Marriage is for Everybody, Says Former Anti-Gay Evangelical

Mark Achtemeier has been a minister with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) since 1984, and for much of his ministry he characterized himself as a “conservative anti-gay activist.” As a pastor and an associate professor of theology and ethics at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Achtemeier wrote and spoke against the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers and co-wrote a declaration of faith that an anti-ordination coalition adopted.

That began to change in 2001, Achtemeier says when he made friends with some gay and lesbian Christians, some of whom had tried everything in their power to “change” their sexual orientation or had embraced a life of celibacy.

“It was producing broken people,” he told me, “and it wasn’t just isolated instances of this. I saw more and more of this and came away from these experiences thinking something is wrong with this picture. That got me writing and asking questions.”

By 2009, Achtemeier was a changed man, leading the charge for gay and lesbian ordination. He even preached at the ordination service of Scott Anderson, “the first gay minister” ordained by the PCUSA.

In this interview, Achtemeier talks about how his encounters with LGBT people changed his heart and mind over the years. His new book is: The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart.

Candace Chellew-Hodge : You don’t spend a lot of time in the book dwelling on the so-called clobber passages. Instead, you seem to keen to reach that “moveable middle” by talking about your process of approaching the Bible. I think it’s an effective way to frame this.

Mark Achtemeier: Much of the debate has focused around these Bible passages that seem to make passing reference to same-sex behavior, and when I came into this I found a lot of technical scholarly debates about what they did and did not mean. The best you wind up with is a statement that says, “Well, these passages don’t mean what you think they mean.” It was essentially an argument from silence, which I don’t find compelling.

As I was writing this I was trying to keep in mind a couple of families in my congregation. They were just regular folks who had children come to them and they were very upset with this. We have a pretty accepting church, but their assumption was they would have to leave the church.

I started thinking that a technical scholarly argument would fall short of what these people need. I wanted to develop something positive to talk about what the Bible does say. Making a Biblical case for same-sex marriage is a little bit like making a biblical case for the abolition of slavery. None of the biblical writers ever dreamed of a society where slavery didn’t exist, so they didn’t talk about it. There is no statement in the Bible urging people to fight against the institution of slavery—it’s just not on anybody’s radar screen.

So, historically, when we got to the point in America where abolition was something people could conceive of, what faithful Christians did was go back to the Bible and see what it did say about human beings and the image of God and made the case on what the Bible does say to draw conclusions about a situation the biblical writers never faced. There were Christians at that time who pulled out isolated verses to say the Bible supports slavery and we should too. We know how that story turned out.

None of the biblical writers envisions the possibility of a society where ordinary gay people — which they had no conception of — could marry their same-sex partners. Now, when we’re in a society where that’s a possibility, we need to go the Bible and look at the positive things it does say about human beings, about marriage, love and sexuality, so that like those who argued for abolition, we can draw positive conclusions from what the Bible does say in order to deal with this new situation faithfully.

I found my entry into that with an idea of Calvin’s that he puts in the beginning of his exposition of the Ten Commandments in his Institutes. Calvin says you really can’t understand the purpose of biblical law without understanding the purpose of the lawgiver. It’s like legislative intent: you have to figure out what God’s purpose is in giving particular commandments before you can understand the commandment.

So, what is God’s purpose for giving human beings the gifts of love, marriage and sexuality? What is God trying to accomplish? The book winds up being an exercise in answering that question in a positive way. What emerges clearly from scripture (and I’m not the only one who has concluded this) is that very central to God’s purposes in marriage is to give people a means of grace to help them grow into the image of Jesus’ self-giving love.

Marriage is this arena where we can totally give ourselves to another person in body, spirit, and life and commitment and grow in that total gift of self which winds up being an image of Jesus’ total gift of himself for us.

Critics say that marriage is more than that, though. What about procreation?

The Bible consistently portrays procreation as a blessing from God and a gift, but there is no sense that it is essential for a marriage to be valid.

Nowhere in the Bible or Christian tradition do you have the suggestion that if people are infertile that they ought not to get married. While procreation is this wonderful gift that God blesses some people with, there’s no sense anywhere in scripture that this is a make-or-break for whether a marriage is legitimate or not. I wound up back at my core idea that helping us grow in this complete self-giving to another person is really what God is up to in giving us the gift of marriage. This idea fits all through the New Testament, where God’s central purpose is to help people grow into Christ’s image of self-giving love. Marriage serves that purpose in a very special and powerful way.

It turns out there’s nothing that prevents a same-sex relationship from helping people grow into this same kind of Christ-like self-giving love.

This positive picture coming from the Bible is that God wants to form people in the image of Christ’s self-giving love, marriage is a way God gives people to do that so the only real question would be: “Is there any reason why God would not fulfill this purpose through this institution for same-sex couples?”

But what about the whole “it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” thing?

That goes back to the question of Genesis where God creates human beings as male and female—and we’d be silly not to look at that and say it’s a standard default pattern for human life. So, the question is, does the Bible give us evidence of God bringing blessings outside of the standard patterns of Genesis?

The standard plan of Genesis lasts for two chapters and falls apart by chapter three. Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, they fall away from the obedience God intended for all time and the whole rest of scripture onward is the story of God bringing blessing outside the standard pattern set forth in the creation stories of Genesis.

So, you look at that and say every part of the Bible testifies to God’s willingness to bless people beyond these standard patterns, except in this one issue of same-sex marriage. What kind of sense does that make?

Again, there’s not a statement in the Bible that says, “Same-sex relationships are okay,” just as there’s not a statement in the Bible that says, “A world without slavery is what we should be working for,” but there is so much positive that the Bible does say that leads directly to that conclusion. I found it overwhelming and it turned me from a pretty committed activist against an inclusive church to one on the front lines fighting for inclusion.

I’m certainly glad that you made that transition, but there remain an awful lot of Christians who oppose inclusion. How do we deal with them?

A lot of the time we hear that those against inclusion are driven by hate and fear, but a lot of people I know in that movement, that’s not the case. I had an uniformed perspective. When you look at the statistics for suicide and depression in LGBT people as a good Christian person you think, “Oh, my God, look at the damage being gay does to people.” But, it took me awhile and some good friendships with gay people to realize that suicide and depression and emotional problems aren’t the result of being gay, they’re the result of being told you’re an abomination at the core of your being.

I come to this debate as an outsider and I don’t know if I’ve succeeded completely, but I’ve tried with my language to convey that I believe the scripture is absolutely clear that God’s blessings and promises are absolutely for gay people.

How can we reach out with compassion to those on the other side who have that “uninformed perspective”?

I don’t think you can get away from the fact that some people do hate gay people, but in my own case with my own misconceptions, when I looked at the gay community it looked like a group of people who were drinking poison. Who are engaging in behaviors and a lifestyle that was spiritually, emotionally and physically toxic and if you see somebody about to drink poison, the compassionate Christian response is to try to get them to stop.

One of the things that was powerful for me in breaking out of that mindset was testimony about the blessings that came to gay and lesbian people through their committed relationships. Early in the book I talk about a conversation with a friend who said they knew all about identifying sin in their life and repenting of it, but when they thought about marriage to their partner, that’s what brought out the best in them and helped them learn love and self-sacrifice and nothing that needed to be repented of.

That really struck me that it sounded like my marriage.

The other thing that took me a long time to wrap my mind around is that an awful lot of Evangelicals really haven’t grappled with recognizing that this is not something you could choose your way out of. There’s always this sense of, “If you really tried hard, or prayed hard enough, you could come around.” Again, my gay friends would say, “Why on earth would I choose something like this? Who needs all this trouble?”

I think it’s the willingness of gay and lesbian people in sharing their stories that finally got it through my thick head that this isn’t an optional lifestyle, it’s a given.