principles embodied in Acts and Paul’s letters to reach the conclusion that, whatever might be found in this or that passage, it is the principles that must take precedence, whether the issue is slavery or homosexuality, and present experience is (Biblically speaking) a legitimate basis for deciding to do something different in the present than God’s people did in ages past.

If we ask what, if anything, distinguishes the issues of slavery and homosexuality, the answers you get will vary. But the only thing that clearly differs is that popular opinion in the United States regarding slavery is pretty unanimous in our time, whereas public opinion about homosexuality is divided. But keep in mind that, when the prevailing view was that slavery was a legitimate institution, Scripture could be quoted to support that viewpoint.

I suspect that future generations will find it remarkable that so much ink (not to mention venom) was spilled over the issue of homosexuality in our time, just as we are astonished that slavery was a live issue for Christians in the not-so-distant past. But just as some Christians in the past allowed principles to trump specific passages in the debate about slavery, the time has come for those of us who concur with slavery’s abolition to be consistent, and approach the issue of homosexuality in the same sort of way.

jfmcgrat@butler.edu'

James McGrath is associate professor of religion at Butler University. He blogs at Exploring Our Matrix