Tuesday, August 11, 2009

School of Virtue

In a previous post I pointed out that two prominent paths to virtue are denied to homosexuals by the church: ordination and marriage. This post will focus on the latter.

It is often argued by conservatives that marriage is forbidden to homosexuals on Biblical grounds: that it is a gift from God intended for the uniting of two flesh - man and woman, and that no other understanding of marriage is acceptable. It is an oddly sacramental interpretation of marriage coming from protestants who have long held that marriage is just a civil institution. It is also a highly selective reading of scripture which has examples (and approves of) a variety of marital arrangements and never implies that any single configuration is a divine mandate.

The New Testament, especially, is very ambiguous about marriage. Paul seems to denigrate it and lift up celibacy as the nobler path - marriage being for those too weak to do the truly virtuous thing. Jesus himself never discusses marriage except in reference to divorce (an important point I'll bring up later), and we are given no clue about his sexual activity. Was Jesus married? The Gospels don't say, but the tradition of the Church has been that he was celibate. If so, and Jesus is truly the representative of perfect humanity, it seems that marriage has no place or is at least irrelevant to the Christian life.

Based on Pauline arguments the Roman Church had long been encouraging the clerical caste toward celibacy when Martin Luther objected and got married calling marriage a "school of virtue." The best reason from scripture to lean toward a monogamous consensual model of marriage is Paul's insistence that if you must get married the purpose of that marriage ought to be growing deeper into Christ. Paul encourages the people in his churches to use marriage as a means to develop in virtue. Jesus' comments forbidding divorce ought to be seen in the same light, in my opinion.

Here is why: the principal benefit of lifelong monogamy is depth. It is not the best arrangement from the standpoint of procreation (polygamy is better). What you get with monogamy however is a commitment to a single individual that demands greater empathy, patience, honesty, and trust. In order for a long-term consensual intimate relationship with a single individual to be successful you MUST learn to understand one another, to trust each other, to be patient with each other's flaws, and honest about your needs. Combine this with the egalitarian impluse of Christianity (neither male nor female...) and you arrive at a picture of a relationship that can only work at all with mutual commitment and effort. Surviving a monogamous marriage requires virtue.

In a polygamous marriage you don't have to be the only one to meet your partner's emotional or sexual needs. You can remain only partly available, only partly honest. You can afford to be less patient since the dynamic of a polygamous relationship is inherently un-egalitarian. The man's needs and rights always take priority.

As I understand protestant theology and as I read scripture - marriage is almost completely irrelevant for Christians. It is definitely NOT a sacrament. It is NOT a gift from God. It is NOT commanded for one configuration only. It is definitely NOT an institution for the preservation of society. The most important relationships for Christians are our relationships to fellow disciples and enemies. We are commanded to serve the first and love the latter, and this takes priority over everything else so much that it virtually negates familial ties altogether.

However, if we are to honor some kind of marriage arrangement, the one which seems best to commend is a consensual monogamous life-long (I would add egalitarian) commitment for the reason that it lends itself to the development of quintessential Christian virtues. If that is true - if we are to join Luther in praising marriage as a "School of Virtue" - then it is a travesty to deny anyone who wishes to make such a pledge access and support. Our responsibility as Christians toward the institution of marriage is not to control or define it, but to aid in its flourishing as a means of deepening discipleship. Conversely, where marriage is broken, violent, or otherwise a hindrance to the development of virtue it is a Christian responsibility to oppose it since marriage itself is purely instrumental, and not sacramental at all.

In conclusion, homosexuals should not only be permitted, but even encouraged to marry where they understand marriage in this way - as a means of developing virtues like empathy, patience, trust, and compassion.


Drew Tatusko said...

good thoughts. my last two posts focus on the economy of "biblical" marriage and the issue of polygamy. similar conclusions, even though longer to get there ;-)

Andrew Winter said...

Though the New Testament may be very ambiguous about marriage (I don't think it is, but that's not what I'm arguing here), it is NOT ambiguous about homosexuality. Paul says in Romans 1 that when creation rejects the creator and worships creation as God, their foolish heart is darkened. One of the natural outpourings of the foolish heart is what Paul calls "impurity," "dishonorable passions," and "shameless acts."

Whatever your views on marriage, you must reject the Bible if you affirm homosexuality.

You are gonna tell me that God loves the homosexual, that homosexuality is natural, and that Jesus hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes, and all are true.

Sin is natural. Sin comes from birth. It's the way we are all born.

And yes, God loves homosexuals no less than he loves anyone else. And because of that love he calls us to repentance.

Alan said...

"Paul says in Romans 1 that when creation rejects the creator and worships creation as God, their foolish heart is darkened. "

Well no problem there. I'm gay and I worship God, not creation.

Your formula is an excellent defense of gay Christians, Andrew Winter. Thank you for that.

Aric Clark said...



There is much I can agree with you about here. Sin is natural (or at least universal). It accompanies us our entire life, from birth. God loves homosexuals as much as anyone else, and a faithful response to that love includes repentance.

I disagree in several ways as well. Paul in Romans 1 is talking about the dangers of self-righteousness (a far more important New Testament theme than the barely mentioned homosexuality). Some types of homosexual behavior are used as an example in the midst of that argument, but they are not his primary point, rather it is a subordinate argument.

Paul wasn't right about everything. He also said women shouldn't teach. I've had many very good teachers who are women.

Believing homosexuality is natural doesn't lead to a rejection of the Bible anymore than believing that rabbits are not ruminants, or eating shellfish is not a sin is a rejection of the Bible.

Consider it this way - is God pro-genocide? Does rejecting certain contemporary zionist readings of Joshua which suggest Israel should wipe out all non-Jews from palestine mean I'm rejecting the Bible? Is there not sufficient Biblical evidence elsewhere to suggest that God abhors violence and therefore a faithful interpretation of Joshua must deny God ever approved of planned or implemented a genocide?

There is more than sufficient Biblical evidence that God desires for us life-giving relationships of love and support to outweigh a few passages which might possibly be read as condemning homosexuality.

Andrew Winter said...

I am about to shamelessly post a link to my blog here.

After I read this article and all the comments, I wrote a post on my blog going into greater detail and responding directly to Aric Clark.

Aric, I thought I would let you know that I mentioned you so you can have a chance to defend yourself.

I'm not looking for debate. Debate is pointless.

Love God. It's the greatest commandment.


God, Homosexuality, and the Bible

Alan said...

Meh. I'll pass.

Aric Clark said...


Thank you for the courtesy of informing me that you were going to write about me on your blog. It is much appreciated.

You are right that debate is usually pointless. I have higher hopes for dialogue, but it is not always productive either. Sometimes we just disagree.

Jodie said...


This is one of your best posts ever.

I'd comment on it but I fear it would only detract from what you have said. But after 28 years of marriage, I think you are right. Marriage is so much more, so much different than the simplistic one dimensional model defended by the anti gay school. Defining marriage by the sexual relationship that exists in marriage so completely misses the point of marriage that it leaves you with almost nothing to talk about. But once you embrace all that marriage is, gay marriage is obvious.

I think if Paul had known gay couples as we now know them, he would gladly have embraced their marriage as a further metaphor for Christ and the Church.

Doug Hagler said...

'The most important relationships we have are to fellow disciples and enemies'. I think that's a keeper. I'll be thinking about that one for a while.

Cecilia said...

Aric, this post is brilliant. In fact, I'd like to "use" it the next time I have a wedding, to formulate my "statement on the gift of marriage." Here's a link to one attempt I made to deal with that question in a way that affirmed all committed relationships (for a straight couple who had gay friends at their wedding!). It's not perfect, and given what you've written, I would change it significantly. But here's where I was at a little over a year ago.


Pax, C.

Aric Clark said...

Thanks for the compliments guys. :)

Cecilia, if I may not so humbly offer my own version of the "statement on the gift of marriage" recently given for a friend:

Beloved friends and family, you have been invited here to witness and bless, in the presence of God, the joining together of these two people in Holy Matrimony. It is a solemn and joyous occasion which we are privileged to participate in. You are welcome here. Your involvement is not trivial, but profound, for you mark now, with your presence, a moment of crucial transition for these two individuals.

n and n have courageously chosen a course fraught with peril, but one that is uniquely able to instruct us in the virtues of compassion, empathy and patience. Marriage is a school of holiness. It will often test their commitment, and always demand a sense of humor. If engaged in with honesty and dedication, marriage can be the most rewarding relationship any two human beings can share. A marriage which realizes its true potential will be a sign amidst this broken world that unity is more powerful than estrangement, forgiveness is deeper than guilt, joy is more enduring than despair, and love is the rightful inheritance of all.

It is my sincere hope that having witnessed their union everyone who leaves this place will find their own relationships have been strengthened, that their compassion for others has been widened, and their desire for reconciliation deepened. Let the love that n and n share be a sign for you of the love that God continually extends to all the world.

Cecilia said...

Beautiful. Just beautiful. Thank you so much!

Pax, C.

Alan said...

Very nice.