Made For Love (Our Marriage)

by gayvangelical

In the month leading up to our wedding, a conservative Christian family member who I had not spoken with in years sent me a note pointedly asking me about how my gay marriage was God’s plan for my life and how I planned to glorify God and “live in the light of God’s word” through our marriage.  Rather than responding with frustration that I was being asked on the brink of my marriage to justify my relationship, I chose to take the question seriously.    Here is my response:

 

Dear Fellow Believer in Christ,

I apologize for my delay in responding to your note.  I needed to give myself time to process your email, so that I could respond to it with compassion and understanding rather than defensiveness.  Surely, you must understand that this is a direct and rather personal question to ask out of the blue almost on the eve of my marriage.  At the same time, I think you are asking the right questions about how I (or anyone) can live out marriage faithfully and with integrity.   I just question starting the conversation with a challenge.   Nonetheless, I am confident that I am where I am by the grace and leading of the Spirit, and I am always prepared to give an answer for the hope that I have in Christ.

As a child of God, made in God’s image, my purpose in chorus with the rest of humanity is to glorify God and to focus others on God’s presence in our midst and in our lives.  As those made in God’s image we are living icons crafted to point others beyond ourselves to the presence and rule of Christ in the world.   With the rest of creation, we are invited into the worship of God already and always in progress, and when we are faithful we invite others to join us in this chorus.

I believe this calling to serve as reminders of God’s presence and to welcome others into God’s presence is what God meant in stating “let us make humanity in our image.”  I believe this is both the start and the end towards which humanity was made and is drawn. Further, I believe this understanding of “imaging God” is supported by the context in which scripture was written [1] and the context within the canon itself (in Colossians, Christ is referred to as the ikon of the invisible God because Christ does the work of God showing forth God’s purpose of reconciling the world to Godself).

I think it is a mistake, and a wandering off from the point of the text, to understand Genesis 1 as indicating or establishing a strict gender binary wherein God made each person to be either male or female but nothing in between.  This reading is problematic as it does not reflect God’s created reality due to the existence of intersex individuals who biologically have male and female sexual traits.  Even more so, it is problematic because it raises a question that seems to undermine the purpose of the passage.  It only makes sense to emphasize that God made humanity male OR female if one is trying to rule out the possibility of a third category in between.  This reading of the text inserts a dissonant note “but God did not make [individuals who are not 100% male or 100% female]” into a text that is focused on God making all.  For these reasons, I understand “male and female, God created them” as an inclusive statement rather than an exclusive or categorical statement.

Similarly, I think it is a mistake to read the blessing “be fruitful and multiply” as a vocational purpose for every human.  As a blessing, it is also given to the creatures of the sea and the birds of the air which seems to set it outside of ethical instruction.  It is also not an available option for a number of people, and, in particular, it seems to conflict with the gift of celibacy.  Lastly, if childbirth and childrearing was what it mean to participate in God’s image Jesus and Paul and other saints would not have fully lived into the image of God.

While there is far, far, far more to sexuality and my marriage than sex, I think it is also important to note here that childbirth is not the only purpose for sex in scripture.  Sex is a good gift from God that is frankly discussed and celebrated in scripture including in the unmarried relationship at the center of the Song of Songs which borrows a great deal from Ancient Near Eastern erotic literature (eg. Song of Songs 5:3-4, 14) and in the book of Proverbs that highlights the blessing of a woman’s breast (Proverbs 5:19) among other aspects of sexuality.

The notion within Evangelical purity culture that sex is a dirty thing that can only be redeemed through childbearing is unbiblical and it severs the practice of sex from our greater callings to worship and covenant.   This has led over the past millennia to distortions of ethics (such as the concept in the middle ages that it was a greater sin to masturbate than to rape a nun, because the nun’s rape could lead to childbirth) and oppression (with women and sexual minorities seen as inherently more sexual and consequently untrustworthy and deviant).  It also sets up false distinctions between sex, justice, procreativity, and the service of God.

When our lives and actions find their direction, purpose, and center in glorifying God, ethical actions like sex, marriage, childbearing, child rearing, service, practice, and the work of God’s people in the world find their place as practices through which we can direct others towards God and through which we can orient ourselves to God.  The mutual image of self-giving service in scripture’s description of marriage as like the relationship between Christ and the church informs my understanding of how this imaging of God from one to another works out in the context of marriage.   In Dante’s Paradiso, the last glimpse between Dante and Beatrice the woman who has been his muse and heart’s desire ends with her smiling at him, meeting his gaze, than turning their gaze towards the Eternal Fountain that is the source of her beauty and all beauty and light.  I think Bob Shore-Goss explains this in more concrete terms by stating “Justice-love begins with our partners, intersects with God in love-making, and extends to the world. In other words, when love-making is connected with justice-doing, our capacities to love expand beyond mutual pleasure into the pleasure of loving God in our neighbor and in the marginalized. Personally, I have found that I cannot be passionate for justice work without being a passionate lover, and vice versa.”

I understand Romans 1 as describing an abandonment of humanity’s purpose to worship God (not an abandonment of humanity’s practice of bearing children through sex).   In a polemic against Gentile idolatry leading into a polemic against Jewish trust in circumcision for salvation (i.e. a form of Jewish idolatry), Paul discusses male same sex activity and unnatural female sexual activity (which may also be same sex) either in the context of  temple prostitution [2] or in the context of excessive lust in a non-Christ centered relationship.  In either case, the heart of the problem is the rejection of God and the centering of these sex acts either in the control of God (as in temple prostitution where sex is a means of forcing God’s obedience or blessing) or in the delight of self (as in lust where one’s partner is a consumable good meant to bring pleasure not a fellow image bearer of God whose gaze I hope to redirect from myself to the God who made me).

This differs radically from a gay Christian relationship, like the one I am blessed to have with John.  Our relationship as a Christian couple has a different center and a different purpose and this affects our intent and our practice.  From the “small” daily spiritual practices of prayer, song, study and compassion to the larger submission of our lives to the Spirit’s direction and purpose we live our relationship out in the presence of God.  In the process, we encourage each other towards a closer relationship with God who holds us and draws us nearer together.   In practical terms this might look like either of us guiding the other towards a more loving and gracious relationship with our church community.  It might look like John redirecting my sinful tendencies towards flippancy and pride to thoughtfulness and humility.  It might look like me encouraging John towards delighting in the goodness of creation. In a heterosexist culture this often looks like us joining the example of Aaron and Hur holding up Moses’s arms in the desert, as we help each other cling to our faith in a barren religious landscape that long ago abandoned the gospel for the sake of political influence.

We live our faith out in the context of a covenanted relationship which gives us the strength to endure and hold on to our faith, the context for grace and forgiveness when we fail to live out our faith, and the primary arena in which our faith is practiced.  As much as we were made to worship, we were also made to reflect the relationality at the heart of the Triune God.  For this reason, the first problem of creation is the original human creature (not yet identified as male in Hebrew) being alone.  God responds to this problem by creating a strong ally whose strength, similarity (she is taken from the man’s side and is “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh”) and ability to challenge or resist the man is highlighted.  This ally has the strength to come to the aid of the man [3] or to challenge him [4] and she is his blood. It cheapens the role of the helper and challenger to reduce this role to genital differences and the supposedly inherent (yet heavily influenced by culture) roles of masculinity and femininity.

This work of aiding and challenging is held together by the “one flesh” covenant in which the partners understand themselves united in blood, bone, and soul.  The “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” formula in Genesis 2:23 is a kinship formula that describes the unity of the kin group as sharing one body and one life. This unity points to a particular covenantal responsibility that each member of the kin group owes the rest, as one is expected to care for one’s kin as one’s own body and soul.  Notably, it is this covenantal responsibility that Jesus highlights in responding to in his discussion of divorce as he rebuked the religious leaders in Mark 10:8 and Matthew 19:5.  This way of understanding one’s relationship with, and responsibility towards, one’s kin is reflected in the New Testament’s description of the church as “the body.”  It is also akin to the modern idiom of calling individual (whether biologically related or not) “my blood.” Further,  It is demonstrably inaccurate within the bible to state that only one man and one woman can become “one flesh,” as appeals to the “one flesh” covenantal relationship are made by Laban to Jacob (Genesis 29:14) and the tribes of Israel to David (2 Samuel 5:1).

Returning to my relationship with John, it is our covenantal responsibility to each other that allows our relationship to endure our humanity. It is the choice to honor this commitment that enables me to dig deeper into my spirit to find compassion when John has had a stressful day and needs my support, even though I have already exhausted my normal supply of empathy in my work as a crisis line counselor.  It is John’s commitment to me that gives him the strength, patience, and compassion to hold me literally and emotionally when I come home a shaken and jagged bundle of nerves after a difficult call and struggle to pull myself back into my humanity.  It is that commitment that draws us out of our own selfishness into the service of each other and God when we are tired, grumpy, sick, scared, broken, puffed up, overbearing, arrogant, cruel, and all too human.  It is this covenant that gives us the strength to continue wrestling with God when so many spiritual communities have committed themselves to throwing us out of the ring.

Strengthened by this covenant in the service of God with the desire to glorify the Lord, we endeavor to live lives that bear the fruit of the Spirit as we continue our journey along the pathway to glory.  The practices of wisdom and the law guide us in finding, and keeping on, this path on our journey with God, enabling us to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.

The law, as a covenant between God and God’s people, serves to establish, identify, and preserve our relationship with God.  Within the law, the purity code serves a particular purpose in preserving the distinctiveness of the Jewish people as a people constantly under threat of exile, assimilation and annihilation.  Practiced faithfully, it keeps the core relationship between God and God’s people primary and serves as a way of remembering and enacting that relationship.  It is a living enactment of the reality that this particular people are the people of a particular God, and as such it is an identity marker intended to set this unique people and this unique relationship apart from all other relationship and people groups.  The Levitical prohibition against male anal sex [5] served to preserve this distinctiveness from the surrounding culture.

At the core of the Hebrew scriptures is an ethical principle that stands in dynamic tension with the uniqueness of God’s relationship with Israel,  While God has a unique relationship with Israel as the people God called out and blessed, God is Creator and Ruler over all.  God’s unique relationship with the Jewish people does not preclude God from blessing and relating to the rest of humanity.  In fact, as the Abrahamic blessing makes clear God’s plan from the beginning was to use the Jewish people as the primary vessel through which God would bless the world (Genesis 12:2-3).  In order to enact this, God’s people were commanded to welcome the exile and stranger in their land, remembering that the God who rescued them from Egypt also provides for others (Deut 24:17-22).  The sin of Sodom is ultimately a failure to practice this welcoming of the stranger in the land which is inextricably bound to the Jewish salvation narrative.

Practice of the law becomes problematic when one loses sight of the central relationship between God and God’s people and God’s freedom to relate graciously and providentially to others.  Outside of this relational context, the practice of the law can become focused on division and boundaries rather than obedience and service to God. When this happens, there is a danger of seeking to determine just how far away from God one can get while remaining in the camp and trying to determine who is, and must be kept at all costs,  outside of the camp.

Jesus returns the focus of the law to the gracious and providential blessing of humanity by God.  In the process, he centers this relationship, highlighting that it is God and not merely obedience that purifies. The heart from which the law is practiced becomes the center of purity, as Jesus highlighted in saying “There is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man” (Matt. 7:15).  By re-centering the relationship with God as the fulcrum upon which spiritual practice rests, Jesus and his followers were able to reach out to others In order to welcome them into the purifying love of God and God’s purifying love in their lives became the marker by which we are known as disciples of Christ (John 13:35).

Paul further develops this central relationship with God as the arena in which faithfulness is enacted.  For Paul, the key concern is the question of redemption and community life in light of that redemption.  Paul’s distinction between life by the Spirit and life by the flesh does not place the dirty physical against the pure spirit in imitation of gnosticism.  Rather, it contrasts depending upon the self as particularly personified by the belief that circumcision as the mark of membership in the Jewish community as in itself sufficient) with dependence upon the Spirit who ordained and established the practice of circumcision and the reign of God (Galatians 6:12-16).

The vice and virtue lists Paul employs highlight the consequences of life by the Spirit (the fruit of the Spirit) and life by the flesh (the vice lists).  The prophetic challenge inherent in the contrast of these lists is to encourage the believing community to live lives that reflect the relationship we have with God rather than the lives one would expect from someone who has rejected God.  Returning us to where we started, our call is to live lives that point towards the God who is the source of our lives or to put in the terms of Genesis, to image God.

Much is made of translations placing homosexuals in the vice lists in 1 Corinthians 6:8-11 and 1 Timothy 1:10.  On a technical level, this is problematic not only because homosexual is a neologism that dates to mid-nineteenth century German sexuality studies [6] but also due to the lexical breadth of malakos [7]  and the lack of uses of arsenokoites [8] from which a certain meaning can be gathered. Responsible readers of the text ought to be humble enough to at least acknowledge that the meaning of these words in lists that do not provide context from which we can easily gather their meaning is debatable.  While I find the argument that Paul had pederastry in mind convincing, [9] I think it is highly inappropriate to base the rejection of an entire people group on such a debatable passage.

The contrasting fruit of the Spirit which serve as signposts that we are walking in step with the Spirit offer much greater clarity.  The fruit of love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control quite simply are not the fruit of the closet. Basking in the shame, repentance, and self-hatred of fighting against one’s own body, one’s ability to love, and the God given gift of sexuality is antithetical to life lived in the grace and joy of God.

Speaking from my own experience, fighting against my sexuality made me more proud, more cynical, bitterer, and far angrier at God. Rejecting the idea that faithful obedience to God meant fighting against the person God made me to be brought me home to God and over the years has helped me re-open my soul to the love of God that flows in and through me. It freed me to love God with all of my heart, all of my soul, all of my mind, and all of my strength rather than turning my efforts internally into fighting who I am with every breath.

 

[1] Archaeological evidence points to royal “images” [statues] that were set up in cities to remind citizens of the presence and rule of kings.

[2] I think this is more likely due to textual clues reflecting both the Wisdom of Solomon and appearing to allude to the cult of Cybele (see: Townsley, J. Paul, the Goddess Religions, and Queer Sects: Romans 1:23-28.  Journal of Biblical Literature 130(4) (2011): 707-728)

[3] ” עֵזֶר (ezer),” the word typically translated helper  (literally ”power” or “help”) refers to God coming to the aid or rescue of Israel 17 times and to military aid the other three times.  It is by no stretch of the imagination a diminutive term.

[4] “ כְּנֶגְדֹּֽו- k’negdo,” the word often translated suitable (literally “in front of him)”  can simply mean “corresponding to” as in the Tractate Pe’ah of the Mishnah which states that the study of Torah is k’neged all other commandments. Even if one takes the term as opposing him the root’s connection to speech and particularly prophetic speech suggests that this way in which she differs from the man is a difference in terms of resistance rather than type.

[5] For a lengthy discussion of how we can be confident  that “אִשָּׁה מִשְׁכְּבֵי (mishkreve ishha—lyings of a woman)/em>” refers  rather specifically to male anal sex as is clear in light of the much more common equivalent phrase  זָכָר “מִשְׁכַּב (mishkeve zaka—lyings of a man)” see Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition (Madison, WI:University of Wisconsin Press 2004)

[6] For more see Kathy Baldock, Walking The Bridgeless Canyon (Reno, NV: Canyonwalker Press.  2000, pp.27-52).

[7]  A gender slur best translated “sissy” that is widely applied to heterosexual activity and that notably is an insult hurled at the perceived indulgence of boys in pederastic relationships

[8] A Pauline neologism that may best be translated based on its proximity to malakos as referring to the pederast in a pederastic relationship and that is notably used to refer to non-sexual forms of abusive behavior in the Sibyline Oracle and the Acts of John.

[9] An abusive practice of sexual tutelage between an older man and a youth in Roman culture that received harsh criticism by stoic and rabbinic sources with which Paul would have been conversant.  See Robin Scroggs The New Testament and Homosexuality (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress.  1983)

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