To be clear, there are Christians on both sides of the debate about marriage who don’t really appeal to Scripture as the ultimate basis of their view. On the one hand, some conservative Christians sometimes rely on tradition and the power of traditional marriage as its’ own kind of validation rather than careful and sustained biblical exegesis that deals head-on with the real questions raised by revisionists like James Brownson or Matthew Vines. On the other hand, some revisionists try to make their argument by appealing to cultural shifts or the suffering of LGBT+ persons without really articulating how their view fits (or not) with Scripture. So there are people in both camps who don’t functionally treat Scripture as the authoritative basis for their views.
Is it true that—at the popular level—the affirming view doesn’t always present a clear exegetical case? I think so. When I hear educated laypeople make a case for affirming same-sex marriage, they’re typically not doing so on an exegetical basis. And when they do engage Scripture, it’s more to raise questions than to give answers [what about slavery? What about heliocentric views of the universe? What about how the Bible views women?]. Highlighting past interpretive flaws of some Christians does helpfully reinforce the need for us to reexamine our views. But affirming folks often raise these questions as a rhetorical device meant to introduce uncertainty (which I certainly approve of—I do this all the time in my teaching) without actually introducing a clear, coherent hermeneutic that would explain the flaws in these past interpretations and offer a constructive hermeneutic of how and why we should interpret Scripture. In other words, the goal of raising these questions is to question the traditional interpretation of marriage. But if your point is that sometimes Christians interpret the Bible wrong, how do you prevent this from being unleashed into complete uncertainty and skepticism about any interpretation or anything the Bible says? For example, in my denominational context in the Reformed Church in America, I’ve been part of numerous conversations around this issue. And while those who are affirming often raise the questions noted above, they don’t often outline how, for example, their own constructive hermeneutic would stand against something like polyamory or polygamy. That is, if you make the kinds of hermeneutic moves they make--
- Genesis 1-2 is normative, but not exclusively normative.
- The Bible’s not talking about loving, covenantal relationships when it criticizes same-sex relationships.
- Cultures in Bible times didn’t have the scientific data we do around orientation, and so now we need to adapt our views.
- The Bible’s focus on male-female marriage stems from problematic patriarchy.
In short, the average hermeneutic and rhetorical moves of those who affirm same-sex marriage are aimed at loosening the historic view of marriage, but they don’t often outline a more constructive hermeneutic that explains why you would stop at the notion of monogamous marriage.
So I can understand why the average conservative Christian in my own denomination would feel like they never actually hear an exegetical case for the affirming position. (This is part of why I’ve tried to explain fairly and charitably and clearly what I understand to be the affirming position in my series of videos on the Bible and human sexuality). I think that is a key part why they accuse affirming folks of “not taking the Bible seriously” or “undermining biblical authority.”
Nevertheless, I think it’s inaccurate to say that raising any of the above questions necessarily implies a low view of Scripture. They are valid interpretive questions about the context of the original author and audience, questions about what the author means to communicate, and questions related to how we’re called to live that out today. In that sense, I would defend the general hermeneutic project of the affirming folks insofar as they’re trying to ask valid interpretive questions which often arise around a variety of biblical texts and issues.
Furthermore, I think the repeated accusation of having a low view of Scripture can actually do a disservice to the conversation in the long run. Here’s why. I hear a lot of affirming folks—including scholars like Jim Brownson and Matthew Vines, as well as the average affirming pastor—repeatedly reiterating that they have a high view of Scripture as though that places this question in the category of things where we can ‘agree to disagree.’ My simple observation is this: having a high view of Scripture doesn’t insure that you will avoid false teaching on matters essential to the faith. For example, you can have a high view of Scripture and still have an Arian Christology and argue, from a high view of Scripture, that the Son is not fully divine in the way that the Father is. Orthodox Christology is not merely a product of having a high view of Scripture, but the result of being able to articulate in a clear and coherent manner the entire canon of Scripture as it speaks to the person and work of Jesus. Heresy like Arianism focuses on a few verses out of context and reads them through the cultural and philosophical lens of Arius’ day, rather than letting the totality of Scripture’s witness speak to the question of who Jesus is and letting that witness refashion the cultural and philosophical lenses we might otherwise use.
So what? The point is simply this: by leading with the charge of a “low view of Scripture,” conservative Christians have created an environment where affirming Christians believe that, merely by emphasizing their high view of Scripture, the question of marriage is thereby placed into the category of adiaphora, matters where Christians must agree to disagree. But having a high view of Scripture is no guarantee for anyone—conservative or liberal—that they’re avoiding false teaching or betraying matters essential to the faith.
So how do we move the conversation forward? We do need to reiterate a high view of Scripture. As I’ve said above, I think it is true that some affirming folks do have a low view of Scripture, at least functionally if not theoretically. But that’s not entailed in the affirming position, although it does add to the gravity of the concern I have with this conversation. Christians who hold to the historic view, then, need to focus not merely on the doctrine of Scripture in play, but in whether, how, and why matters of marriage and sexuality are essential to biblical teaching in general and Jesus’ command to make disciples in particular.