Since its beginning in 1985, the Ecumenical Catholic Church has understood that gay, lesbian, and heterosexual marriages between two Christians are sacramentally equivalent. Our canon law forbids distinction between these various forms of marriage, and the wedding liturgy is the same whether the marriage is between two men, two women, or a man and a woman.
Curiously, in fact, the prescribed Bible lessons were easier to find for the gay and lesbian weddings than the heterosexual marriage. The Old Testament readings we use deal with love stories. We use 1 Samuel 18 and 20 and 2 Samuel 1 for the love story of David and Jonathan. We use Ruth 1 for the love story of Ruth and Naomi. In order to find an Old Testament example that connected love and marriage for a man and a woman, we had to use the story of Tobias and Sarah in the Book of Tobit, part of the “Apocrypha.” The Old Testament, you see, is full of heterosexual sex, but it very seldom connects this with love.
Adam and Eve
Speaking of the Bible, let’s talk about Adam and Eve. The anti-marriage folks (the conservatives and fundamentalists who oppose the marriage rights of all) often do. But what does the Bible really say about them? You’ll be surprised! Adam’s story should not be used against gay marriage, but in support of it.
According to the Bible (Genesis 2), God created Adam and then wanted to make a close companion (‘ezer, or “helper” in Hebrew) for him. God made the birds and wild animals, but none was suitable. Adam was not satisfied. Then God put Adam to sleep and made Eve out of Adam’s rib. When Adam awoke, he was happy and said “This one at last is bone (‘etsem) of my bones and flesh (basar) of my flesh!”
What delighted Adam was that Eve was just like him.
Adam was not delighted in Eve’s femaleness. Presumably some of the birds and mammals brought to him as potential companions had been female. Adam was delighted in Eve’s humanness.
It is a perversion of Scripture to pretend that the story of Adam and Eve precludes same-sex marriage. It explains why people love each other more than they love other animals. It explains why two people can bond together. It explains why children leave their parental homes and form new pair-bonds. The example happened to be a heterosexual pairing, but that is not what the focus of the story is. Just as the example’s dyadic (two-person) nature of the relationship was not used by later Biblical figures (including Abraham and Jacob) to preclude polygamy, so its heterosexual nature must not be used to preclude homosexual marriage.
Adam delighted in Eve because she was the same as him, and thereby became his true helper. Notice also that the delight does not have to do with her ability to produce children either. Adam and Eve are symbols of deep companionship (the real purpose of marriage), not heterosexual reproduction, which the other animals already had before Eve was made.
Marriage in the Bible
Speaking of polygamy, let’s talk about marriage in the Bible. The anti-gay folks like to talk about same-sex marriage being a “slippery slope” toward polygamy and incest and a whole lot of other things. But the fear really should be the other way around. It is the Bible — not the modern gay community — that is full of polygamy and incest.
Let’s look, for example, at Abraham, our father in faith — the patriarch that Jews, Christians, and Muslims hold to be the founder of the great monotheistic religion. Sometimes we speak of Abraham and his wife Sarah as if they were like any other modern married heterosexual couple. But Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister, the daughter of his father but not his mother (Genesis 20:12).
For a long time Sarah was unable to have children. So she gave her slave-girl Hagar to her husband so she could bear children through her. There is no indication that Sarah was offended by her husband sleeping with her slave (it was, after all, her idea), and there is no indication that Hagar any choice whatsoever in this event. Hagar bore Abraham’s first son Ishmael. (Genesis 16: 1-2)
Then there is Jacob, renamed Israel, the father of the twelve Tribes of Israel. We must not forget that the twelve tribes resulted from Jacob having four women — his two wives and his two concubines. So who were Jacob’s wives, Rachel and Leah? They were his first cousins, the daughters of his mother’s brother. (Genesis 28:2). Jacob fell in love with his younger cousin Rachel and worked for his uncle seven years in order to buy his wife. On the night of the wedding, Jacob’s uncle took his older daughter Leah and she slept with Jacob and she became his wife. Jacob was upset about being tricked, but his uncle agreed to give him his younger daughter as well if he would work another seven years for him. So they did, and Jacob got both his cousins as wives, even though he only loved one. (Genesis 29).
But the story continues. Leah bore Jacob four sons. Rachel was jealous and worried because she hadn’t borne any children, so she gave her slave-girl to Jacob and she bore children for her. Then Leah got jealous and gave her slave-girl to her husband to bear more children. And finally Rachel herself bore children. From these “biblical family values” the national of Israel, the chosen people, came.
We should carefully note that God did not condemn any of this action. In fact, God consistently says that it is through Abraham and Jacob that the world will be blessed. These are the ancestors of Jesus, the ones He, like all Jews of His time, called “our fathers.”
Obviously our sense of marital propriety has changed through the years. But “biblical family values” most certainly includes not just polygamy, and not just incest, but even incestuous polygamy.
Our point is not to support either incest or polygamy. The point is that it is simply not true when people say that “marriage has been the same for thousands of years” and that it is blind hypocrisy to worry that gay marriage will be a slippery slope toward incest or polygamy when one is touting “biblical family values.”
Gay Love in the Bible
There are some who say that whenever the Bible speaks of homosexuality, it does so negatively. That is not true.
There is much evidence that King David was the lover of Jonathan, the son of his predecessor King Saul. The evidence is not 100% concrete because the Bible usually only talks about sex in conjunction with children being born — not to state that sex should only be about having children, but because when the Bible mentions specific people having sex, the purpose of mentioning that is to document parentage.
However, we must take David at his word when he says in 2 Samuel 1:25-26, “Jonathan, by your dying I too am stricken, I am desolate for you, Jonathan my brother. Very dear you were to me, your love more wonderful to me than the love of a woman.”
Well, David certainly had lots of women with whom to compare Jonathan. Today we would most likely call King David “bisexual,” not “gay.” And David was not Jonathan’s biological brother. The term “brother,” however, was often used in the ancient Near East for male lovers (just as “sister” was sometimes used for a wife). When you read through the complex stories of the books of Samuel as they describe the life of King Saul, his children, David the shepherd-turned-king, Saul’s jealousy of David, his mistrust, etc., the stories just make a lot more sense if you view David and Jonathan as lovers. Even though Saul’s daughter was one of David’s many wives, it was his son Jonathan that Saul did not trust because of his relationship with David. When David appeared as a rival to Saul, it was Jonathanwho had made a pact with David that King Saul feared would supersede his son’s duty to his father. This pact was apparently viewed and stronger and more important than David’s marriage to Saul’s daughter (and Jonathan’s sister) Michal. (Curiously the Bible says that Michal fell in love with David, but never says that David loved her, stating rather that David entered the marriage for political gain.)
As for sex between David and Jonathan, 1 Samuel 20:41 has a phrase that uses the Hebrew word gadol, which is an emphatic form of “to exceed.” There is some evidence in other ancient writings that it was a slang term for orgasm. Most Bible translations have a footnote that reads something like “Hebrew unclear.” Might it be that translators really just didn’t want to clarify it?
So were David and Jonathan married? Not in the same sense that we view either gay or heterosexual marriage today. They certainly weren’t exclusive lovers. But then neither were any of David’s wives. We wouldn’t consider keeping a harem of women consistent with modern marriage either, yet presumably Michal was not overly worried about either Jonathan or Bathsheba, just as Jonathan wasn’t worried about the women. “Marriage” just meant something different back then. It meant an arrangement by which one produced children with legal entitlements. It was arranged. It involved commitment, but apparently not as strong a commitment as David and Jonathan’s because, remember, Saul was worried that Jonathan would side with David if push came to shove. He didn’t worry about that with his daughter.
Once again, we must not just note the existence of these polygamous bisexual relationships, but we must note that neither God nor the religious authorities condemned them. The Bible does not say that David was wrong because of either Jonathan or Bathsheba, in spite of his being married to Michal. The Bible does, however, very clearly condemn David for having Bathsheba’s husband killed in order to get her. The crime was murder and betrayal, not having a extra lover.
As for lesbian love, the evidence is less certain. We must remember, though, that women were second-class citizens in the Bible. (The Old Testament also does not have any discussion, let alone condemnation, of lesbian sex.) However, we all have seen this phrase used at heterosexual weddings:
Wherever you go, I shall go,
wherever you live, I shall live.
Your people will be my people,
and your God will be my God.
That is Ruth 1:16. It was said by one woman (Ruth) to another (Naomi). It is one of the Bible’s most beautiful stories of love and commitment. On earth we may never know if it was sexual, but clearly it was love between two women.
Homosexuality in the Bible
We purposely list the positive before the negative. There is all too great a tendency to make the Bible, and even God, into a negative. That is very unfortunate and wrong.
The Book of Leviticus, the main legal code of the ancient Hebrew religion, condemns many things that we ignore today and don’t even think of having a “moral” component. There are people who try to parse Leviticus into “ritual” and “moral” sections so that they can throw out the “ritual” and hold on to the “moral.” This is simply dishonest. The ancient peoples made no distinction between these concepts.
Most people are vaguely family with the dietary laws (Leviticus 11). Many Jews and Muslims still do not eat pork or shellfish because of these moral laws. Others of these faiths consider these laws no longer relevant for today’s world. Christians almost uniformly ignore them, based in part on Peter’s dream in Acts 11.
Very few people are aware of the Biblical moral law regarding mildew in their house (Leviticus 14:33-57). The Bible is very clear about removing plaster, taking it to a toxic waste dump (“an unclean place outside the city”) and then using a live bird to sprinkle your house with the blood of a dead bird once you have new plaster. Some of this lack of concern may be the result of relatively poor translation. The ancient Hebrews did not distinguish between “mildew” and “leprosy.” (Think about it, they sort of look alike.) Some Bible translations say “leprosy of houses,” but they really mean mold and mildew. If we were really concerned about Biblical morality, we would have a lot more bird blood on our walls, especially in humid climates the the South where mildew is a serious problem.
The simple truth is that most people really don’t care what the Bible says about living moral lives. Rather, they pick and choose from the Bible’s prohibitions. They choose to cite the Bible when it calls male-male sex “abomination” but ignore it when it says that God finds shrimp and lobster “detestable.” You cannot have it both ways. Either the Bible is the literal and sole source of your morality, or it is not.
There are many fine books dealing with sexuality and the Bible, including Salvation, Scripture, and Sexuality by Archbishop Mark Shirilau and Abbot Robert Hall. We will not go into excessive detail here.
Two major issues are important to note, because they relate to the general cultural perspective of biblical times as compared with that of today.
First, idolatry was the major issue. When you read the Bible, you can almost say it is the only issue. Everything had to do with God alone being God and no other gods being anything. Everything associated with the other religions was wrong and evil. The great sin was to participate in any of their rites.
Many of those rites were sexual in nature. The local cults included rites in which people would have sex with the priests and priestesses in order to promote the fertility of the earth. It was a harsh land, and humans were just learning about life and the connection between nature and human actions and abundant crops. Since sex brought children, they thought naturally that sex with the representatives of the gods and goddesses would bring abundant food. When the Bible uses the term “prostitute” it means these priests and priestesses, not the “streetwalkers” or “ladies of the evening” that we think of today. The Hebrew terms for prostitute qadesh (M) and qadeshah (F) derive from the word “holy.”
The prohibition against male-male sex in Leviticus is followed immediately by a prohibition against semen sacrifice to the pagan god Molech. It is a prohibition against sex with the pagan priests in a sexual liturgy. It is not talking about love relationships, and it was never used against David and Jonathan, neither of whom were pagan priests.
The same is true of Paul’s writing where he uses the term arsenokoitai. This was not the usual term for the homosexual relationships common in the Greek world at the time. Rather, it was derived from the Greek translation of Leviticus and relates to the pagan priest-prostitutes, which were still common in Paul’s time.
Second, the world of the Bible was a harsh desert with no modern conveniences. Hospitality was a major issue and a major obligation. When a person wandering through the desert came to your house or town, it was your moral obligation to treat them well and offer them hospitality. This is what the people of Sodom did not due to the angels God sent. Likewise, we cannot conclude that God decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of what the men did to the angels because God had already decided to destroy them before sending the angels.
In spite of our modern association of Sodom with homosexuality, the Bible itself did not make that association. Ezekiel 16:49 says “The crime of your sister Sodom was pride, gluttony, calm complacency.” Jesus compares Sodom to the town that will not welcome the disciples (Luke 10:10-12), an obvious implication of Sodom’s sin of inhospitality.
Complementarity and “Natural Law”
While the Protestant fundamentalists tend to cite the Bible, the Roman Catholic Church cites a very bizarre and difficult-to-understand concept called “natural law.” Misinterpreting Scripture is at least rather easy to follow. The natural law concept is so foreign to modern reality that it is confusing seems to appear out of nowhere. This concept is the reason the Roman church has hang-ups about issues such as birth control that seem to come out of nowhere (since the Bible doesn’t discuss that issue at all and there is no apparent logic to call it immoral).
“Natural law” has nothing to do with nature as we know it. It is not the same, for example, as the laws of physics, which certainly are natural. Saying that homosexuality or gay marriage violate “natural law” is not the same thing as saying it doesn’t occur in nature. This is unfortunate, because there are so many examples of homosexual behavior among animals that such a statement would be easy to refute.
“Natural law” is based on medieval concepts. It is the same type of argument that enabled the Vatican to argue against Galileo when he said the earth revolved around the sun, and not vice versa. Of course Galileo was right, and the heliocentricity of the solar system is a fact, whether the Church or Galileo or anyone else acknowledged it. But “natural law” said otherwise because God, after all, had become incarnate on the earth and not the sun.
It is just a system that confuses theology with science and blends them in a very destructive manner. It is difficult to understand why the Roman church even holds on to any aspect of this concept. Nonetheless, it does, and, as it did with Galileo, it holds back truth and science in the process.
It is from “natural law” that the concept of “complementarity” comes. This idea holds that unity can only be achieved when male and female come together. This sounds much more like the androgyne of ancient Greek paganism than it does Christianity.
The argument is that only different-sex marriage is capable of achieving this complementarity. We would tend to agree that a certain “complementarity” is one of the charms and wonders of marriage — one of the reasons why marriage enables two people to do more together than they could do apart. The problem with the “natural law” argument is the assumption that this complementarity is sexual in nature.
The value of marriage is not in blending some strange cosmic forces that appear as “male” and “female.” The value of marriage is that two people balance each other. It would seem logical that emotional complementarity would be a far more important parameter of a truly good marriage than would simply that one partner be male and the other be female. Except for giving birth to children, that seems irrelevant.
But herein lies one of the problems. There is an assumption in “natural law” that marriage is about raising children. Again, we must not get confused into thinking this means that marriage is the natural way to raise children. Clearly that is not the case because no animal species other than Homo sapiens raises children through marriage. (And not all species even use heterosexuality to procreate. There is a species of lizard with only females, and snails are both male and female and any two can fertilize each other.)
It is hard to precisely refute the “natural law” arguments because in order to do so you have to understand them. This is a virtually impossible task for anyone trained in the modern scientific approach. On the other hand, a simple comparison may help:
If you don’t believe that artificial birth control is immoral, then don’t let the Vatican use the same twisted logic against gay marriage.