With same-sex marriage being the topic of the day for a lot of “progressive Christians,” this is an argument I’ve seen lately. Since Jesus never said anything about same-sex marriage, Christians shouldn’t oppose it either. When I last saw it, I queried whether it was even true, but the same line was repeated back to me each time: Jesus said NOTHING about same-sex marriage (the capitals were used in the reply).
Red letter fundamentalism
Nobody thinks this is a good way of thinking: Jesus didn’t speak against it, so we shouldn’t either. We don’t think that’s right. Not really. If you’re not sure about that, it won’t be hard to convince you. Here are a few counter-examples:
- Christians shouldn’t oppose kidnapping, because Jesus said NOTHING about kidnapping!
- Christians shouldn’t oppose slavery, because Jesus said NOTHING about slavery!
- Christians shouldn’t oppose using hard drugs, because Jesus said NOTHING about using hard drugs! (And he even said that it’s not what goes into the body that makes a person unclean.)
- Christians shouldn’t oppose tax cuts, because Jesus said NOTHING about tax cuts!
- Christians shouldn’t oppose the death penalty, because Jesus said NOTHING about the death penalty (or at least, nothing opposed to it)!
- Christians shouldn’t oppose child sacrifice, because Jesus said NOTHING about child sacrifice!
And so on. Christians who pride themselves on being more progressive than what’s mainstream would probably balk at these arguments. Not only is the outcome more than a little disagreeable to them, but we would all, I hope, see right away what a terrible sort of argument this is.
This strangely fundamentalist way of reading the four Gospels – “red letter fundamentalism,” I call it, is no way to handle them responsibly. For one, it’s not true that we can say “Jesus said nothing about X” just because the Gospels record Jesus saying nothing about X. As the closing of the Gospel of John notes, Jesus did plenty of things that are not recorded in the Gospel. Who can say how many issues he commented on when asked?
There is no warrant for the assumption that Jesus wanted everyone to forget everything – absolutely everything – they knew and build up their inventory of moral beliefs based solely on the specific examples he verbally spoon-fed them.
But more importantly, this way of using the sayings of Jesus seriously misunderstands what Jesus wanted to do. There is no warrant for the assumption that Jesus wanted everyone to forget everything – absolutely everything – they knew and build up their inventory of moral beliefs based solely on the specific examples he verbally spoon-fed them. Jesus came to First Century Jews, a people who already had a significant amount of revelation about God, about humanity, and about right and wrong in God’s eyes. In his discussions with them, it is quite clear that Jesus took this revelation for granted, rather than supposing that it was all null and void. Every time Jesus spoke about the Scripture, it was either to appeal to it as a source of truth that should guide God’s people, to correct the way that people had been understanding or using some examples, to call people to account for failing to follow its precepts, or talking about the way the Scripture was fulfilled in him (if I’ve missed any other of Jesus’ use of Scripture, I have at least captured the main ones).
I am aware of some ways of offering a revisionist reading of the Jewish Scripture so that homosexual conduct in general is not addressed. These efforts are a remarkable failure, but this is not the time to address that. My point is just that it is obviously wrong to assume that whatever the Hebrew Scripture says about sexuality, Jesus wanted people to forget it all and rely solely on what he told them (or didn’t tell them). On its own, this means that the argument that “Jesus never said anything about X, so Christians shouldn’t oppose X” is simply wrong.
Is it even true?
The truth is that Jesus did talk about marriage and its nature. The fact that it wasn’t same-sex marriage can hardly be taken to mean that Jesus had no problem with that possibility.
What’s more, the fact that Jesus didn’t say anything about same-sex marriage may simply have reflected the fact that Jesus believed in no such thing as same-sex marriage. Notice that he also didn’t say anything about unicorns. The truth is that Jesus did talk about marriage and its nature. The fact that it wasn’t same-sex marriage can hardly be taken to mean that Jesus had no problem with that possibility. It’s a mistake to assume that the Bible, or the message of Jesus, is a list of don’ts. Don’t do this, don’t do that, and if you want to know what God is against, you need to find the don’t in the Gospel. What we should be more concerned about is what Jesus is in favour of. Once we know that, it will become clear that some things are incompatible with what he calls us to. When people came to Jesus for his opinion on divorce, he didn’t go looking for an explicit prohibition against divorce in the Scripture. There isn’t one. What he did, however, was to draw attention to the book of Genesis, where marriage is first introduced, in order to show that what marriage is is something incompatible with the view in which divorce is fine. The passage itself mentioned nothing about divorce, it simply portrayed marriage.
And what is marriage, according to the model Jesus drew on? How does early Genesis portray it? After reading that everything God made is good, we encounter a case of “it is not good.” It is not good for man to be alone. Without woman, man lacks a counterpart. So God creates the animals, but they are not suitable as companions for men. So God creates a woman, and the man is overjoyed:
Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
This is the part that Jesus quotes in Matthew 19. This is the model of marriage that he appeals to in order to show that divorce is not good. A woman (the companion for a man) and a man come together and form a union here called “one flesh.” While it is true that Jesus here doesn’t say anything explicitly about same-sex marriage, it is only because same-sex marriage is not within the scope of Jesus’ view of marriage. In fact, Jesus underscores the basic structure of marriage here, prefacing his quote with this: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female?”
You might try to get out of this by saying that you don’t believe the early Genesis narrative is literal history. Not so fast. You can’t wash your hands of this without taking seriously the question: “OK, so if it’s not literal history, what does it mean?” If you’re going to say that its model of marriage is wrong because it’s not literal history, then you’ve just undermined Jesus’ teaching about divorce. Why is he appealing to a story that’s not literal history? The fact is, if it’s not literal history then you have to ask why it was written the way it was. If it was simply recorded history, then it was written that way because that’s the way events unfolded. But if it’s not literal history, that’s not why it was written this way. Rather, it was written this way for didactic (teaching) purposes. This passage about marriage is here (if this is not literal history) in part to teach us what marriage is like. Indeed, this is exactly how Jesus uses the material in Genesis here.
So if you’re using the argument that Jesus didn’t condemn something, therefore Christians should be fine with it, you really need to brush up your method of interpreting Scripture (or else you should consider supporting slavery and kidnapping, as well as abolishing minimum wages). And if you’re going to use that argument in the case of same-sex marriage, you should probably take a closer look at what Jesus actually taught. For these two independent reasons, this is no respectable way to defend same-sex marriage from a Christian perspective.
- Where I stand on legal same sex marriage
- Paul, Genesis and Gender
- “It’s only the religious who make threats….”
- The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife?
- Ehrman: I’m not destroying Christianity, I’m only destroying the Bible!
- Jesus, Son of Joseph, Son of David