The recent Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage has been widely celebrated by so-called liberals as well as gays. It is also getting push-back from those designated as conservative, but especially from conservative Christians who appeal to “religious freedom.” The freedom to be religious needs more specificity.
For many Christians, this appeal typically indicates the freedom to “follow the Bible,” but the Bible is full of pretty oppressive themes. In the previous century, the enslavement of Africans was supported by most white Christian churches. It was, after all, biblical to own slaves. “Slaves obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as the world serves Christ” (Ephesians 6:5). “Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed” (Timothy 6:12).
So maybe conservative Christians today would reject biblical positions on slavery, but they still get away with appealing to the Bible to authorize anti-gay positions or heterosexism. The simplest response to that could be that the Bible supports all sorts of sexual behaviors and relationships that are obnoxious.
In Genesis stories, there is no indication that Adam and Eve were married. So perhaps this is a story about unmarried sex. In the Old Testament, there are lots of models with a man and wife plus concubines: Abraham had two concubines, Gideon had one, Jacob one, Caleb had two and Solomon had 300 concubines. Then there is polygamy: a man plus lots of wives. Esau had three wives, Jacob two, Gideon and David had many, and Solomon had 700. Given that women were property, according to Deuteronomy 22:28,, a virgin who was raped had to marry her rapist, who then had to pay the victim’s father 50 shekels for that father’s property loss.
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Biblical marriage and relationships are pretty wild in the Old Testament, which constitutes more than half of the Bible.
A lot of Christians tend to think the New Testament overrides problematic passages in the Old Testament, so for the really normative “Biblical family,” let’s turn there. But it turns out that Jesus was single, not married. And in the New Testament passage Luke 14:26, he says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, cannot be my disciple.” So obeying Jesus’ commandment on marriage is not going to help the conservative cause.
Now what about the apostle Paul? Agreeing with Jesus that it is better not to marry, Paul gave us a teeny “way out” – better to marry than to burn. “If they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9). Jesus was not a fan of marriage, so why don’t these biblical Christians follow Jesus?
“Religious freedom” in the case being made against respecting the legalization of same-sex marriage sounds like the freedom to engage in prejudice and discrimination, providing nothing morally coherent to justify those prejudices. “Biblical marriage” is not very compelling. Again, why don’t these Christians just follow Jesus?
Mary McClintock Fulkerson is a professor of theology at Duke Divinity School.