Is Lee Jefferson Right about the Bible and “Gay Marriage”?

Yesterday, the Huffington Post released an article by Lee Jefferson, offering commentary on New York’s recent decision to legalize so-called, “gay marriage.”  Jefferson offers his comments in the hopes of de-bunking much of the biblical rationale for opposing such legal moves.  His goal is to “examine the Biblical argument against same-sex marriage (and against same-sex orientation) in context” of the Bible itself.  So, how does he do?

First off, Jefferson gets it wrong right out of the gate.  The Bible is not simply a “complicated collection of documents that was never meant to ‘speak’ to our contemporary situation.”  It is more than that. It is God’s word (2 Tim 3:16).  that means, though a collection of writings, there stands behind it only one Author.  Did he use human authors?  Yes.  But does that means those authors were only vaguely inspired?  No.  Through God’s providence, God used human authors—even their own personality—to record His word to humanity (2 Pet 1:20-21).   Was this revelation part of history? Absolutely!  But that doesn’t mean that it is bound by history.  God speaks into our history, our culture, our context as human beings and gives us a perspective that is not bound by any culture tor time.   Just because he used men writing thousands of years ago, in a specific culture, doesn’t mean that what God said then is now irrelevant.  God speaks a word that is trans-cultural; it transcends any one culture because it speaks to the human condition itself, which never changes.  We still wrestle with the same questions of life in every generation.

Beginning his four-point critique, Jefferson argues that “the institution of marriage is a secular and social institution.”  This is true only if we define marriage from the perspective of modern history, reading back into biblical times.  Though he denigrates Genesis 1-2 as a proof-text for marriage, what he fails to see there is the original pattern for contemporary marriage.   We would not have civil or religious ceremonies of marriage if it were not for the original pattern laid down by God’s own actions in history, given to us through his Word.

Jefferson goes in his second point to try to assert the absurd point that “the Bible does not clearly endorse one form of marriage over another.”  Is he for real?  Surely a professor of the Bible—even an unbelieving professor—cannot in good conscience see that from Genesis to Revelation, the pattern that is laid down as normative is the marriage between a man and a woman.  God creates male and female, Adam and Eve, and gives them to one another.  In that context, God inspires the editorial comment that this is the foundation and on-going basis for marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24).  Wife means marriage, and the wife—the female—is given to a man—her husband.  Again, he argues that because all of the trappings of contemporary marriage aren’t there (e.g., rings, bands, receptions, etc) this doesn’t deal with marriage. Really, Professor Jefferson?

The third point he attempts to make is that “the Biblical arguments against same-sex marriage are not proffered from texts that deal with marriage, but from texts that purportedly deal with same-sex orientation.”   Here, he is dividing what the Bible never divides: sexual identity and marriage.  Jefferson assumes that sexual orientation is distinct from marriage.  But what is the context of the creation of people and gender and sex itself?  Marriage and procreation.  God creates man and woman and brings them together and says “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 1:28).  What does this mean?  Men and women are supposed to marry and sex that results in children. This doesn’t mean that single people aren’t sexual beings, but that their sexuality will not (should not) be expressed in sexual intercourse, which is saved for marriage (1 Corinthians 7).  As opposed to God’s plan for intended results of marriage, same sex couples can’t reproduce.  There is an entire Darwinian argument that can be made from that, but I’ll leave it for now.  Simply put, sexual identity comes in the context of marriage and procreation in the Bible. Therefore, you cannot argue from the Bible in a way that separates them.  Doing so, shows that you fundamentally misunderstand the text, and are guilty of reading modern mindsets back into ancient ones.

Jefferson goes on in his third point to try to show that homosexuality is a minor key in the Bible and that it should therefore be no little or no significance today.  He even plays two interpretive cards that are so tired and worn-out that they should convince no one who actually reads the biblical texts for themselves.  First of all, despite what Jefferson says, Jesus does speak of sexuality in a positive way, reminding the people of his day of the original design: man + woman = marriage (Matthew 19).  Furthermore, just because Jesus doesn’t mention something, we should not presume that he had no opinion of it or should even be seen as endorsing it.  That would be like saying because Jesus didn’t actively condemn pedophilia we should think he’s okay with it.  That kind of interpretation, let alone logic, simply won’t work.

Neither will his understanding of Sodom and Gomorrah work.  He begins by trying to say that Roman culture should be equated with that of the Ancient Near East, thousands of years before, so that stories of Zeus should help us inform Genesis 19.  Is that how we interpret other texts that are written thousands of years apart?  Should the Harry Potter novels inform our reading of the Roman myths?  More than that, he says that the real sin in Sodom and Gomorrah is lack of hospitality.  Now, to be fair, the lack of hospitality is real, but it is only a symptom of a larger problem of selfishness (cf. Ezek 16:49).  Nevertheless, other passages comment on these cities and make clear that sexual deviancy was part of sin in God’s eyes (Jer 23:14).  What shall we say then?  Simply this, though the passage should not be seen as having the specific purpose of condemning homosexuality, the act of homosexuality—even homosexual gang-rape—should be seen as evidence of the wickedness of the people (Gen 19:4-5).

Jefferson moves on to more specific Old Testament passages and argues that “the holiness codes of Leviticus thread down from an all-encompassing mandate to behave distinctly from their foreign (and depraved) neighbors. . . .   The codes make the Israelites unique from their neighbors, and they reflect a particular time and place in Israelite history. Any contemporary critique must note this reality before invoking the codes as ammunition against same-sex practice.”  Okay, but does that mean that we ignore them altogether?  He seems to say that because these laws are grouped with other laws that seem insignificant to us (like those involving what to wear and what to eat) that we should see instructions on homosexuality as insignificant as well.  In fact, he seems to believe that God has moved on and so should we.

But this is related to his fourth point, where Jefferson claims that “any reference to same-sex practice by a Biblical writer or a Greco-Roman writer has no knowledge or understanding of the concept of ‘same-sex orientation.’”  What does he mean by this?  I think he is trying to make the point that sexual orientation is something amoral.  In contrast, he says, “there were no discussions or arguments concerning sexual orientation in the ancient and late ancient world, conversations that would only arrive in the modern era of psychology. Instead, ancient writers believed any wanton sexual behavior of any variety is a mismanagement of one’s appetites.”  Although, I’m not a historian enough to fact-check his first statement, his second about Paul certainly rings true.  In fact, he goes and actually speaks well and is worth quoting at length:

The Pauline letters that are raised in the same-sex debate are part of Paul’s understanding of sexual immorality in the first century CE. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul includes in a laundry list of vices “male prostitutes” and “sodomites” (as malakoi and arsenokoitai are translated by the NRSV; 1 Cor 6:9). These terms are injected along with many other vices: “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers,” and Paul is addressing the issue of a church member sleeping with his stepmother. In other words, Paul is addressing ALL deviant sexual and immoral behavior, not just that of a same-sex variety. In his address to the Romans, Paul describes the root sin of the Gentiles as idolatry, and the consequences of idolatry are vices beginning with women and men “exchanging” natural intercourse for unnatural. While Paul is describing this behavior as the result of wayward passions, the chief sin is idolatry and separation from the one true God.

Yes, yes, yes—he is correct!  In the Bible, homosexuality is seen as being out of step with the natural order of things along with many other sins, including heterosexual sins.  But that doesn’t mean that homosexuality should be viewed as anything less than sinful.  Jefferson ends his argument with this observation: “While the Romans text offers the longest discussion of same-sex behavior in the New Testament, it is unclear whether it truly is a condemnation of a specific practice.”  What?  If Paul groups it among a list of other sins (1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10), how can he not be seen as condemning it?

More than that, this goes against his earlier attempt to undermine any authority for the Leviticus texts to the issue.  More than a good Jew, Paul is a Christian—he believes that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and that by living a perfect life, dying in place of sinners on a Roman cross, and by raising back to life again as Lord of all things, that Jesus is to be worshipped and obeyed as YHWH in the flesh.  That means, he sees the teachings of God through Moses and teachings of the Son of God, Jesus, to be the same at this point: homosexuality is a rebellion against the created order, the revealed moral will of God, and more than just being sinful, is harmful to humanity.

Jefferson is right that most conservative evangelicals will be unpersuaded by his article. This is true, I hope, owing more to his misuse of the Bible than any political or social idols we may hold.  I believe the Bible does have things to say to every culture, even ours and the issue of so-called “gay marriage.”  Because the Bible comes from God himself, it presents a trans-cultural morality that reveals the essence of how humanity is supposed to live and can live only in Christ.   Yet, even in believing homosexuality is evidence of our idols and rebellion against the one, true God, we also believe that all rebellion can be forgiven in Christ. We also believe that we ourselves were once rebels who have received forgiveness and even now, continue to trust Christ that our own idols might be smashed.

[EDIT: title corrected]

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