A Modest Proposal that Same-sex Marriage Solves our Evangelical Problems with Same-sex Orientation

Nigel Chapman

Summary.  (1) Evangelicals have pastoral and theological problems with same-sex orientation that are most visible in our struggle to publicly distinguish our position from discrimination.  I argue in three steps that same-sex marriage solves these problems: (2) The moral condemnations found in scripture can’t be made apply to apply to the case of same-sex marriage, a problem which has been apparent in our public advocacy; (3) the natural and theological arguments that we employ neither give us back the missing moral condemnations nor prevent same-sex orientation being a reasonable exception to a generally heterosexual natural order; and (4) same-sex marriage fits the biblical ideal of marriage when the partners are same-sex oriented.  (5) So, for most practical purposes, and in God’s sight, it is equivalent to heterosexual marriage.  This conclusion has generally appeared impossible because we have seldom put to scripture the questions of orientation and marriage together.  Refer to the Table of Contents at the beginning or to Talking Points from this Article (§5.b) at the end for a more detailed outline.
Feb 2020.  I’ve put this article online as my contribution to the NSW/ACT Baptist Association’s present discussion of same-sex issues.  I will be one of the few people in the state who have had the experience of helping reboot and lead a Baptist church in a 30% LGBT suburb, and this is largely borne out of that experience.  The Scenarios for Discussion (§5.c) may be of special interest to leaders.
Notes.  This is the summary chapter of a book-length argument; contact me if interested in the extended versions of any section.  Excepting the discussion questions at the end, it’s about an hour of reading, but neither the introduction to orientation in Part 1 nor all the details of Part 3 may be necessary for some readers.  I published a much shorter version of this article1 in Ethos, the journal of the Evangelical Alliance’s Centre for Christianity and Society, in 2017.  References are NRSV.  Updated copies of this article will appear at https://chapman.wiki. Ebook version available here.2
Copyright: ©2019–20, Nigel Chapman.
License: CC-BY-NC;3 see License (§6).
Updates: @eukras on Twitter,4 or subscribe by email.5
Difficulty: Grade 11: 16–17 year olds.
Status: Actively maintained; comments welcome.



Table of Contents

Index. 650
1. We Don’t Have Good Answers for Same-sex Orientation 308 3,997
1.a. What is Same-Sex Orientation? 639
1.b. Our Two Unsatisfactory Alternatives 935
1.c. Our Two Unsatisfactory Frameworks 732
1.d. The Right Questions to Ask 1,383
2. Scripture’s Moral Condemnations Don’t Apply to Orientation and Marriage Together 445 4,577
2.a. Romans 1 and Roman ‘Homosexuality’ 1,134
2.b. Do the Moral Condemnations Apply to Same-sex Marriage? 737
2.c. Does Paul say Anything about Orientation in Romans 1? 888
2.d. Is ‘Unnatural’ Another Word for Immoral? 927
2.e. Our Moral Arguments Aren’t Working for Orientation 446
3. Nature and Theology Don’t Give Us Back the Missing Moral Condemnations 983 8,187
3.a. Sexual Complementarity and Natural Order 1,585
3.b. Scripture’s Narrative: Orientation and Fallenness 2,712
3.c. Human Rebellion: Denial, Idolatry, and Depravity 2,156
3.d. A Few Evangelical Mysteries, Solved 751
4. Same-sex Marriage Fits the Biblical Ideal of Marriage if you are Same-sex Oriented 103 2,597
4.a. The Biblical Ideal of Marriage 809
4.b. Does Same-Sex Marriage Fit the Biblical Ideal? 1,086
4.c. When did this Suddenly Become Okay? 599
5. This is a Comprehensive Answer to Our Problems 561 4,559
5.a. What this Means for Evangelicals 647
5.b. Talking Points from this Article 1,940
5.c. Scenarios for Discussion 1,411
6. License 313
Total words. 24,880

1.   We Don’t Have Good Answers for Same-sex Orientation

I suppose I should introduce myself.  I’m a straight Evangelical.  I grew up in rural Australia, had a dramatic conversion experience on a farm as a teen, studied Computer Science, took up university ministry, worked professionally in IT, and gained a Master of Divinity degree at one of our better Evangelical colleges.  Most recently I spent eight years helping lead a new Baptist church in Darlinghurst in Sydney, statistically Australia’s gayest suburb.  That was eye-opening.

I know a man who once had electro-shock therapy for same-sex attraction.  I’ve met one who was bashed and left in hospital for weeks for holding hands on a local street, whose Catholic parents then refused to visit him.  A friend of friends took their own life.  I know a missionary to a Muslim-majority region who shared his same-sex orientation with his organisation, who dumped him almost instantly – as did his family – then circulated rumours to his colleagues and churches.  Christians made each of these situations worse by not knowing what to do with same-sex orientation.  Our difficulties are not always this dramatic, but they are ongoing, and we’re not good at publicly talking about them, let alone taking steps to prevent or resolve them.

In Australia we recently held a ‘plebiscite’, a kind of public vote, on same-sex marriage, of which more than 60% of voters approved, and which was duly passed into law.  When I looked at the issues that Christians raised in opposition, I found it strange how rarely same-sex orientation was mentioned.  Isn’t this the major reason why a person wants a same-sex marriage?  Mustn’t Evangelicals address that if we want to persuade anyone?  This reflects, though, how commonly orientation is missing from Christian writing and thinking on same-sex issues.

1.a.   What is Same-Sex Orientation?

Same-sex orientation is the experience of growing up with attraction to the same sex instead of attraction to the opposite sex – not in addition to it.  While attraction to both sexes (bisexuality) is actually more common, it has presented less severe challenges for Evangelical life and thought, and will not be considered here, nor will transgender questions.  In other words, I’m only looking at the L and G in LGBT.  I will assume the following working definition of same-sex orientation:

Same-Sex Orientation
is a T total inversion of heterosexual desire
which is a U universal phenomenon in human societies
that consists of L loving and romantic attraction (not just sexual)
which is I involuntary not chosen
and P permanent not changeable.

Consider for a moment every time in your life that you’ve been conscious of romantic or sexual attraction.  How many times would that be every day?  For how many thousand days?  Think of all the names of the people who prompted these thoughts and feelings.  And think how this was about more than just sex: it included romance, hopes of life and family together, and all that this would mean in your family, church and social context.  For most of us, these feelings focus on the opposite sex.  Now imagine they were prompted, with the same frequency, by people of the same sex.  How would this have played out in your church and family?  Some Evangelicals reject same-sex orientation as simply the rationalisation of immoral ‘practices.’  However, celibate gay Christians, who aren’t defending any ‘gay lifestyle’ at all, describe the same experience.  For any readers not persuaded on this point, and unable to talk to someone with direct experience, try reading Wesley Hill.1 We need no theory about why this happens to some and not others to acknowledge that it does happen to some, and is just as foundational to their experience of life as heterosexual attraction is for the great majority of us.

How common is this experience of same-sex orientation, and when in life does it begin?  Recent large Australian studies answer these questions clearly.  The Australian Study of Sex and Relationships (2014)2 surveyed 20,000 Australians and found 1 in 65 people experience exclusive same-sex attraction, and that more again can be attracted to both sexes.  So far as I have seen, this is representative of studies in the western world.  This indicates that more than 370,000 Australians, 4.9 million in the United States, and 110 million human beings in total are same-sex oriented: just divide any population or group by 65 to get the magic number.  A second study, Writing Themselves In 3 (2010)3 surveyed 3,500 “same sex attracted and gender questioning young people” in Australia, finding that most who experienced same-sex attraction were conscious of this by the age of thirteen and almost all by sixteen.  We can’t predict to whom this will occur, so that it is random for all practical purposes.  Our family members, friends, church members, church leaders and we ourselves were all just as likely to have been same-sex oriented.  It’s not something we can ignore, or think won’t happen here.

1 Hill, Wesley, and Kathryn Greene-McCreight.  2010.  Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.  Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan.
2 Richters J, Altman D, Badcock PB, Smith AM, de Visser RO, Grulich AE, Rissel C, Simpson JM (2014).  “Sexual identity, sexual attraction and sexual experience: the Second Australian Study of Health and Relationships.”  Sex Health.  11 (5): 451–60.
3 Hillier, Lynne, et al.  2010.  Writing Themselves in 3: The Third National Study on the Sexual Health and Wellbeing of Same Sex Attracted and Gender Questioning Young People.  Melbourne: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society.

1.b.   Our Two Unsatisfactory Alternatives

Orientation gradually came to public notice in Western life through the 1900s, but heterosexual marriages were still recommended in the hope that self-discipline, an underlying ‘natural’ attraction, or failing that, some psychiatric help or counselling would make things work.  This effort has largely collapsed over the past generation, as it became clear that orientation does not change for most people.  Some people adjust to heterosexual marriage satisfactorily, but experience and common sense both suggest that a union in which desire cannot be mutually shared is unfair to both partners, is distant from a biblical ideal that presupposes sexual intimacy, and is in practice prone to breaking down.  These relationships are now called ‘mixed orientation marriages’.  The sense appears to have developed that such marriages were normal in the past when marriage was different in certain important ways, but that we can do better now.

By doing better now, Evangelicals often mean creating positive conditions for valuing, supporting and embracing lifelong celibacy in Evangelical churches.  We now have an active movement of celibate gay Evangelicals who don’t expect to change or marry, but are instead inspired in celibacy by priests and monks in Catholic and Christian ascetic traditions.1 This especially includes those known or believed to have been same-sex oriented, like Aelred of Rievaulx, Cardinal John Henry Newman, and Henri Nouwen.  The movement focuses on cultivating deep ‘spiritual friendship’ to partly make up the affection and emotional intimacy that for them will not be fulfilled by marriage.  Because most same-sex oriented people are aware of their orientation by early adolescence, this currently means mandatory lifelong celibacy for about a hundred million people.  The term ‘mandatory’ is generally not used or appreciated by celibate Christian gays, but when they are convinced it is the only godly or faithful option then we need at least some synonym of that word – necessary, obligatory, required – whether an individual embraces or rejects the demand.

It is difficult to overstate what an innovation this has been in recent Evangelical thought.  We are the first generation in Christian history to believe or affirm that a certain proportion of all Christians are obligated to lifelong celibacy.  In Catholicism, by comparison, holy orders are normally reserved for those who have already made a free choice of celibacy (Catechism §1599) – and the term ‘normally’ is just a recognition that celibacy is an ecclesiastical law with historical and modern exceptions.  It is not an affirmation that celibacy could ever be demanded.  Even so, early Protestants rejected vows of celibacy in their entirety.  Calvin in the Institutes called them insane audacity and presumption when God had provided marriage.2 He said that vows of celibacy were not binding, but were foolishness to be repented of.  Christian scripture teaches chastity, that is, sexual self-control, which includes sexual abstinence outside of marriage.  It teaches celibacy too, the decision to reject marriage itself, if someone has the ‘gift’ and the desire to do so.3 But celibacy cannot be imposed upon a person, nor can marriage be forbidden to them, and anyone who feels unsuited to their singleness can always choose to marry.4 Yet now, because we have discovered orientation, Evangelicals believe a random subgroup of the population should be celibate for life.  This is not a traditional position, and was not held by any biblical author.  Our question must be whether, as a modern innovation, it is a godly or necessary response to discovering same-sex orientation.

The expectation of celibacy is not something we generally discuss in public, as it is hard to defend imposing mandatory lifelong celibacy on teenagers, whether by God or by church.  We have ways of minimising the impact of this conviction on our own consciences, by saying that many straight Christians also remain single their whole lives, or that we all have sorrows and suffering to bear, and some of that is unavoidable and unfair, or that God will strengthen us to do what he commands.  But this comparison misses the vital point that other Evangelicals possess at least the hope of love and marriage.  Someone who thinks that the loss of this hope is nothing too demanding might consider, as a gesture of solidarity, committing not to marry for just five years, or if married already, committing to five years of abstinence.  While life can be hard and unfair, it was more so in biblical times than today, and still, no biblical writer ever thought that mandatory lifelong celibacy was something anyone must bear.  Jesus might have made such a commitment, and Jeremiah, uniquely in the whole of the Old Testament, was commanded to,5 but we can hardly generalise from either one of their highly particular circumstances.

Neither mixed orientation marriage nor mandatory lifelong celibacy represents the biblical ideal.  But does that justify looking to same-sex marriage as a solution to the problems presented by same-sex orientation?  We would guess that nobody in scripture ever thought that same-sex marriages could be “what God has joined together.”  As most Evangelical writers understand things, these unions can’t be moral on the one hand and can’t be marriage on the other hand – at least, not in God’s sight, which is the essential point.

1 Hill, Wesley.  2015.  Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.  Baker Publishing House.
2 Calvin on Celibacy.  Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.14.3, 17.
3 Celibacy encouraged for those with the ‘gift’.  Matt 19:11–12; 1 Cor 7:1–9.
4 Celibacy not to be imposed.  1 Tim 4:13; cf.  Gen 2:18.
5 Jeremiah’s celibacy.  Jer 16:2.

1.c.   Our Two Unsatisfactory Frameworks

When Evangelicals have tried to come to terms with both orientation and scripture, we have developed ‘Affirming’ and ‘Welcoming But Not Affirming’ views.  I understand their best current Evangelical forms as follows: An Affirming position argues that the passages on same-sex relations are less clear and more culturally bound to their time and place than previously thought, while our obligations toward love and care are emphatic, and our treatment of same-sex oriented people has often been horrific.  Accommodating same-sex unions is a compassionate response to to how we now understand the experience of orientation.  A Welcoming but not Affirming position understands itself as the traditionally Christian view.  It maintains that same-sex relations cannot be moral in God’s sight, and that a biblical marriage can only be heterosexual, so that either a mixed-orientation marriage or lifelong celibacy are the only options for a same-sex oriented Evangelical.  But as the name suggests, it also emphasises that those with same-sex attraction must be loved and supported, never stigmatised.  I am sympathetic to both positions in different ways, and see why they seem necessary from their own perspectives.  But I am not persuaded by either, at least as I have seen them argued.  It may preempt some general questions if I begin with a few of my concerns with each of the two widely held positions.  To help keep my summary brief, these will be statements, not arguments, intended to give the reader an initial handle on my own convictions.  Against the Affirming view, I would say:

  1. Some passages on same-sex issues are now understood differently.  In particular, Sodom and Gibeah are no longer invoked as if representative of same-sex issues, certain cultural factors must be accounted for in our interpretation, and the New Testament’s vocabulary choice leaves some wriggle room on the meaning of words.  However, I’m not persuaded that scripture is so unclear as to negate or reverse its overall condemnation of same-sex relations.  I think we have to allow that the biblical writers, in all their definite statements, condemned every same-sex act that they reasonably thought might ever occur.
  2. Some affirming arguments seem to me to downplay biblical sexual ethics as a reflection of God’s moral character.  I think we need to pay attention to how Jesus intensifies and internalises the moral and sexual demands of the Old Testament1 (far from saying nothing about same-sex issues), and how the early church finds the condemnations of idolatry and sexual immorality to be binding for gentiles, and so, apparently trans-cultural.2 Both points ground Christian sexual ethics in God’s character.
  3. Some affirming views end up creating new relationship categories alongside marriage, like ‘covenanted partnerships’, which I don’t think we can define for ourselves and then expect God to recognise; not unless we can argue that he joins them together as marriages; that is, recognises and celebrates the unions.

On the other hand, I also have concerns with the Welcoming But Not Affirming view:

  1. Frequently, traditional views have focused on same-sex ‘practices’ to the neglect of orientation, have spoken out on politics to the detriment of pastoral care, and have been slow to seek forgiveness for historical wrongs against same-sex oriented people.  When something like 1 in 65 of us are same-sex oriented, and same-sex marriage is being proposed as a response to that fact, this looks like wilfully missing the point.
  2. Welcoming but not affirming views claim to be wholly traditional and orthodox.  Yet we are the first generation in Christian history to suggest that a certain proportion of all Christians face mandatory lifelong celibacy.  Where so, this should be admitted to be a break with our tradition, albeit one considered necessary in light of orientation.
  3. Our attempts to find a universal basis for the biblical condemnations in nature and theology have seemed consistently bloodless and abstract when set beside the experience of same-sex orientation or the expectation of lifelong celibacy.  In particular, they have completely lacked the moral force and directness of the biblical condemnations they supposedly represent.  We are having trouble making moral arguments that we’re also saying should be simple and self-evident to moral people.

1 Jesus internalises and intensifies OT sexual morality.  Matt 5:27–32.
2 Sexual morality applied to gentiles.  Acts 15:19–20; 1 Cor 5:10–11.

1.d.   The Right Questions to Ask

I will presuppose that the reader is familiar with the prohibitions of same-sex relations in scripture,1 the primary passages on biblical marriage,2 and the need to exclude sexual immorality from Christian communities.3 I presuppose that, without minimising the need for care, education and humility, scripture is authoritative for Christians, and that in scripture:

  1. Same-sex relations are highly immoral in every case considered;
  2. God’s ideal of marriage is only ever heterosexual; and
  3. Sex outside of marriage is in every case immoral.

Obviously, some arguments for same-sex relations rely on ignoring, dismissing, or countering these claims.  I won’t be looking at arguments for or against them here.  Rather, I’m asking: Should an Evangelical who signs off on all these statements also support same-sex marriage in the case of same-sex orientation?

The purpose of this paper is to resolve the Evangelical problem of orientation, and the inadequate alternatives and frameworks we have built up around it.  I’ll argue that same-sex marriage simply is biblical marriage, if the partners are same-sex oriented.  We can get here from either of the other positions by asking the obvious question directly in front of us: What does God think of two same-sex oriented Evangelicals marrying, and intending this as a biblical marriage before God?  What does God think of the situation in which these four points combine:

Faithful Evangelicals
Same-Sex Orientation
Same-Sex Marriage
Same-Sex Relations

What would a person in this situation be expected to repent from?  Or for what reasons should they reject or abandon any such relationship?  Preston Sprinkle puts the question perfectly in People to be Loved (2015):4

The question is not about whether gay sex outside marriage is wrong.  It’s not about whether soliciting a same-sex prostitute or sleeping around with several partners is wrong.  … The question is whether two men or two women can date, fall in love, remain sexually pure before their wedding day, and commit to a life-long, consensual, Christ-centered, self-giving, monogamous union.  (p.17)

Is this relationship immoral, whether in Christian terms or more generally?  Is this contrary to nature or to faith?  Does God recognise this as marriage, whether civil or Christian?  An Evangelical who is persuaded that same-sex marriage is a biblical solution to same-sex orientation, could agree with those parts of the Nashville Statement (2017)5 that read:

WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality … and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.
WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality … is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.

A concern for sexual morality should be common ground for Evangelicals, whatever our approach to same-sex orientation.  The question to be considered in this article is whether a same-sex marriage constitutes homosexual immorality in the case of same-sex orientation.  Taking this question to scripture will lead us through several surprising turns.

This question, I suggest, covers all other important questions.  If same-sex marriage is a biblical and Evangelical solution to same-sex orientation, then same-sex orientation becomes functionally equivalent to heterosexual orientation in Evangelical thought.  Most notably, singles never face mandatory lifelong celibacy, all Evangelicals may both fall in love and marry, sexual ethics remain ordered by marriage and scripture, and it becomes very simple to distinguish our position from prejudice in public life.  This answer unsnarls many, possibly even all, of the knots we are tangled in.

Let me also suggest some questions to put to this paper as you read through.  I’ll take them from an article in the Catholic magazine First Things, which recently lamented a prospective split in the United Methodist Church in the United States over same-sex marriage.6 The author wondered how a church could come to the point where this was even a question:

Same-sex marriage has not become plausible or imperative by virtue of its own merits.  It has only become plausible as a function of much wider and deeper shifts within society’s understanding of the self.  The sexual revolution was always but a symptom of the selfhood revolution whereby expressive individualism came to dominate how our culture understands the purpose of life.  And that means that any church where same-sex marriage is significant enough to cause divisive debate is a church where significant parties have already absorbed the spirit of the age regarding personhood, love, sex, and sexuality – whether intentionally or by cultural osmosis.  And that in turn means it is a church where significant parties have already abandoned basic Christian anthropology and an orthodox understanding of biblical authority.

While this is an outside voice, this lament will be familiar and resonant to many Evangelicals.  Many of us think any argument for same-sex marriage must be an argument for conformity and compromise, no more and no less.  We have all seen examples of exactly that, and for many of us, it will be difficult to imagine any truly Evangelical argument of this kind.  I’d like you to bear this paragraph from First Things in mind and weigh this article against its major questions as you proceed.  I’ll return to these questions at the end of this article (§5).

  1. Am I simply trying to accommodate a culturally dominant spirit of individualistic self-centeredness?
  2. Have I abandoned a Christian understanding of human nature?
  3. Have I abandoned an orthodox understanding of biblical authority?

Of course, anyone who finds our existing answers to orientation problematic, and presses the question, is likely to be asked these questions.  I have an advantage of sorts in not being employed by a church or congregation, a bible college or other denominational body; I’m immune to having my vocation threatened, whether legitimately or otherwise.  I say legitimately, since, if a leader, institution, or congregation can genuinely see no way to separate same-sex orientation from sexual immorality then they may be biblically and rightly obligated to protect their community or institution from that immorality.  But while this may be a conscientious pastoral decision, it may also be forced by ignorance or politicisation, and may be carried out by simply demanding assent to inadequate answers.  As the church-at-large’s framework for understanding same-sex orientation moved from crime and disgrace, through to treatment as a disorder, through to forms of support for celibacy, the first line of people who asked the hard questions had the worst of it.  It is my habit, in talking to people who need to think through orientation, but who depend upon a church or denomination for their livelihood, to never ask them a question where one of the possible answers could materially harm their family or ministry.  But the questions aren’t going away.  I hope that this article may be used to both ask the right questions and also answer them, keeping them in their properly pastoral and theological orbits.

Some questions concerning the claim that We Don't Have Good Answers for Same-sex Orientation (§1).

  1. Does same-sex orientation exist as described here?
  2. As Evangelicals, do we have unresolved problems with same-sex orientation?  Are they the same or different to the ones listed here?
  3. If same-sex marriages were (somehow? magically?) acceptable to God in the case of same-sex orientation, would they solve virtually all of our practical problems with same-sex orientation?

1 Same-sex relations.  Gen 19:1–13; Lev 18:22; 20:13; Jdg 19:22–26; Rom 1–3, esp. 1:18–32; 1 Cor 6:9–11; Jude 1:7.
2 Biblical marriage.  Gen 1–2, esp. 1:26–31 & 2:15–25; Matt 19:2–12; Mark 10:2–12; Eph 5:22–33.
3 Separation from sexual immorality.  Lev 18:1–5, 24–30; Matt 18:15–20; Acts 15:29; 1 Cor 5:1–13; Rev 2:20.
4 Sprinkle, Preston.  2015.  People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue.  Zondervan.
5 The Nashville Statement, Article X.  <https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement>;.  Acc: 3 October 2018.  (Phrases on ‘transgenderism’ are omitted.)
6 Carl R.  Trueman.  “A Strange Split in the UMC.”  First Things. 7 Jan 2020.  <https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/01/a-strange-split-in-the-umc>;

2.   Scripture’s Moral Condemnations Don’t Apply to Orientation and Marriage Together

The biblical passages treat same-sex relations as a simple and obvious moral issue.  They imply immorality by the way they speak: Don’t do that thing the Canaanites did, which defiled the land; which is a capital crime (like adultery); which summed up how bad things became in Sodom, Gibeah, and Rome; which is abominable, unnatural, dishonourable and shameful (whether to people or God); which appears in lists of vices to avoid; which bars people from God’s kingdom; and which, it is repeatedly emphasised, will be judged.  That thing, we then add, that scripture condemns (for references, §1.d).  The breadth and force of these statements lead many Evangelicals to believe that they could never choose to approve same-sex relationships and still be faithful or obedient to God.  But in public life we have had trouble making these or any remotely similar claims sound convincing, and the reason is not hard to find.  All these statements presuppose the knowledge that same-sex relations are immoral, and urge both Jews and Christians to be faithful to that knowledge.  These statements don’t explain why.  In public discussion, and in much private Christian discussion, a prior understanding of why this is immoral has been missing.  When it has been left to others to explain our position, simple homophobia has been the first guess.  We’ve denied this, but we typically have not refuted it.

It would help us, in thinking through the biblical condemnations, to know the moral, natural and theological reasons for them.  We should want to know what God thinks, what is truly good and ideal.  We should be able to “show them their fault” when we fall into a disagreement with someone (Matt 18:15).  We should want to distinguish our thinking from bigotry and prejudice, and to effectively condemn those traits in our own speech.  So we should ask ourselves which of the biblical condemnations come with moral reasons attached.  Did it make sense for Paul to condemn Roman homosexuality in the terms that he did?  Do those reasons carry over to contemporary same-sex marriages?  Is this the same situation that scripture addressed?  If it is different, is it different enough to matter?  Is orientation a question settled in scripture, or is it something new?

Some possible reasons derive from nature or theology, and I will consider those in the section that follows (§3).  But a range of simply moral reasons are apparent.  By “simply moral,” I mean things we could expect any reasonably normal person to recognise as a matter of conscience, just as if we said that “adultery is wrong”.

2.a.   Romans 1 and Roman ‘Homosexuality’

I will take Craig Williams’s book Roman Homosexuality (2010)1 as the most helpful one-stop background to this topic in New Testament times.  Williams shows from a range of evidence that Roman homosexuality, like Roman heterosexuality, was mostly about Roman masculinity.  This could be freely expressed as sexual dominance over slaves, prostitutes and adolescents.  Of these subjects, ‘smooth’ boys between the onset of puberty and the growth of a ‘manly’ beard (from 13 to 20 years) were unembarrassedly preferred.  It made no difference to a Roman man’s social standing or his perceived masculinity whether he had intercourse with men or women, so long as he also married and had children.  But he could lose social honour for taking or preferring the penetrated role in same-sex intercourse (or being said to), or for having sexual relations with free-born Roman citizens other than his own wife.  Roman homosexuality had, as a result, no regular or necessary connection with love, orientation, fidelity, or consent.  For these reasons Romans despised some forms of Greek homosexuality, especially that occurring between citizens.  Within this essentially masculine framework female same-sex relations were disapproved or ignored, at men’s discretion.  Most modern people, including non-religious advocates for same-sex rights and freedoms, would reject most of this ‘homosexuality’ as immoral.  You will see from this summary why I write it in quote-marks, when ‘homosexuality’ today refers mainly to same-sex orientation.  I will suppose in this article that when Paul writes to Rome from Roman Corinth, about matters affecting Roman slaves who belong to his churches and theirs, this is the social background both groups have in mind.

Why does Paul mention same-sex relations in Romans 1?  We’ll consider the letter’s theology presently (§3.c), but the situation of the Roman church and Paul’s reason for writing will suffice for now.  The evident problem is that Jewish and gentile factions were claiming preeminence over each other.  (‘Gentiles’ is a Jewish term for other nations and nationalities.)  A significant term here is boasting, that is, claiming status and honour.2 The Romans had the heritage of Greek wisdom and the might of Empire, while the Jews were entrusted with God’s word – or were they still, as the gentile Christians seemed to be asking (cf. Rom 9–11).  Ethnic divisions in the Roman church could have many causes, but one obvious candidate is the expulsion of some significant number of prominent Jews from Rome between 49 and 54 CE.3 It is consistent with the problems in the letter to suppose that Jewish Christians first began the church, left for a few years, and believed they’d still be running things when they returned, while the gentiles became accustomed to doing things their own way.  The church in Rome knows many people from the church in Corinth, where Paul is writing.4 This situation accounts for the letter’s existence, and for its structure and emphases: the gospel for Jews and gentiles together in Rom 1–8, Israel’s continuing status in Rom 9–11, and how Christians should live peaceably together in spite of differences, especially over food laws, in Rom 12–16.  From Paul’s perspective it was easy to shut down the cultural superiority of the Greek and Roman Christians by pointing to pervasive idolatry and immorality in their culture.  And the Jewish Christians too, who in Romans 2–3 he indicts for having had God’s law but not kept it, calling scripture itself as a witness against their own self-importance and self-righteousness.  In Romans 1–3 Paul rules out any concept of ethnic preeminence in the gospel, first for gentiles, then for Jews, emphasising that each are reconciled to God and with each other by grace they did not earn and by faith in God who is impartial.  “Where is boasting?”  he finally asks them.  “It is excluded… by faith” (3:27).

Our history of interpretation has typically read Romans 1 as a general statement about all human beings.  Romans 1 should be considered focused on gentiles, however, because Jews by this time built their ethnic self-identity, their grounds for ‘boasting’, after so much failure in the Old Testament, upon their total separation from idolatry and sexual immorality,5 guarded by the ‘boundary markers’ of food laws and circumcision.  They were brought up with bedtime stories about choosing martyrdom before compromise6 on these exact subjects.  Paul’s opening argument wouldn’t work if the gentiles could just say to the Jews “but so do you!”, which they could if Rom 1 described all people.  This historical interpretation was mostly correct, since after all, gentiles are almost all people and if we add Rom 2–3 to Rom 1, then Paul is covering Jews also in his larger argument.  But this means that Romans 1 is not intended as a comprehensive anthropology or a meditation on the kind of original sin addressed in Rom 5–7.

To work, Paul’s argument in Romans 1 need only score some easy points against Roman, Hellenistic or pagan immorality, both social and sexual.  This was something Jewish writers had been doing for centuries by this time.  These were easy points to score, given the nature of Roman ‘homosexuality’.  He doesn’t have to systematise about humanity or creation to achieve this, which will become important shortly (cf. §3.b).  However, we must not ignore or minimise that Paul still writes in categorical and seemingly universal terms; that gentiles are most of humanity; and that God’s morals are universal.  So what he writes in Romans 1 certainly does invite application to same-sex orientation and same sex marriage, the question to which we now turn.

1 Williams, Craig A.  2010.  Roman Homosexuality. (2nd ed.)  Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2 ‘Boasting’ in Romans.  2:17, 23; 3:27; 4:2; 5:1–11; 11:18; 15:17, cf. 1 Cor 1:26–31; 2 Cor 5:11–12; and 2 Cor 10–12 generally.
3 Expulsion of Jews from Rome.  Acts 18:26; Suetonius Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Claudius 25.
4 Connections between Corinth and Rome.  In Rom 16:1–2 Phoebe of Cenchrea carries the letter to Rome; Cenchrea is the southern port of Corinth (cf. Acts 18:18).  In Rom 16:3–21 Paul greets 23 people in Rome by name, plus five whole households, and seven people from Corinth send greetings.  Priscilla and Aquila previously hosted a house church in Corinth (Rom 15:3; cf. Acts 18; 1 Cor 16:21), while Gaius and Erastus may be the people elsewhere located there (Rom 15:23, cf. 1 Cor 1:14, 2 Tim 4:20).
5 Jewish separation from immorality.  Philo On Joseph 43; Letter of Aristeas 27.
6 Martyrdom before compromise.  Daniel 3, 2 Maccabees 7.

2.b.   Do the Moral Condemnations Apply to Same-sex Marriage?

More than half a dozen straightforward moral reasons can be seen for the biblical condemnations of same-sex relations.  Some of them sit on the surface in scripture, while noticing others requires familiarity with Jewish and pagan writing from the period.  As we might expect, some of Paul’s contemporaries also wrote against same-sex relations, and their objections provide useful background for understanding Paul.  The best short introduction to the whole sweep of background material is William Loader’s opening chapter in the recent Counterpoints book Two Views on Homosexuality (2016).1 I select Plutarch, Philo, and Josephus2 as relevant examples: one pagan Neoplatonist and two Jews.  They each use the same term para physin, (‘unnatural’), that Paul does for same-sex relations in Romans 1.

For all three writers same-sex relations mean the neglect of procreation or marriage; it shows “contempt of matrimony;” it “sows seed” unfruitfully; it is a man “wasting his power of propagating his species” (cf. Rom 1:26, ‘usage’?)  In Plutarch, sex that is ‘unnatural’ refers to anal intercourse specifically; but no further reason is given.  In Philo (especially) same-sex relations exploit young boys.  In Philo (especially) and Plutarch, they undermine manliness and its associated qualities, leading to effeminacy: someone doing so “adulterated the coinage of their nature,” meaning the distinctive imprint of their masculinity (cf. 1 Cor 6:9).  In Philo and Josephus this is an “impudent” and “absurd” practice, involving a compulsive and immoderate pursuit of pleasure (cf. Rom 1:27, ‘consumed with passion’).  These authors appeal to practical concerns for population, faithfulness, masculinity, and moderation, especially in response to conspicuously scandalous or notorious behaviour.  Their arguments may be efforts to appeal to Hellenists, or to explain or justify a pre-existing sense of disgust, a philosophical view of our place in the natural world, or, of course, the condemnations that appear in Jewish scripture.  But they tell us how were thinking.

How may reasons can we find for these condemnations, and which ones apply to same-sex marriage and orientation, considered together?  The most obvious reasons include promiscuity and unfaithfulness to marriage (same-sex relations typically being either or both in Roman culture),3 the neglect of family, marriage, and procreation,4 same-sex prostitution including temple prostitution,5 exploitation and abuse including that of slaves or adolescents,6 the feminisation of young men to make them appeal to older (presumably heterosexual) men,7 states of mind we would now call sexual addiction or predation,8 and probably (though this is less clear) disease transmission too.9 Greek and Roman homosexualities ticked all these boxes and pointing this out was a slam-dunk for any Jewish writer telling off the pagans.

But while these actions are easily characterised as immoral, shameful, and degrading, they are not relevant to same-sex marriages.  People seeking same-sex marriages want their love, faithfulness and commitment recognised, and faithful monogamy resolves all the problems just listed.  (Review the list briefly to confirm this if unsure.)  In this respect all modern same-sex marriages are closer to Paul and Leviticus than to the same-sex relations of ancient Rome.

1 Sprinkle, Preston (ed.).  2016.  Counterpoints: Two Views on Homosexuality.  Zondervan.
2 Examples of Paul’s contemporaries.  Plutarch: Dialogue on Love 751C-E; Philo: On the Special Laws 1.325, 3.39; On Abraham 1:134, 135–37; and Josephus: Against Apion 2.273–275.
3 Fornication and adultery.  Implicit in porneia, Acts 15:19–20; note how these typically precede same-sex relations in biblical vice lists.  Judged against the Jewish expectation of marriage, same-sex relations were necessarily one or the other: 1 Cor 6:9–11; 1 Tim 1:8–11; Lev 18; 21:10, 13.
4 Neglect of marriage and family.  Philo.  On the Special Laws III.37–39; possibly implied by ‘usage’ in Rom 1:26–27.
5 Same-sex prostitution.  See porneia (above).  Heb.  qedeshim in Deut 23:17;1 Ki 14:24, 15:12, 22:46; 2 Ki 23:7.
6 Exploitation and abuse.  Gen 19; Jdg 19; 1 Pet 3:9 (?); 1 Tim 1:10 (?); Philo, loc. cit.
7 Feminisation of males.  1 Cor 6:9, malakos; Philo, loc. cit.
8 Sexual compulsion.  Philo, loc. cit.; Rom 1:27 “consumed with passion.”
9 Sexually transmitted disease (?).  Rom 1:27 a “penalty,” cf. Wis 11:16.

2.c.   Does Paul say Anything about Orientation in Romans 1?

It is sometimes argued that ideas similar to orientation were in circulation in antiquity, and that biblical writers, who must have known this and ignored it, were implicitly declaring them irrelevant.  If they were consciously dismissing ideas comparable to same-sex orientation, this implies, then we should do the same today.  At very least, the counter argument that they did not understand orientation or anything like it may be dismissed.  Michael Bird and Sarah Harris argue as follows in Sexegesis (2012):1

As a Greek-speaking Roman citizen who moved freely between the cities of the Eastern Mediterranean, Paul would have come across men and women involved in long-term same-sex relationships.  For instance, the Roman Emperor Hadrian was explicitly and openly homosexual and had a long-term relationships with his partner Antonous before the latter accidentally drowned.  … it is special pleading to assume that Paul was somehow ignorant of committed same-sex relationships.  … It would be anachronistic to expect Paul to be aware of modern insights into sexual orientation, but Graeco-Roman authors did offer explanations for homosexual behaviour including natural disposition from birth, psychological abnormalities, sexual abuse, or even gender confusion.  [Lists are cited in other authors here] … So it is naïve to assume that … Paul had no awareness of homosexuality as related to psychological, social, or biological factors.  (pp.96–97)

However, rather than assuming what Paul knew, or credited, or allowed for – or what he did not, or how that related to his concerns in Romans 1 – we can just check his positive statements about same-sex attraction or desire in Romans 1 against the experience of same-sex orientation that we encounter in contemporary life and especially in pastoral care.  Paul’s own statements tell us quite clearly whether he addresses anything like orientation in the modern sense.  The key is to notice that he says quite a lot about same-sex attraction – the actual desires.

Paul writes in 1:18–32 that ‘shameful passions’ arise (1) under the influence of religious paganism, through (2) a progressive and wilful corruption of character and desire.  I will discuss this in more depth in §3.c. Same-sex desires were one of several voluntary ‘exchanges’ gentiles made as they descended into the depths of sexual immorality (§2.d).  They are therefore a source of (3) moral shame, dishonour, and disgrace.  This explains two important phrases in Romans 1.  The sexual and social degradation of Roman society is so extreme that, for Paul, it indicates judgement and abandonment beyond anything normal.  (4) “God’s wrath being revealed from heaven” against idolaters (v.16) is the same thing as saying three times that God “handed them over” to their passions, to be dominated and degraded by them (vv.24, 26, 28).2 Isaiah might say, “You … have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” (Isa 64:7).  And, as already seen, (5) these were a distinctively gentile behaviour, which Jews and Jewish Christians thought themselves to be above.

However, this picture is completely incongruous with same-sex orientation.  Recall the TULIP definition, above (§1.a), and how it relates to those five points.  (1) Kids don’t grow up same-sex oriented in Christian families and churches as a consequence of culture or religion, nor (2) is it due to their own voluntary choices, nor (3) do we consider these passions to be shameful in themselves when they are not chosen, nor (4) do we think they arise as a result of these people being delivered into the hands of their iniquity by God in judgement (see §3.c), nor (5) that this is only a gentile problem.  A culture might encourage sexual experimentation, but that is a different thing to orientation.

What Paul says about same-sex attraction in Romans 1 is so specific in its details that it excludes the possibility that he is thinking of orientation at all, whatever concepts of orientation may or may not have have heard or believed.  Since what he’s writing here reflects his understanding of Leviticus,3 it may follow that he doesn’t think of Leviticus in terms of orientation either.  Whether that is so or not, all other references to same-sex relations are made in passing, so that we can say that no passages in scripture can be shown to take account of orientation.  Whereas the largest and the most substantial statement shows us categorically that it does not.

1 e.g.  Michael Bird and Sarah Harris in Michael Bird and Gordon Preece (eds.).  2012.  Sexegesis: An Evangelical Response to Five Uneasy Pieces on Homosexuality. Sydney: Anglican Press Australia (pp.  95–100).
2 Wrath and abandonment to sin.  Rom 1:16; 1:24, 26, 28; cf. Eph 4:17–19.
3 Romans 1:18–32 as a commentary on Leviticus.  (1) Note arsenos and koitēn in the Greek translations of both Lev 18:22 and 20:13, and the first historical occurrences of arsenokoitēs in 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10.  Man + bed is plausibly ‘man-bedder’, like mētrokoitēs for mothers or doulokoitēs for slaves.  (2) Paul’s quotes from this part of Leviticus elsewhere in Romans: Lev 18:5 LXX in Rom 10:5 and Lev 19:18 LXX in Rom 13:9.

2.d.   Is ‘Unnatural’ Another Word for Immoral?

In a sentence spanning Romans 1:26–27 both male and female same-sex relations are called unnatural.  Heterosexual relations are called natural in contrast.  An overly literal translation may help to show the language used:

ai te gar thēleiai autōn
For even their females
tēn physiken chrēsin
the natural usage
eis tēn para physin
for that contrary to nature,
homoiōs te kai
and in the same way also
hoi arsenes
the males,
giving up
tēn physiken chrēsin
the natural usage
tēs theleias
of the female,
exekauthēsan en tē orexei autōn
were inflamed in their passion
eis allēlous
for each another.

Of course, ‘natural’ may mean “against the created order,” that is, against a concept of rational natural law, or against God’s will for individuals, society, or the world.  We’ll come to that shortly (§3).  But we should first ask whether ‘unnatural’ means immoral in a simpler sense:

Gender in Culture.  Like saying certain hairstyles are ‘natural’ for men or women.
Unspeakable Things.  It may be a euphemism, that is, an oblique way of naming something that is taboo, like “unnatural acts” in old English law.
Perversion of Desire.  It may be a reference to a deliberate perversion of heterosexual desire, contributing to sexual immorality.

Firstly, some of what is called unnatural varies between different cultures and times.  We usually read the ‘natural’ hair styles of 1 Cor 11:2–16 in this way.  Statements about what is ‘natural’ can age poorly; even statements from a few centuries ago regularly assumed women were naturally less intelligent than men.  We can say from 1 Cor 11 that things can be ‘natural’ or not without this having any pressing moral implications.  However, since same-sex relations are described in unmistakably moral terms elsewhere in scripture (including the immediate context), I think we should regard that ‘unnatural’ is used in Rom 1 to support the moral condemnations in its context.

Secondly, ‘unnatural’ can be used as a euphemism for something revolting or unspeakable.  This is perhaps implicit in the way Paul avoids the many common terms for same-sex relations that were available in the Greek language, preferring indirect phrasing (“men with men”, v.27) or what seems to be a recently invented Hellenistic-Jewish word (arsenokoitēs, see footnotes in §2), of which he provides the first historical example.  This is reminiscent of his statement elsewhere that “It is shameful even to mention what [certain] people do secretly.” (Eph 5:12), and the circumspection of the western legal tradition in describing “that horrible crime not to be named among Christians”.1 If Paul employs a euphemism here, he is implying that the matter is unspeakable, and so, it seems likely that he considered it immoral enough to be also shameful.  This judgement might be underlining the moral reasons that we’ve already discussed and found inapplicable to same-sex marriages.  However, the term ‘unnatural’ has a more obvious and more directly moral referent, which Paul is certainly applying here.

Thirdly, ‘unnatural’ may refer to a wilful perversion of sexual desire.  Although it may mean more than that, this sense is certainly present in Rom 1:26–27.  Paul’s topic is the deliberate ‘exchange’ of sexual passions, something just as wilful and culpable as the exchange of divine truth or sexual propriety in the preceding verses, or the exchange of worship for idolatry in Ps 106:20 that “they exchanged” echoes repeatedly in Rom 1.

They exchanged the glory of God [or their glory],
for the image of an ox that eats grass.  (Psalm 106:20, cf. Rom 1:23)

So if Paul uses ‘contrary to nature’ in the normal sense that other writers did, then he meant immoral in some unusually perverse way.  This was an essentially moral argument, and a strong one.  Roman homosexuality in particular had many obvious moral problems, including the perversion of heterosexual desire to which Paul refers.  But exactly as we saw with the moral reasons in scripture, this doesn’t transfer to same sex orientation.  There is no wilful perversion of desire that occurs.  As an aside, the points raised by his contemporary writers also fail to apply: there is no effeminacy, sexual compulsion, or exploitation of minors.  There is no disruption of family or procreation, since mixed-orientation marriages are no longer recommended for same-sex oriented Evangelicals in the first place.

Wilful perversion is more-or-less exactly what many Evangelicals mean when they call homosexuality a “lifestyle choice.”  But of course a wilful exchange of desire doesn’t happen in same-sex orientation, and Roman homosexuality was far too common in Roman society to be explained by same-sex orientation.  So we can affirm that unnatural perversion of sexual desire prevailed in Roman society, or that it prevails today in other circumstances, without saying it applies in any way to same-sex orientation or marriage.

Same-sex marriages do not wilfully pervert heterosexual desire and are not therefore ‘unnatural’ or ‘contrary to nature’ in at least one of the major senses that Romans 1 condemns, and Roman homosexuality so emphatically was.  However, this does not preclude them being contrary to nature in other ways.  It is frequently argued, for example, if Paul drew these moral conclusions directly from natural order, reflected in Genesis 1–2.  We will turn to these questions of nature and theology shortly (§3).

1 peccatum illud horribile, inter christianos non nominandum; see Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–70 CE), Book 4.

2.e.   Our Moral Arguments Aren’t Working for Orientation

In section §2, we’ve seen a bundle of obviously moral reasons for condemning same-sex relations or desires – mostly things that any reasonably well-adjusted person would believe were wrong.  Let me grant that any or all of these concerns may be reflected in the biblical condemnations; and that they made perfect sense of Roman ‘homosexuality’ in particular.  As we have seen, though, same-sex marriage resolves most of them, and same-sex orientation resolves the rest.  As far as I am aware, no Evangelical book on marriage or ethics has focused on this consequence of addressing orientation and marriage together.

Having first listed reasons inapplicable to same-sex marriages, and then reasons inapplicable to same-sex orientation, we have, to my knowledge, covered all the directly moral reasons that are found in scripture for condemning same-sex-relations.  As mentioned, when I say “directly moral reasons”, I mean reasons that don’t depend on any particular convictions about nature or theology.

So our moral arguments aren’t working, and certainly not like we think they should.  This may be a surprising result.  As Evangelicals we have read the biblical condemnations of same-sex ‘practices’ and seen no possible exceptions to them.  Then we have looked at biblical marriages and see no possible endorsement of sex outside marriage either.  What can’t be moral can’t be marriage; what can’t be marriage can’t be moral.  It’s watertight.  Until we look at same-sex marriage as a union of same-sex orientated partners – the actual case before us – and we find that it resolves rather than multiplies the moral problems.

With scripture’s moral condemnations inapplicable to same-sex orientation and marriage together, the task of applying those condemnations to same-sex marriages falls to our arguments from nature and theology.  We will consider these arguments next.

Some questions concerning the claim that Scripture's Moral Condemnations Don't Apply to Orientation and Marriage Together (§2).

  1. Why does Paul introduce same-sex relations into his argument in Romans 1?  Do you feel you could explain his argument to anyone and have it make sense?
  2. Can we say for sure either that Paul takes account of same-sex orientation in Romans 1, or that he does not?
  3. Are there any simply moral reasons – that is, reasons not dependent on nature or theology – for condemning same-sex relations in scripture that have not been covered here?
    1. Do they apply to same-sex orientation and marriage together?
    2. Are they strong enough to pitch against the moral counter-argument from love and equality that most people grasp intuitively once they recognise orientation?
  4. Does this help us better understand and justify the biblical condemnations in their biblical context?

3.   Nature and Theology Don’t Give Us Back the Missing Moral Condemnations

Note.  This section will be substantially more complex and theological than some readers will desire to engage with; please feel free to skip ahead to Same-sex Marriage Fits the Biblical Ideal of Marriage if you are Same-sex Oriented (§4) if this is you.  But come back and give it a go later.

Because so many of the “simply moral” issues don’t apply to same-sex orientation and marriage (together; see §2), we know that in some ways we’re dealing with a different situation to that of Canaan, Greece or Rome, as they are condemned in scripture.  But this does not exhaust the moral questions, since reasons based on nature and theology can have moral implications too.  That is to say: Some morals and ethics need thinking through.  These issues are a little more involved and they depend on certain common ground to work, but for those who accept the necessary understandings of God and the world, they are universals, and especially authoritative for Christians.

Like Jesus, Paul has a creation-centric understanding of marriage and salvation.1 So Evangelicals argue that the biblical condemnations of same-sex relations can be grounded in – take a breath for this list – gratitude for God’s good creation, personal and social well-being as God’s intention, God’s ‘image’ in humanity understood as the (perhaps trinitarian?)  relation-in-difference of heterosexual life, stewardship of the created world through procreation, heterosexual marriage and family as God’s design for human society, social norms and necessities in many cultures, traditional interpretations of all these matters, our various ideas of gender complementarity, marriage symbolism in the Old and New Testaments, and (in Catholicism) an unchangeable natural law.  We use ‘sexual complementarity’ as a super-category for these and other arguments: Haven’t we read that he made them male and female?

There is no way to discuss this list of natural and theological rationales in detail in a summary article of this kind, though some will be considered in the sections that follow.  But we can discuss one major point about them, taken as a group, by looking the kind of arguments they are.  These are all arguments from general truths, whether truths about God and nature, or human nature and the good of society.  At first glance, that seems strong: you can’t argue with universal truths.  But the general nature of these arguments actually poses a thorny question:

Is same-sex orientation an exceptional situation
(that never had to be addressed in historical times)
in which the sexual norms that are very good for almost all of us
are clearly not so good for some of us?

Evangelicals appear to think that, in some ways, same-sex orientation is a special case.  This is apparent in the two alternatives we have for same-sex oriented people.  We look at a mixed orientation marriage and see that the foundations of love, desire and intimacy are missing.  So we often favour mandatory lifelong celibacy instead, even though celibacy could never be obligatory in scripture.  We seem to be thinking that it doesn’t matter how good a general, godly, or biblical ideal is – not if the foundations on which it depends are missing.  The biblical ideal, traditional social norms, and the heterosexual natural order are all built upon heterosexual attraction.  So, while I would argue against a few of the preceding claims about creation or natural order, granting the majority of them would not affect my argument in the slightest.  (Natural law is the main exception.)  These arguments would not prevent same-sex orientation being an exception to our natural and theological norms.  And that’s the key question.

  • Do universal truths of nature and theology mean there can never be exceptions?
  • Is same-sex orientation an obviously exceptional situation, to which the norms of marriage don’t (all) apply?

While the realities of nature and theology are constant, our understanding of them improves over time as we think through new questions and challenges, and life’s experience frequently turns up curious or complex edge cases.  A reasonably thorough list of the relevant questions for Evangelicals would include these points:

Reproduction.  Isn’t is just obvious that nature is heterosexual, at least insofar as it maintains higher life?
Judaism.  Should Jesus or Paul, as first century Jews, be presumed to endorse prevailing Jewish arguments along those lines?
Revulsion.  Can a sense of disgust at same-sex relations comprise a kind of conscientious moral knowledge?
Genesis.  Is Paul consciously invoking or alluding to early Genesis in Romans 1?
Creation.  Is the heterosexual pattern in Genesis the basis of Paul’s condemnations of same-sex relations in Romans 1?  (Or those of scripture more generally?)
Adam.  Does the use of Adam in traditional arguments implicitly commit it to a kind of short-ages-creationism?  Does this lead to Evangelicals saying different things to different audiences?
Identity.  Does Genesis 1–2 mean that God does not “make anybody” same-sex oriented, or, on the other hand, does orientation mean that he does?
The Fall.  Is same-sex orientation an aspect of the “curse” in Genesis 3, exemplified in the Evangelical term “sexual brokenness”?  Is this the meaning of the “wrath” being “revealed” in Romans 1:18?
Depravity.  Does Paul use same-sex relations to exemplify human denial, idolatry, and depravity – that is, of an overarching human rebellion against God – in Romans 1?

These questions typically preclude the larger question of whether God recognises same-sex marriages for same-sex oriented people (to be considered next, §4).  Are these the reasons why same-sex relations were condemned in scripture?  Do they give us back the moral condemnations we have found do not apply to orientation and marriage together?  Do these themselves apply to same-sex marriage in the absence of those condemnations?

1 Creation in marriage and salvation.  e.g.  in Paul: Rom 5:12–21; Eph 5:21–33.

3.a.   Sexual Complementarity and Natural Order

There are several major reasons why Evangelicals and others may feel they can look at the world and just see that same-sex relations are wrong.  That is, why the term ‘contrary to nature’ seems to reflect both the real world, and a range of moral and theological truths.

  1. Does heterosexual biology, and its implications for life and society, tell us what is ‘natural,’ and so, what is good?
  2. Was this Jesus and Paul’s understanding?
  3. Should a sense of revulsion associated with anal intercourse be understood as conscientious moral knowledge?

These points seem obvious to some Evangelicals.  Being unaware of orientation itself, or any theological reflection on it, may mean they have no reason to second-guess this sense of the obvious.  Sometimes things seem simple only until we attempt to explain them.

Nature’s Reproductive Purpose

While there are numerous examples of homosexual relations in the animal world, most reproduction among higher forms of life is heterosexual, meaning that it is reasonable to speak of an overall heterosexual pattern without which none of us would exist.  Whether this is morally significant – or whether the homosexual relations are – depends on how morals are understood.  In Natural Law theology, which follows Aristotle, morals come from final causes, the purposes for which something exists within the rational hierarchy of the natural world.  So in important streams of Christian thought, the obvious purpose of sex is reproduction, and this – together with scripture – supplies it’s final cause.  Final causes never change because the rational structure of creation is unchangeable.  This is why no form of contraception (except ‘rhythm’)1 can ever be justified in Catholic thought.  Some Evangelicals have begun to favour Natural Law arguments, partly seeing parallels with denial and conscience in Romans 1 and 2:15, and partly through seeing them used by Catholic groups in civil advocacy.

However, Evangelicals work from scripture rather than a system of natural law, and it is clear that different people see different morals in nature.  Neither Evangelicals nor Catholics hold that reproduction is a universal human obligation, just because of nature’s order; whereas for Old Testament Jews the act of choosing not to marry is very nearly unattested.  For most of the history of natural law theology, all forms of birth control were deemed immoral (and all but one still is); yet Evangelicals don’t generally think any such thing.  There is a danger that, just as people read their own ideas into scripture, that we might read our own ideas of scripture into nature.

Today, Catholics and Evangelicals both trace Paul’s term ‘against nature’ in Romans to the moral implications of natural order.  By ‘nature’ Evangelicals typically mean God’s intentions in creation, as they can be found in scripture, and I’ll restrict my comments to this meaning.  Richard Hays exemplifies this view in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (1996):2

The understanding of “nature” in this conventional language does not rest on empirical observation of what actually exists, instead, it appeals to a conception of what ought to be, of the world designed by God and revealed through the stories and laws of scripture.  Those who indulge in sexual practices para physin [”against nature”] are defying the Creator and demonstrating their own rejection from him.  (p.387, brackets in original)

In this picture, God’s ‘plan’, ‘pattern’, or ‘design’ is morally authoritative, or at very least should be for Christians.  Lobbyists against marriage equality took as their headline “Honouring God’s Plan for Marriage”, alluding to Heb 13:4, but perhaps also Rom 1:21 (“they did not honor him as God” in ESV/NASB).

When we appeal to design we are saying that our heterosexual bodies and desires are given to us for our well-being and happiness.  For humanity in general, and collectively, this is inarguably true.  But in spite of this, when a person lacks heterosexual attraction, Evangelicals no longer suggest that they heterosexually marry; we say if they marry it must be heterosexually, rather than that they must marry.  People are seen to lie somewhere outside of the ‘plan’ when attraction is missing.  This may sound like it matches the New Testament alternatives of marriage and celibacy, but it means obligatory celibacy for a subset of all people, which the New Testament explicitly and repeatedly rejects.  One way or the other, our discovery of orientation changes things.

Many people have a low view of marriage.  But the proposal that same-sex marriage is a good Evangelical response to same-sex orientation does not deny the general norm, or its benefits.  Although same-sex behaviour has been seen in more than a thousand animal species, almost all such animals were still procreated heterosexually.  The continuation of human society depends upon heterosexual reproduction even today when at least middle-class couples have other options.  Expecting marital faithfulness from both men and women, as Israel did, left no overlap between same-sex expression and the social necessity of family and tribal life.  However, just because it is in humanity’s interest, and that of society, for the great majority of families to be heterosexual – as most of us actually are – this does not establish that the small number of people who are not heterosexual must do the same.  We need some kind of larger moral principles to rule out exceptional situations.

Nature’s Reproductive Purpose in First Century Judaism

This argument from reproductive purpose can be amplified for Christians by connecting it with first-century Judaism, and thus the views of Jesus and Paul.  Robert A. J. Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice (2001) puts it like this:

The notion that first century jews, such as Jesus and Paul, would have given general approval to a homosexual lifestyle if they had only been shown adequate examples of mutually caring and non-exploitative same-sex relationships is fantastic.  More or different information about same-sex intercourse would not have changed the verdict for any first-century jew because the anatomical, sexual, and procreative complementarity of male and female unions, in contrast with those between female and female or male and male, would have remained indisputable.  (p.182)

This is a three-step argument which says: (1) When first-century Jews denounced same-sex relations, they appealed to an idea much like the modern concept of sexual complementarity.  (2) Jesus and Paul held to the same position.  (3) Nothing that has changed in our understanding of orientation or our practice of marriage has affected this – nor ever could.

However, each point has problems when we try to apply it to orientation and marriage.  (1) The first point may be granted, without quibbling over details.  However, Roman ‘homosexuality’ was immoral in half a dozen obvious ways (see §2), so that Hellenistic-Jewish arguments from nature were building on established moral condemnations.  They never had to stand alone.  To say the same arguments work in the same way, we need the same foundation.  Yet when addressing orientation and marriage, together, the natural arguments must stand alone.  This is perhaps why these kind of arguments have had such trouble persuading anyone not already convinced.  (2) The point of the second step is to have Jewish writers supplement the rather brief New Testament statements with a more clearly nature-based view, and then to have the major New Testament figures authorise the Jewish writing for Christians.  Put it like that and the problems jump out.  We don’t actually know that they endorsed Philo and Josephus, who framed the Jewish law in terms they hoped would speak to gentile audiences.  But even if they had, we know that they addressed a range of problems that we have seen to be, like Romans 1, quite reasonable attacks on Romans and Greek practices, but quite inapplicable to orientation and marriage together.  (3) Finally, the implicit claim that nothing has changed, is clearly incorrect, as we cannot reasonably ignore orientation and hope to focus on ‘practices’, as Gagnon, writing twenty years ago, was (just) able to do, at least for his intended audience.

As an aside, Gagnon’s reference to “non-exploitative” relationships is a response to views of Robin Scroggs, and others, that such problems explain the Bible’s condemnations.  I certainly agree that Roman homosexuality was an easy target for Jewish polemic, and for many of these reasons, and that Paul in Romans 1 took full advantage of that – but not that this accounts adequately for Paul’s language.

Nature as Moral Revulsion

A kind of visceral disgust at anal intercourse may be reflected in the ‘abomination’ language in Leviticus, which may also derive from bodily taboos such as those concerning blood and excrement in the Old Testament law.  Anal intercourse is possibly what is called as ‘unnatural’ in Romans 1:26–27, though the reference to women, by paralleling the reference to men, seems in the same way to mean women ‘with’ women.  However, any couple persuaded of some moral, hygienic, or aesthetic reasons for avoiding anal intercourse can simply avoid the practice, as many gay and straight couples in fact do.  So this possibly moral revulsion does not in itself supply a moral objection to same-sex marriages.  While Christians must be accommodating of conscientious differences, especially in light of Romans 13–15, conscience is fallible and not authoritative for theology.

1 Pope Paul VI.  1968.  Humanae vitae.
2 Hays, Richard B.  1996.  The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. New York: HarperCollins.

3.b.   Scripture’s Narrative: Orientation and Fallenness

Evangelical arguments against same-sex marriage frequently appeal to the overall narrative of scripture, from creation and fall to redemption.  If we leave biblical marriage to be considered below (§4), the important questions seem to be:

  1. Is Paul deliberately contrasting same-sex relations with the created order by alluding to Genesis?
  2. Do appeals to Genesis implicitly require a kind of short-ages creationism, and does the difficulty of discussing this publicly lead to different messages on dependent issues between church and in wider society?
  3. Should same-sex orientation be understood as a normal part of human life, based on its observed frequency, or a consequence of either human sin or God’s judgement on human sin, based on creation and fall?

These questions usually arise as the preconceptions behind more morally loaded questions: Is a same-sex married Evangelical on one hand dishonouring God by dishonouring his plan for creation, and on the other hand choosing the temporary world of sin over the eternal kingdom of God?

Allusions to Genesis

In The Bible and Homosexual Practice (2001, pp.290–91),1 Robert A. J. Gagnon highlights a number of textual parallels between the Greek texts of Romans 1 in the New Testament and Genesis 1 in the Septuagint (the LXX, a Greek edition or editions of the Old Testament that New Testament writers typically quote).  These, he suggests, show that Paul is deliberately applying or invoking the creation narrative in this passage.  Firstly, Paul refers to ‘male’ and ‘female’, rather than men or women, echoing Genesis 1:27: “male and female (arsen kai thēlu) he created them.”  Secondly, the list of animals used as idols in v.23, “images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” very closely parallels the Greek text of Gen 1:26, 28 and 30.

Of these, the reference to ‘male’ and ‘female’ is strongest; the same-sex passages in Lev 18:22, 20:13 LXX have gynaikos instead for women or wives.  Gen 1:27 is a common reference in the New Testament, establishing a norm of heterosexual union that is violated by (in various passages) promiscuity, unfaithfulness, and divorce.  However, Paul is not quoting “male and female” directly or even alluding to the text of Genesis; both terms are plurals here and used in completely different phrases.  So the idea of an allusive reference in the words “male”and “female” seems far less significant than the term tēn physiken chrēsin that appears twice, meaning the “natural usage” of male and female bodies (see §2.d).

Secondly, the list of animals is just a common biblical idiom for “every kind of living thing.”  While it does appears in the creation accounts, it also appears in half a dozen other places in the Old Testament.2 Because Paul is discussing idolatry in Romans 1, a reference like Deut 4:16–18, standing at the head of Israel’s laws, seems much more relevant.  So it’s a stretch to make the animals list a reference to Genesis and creation in particular.  The creation references in vv.19–25 all serve the themes of idolatry: gentiles denying the knowledge of God in “the things that were made” (v.20), and so worshipping and serving “the creature rather than the Creator” (v.25).  As mentioned already, Paul takes up a familiar Jewish apologetic that sees denial and idolatry as the root cause of sexual immorality and social strife.  By the time he gets up to the same-sex relations, his language has shifted from creation to nature.

Adam in Genesis and Public Life

One way to support or explain the moral condemnations in scripture is to ground them in Genesis 1–2, and its breakdown in Genesis 3.  In churches, Genesis is used as a theological foundation and a source of heterosexual norms.  But this is avoided in public discussion, especially in advocacy.  No-one wants to be sidetracked from moral issues by talking snakes or detailed questioning about earth history.  But it’s hardly avoidable if anyone has read much Evangelical literature on sexuality, and we can’t go about saying different things to different groups.

The most difficult problem is locating Adam somewhere plausible in human history.  If we move him far enough back to be a common ancestor of, say, both indigenous Australians and European immigrants (at least 60,000 years ago), then he is far beyond any time-frame that the biblical genealogies could reasonably have been meant to convey – and that is by no means as far back as we must go to cover all anatomically modern humans.

Treating Adam as a representative depiction of humanity, rather than a common ancestor, may give us all the effects of fallenness3 – that “Adam is the truth concerning us as it is known to God and told to us” (in Karl Barth’s epigram).4 This eliminates a long line of bad ideas about how original sin could be transmitted biologically.  However, it creates substantial issues for any theology that understands inspiration to require simple history in early Genesis, or else requires that the New Testament’s references to early Genesis would not read it as if it were.  This is a much larger issue than I can take up here, but it must be taken up by anyone who wants a recent historical Adam as a source of original sin, something that is explicitly relied upon in certain Evangelical interpretations of Romans 1 – especially if it shapes their public policy in ways that they can’t publicly acknowledge.  For the purpose of this paper I will use the minimal view that Adam and early Genesis are given and intended by God to describe the state of human beings in the world, and his intentions and ideals for us.

The message of Genesis 3 is that human life is alienated from God by circumstances, choices, and guilt, so that life is painful, contentious, laborious, and limited by death.5 These outward limitations help contain the dangers of human freedom and its spiralling depravity, both outwardly in society and inwardly in the human heart (note Gen 6:3).6 God subjected human life in this world to corruption and futility in the intention of a new creation and the redemption of a new humanity.7 So Evangelicals distinguish the world as it exists from the ideal of creation, whether focusing on this in the past or future, as described in scripture.

Orientation and Fallenness

Can Romans and Genesis be used to tie same-sex orientation to our fallen nature?  Consider the following statement by Sam Allberry in Is God Anti-Gay? (2013):8

it is not true for those with SSA [same-sex attraction] to say: “But God made me this way!”  Paul’s point in Romans 1 is that our “nature” (as we experience it) is not natural (as God intended it).  All of us have desires that are warped as a result of our fallen nature.  Desires for things God has forbidden are a reflection of how sin has distorted me, not how God has made me.  (ch.2, backets in original)

This is a theological formulation of a familiar popular argument that goes: A: “This is how God made me.” B: “That’s not how God makes anybody.”  Which may be expanded into:

A:  “This happens to one or two percent of all people; it’s part of human nature; so if we’re specially and individually created, then we’re sometimes created gay.”
B:  “This is ‘sexual brokenness’ – a part of our fallen nature.  God’s kingdom will contain a redeemed and perfected humanity, with no corrupted sexuality – that’s what we should long for, not gratifying sinful desire.”

As we saw, Allberry writes that (1) “Paul’s point in Romans 1” is that human nature is corrupted, leading to (2) “desires” (3) “for things God has forbidden”, which are of course to be rejected.  I will take this as a reprsentative Evangelical way of connecting same-sex attraction with fallenness.  If we focus on same-sex ‘practices’ then we start by noticing that they are condemned whenever they appear in scripture.  Similarly, if we focus on ‘desire’ or ‘attraction’, we can speak about temptation or lust for these practices.  A desire with no legitimate expression is at best futile and at worst comparable to illicit desires like adultery or paedophilia.  And if we speak about fallen and corrupt human nature, as opposed to God’s good creation, or redeemed humanity, then it’s clear on which side these things must fall.

As we have seen, though, putting the questions of orientation and marriage to scripture at the same time produced the surprising result that none of its directly moral condemnations applied to it (§2).  So the condemnation of ‘practices’ needs to be developed on other grounds.  And the language of ‘desires’ can be a way of avoiding the problems raised by orientation, or insinuating people are just giving up.  The practices must be illicit for the desires to be.  A same-sex oriented Evangelical desiring a same-sex marriage can’t be supposed on those grounds to have a pernicious desire for an immoral practice.  Now “Paul’s point in Romans 1” is certainly that gentile culture was sexually and socially corrupt, and that this sprung from denial to idolatry to depravity (more on that next, §3.c).  But does this require that a same-sex marriage, for a same-sex oriented Evangelical, is also symptomatic of fallen humanity?

This means asking whether “God’s wrath… being revealed” in Rom 1:18, and gentiles being “handed over” to illicit desires in judgement is the same thing as the “curse” in Genesis 3, that leaves humanity under judgement and enslaved to sin.  This is a point not often grasped when reading Romans 1.  While it’s true that judgement will follow the immorality being described, that’s not why Paul’s talking about judgement.  Notice the order of the passage: Paul is saying this conspicuous public immorality is a consequence of judgement.  It demonstrates unusual abandonment to sin, an extremity that is occurring in his present moment.  As an aside, this doesn’t mean we can defend the Romans by saying “See, in Romans 1 it says God made them same-sex attracted!”, since it’s an abandonment to continue their own chosen course.  How should we understand is this wrath, or judgement, that is being revealed?

  1. Abandonment.  The “wrath” being revealed may be how Paul explains the conspicuous immorality of Roman society: that it had been abandoned or “handed over” to its own choices (as I have argued above, see §2.a).
  2. Gospel.  The “wrath” being revealed may be the Gospel’s announcement of God’s judgement (v.16) as well as salvation.
  3. Curse.  The “wrath” being revealed may be the “curse” in Genesis 3, and how all human beings are in some sense under a judgement in which we suffer corruption, mortality, futility, and hard labour on earth, and are “not able not to sin” (a la Augustine).

These are not, of course, mutually exclusive options.  Firstly, abandonment has the merit of being current and being a judgement.  Secondly, it seems quite doubtful to say that God’s wrath was only then being revealed in the gospel, since Paul can also say of a long list of social disorders in Rom 1:32 that gentiles know these things “deserve death” and do them anyway.  Wrath has not only now come to their attention.  Pagans believed the gods would judge them; what they did not believe was that hope was near or certain.  We think judgement needs to be revealed or proclaimed because we live in the age of post-enlightenment skepticism about postmortem judgement.  The third possibility, the curse of original sin, is certainly a judgement, but it is not a current judgement unless it combines with the others.  So Paul certainly thinks an unusual abandonment to sin has befallen the denial and idolatry of gentile culture.  He may connect this with original sin, but it is not addressed directly in the same way that we find in Rom 5–7.

As we have seen, however, Paul’s description of same-sex desires in Romans 1 shows that he is not referring to anything we would call same-sex orientation (§2.c).  The difficulty of trying to fit orientation into the language of Romans 1 can be illustrated by asking about the ‘wrath’ passage.  If you have a daughter who is same-sex oriented, is she “under God’s wrath”? (1:16), or has she been “handed over” to sin by God?  Is that what Romans 1 is saying, by its supposed allusions to the order of creation in Genesis?  If so, is she being judged for her own sin, for Adam’s sin (or humanity’s in general), or for the sins of her own society or culture?

  • Judgement on individual sin?  Allberry notes that Romans 1 has “three instances of God giving us over to live in the outcome of our sinful desires.”  (emph. in orig.)  In Roman society, as in ours, this applies in obvious ways to individual choices.  But Allberry must make it apply to orientation, and orientation is not a consequence of each individual’s sin.
  • Judgement on Adam’s sin?  (Or humanity’s in general?)  In Rom 5–7 human beings ‘in Adam’ live under sin’s power, and the world as a whole with them, and yearn for release.  This of course alludes to the fall of humanity and the curse on the land in Genesis 3.  When this is added to a traditional Protestant reading of Rom 1 as a statement of the Gospel’s indictment of all humanity, it allows same-sex relations to be read as a peculiarly advanced or multi-dimensional form of human rebellion against God, and same-sex orientation as an aspect of the “sexual brokenness” of humanity in a disordered world.  It then becomes natural to understand “the wrath of God … revealed from heaven” (Rom 1:18) as the proclamation of the gospel (1:16), including God’s judgement on humanity.  However, ‘wrath’ is not how we speak about congenital birth defects, or other aspects of mortality like cancer and dementia.  Abandonment to sin makes vastly better sense of Paul’s argument here.
  • Judgement on the sins of her culture or society?  Allberry seems to be steering a path around these first two problems when he writes that this “is what happens to culture as a whole, rather than to individual persons.”  As a society becomes enslaved by sexual desires, human desires become rebellious and idolatrous.  This steps around the traps of saying that a same-sex oriented individual is being punished for their own individual sin, or that they are same-sex oriented because of God’s wrath against humanity.  But there is a problem in linking orientation with social degradation: It appears to affect a certain proportion of all human beings, not just those who live in cultures like first-century Rome that were especially depraved.

So, while a few phrases in Romans can be made to sound like references to orientation, none withstand close reading.  If we understand ‘wrath’ simply as the special abandonment to sin that seemed to be consuming Roman society, and if we understand that orientation is completely absent from Paul’s thought in that passage, then we do better justice to the passage in its context, and to the experience of same-sex oriented Evangelicals today.

1 op cit.
2 Allusions in Romans 1.  Compare the listing of animals in Gen 1:26; ; Rom 1:23 (cf.  Gen 6:7, 7:23, 9:2; Ezek 38:20; Ps 148:10; Hos 2:8).  The phrase “they exchanged” Rom 1:23, 25, 26 echoes Ps 106:20 where Israel’s idolatry is condemned.
3 ‘The Fall’ in intertestamental literature.  Wis 2:23–24; 4 Ezra 3:21–22, 26; 7:118.
4 Barth, Karl.  1967.  Church Dogmatics IV.1.  p.511.
5 The cursed world.  Gen 3:8–10, 16–19; Rom 8:18–30.
6 Outward depravity.  Gen 5–6; Jdg 17–21; Rom 1–3.  Inward depravity.  Rom 5:12–21; 6:15–21; 7:7–25.
7 God’s eternal purpose.  Rom 8:18–30; 1 Cor 15; cf.  Eph 1:3–14.
8 Allberry, Sam.  2013.  Is God anti-gay?  (Questions Christians Ask).  The Good Book Company.

3.c.   Human Rebellion: Denial, Idolatry, and Depravity

In systematic theology Romans 1–3 is used with Gen 1–3 and Rom 5–7 to establish an overarching view of sin and human nature.  Paul opens up a discussion of the gospel in Rom 1:16–3:31, and begins by talking about pagan idolatry and immorality, both sexual and social.  The themes of creation, rebellion and fall that we find in Genesis are echoed in Paul’s themes of idolatry, denial, and depravity.  Same-sex relations are used to show how bad the sexual immorality had become.  While these themes are interlocking, Paul develops them in a specific order, which I’ll follow:

Denial Idolatry Depravity
1:18–23, 25, 28, 32 1:22–25 1:22, 24, 26–27, 28–31

As we have seen already, the directly moral reasoning in scripture does not apply to the combined case of same-sex orientation and marriage.  But does Paul’s use of same-sex relations to exemplify these themes show that they represent a kind of super-sin; a peculiar distillation of human rebellion against God?

I.  Denial

Romans 1:18–32 is a connected argument – note the connecting words ‘for’ (v.19), ‘though’ (v.21), ‘therefore’ (v.24), ‘because’ (v.26), ‘for this reason’ (v.26), ‘since’ (v.28), ‘yet’ (v.32).  While idolatry leads to heterosexual depravity in v.23–24, and heterosexual depravity leads to same-sex depravity in v.26, the argument is otherwise advanced entirely by convicting gentiles of denial: they “by their wickedness suppress the truth” (v.18), “did not honour him as God or give thanks to him” (v.21), “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for [idols]” (v.22), “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (v.25), “did not see fit to acknowledge God” (v.28), and do and encourage what they know to be wrong (v.32).

The knowledge being denied is identified as God’s “eternal power and divine nature … understood and seen through the things he has made” (v.20), and that a long list of antisocial activities “deserve death” (v.32).  The terms ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ may also imply a natural order reflecting divine will, but that connection is not made explicit.  Roman and Greek pagans, on the whole, and more so in the period of Neoplatonism, believed in immortal gods who ruled the earth, and in punishments and rewards after death.  That is to say, there was a sufficiently strong concept of a high god or God in paganism for pagans to have known better, even if the actual legends of the gods highlighted their sexual and social depravity.  It doesn’t much affect his argument that Epicureans and various philosophers believed in no such thing; the temples of those who did could be seen everywhere, and Jews like Paul, for example in Acts 14 or 17, appealed to this common ground.  Paul needs nothing more than actual pagan beliefs to make this argument effective, so he uses a pre-existing Jewish argument against pagan idolatry and immorality of which we have a prior example in an earlier Jewish work called Wisdom of Solomon.1 Romans 1 does not offer a new or even a distinctively Christian argument when it speaks about same-sex relations.

Does same-sex marriage entail this kind of denial of God, or of “what can be known about God”?  Richard Hays offers this kind of reading of Romans 1, connecting same-sex relations in a special way with the active rebellion of all human beings “in Adam”.

Paul portrays homosexual behaviour as a “sacrament” (so to speak) of the anti-religion of human beings who refuse to honour God as creator: it is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality, figuring forth through “the dishonouring of their bodies” the spiritual condition of those who have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (1:24–25).  Thus, Paul’s choice of homosexuality as an illustration of human depravity is not merely random: it serves his rhetorical purposes by providing a vivid image of humanity’s primal rejection of the sovereignty of God the creator.  (p.386)

As with Allberry (see above), we could grant that Hays captures what Paul says about Roman homosexuality – pagan roots, denial of God, dishonourable conduct.  But as we’ve seen, Paul did not address orientation there, and we cannot avoid addressing it, so we have to ask whether it involves the same kind of denialism.

Those Evangelicals who find it too obvious for words that same-sex relations must always be wrong use the denial themes of Romans 1 to suggest that every moral person knows same-sex relations are always wrong, and that this is what is being suppressed by darkened human minds today.  Those who disagree are thus dismissed as blinded like the pagans of ancient Rome; they are self-condemned and must be ignored.  But this misses Paul’s point in several respects, and also misapplies it to orientation.  Paul addresses a denial of divinity that precedes any specific moral blindness or sexual perversion (note 1:18, 21, 24).  And same-sex oriented Evangelicals have not developed same-sex desires through such denial, whether mediated by paganism or anything else.  And of course, putting to scripture our obvious questions about orientation and marriage does not mean suppressing any normal Evangelical knowledge of God.  While some arguments against the relevance of these biblical prohibitions are arguments against biblical authority or morality, an argument like the one I am presently making is solidly grounded in both.  So denial of God in Evangelical same-sex marriage cannot be simply equated with, or inferred from, denial of God in ancient paganism.  It must be demonstrated.

II.  Idolatry

In scripture, human beings are God’s images, the only things that represent him in the world.  This means that we should represent him faithfully, not worship or serve false images, and never verbally or physically abuse our fellow images.2 One Evangelical understanding of idolatry as the primordial sin can be found in Tim Keller’s “How to Talk About Sin in a Postmodern Age” (2017).3 Following Romans 1 and Martin Luther, he emphasises that sin is fundamentally orienting your life around a false centre, whether self-importance, sex, satisfaction, or (for Luther, especially) self-righteousness in religion.  In this view every individual sin proceeds from a kind of idolatry, and Evangelicals might naturally speak about the “homosexual victims of a sexually idolatrous culture.”4

This is not how Paul uses the language of idolatry, either here or anywhere else.  Even where concretely linked with greed, it is a specific sin to be fled from, rather than his characterisation of the whole human condition.5 Metaphorical idolatry in the Israelite context is a parallel between two breaches of faith, two kinds of intimate betrayal, rather than an elevation of idolatry to the status of original sin.  So we need not sum up human sinfulness as idolatry, nor read Romans 1 through that lens, when Paul himself does not make that his master key.

Having said that, idolatry remains an illuminating and compelling metaphor for the the mind set on the flesh that does not and cannot submit to God (Rom 8:6–8).  It preaches well because of the many thundering Old Testament passages on literal idolatry.  And physical idols (and their gods) are a powerful analogy for the projection of human desires and interests: “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches” (1 Jn 2:16).  When Zeus, who is married to Hera, abducts the Trojan prince Ganymede to be his toyboy,6 it reflects and justifies the acceptance of pederasty in society; this exemplifies idolatry’s projection of human interests onto divinity.  In scripture, sex is an especially potent idol, so that spiritual adultery and sexual idolatry form a sustained two-way biblical metaphor.  So we may certainly ask whether Paul writing about idolatry creates a natural context for writing about same-sex relations, and should lead us to interpret one through the lens of the other.  Michael L. Brown’s Can You Be Gay and Christian? (2014) offers a rather striking example of this appropriation of language:

… there is an idolatry that many “gay Christians” engage in, and in a sense it is the ultimate idolatry, the idolatry of self, and it goes like this: “I have wrestled with what the Bible says about homosexual practice, and I’m not 100 percent sure what to make of it.  But I am 100 percent sure that I’m gay – that’s who I am to the core of my being – and therefore I will interpret the Word through the lens of me – through the lens of who I am.”  (p.184)

Paul’s Old Testament allusions in Romans 1 are more easily read in this way if we think he is writing about the corruption of all humanity rather than just telling the gentile faction in the Roman church that they have no cultural or ethnic grounds for boasting over the Jewish faction.  But on either interpretation, Paul in Rom 1:22–23 focuses on literal idolatry – not spiritual or figurative – and thinks it follows from the prior problem of denial, rather than being something more foundational.

So we may be skeptical of drawing easy linkages between idolatry and same-sex orientation.  Same-sex oriented Evangelicals have not become so through idolatry, whether literal, figurative, or spiritual.  It is true that human beings can make figurative idols out of anything, even things that are generally good.  But if the biblical condemnations do not transfer to same-sex marriage – and we have seen that they do not – there is no presupposition of moral compromise to be explained as denial or idolatry.

III.  Depravity

The conclusion of Romans 1 is that denial and idolatry created the corruption that was manifestly running wild in Roman society: “they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.”  (v.21).  “They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice…” (v.29).  This is the setting of the primary text about same-sex relations, in which I’ve underlined the morally significant terms for same-sex relations:

Rom 1:24–27.  Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!  Amen.  26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions.  Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.  Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

Just as denial was abandoned to idolatry in v.22–23, idolatry is abandoned to heterosexual immorality in 1:24–25, and heterosexual immorality is abandoned to same-sex desires in 1:26–27.  (While “for this reason” in v.26 could refer back to idolatry, it most naturally continues the whole of the preceding thought, and so describes an escalation of more ‘naturally’ heterosexual immorality).  We could summarise the underlined terms as concerns about nature, shame and excess.  Nature we have already discussed.  Shamefulness and excess are appropriate judgements of Roman and Greek homosexuality, which, as we have seen, Philo especially paints as obsessive and intemperate to the point of neglecting wives and families.

But shamefulness and excess can only apply to same-sex marriages if we already know that they are immoral – which brings us back to whether and how the biblical judgement of immorality applies to same-sex marriage and orientation.

1 Romans and Wisdom of Solomon.  Compare Rom 1:18–32 with Wis 11:16; 12:17, 23; 13:2; 14:12, 24–26; 16:24 (this appears in the Apocrypha of Catholic Bibles).
2 Image of God vs.  violence and insults.  Gen 1:26–27; 5:1; 9:6; James 3:8–9.
3 Keller, Tim.  12 May, 2017.  “How to Talk About Sin in a Postmodern Age” <https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/how-to-talk-sin-in-postmodern-age/>;
4 Gordon Preece in Michael Bird and Gordon Preece (eds.)  2012.  Sexegesis: An Evangelical Response to Five Uneasy Pieces on Homosexuality. Sydney: Anglican Press Australia (p.34).
5 Idolatry as a specific sin to flee in Paul’s letters.  1 Cor 5:11; 10:14; 1 Th 1:9.  Greed as idolatry. Eph 5:5; Col 3:5.
6 Zeus and Ganymede  Homer, Iliad XX, lines 233–35.

3.d.   A Few Evangelical Mysteries, Solved

The tendency to equate same-sex relations with rebellion, denial, idolatry and depravity – the fallen world and its fallen humanity – has very deep roots in Evangelical thought.  Protestant and Catholic interpreters have a history of reading Romans as a kind of systematic theology that begins with an anthropology.  A presentation of the gospel, or a textbook on theology, might be expected to open with a description of human sinfulness.  So revealed wrath in Rom 1:16 is naturally understood as God’s judgement on all humanity, as proclaimed in the gospel.  The focus on same-sex relations in Rom 1:18–32 is then seen to exemplify human rebellion against God, order, and goodness; which is not much different to how Paul uses it.  Filtering this through Romans 5:12–21, we frame the gentile descent into social and sexual chaos as a recapitulation of the state of all humanity “in Adam”, the violence that early Genesis portrays, and the way that massed homosexual violence illustrates extreme social breakdown in Sodom and Gibeah (Gen 19; Jdg 19).  In traditions where idolatry is seen as the foundational human sin, this understands same-sex relations to be the purest distillation of human depravity; the rejecting of the good creation, the denying of God, nature and our own selves through sin’s depravity.  Rightly ordered bodies will be restored in God’s kingdom, and the sexually immoral shut out.  This has been a convincing and cohesive reading for major streams of Evangelical thought.

But we have seen how these connections all break down when we have to think about orientation, as we do.  Trying to apply the condemnations to orientation and marriage has turned easily understood moral issues into much more abstract theological discussion points.  Reading Paul’s letters historically and situationally (since the late 1700s, and more so since the 1970s), offers a better historical understanding of Rom 1 than earlier dogmatic and systematic theologies allowed: Paul certainly offers a doctrine of original sin in Rom 5–8, but he doesn’t need to employ it in Rom 1, and in fact doesn’t.  His stated concerns are clear: In a culture consumed by idolatry and immorality and seemingly abandoned to corruption, the ethnically Roman Christians have nothing to boast about over the ethnically Jewish ones – nor vice-versa, he will shortly add.

Nothing we have seen so far suggests that the power and sense of the biblical condemnations, their moral force and self-evidence, can be recovered with arguments from nature or theology.  At least, not for orientation and marriage together, which is the question.  I think it could be easily argued that they remain as applicable as ever to same-sex relations considered apart from orientation or marriage, and that those condemnations retain natural and theological support.  Recognising that these condemnations don’t address orientation helps to see them as straightforward and even common-sensical in ways that Evangelicals have struggled to explain to others.

This explains a few important inconsistencies between scripture and modern Evangelical practice.  Why does Scripture offer not a trace of sympathy on this issue, anywhere, while modern Evangelicals take pains to emphasise their deep compassion for those ‘struggling’?  Why could Paul brightly assure some Christians in Corinth “that’s what you were!” (1 Cor 6:9), while our conversion therapies could never justify such confidence?  Why are we opposed by campaigns for love and equality, values that Christianity brought into the mainstream of western society between 150 and 350 CE?  Why in opposing “lifestyle choices”, are we bumping up against human rights and anti-discrimination laws, of which we should be natural champions, and which have nothing to do with people’s choices?  Why are we convinced that God’s self-evident moral truths must be defended at all costs, yet we can’t or won’t argue them in public life?  These mysteries can be dispelled in one short sentence.  We face these problems because we are talking about orientation, and Scripture was not.  That’s why the arguments aren’t working like we think they should.

Some questions concerning the claim that Nature and Theology Don’t Give Us Back the Missing Moral Condemnations (§3).

  1. Does any argument from nature or theology allow us to apply scripture’s moral condemnations to same-sex marriages, whether at their full force or even at all?
  2. Is same-sex orientation a disordering of the generally heterosexual structures of creation, or an exception to them for a small proportion of people?
  3. Does this help us better understand and justify the biblical condemnations in their biblical context?

4.   Same-sex Marriage Fits the Biblical Ideal of Marriage if you are Same-sex Oriented

I should by now have offered a plausible argument, in outline, for saying why a same-sex marriage between same-sex oriented Evangelicals is not biblically condemned on moral, natural or theological grounds.  But this does not tell us that same-sex unions can be marriages in God’s sight, which is the most important question for people who live to please God.  How can we measure them against the biblical ideal of marriage, and how do they stack up?  Can we establish that God recognises and celebrates them?

4.a.   The Biblical Ideal of Marriage

To say that God recognises a marriage, we must be able to say that it is a biblical marriage.  When we say ‘biblical marriage,’ Evangelicals do not mean any old marriage that happens to appear in the Bible.  Some events, like the mass-bride-abductions in Judges 21 are related as examples of social breakdown and failure.  But more importantly, and more generally, how Jesus and Paul quote the Old Testament on marriage effectively brackets out Israelite history, between Genesis at one end and the New Testament at the other.  This explains why many practices from the early Old Testament are simply not a live question in the New Testament, even when they were approved in law or custom then.  Because Jesus and the New Testament in general tries to follow Genesis, they leave us a consistent, overarching Christian ideal.  For our purposes this ideal can be spelled out in six major parts.

  1. Romantic Love.  While we seldom hear a passage like Song of Solomon 7 preached in church, and while it was historically subordinate to more important concerns, a presumption of romantic love and sexual delight is sprinkled all through scripture.1
  2. Life Companionship.  Marriage means life companionship, friendship and belonging, helping and comforting each other through life’s adversities, as well as the ordinary functions of an economic and social unit in society.2
  3. Family.  Marriage means becoming a new family.3 In the Old Testament ‘one flesh’ is a unit of kinship, inheriting land and property.  This involves being parents in a household, carers for an extended family, and educators of children.

These first three points are largely common across cultures.  They are the means by which human sexuality sustains our biological and social existence.  But, as will have been clear from my footnotes, these three points also have specifically Christian significance.  They combine in mutuality and lifelong monogamy to create a covenant before God.  Three further points have (or are argued to have) specially Christian significance.

  1. Symbolism.  Marriage and betrothal symbolise God’s covenantal love for humanity in several Old and New Testament metaphors.4 Marriage in Ephesians 5 involves a ‘mystery’, which if consistent with Paul’s other use of mystery language in Ephesians, means an uncovering of God’s hidden purpose: Christ’s revelation of God’s character as self-emptying and self-sacrificing love fits this description and the passage makes it foundational to New Testament marriage.
  2. Gender Complementarity (?).  A concept of gender complementarity may be argued.5 There are two major views of biblical ‘gender roles’ in Evangelicalism, one linking masculinity with authority in God’s design for human life, the other holding that the New Testament accommodates but also undermines hierarchical relations.
  3. Sexual Complementarity (??).  And most recently a concept of ‘sexual complementarity’ has been outlined by Evangelical and Catholic writers, building on gender complementarity, as a way of framing Evangelical responses to same-sex and transgender questions.6 This article could be considered an evaluation of the sixth aspect, at least as a moral and theological obligation.

1 Marriage (1): Romantic and Sexual Love.  Gen 1:23, 25; 29:20; Deut 24:5; Prov 5:18; Song 2:7, 16; 3:5; 5:8; 6:3; 8:4, 6–7; 1 Cor 6:15–16; 7:2, 4–5, 9; Eph 5:31.
2 Marriage (2): Life Companionship.  Gen 2:18; Isa 58:7; Job 31:32; Ps 68:6; Prov 2:16–17; 31:13, 20; Eccl 4.9–12; 9:9; Song 5:16; Mal 2:14; Rom 12:13, 16:3, 5; 1 Cor 7:21, 36; Col 3:19; 4:15; 1 Pet 3:7.
3 Marriage (3): A New Family as “one flesh”.  Gen 1:27; 2:24; 22:18; Lev 18:6–18; Num 36:6–7; Deut 6:7; cf.  11:19; 7:3–4; Josh 7:14; 1 Sam 10:19; Numbers 1:2ff.  Ruth 4:11, 16; Jer 29:6; Ps 127:4; Matt 5:31–32; 19:1–12; Mark 10:1–12; 1 Cor 7:39, cf.  v.14; Eph 6:4; 1 Tim 5:8.
4 Marriage (4): Symbol and Mystery.  Isa 54:5; Jer 2:2–3; 3:20; Eze 16:8,15, cf.  Eze 23; Hos 2; 3:1; 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:25, 27; James 4:4; Rev 21:9.
5 Marriage (5): Gender Complementarity (?).  Jdg 4:4–8; 2 Kings 22:14–20; Chr 34:22–33 (Huldah); Rom 16:1, 7; Acts 19:2–6 (cf.  19:2–6; 1 Cor 4:6–9, Apollos); 1 Cor 4:6–9; 1 Cor 11:2–16; 14:34–35; Eph 5:22–6:9; Col 3:18–4:1; 1 Tim 2:11–15; Tit 2:1–9; 2 Pet 2:13–3:7.
6 Marriage (6): Sexual Complementarity (??).  esp.  Gen 1:26–28; 1 Cor 11:3–7; Eph 5:22–33.

4.b.   Does Same-Sex Marriage Fit the Biblical Ideal?

Scripture’s condemnations, and several of its major themes, have made the idea of same-sex marriages seem unthinkable.  In scripture, sexual difference is everywhere presupposed, and marriage and betrothal are used to symbolise fidelity to God and union with God.  But these themes of scripture build upon and presuppose heterosexual attraction.  We don’t lose the general good by noting that some people are exceptional for lacking this heterosexual attraction.  What of them?

None of the alternatives that are available to a same-sex oriented Evangelical match the whole of the biblical ideal of marriage (§1.b).  A mixed-orientation marriage suffers from the absence of romantic love and sexual intimacy and desire which, in the pattern of creation, ought to be its strength.  Celibacy gives up the whole ideal, even when adopted voluntarily, and mandatory celibacy would be ruled out by Jesus and Paul’s own clear statements – at least, if it didn’t seem to be the only option left.  Same-sex marriage gives up sexual difference, and with it, gender complementarity and any unaided capacity for procreation.  Roughly speaking, it’s a choice between a loveless marriage, none at all, or one with love but not a family.  For all three we can say, as Jesus said of Moses’ laws of divorce, “from the beginning it was not so.”  None match the overarching ideal we find in Genesis and the New Testament.

But those options are not quite correct.  Naturally infertile couples can often now conceive children, and anyone can adopt, which in general we encourage.  This doesn’t necessarily mean surrogacy: Evangelical same-sex couples might particularly wish to adopt children who would otherwise be aborted, and to aid their mothers as well.  This means that all the seemingly cross-cultural aspects of the biblical ideal of marriage (love, belonging, family) can now be fulfilled by same-sex marriages.  And if those, then also the aspects less grounded in our physical and gendered bodies.  Same-sex couples can express the ‘mystery’ of Christlike self-emptying and self-sacrificial love.  Gender complementarity is not present, but seems to have been undermined already by the absence of heterosexual love or desire.  Sexual Complementarity, if our general arguments from nature are any guide, can’t be held to preclude exceptional circumstances.

In the absence of moral, natural or theological condemnations of same-sex marriages, is it a just matter of asking which of these alternatives is best for the individuals?  There are situations in life where every choice is in some way a bad choice, and we have to think about the least worst option.  Some Evangelical and post-Evangelical reflection on same-sex issues, such as David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind (2014, 2017), has seen the question in these terms.  But is an unreservedly good answer available?  Can we ask if there are situations in scripture where exceptions to the overall ideal of marriage were affirmed by God, especially with reasons supplied, and then see what that says about same-sex marriages?

Whether by providence or just a fortunate convenience, we have two major exceptions to the biblical ideal of marriage in the Bible.  Jesus’ most important statement on marriage is made while calling Moses’ divorce laws a situational concession to human hard-heartedness (Matt 19:8).  It would be difficult to say more clearly that this was an exception to regular marital norms, and one God recognised; there is certainly no sign that consequent remarriages were judged adulterous.  Polygamous unions were also accepted and sometimes commended by God as marriages.  Abraham, Elkanah (father of Samuel), David, Josiah, and (in two prophetic messages) God himself, each offer examples of this.1 It is possible, though this is more debated, that levirate marriage could positively require it for the sake of keeping property in families.2 If taking second and subsequent wives was considered adultery against the first, there is at very least a large, suspicious silence on that matter to be accounted for.  It seems especially improbable that God would be portrayed in prophetic messages as the husband of both Israel and Judah simultaneously, especially in messages condemning their unfaithfulness, if polygamy was then considered unfaithfulness to a first wife.

How does polygamy compare to same-sex marriage?  Those polygamous marriages were freely chosen over monogamy and mutuality, caused domestic strife all through the patriarchal narratives, were actively warned against for Israelite kings, are never in a general way commended, and may not be defensible at all in modern life.  They may have been justified situationally by population and mortality; but such justifications are not a part of human nature like same-sex orientation is.  Still, those polygamies were marriages in God’s sight.  By comparison, same-sex marriages preserve monogamy and mutuality and respond to the specific problem of same-sex orientation.  They are therefore closer to the biblical ideal than polygamy.  This may seem impossible if we’re thinking of the immorality involved; but as we’ve seen, scripture’s condemnations don’t apply to orientation and marriage together.

The comparison with polygamy offers a strong argument from the lesser to the greater.  If God recognised polygamy in scripture, and polygamy in scripture is further from the biblical ideal than same-sex marriages are today, then God recognises same-sex marriages today.  This conclusion is supported by the exceptional nature of same-sex orientation and the unsatisfactory alternatives that it has presented to Evangelicals in public life.

This means that same-sex marriages are not just the closest thing to biblical marriage for a same-sex oriented person.  They are not just the best of a bad set of choices, but that they are in God’s sight marriages.  Not a ‘redefinition’, not a ‘revision’, not a ‘civil partnership’.  Just a marriage before God.  In which case we can hardly fail to call them biblical and Evangelical marriages.

1 God’s Approval of polygamy.  2 Sam 12:8; 2 Chr 24:1–3; Jer 3:6–10; Ezek 23.  If polygamy were adultery, it would be strange for God to be shown married to both Israel and Samaria in messages condemning their unfaithfulness.  General examples of polygamy. Gen 35:23–26; 1 Sam 18:27; 2 Sam 2:3–5; 11:27; 1 Sam 1:1–20; Deut 18:18, 25:5–6.
2 Levirate Marriage.  This gave a dead man’s childless widow the right to marry his brother, whose marital status is not considered (Gen 38; Deut 25:5–6; cf.  Mark 12:18–27; Matt 22:23–32).

4.c.   When did this Suddenly Become Okay?

Modern marriage differs in important ways from marriage in biblical times.  You have probably never attended a wedding whose speeches resembled the kind of congratulations offered to Boaz in Ruth 4:9–12.  Beginning with the Romantic Era (early 1800s) our expectations changed from marriage preceding love to love preceding marriage.  Medicine decreased mortality in childbirth and early life, so women had to fall pregnant less often.  Escalating literacy allowed women greater education, and led to equality in voting and eventually in work.  Family planning after the 1930 Lambeth Conference dramatically improved women’s quality of life, and in the same period housekeeping ceased to be just as much a full-time job as work outside the home.  Aged care and pensions lessened dependence on family structures for well-being.  So marriage was more and more ordered by love, and made women increasingly equal partners, two things we consider agreeably Christian developments.  Meanwhile, from the mid-1700s, forced urbanisation helped minorities collect together, rather than being isolated as individuals in small communities.  A recognisably modern understanding of same-sex orientation appeared in Germany by 1900, and by 1960 was becoming publicly recognised in western society, so that criminal sanctions at first gave way to attempts at therapy.  Understandings of marriage and sex had themselves begun to change quickly after World War II.  A distinction between sins and crimes and a distaste for salacious public trials led governments to cease policing private behaviour such as adultery.  Contraception allowed sex to be treated as a separate decision from procreation, leading at present to a public sexual ethic whose problems are mostly addressed through an ethic of consent.  From the 1970s same-sex orientation came to public notice through a largely promiscuous gay culture building on a similarly promiscuous (hetero-) Sexual Revolution.  In the same period, psychologists rejected the classification of orientation as a disorder.  All these factors changed both our expectations of heterosexual marriage and our understanding of same-sex orientation.  This led to same-sex marriages being socially viable ways that were formerly hard to imagine, or at least restricted to the unusually privileged.  And this in turn led to our modern movements for same-sex marriage, conceived primarily in terms of recognition and equality.

When was the point at which we could have first connected these dots?  The papers of Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury, contain a letter from 1938 which explains same-sex orientation clearly, offering some very modern-sounding concerns with then-prevailing Anglican views of the matter.1 This, to my mind, is about the time when the priorities of marriage had shifted from social obligation to better realising the aspects of the biblical ideal focused on love (though not without other challenges arising), and was met by an increasing awareness of orientation.  Christian ministers were among those best placed to hear of the experience of orientation and to reflect on it theologically.  So I would offer the 1930s as the point when we could have reasonably begun to address these issues pastorally and theologically, long before they became the political football they are now.

Some questions concerning the claim that Same-sex Marriage Fits the Biblical Ideal of Marriage if you are Same-sex Oriented (§4).

  1. Is there a single biblical ideal of marriage?  How would you quickly describe it?
  2. In the absence of direct moral condemnations, is same-sex marriage the closest thing to biblical marriage for a same-sex oriented Evangelical?
  3. Can it be shown that God recognises it as marriage?

1 Jones, Timothy Willem.  2013.  Sexual Politics in the Church of England, 1857–1957. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  (p.174)

5.   This is a Comprehensive Answer to Our Problems

If this argument is sound, then it leads to a very simple conclusion: Same-sex marriage simply is biblical marriage before God in the situation that a person is same-sex oriented.  This result is supposed to be impossible, and should be closely scrutinised.  This will be a good time, then, to revisit the questions raised by the First Things article mentioned earlier (§1.d), though I’ll take its questions in reverse order.

  • Does this article –
    • abandon an orthodox understanding of biblical authority?
    • abandon a Christian understanding of human nature?
    • accommodate a bundle of popular but anti-Christian values?

Firstly, and most obviously, the argument I’ve presented here is exhaustively biblical in its methods and sources.  That’s what defines ‘Evangelical’: you care what God thinks, and you do the work to figure it out from scripture.  We can be wrong, and new ideas and new experience can show us things we haven’t previously seen.  The first lesson of Protestantism is that a Christian tradition can rule unchallenged for a thousand years and still have problems.

Answering the second question depends what we mean by a “Christian” view of human nature.  If we mean a biblical or Evangelical view, then this is answered by the first question.  The author of that article most likely meant an Aristotelian natural law tradition as integrated with scripture and Catholic theology by, say, Thomas Aquinas and his later followers.  This is a thought-provoking way to think about scripture, but its certainly not one that Evangelicals have ever felt the slightest need to adhere to, and it has no general currency in public life.  Somewhere in between scripture and natural law is the general sense that human heterosexuality is a design, pattern or plan for human life.  This is something everyone implicitly acknowledges by being born.  But it doesn’t remotely contradict the general heterosexuality of nature to observe that human nature has some interesting edge cases, of which same-sex orientation is certainly one.  Valuing scripture over traditional authorities, as we do, means we must look closely at the way Paul argues in Romans 1.  And as I argued in section §3, he does not address orientation at all, nor do his comments on Roman ‘homosexuality’ allow us to transfer onto it, or onto same-sex marriage, his judgements of idolatry, perversion, denial, idolatry or depravity.

Thirdly, it is sometimes suspected that taking any serious account of same-sex issues – especially when we’ve resolutely been ignoring them for generations – is following “the world” rather than God.  “We never used to worry about this.  Then people who weren’t every Christians started talking about it.  Now look at us!”  However, if we were simply slow to recognise and think through orientation, we can’t blame anybody else for that.  The same experience, as I said, is reported by Evangelicals committed to celibacy, who are not trying to justify any immorality whatsoever.  We just need to apologise and start to deal with it.  The pastoral and theological questions that orientation raises cannot be waved away by calling people self-centred individualists in a general way.  We have to look at the actual issues, look to scripture, and work out the questions that they pose to us, on our own terms.  I hope this article has been a contribution of that kind.

5.a.   What this Means for Evangelicals

This argument for same-sex marriage began with recognising same-sex orientation.  Its evident nature and frequency mean that we can’t avoid the problems it raises.  It has caused enormous problems for Christian life and ministry: by the concrete harms that followed from our lack of good responses; by a sequence of belated concessions to the increasingly evident facts about orientation, conversion therapy, and same-sex marriage; in some circles, by political conspiracy peddling; and in public life, by our general paralysis in speaking or leading on these subjects, even on what should be simple matters like preventing LGBT bullying in schools.

In the case of orientation, same-sex marriage doesn’t match the biblical condemnations of same-sex relations.  It is closer to the biblical ideal of marriage than our alternatives, and closer too than some marriages that God recognised in scripture.  Being grounded in same-sex orientation and Christian discipleship, it presents no slippery slope into social anarchy.  Involving presumably less than 1% of marriages, it doesn’t threaten heterosexual norms or their general benefits.  It doesn’t leave us asking for religious exemptions from discrimination laws we ought to be supporting.  It allows the biblical condemnations of same-sex relations to be understood and defended at their full strength.

This means that same-sex marriage is acceptable for both lay Christians and Christian leaders, since our sexual ethics are no different in either case.  Leaders must be reputedly faithful people, but only by the same general standards of sexual morality that apply to everyone.  Same-sex marriages are only to be approved on the understanding that they do not match the biblical condemnations, and that according to scripture, God celebrates them as Christian marriages.  1 Tim 3:2 may offer an example of a socially disapproved union (polygamy) being a disqualification from leadership for the sake of the church’s reputation; but that does not affect same-sex unions, at least in societies that recognise same-sex orientation.

So this is a comprehensive answer to the problems posed to Evangelical life and thought by same-sex orientation.  But while that’s all important, I suggest it’s not what matters most.  What matters most is the one or two percent of same-sex oriented Christians who will be born into our churches through all future generations.  This is currently something like 110,000,000 same-sex oriented people in the world.  Of these, about 33,000,000 are Christians.  This could be any one of us, and any of our friends or relatives.  Many same-sex oriented Christians have followed Christ with pain and cost that it is difficult for others to comprehend, and many have despaired or been crushed by mistreatment.  What does this mean for them?  Or for you, if this is you?

If you are same-sex oriented, Evangelical same-sex marriage before God means that your sexuality, expressed in marriage, is holy to God – and that nothing and no-one can change that.  It means that you can fall in love and marry, just like ‘normal’ Christians.  It means no intrinsic shame.  No love/hate relationship with love.  No pity or self-pity.  Just the regular, everyday hope of meeting someone you love.  It requires the same holy living and discipline as any other Christian life does, but not the superhuman disciplines of mandatory lifelong celibacy – unless, like anybody else, you genuinely can accept that, and you want to.  It means that Christian faith does not exclude you from sexual intimacy and romantic love, from a faithful covenant of love, from affection and companionship into old age, or from a godly family of your own.  Nor from an intimate spiritual partnership, or the mystery of marriage as Christlike, self-sacrificing love for one another.  It means that Christian faith and same-sex orientation do not bar you from marrying before God.

5.b.   Talking Points from this Article

Discussion of same-sex issues are easily derailed by ignorance and impatience, antagonism and polarisation.  I refer anyone dealing with these problems to my article "How Should Christians Think and Speak?"1 Someone evaluating this article could profitably focus on the following claims:

We Don’t Have Good Answers for Same-sex Orientation

  • Having trouble speaking publicly about same-sex orientation has had horrible consequences for same-sex oriented people, and for the church’s ability to persuasively distinguish its position from prejudice.  §1
  • Same-sex orientation, as distinguished from bisexuality, is a total inversion of heterosexual desire.  This is a universal phenomenon in human societies, and consists of loving and romantic attraction, not just sexual desire.  It is involuntary not chosen and permanent not changeable.  (‘TULIP’, §1.a).
  • Around 1 in 65 people are same-sex oriented, which is more than a hundred million people in the world.  This happens at random for all practical purposes, and could have occurred to any one of us, or anyone we know (§1.a).
  • Evangelicals generally believe that same-sex attracted Christians who can do so should marry heterosexually, and those who cannot are obligated to lifelong celibacy.  Neither option represents the biblical ideal of marriage and sexuality (§1.b).
  • Taking account of orientation means that we are the first generation in Christian history to suggest that a certain proportion of the population face mandatory lifelong celibacy; this is not a traditionally Christian view (§1.b)
  • Evangelicals correctly understand that: 1) Biblical authors condemn every kind of same-sex relationship they reasonably think might exist; 2) marriage is only ever heterosexual in scripture; and 3) sex outside of marriage is always wrong.  (This article argues that a person convinced of these things can and should also see same-sex marriage as equivalent to heterosexual marriage in the case of same-sex orientation.)  (§1.d)
  • The right question for Evangelicals, both for theology and in public life, is whether same-sex marriage is a biblical response to same-sex orientation – that is, whether God recognises it as marriage.  Or whether, on the other hand, it necessarily involves moral and theological compromise (§1.d).

Scripture’s Moral Condemnations Don’t Apply to Orientation and Marriage Together

  • Scripture treats same-sex relations as a simple and self-evident moral problem.  Roman homosexuality certainly was, and while many of the reasons for condemning it apply to similar behaviour today, we clearly have difficulty applying its condemnations to same-sex orientation and marriage together.  We should seek to understand the moral, natural and theological reasons for the biblical condemnations in order to see if or how they apply (§2).
  • In Romans, Paul deals with the problems of a church split between Jewish and gentle factions, each boasting of preeminence.  Rom 1 shows gentiles their culture is socially and sexually corrupt; Rom 2–3 shows Jews that they have had God’s word and not kept it.  Both groups shouod understand instead that were reconciled to God and to each other by grace they did not earn, and by God who is impartial.  (§2.a)
  • Paul’s argument in Romans 1 needs only score some easy points against Greek and Roman society, like Jewish writers had been doing for centuries by this time.  Roman ‘homosexuality’ was an especially easy target for moral condemnation, having no necessary connection to love, orientation, fidelity, or even consent.  Paul still writes in categorical and seemingly universal terms, however, which invites application to same-sex orientation and same sex marriage.  (§2.a)
  • Paul’s statements about same-sex desires in Rom 1 show decisively that he referring to orientation as now understood.  No biblical author can be shown to positively refer to orientation (§2.c).
  • Paul regards same-sex relations as a wilful perversion of desire, contributing to prevailing same-sex immorality.  This sense of ‘natural’ means immoral in a unusually perverse way; but of course does not apply to same-sex orientation, in which no such ‘exchange’ takes place.  (§2.d)
  • These sum up the ‘directly moral’ reasons for condemning same-sex relations in scripture; i.e. those reasons not dependent on arguments from nature or theology.  As we have seen, they do not apply to orientation and marriage together.  This is the case that matters.  (§2.e)

Nature and Theology Don’t Give Us Back the Missing Moral Condemnations

  • The arguments from nature and theology that can be built on scripture never had to stand alone in scripture, in the absence of clear moral condemnations.  We have no scriptural guarantee that they can do so.  (§3)
  • The arguments from nature and theology attempt to argue from universal truths.  However, they can be challenged as a group by the question: “Is same-sex orientation an exceptional situation in which the sexual norms that are very good for almost all of us are clearly not so good for some of us?”  (§3)
  • Just because it is in humanity’s interest, and that of society, for the great majority of families to be heterosexual – as most of us actually are – this does not establish that the small number of people who are not heterosexual are morally bound do the same.  (§3)
  • When Evangelicals suggest that same-sex oriented Christians not undertake mixed-orientation marriages, we seem to say that a person who lacks romantic and sexual attraction to the opposite sex is an exception to the heterosexual norms of scripture and creation.  (§3)
  • The prevailing arguments of first century Judaism, such as we find in Philo and Josephus in particular, even assuming they were held by Jesus and Paul, suffer from the same problem as Romans 1: that their underlying rationales make sense, but in ways that don’t apply to same-sex marriages.  (§3.a)
  • A sense of disgust at anal intercourse, even taken as conscientious moral knowledge, does not in itself supply a moral objection to same-sex marriages.  Any couple persuaded of some moral, hygienic, or aesthetic reasons for avoiding anal intercourse can simply avoid the practice, as many gay and straight couples in fact do.  Moreover, if scripture condemns same-sex relations for many reasons, but those reason don’t apply to orientation and marriage together, then conscience must learn from scripture.  (§3.a)
  • Is the heterosexual pattern in Genesis the basis of Paul’s condemnations of same-sex relations in Romans 1?  (Or those of scripture more generally?)
  • Paul uses two phrases that evoke Genesis in Romans 1, but the list of animals is more plausibly a references to gentile idolatry, while the unusual use of the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ is one its own a slender base on which to argue a deliberate invocation of creational norms.  (§3.a)
  • Trying to ground the condemnations in early Genesis has a polarising effect on discussion.  It protects the condemnations from some questioning by tying them to things important and mysterious.  At the same time, though, this actively impedes public discussion because the last thing they want is detailed questioning about earth history or human origins.  This leads to making different claims for different audiences.
  • Trying to fit orientation into Romans 1 by speaking about ‘fallen desires’ misunderstands Paul’s argument.  This can be illustrated by asking whether orientation is thus a consequence of ‘wrath’?  For Paul, gentile abandonment to extreme immorality is a present and visible judgement on denial and idolatry.  Orientation is incongruent with this language about judgement, however: whether on the individual (who made no relevant choices), on Adam or humanity in general (‘wrath’ is not how we speak about birth defects, cancer, or dementia), or judgement on cultures and societies (which do not cause orientation).
  • Paul addresses a denial of divinity that precedes any specific moral blindness or sexual perversion.  But of course, same-sex oriented Evangelicals have not developed same-sex desires through such denial.
  • Paul refers to literal pagan idolatry as a consequence of denial and a source of immorality.  But of course, same-sex oriented Evangelicals have not become so through idolatry, whether literal, figurative, or spiritual.
  • Paul condemns spiralling sexual depravity, typified by Greek and Roman ‘homosexuality’.  But of course, if the condemnations don’t apply to orientation and marriage together, then there’s simply no parallel to draw with human rebellion against God, as characterised by denial, idolatry and depravity.
  • Arguments from nature and theology do not allow us to make the moral condemnations apply to same-sex marriages of same-sex oriented partners, and do not allow us to generate new moral condemnations that apply to same-sex marriages of same-sex oriented partners.  (§3.d)

Same-sex Marriage Fits the Biblical Ideal of Marriage if you are Same-sex Oriented

  • There is a single overarching biblical ideal of marriage; it might be outlined firstly in three aspects anyone would recognise and three that are argued to have special meaning for Christians: (1) romantic love, (2) life companionship, and (3) family; and then (4) symbolism, (5) gender complementarity, and (6) sexual complementarity.
  • Of these aspects of the biblical ideal, (1) romantic love and (2) life companionship are uncontested benefits of same-sex relationships.  (3) Same-sex parenting is manifestly possible, and since it has become common, has not seemed problematic.  (4) In biblical symbolism, esp. Eph 5, Jesus’ self-sacrificing love illuminates and changes marriage rather than being illuminated or changed by it; and this self-sacrifice is common to same-sex marriages.  (5) gender complementarity is a matter of widespread Evangelical disagreement, but even in a fully Complementarian perspective, the obviously exceptional nature of same-sex orientation does not threaten general norms.  And (6) whether sexual complementarity is able to preclude any exceptional case for same-sex orientation is the subject of this article.  (§4.b)
  • Two major exceptions to the biblical ideal of marriage in the Bible appear in scripture: Jesus calls Moses’ divorce laws a concession of human hard-heartedness, and God approves of, and sometimes commends polygamy.  (§4.b).
  • Same-sex marriages are closer to the biblical ideal than mixed orientation marriages or mandatory lifelong celibacy, and closer to the biblical ideal than polygamy, which God approved in scripture (§4.b).
  • The progressive realisation of Christian marriage ideals through history, and our gradual understanding of same-sex orientation could, I suggest, have reasonably been reconciled in Christian theology by the 1930s (§4.c).

This is a Comprehensive Answer to Our Problems

  • The argument presented here has begun and proceeded along Evangelical understandings of God and scripture, has presented an exception to heterosexual norms rather than a disavowal of them, and has made no obvious concessions or compromises to ostensibly anti-Christian systems of thought.  It has intended solve our problems with orientation in pastoral care, ethics, theology, mission, justice, and public life.  (§5)
  • Being grounded in same-sex orientation and Christian discipleship, this presents no slippery slope into social anarchy.  Involving presumably less than 1% of marriages, it doesn’t threaten heterosexual norms or their general benefits.  It doesn’t leave us asking for religious exemptions from discrimination laws we ought to be supporting.  It allows the biblical condemnations of same-sex relations to be understood and defended at their full strength because they are not being confused with orientation.  (§5.a)
  • If you are same-sex oriented, Evangelical same-sex marriage before God means that your sexuality, expressed in marriage, is holy to God – and that nothing and no-one can change that.  It means that you can fall in love and marry, just like ‘normal’ Christians.  (§5.a).

1 https://chapman.wiki/read/eukras/how-should-christians-think-and-speak

5.c.   Scenarios for Discussion

Where these are true stories, the names have been changed.  The questions are directed at pastors or other leaders.

I.  Dave – a young man in your church

An adolescent in your church, who is clearly nervous about speaking to you, tells you he is “pretty sure” he’s gay.  He asks you to promise not to tell anyone, including his parents, believing he will lose his friends, family and church if they find out.  A survey shows two-thirds of adults in your church think gay people mainly need to be told to repent of their “lifestyle”, and a third of those also think they pose a serious danger to children.  On the other hand, a section of the youth group don’t see why “just being who you are” could be a problem.

  1. What are the three most important things you say?
  2. What do you suggest Dave should do, and how much agreement do you expect from the congregation and the leadership about your response?
  3. Your church has been publicly silent on same-sex issues, whether due to uncertainty, caution, or weariness.  Dave tells you he had assumed the worst about this, and his anxiety built up over time because he couldn’t ever put the issue aside like others could.  What would you prefer he had experienced?

II.  Nick – a leader in your church

A leader in your church is same sex attracted.  He has been through many years of counselling, depression and loneliness, has persevered in ministry, at which he excels, and has remained celibate.  However, he has experienced no change whatsoever, and sees no hope of changing.  What he wants more than anything is love, a life partner and a family, but is not sexually or romantically attracted to women.

  1. What options does Nick have?  Are they the same options Dave has (above), even though he has not been through the same experience?  Is it different if he is employed in ministry?
  2. Would you recommend that he marries a woman in the church who adores him, accepts that he is gay, and thinks he would be a fantastic father, but to whom he believes he could only be a friend?
  3. “Nick” is an perfect person; he is absolutely faultless.  Would you, or others in your church, see his situation differently if he wasn’t?  What faults would change things?

III.  Kim & Jen – a married lesbian couple with a family

Two young women in your local community are legally married and have two children from a previous relationship.  They are a schoolteacher and a journalist by profession.  They grew up in Christian families, have been thinking a lot about God lately, and have begun attending your church because of a relative in your congregation.

  1. What series of events would need to occur for Kim & Jen’s family to become members of your church?
  2. Does your feeling or judgement change if they are a male couple, have no children, or have no Christian background?
  3. Does your position involve something you see as a concession?  Does it create a kind of loophole in which a person just has to leave church, get married, and later return (or join another)?  What do you say to Nick and Dave (above) about that?
  4. At a BBQ at Kim & Jen’s house, you are introduced to a group of their professional colleagues, who make several incorrect assumptions about your view of Christian scripture and LGBT issues.  What is your 60 second summary of your position?

IV.  Ian & Sarah, vs.  Kevin – experiences of therapy

  • This is rare now, but might still occur.

Ian, who attends your church, went through another organisation’s reparative therapy program which encouraged him to expect that his same-sex orientation could be changed.  Three years ago he met Sarah, and they are now married, but without children.  Ian he says that nothing has changed for him, that his marriage was sincere but misguided, and that he is immensely sorry for his wife, to whom he is committed but does not feel romantic or sexual attraction.  Another man in your church, Kevin, went through the same program as Ian, but says his attraction to men has been “much reduced” as a result, and that he could marry and be happy.  He speaks to various groups on this subject, saying everyone experiences “sexual brokenness.”

  1. A group of people in your church point to Ian and Sarah as a sign that orientation can’t really be changed, and that the expectation of change is cruel and wrong.  How do you reply?
  2. A group of people in your church point to Kevin as a sign of “God’s faithfulness” and say that Ian has given up on his faith by accepting that he is same-sex oriented.  What do you say to this?
  3. You bring prominent representatives of both these groups together for dinner.  What subjects would you like to see discussed?

V.  Jemima and Robert – a mixed-orientation marriage

Jemima and Robert have been married for twelve years, have two school aged children, and have been members of your church for five years.  A week after their tenth wedding anniversary, Robert told her his story: that he is same-sex oriented, but believed he could overcome this; he was part of a therapy group at his former church whose members testified to finding contentment in heterosexual marriage as ‘God’s Plan’ for them.  He insists that there has been no adultery, but that he found his same-sex attraction increasing rather than decreasing, experienced overwhelming loneliness, and worst of all, felt he had (by marrying her) betrayed the person who loved him the most.  For Jemima, this explained long-standing difficulties and distance in their marriage, for which she had blamed herself.  She felt angry at Robert for six months, but now just feels sad for them both.  Robert feels regret.  They expect to stay close friends, want to ensure nothing affects their children’s lives adversely, and plan to divorce.

  1. Jemima and Robert feel their marriage was based on a lie.  Do they have grounds for a biblical divorce?
  2. They feel socially excluded from their church friends.  Some members of your congregation are trying to apportion blame, and you have heard of at least one false rumour circulating about each of them.  What action do you take concerning this?

VI.  Denzel and Mike – a married gay man comes to faith

Denzel became a Christian two years ago.  He recently moved to your city and began attending your church.  He appears completely genuine in faith, talks about it to random strangers, is enthusiastic about learning everything he can, and gets on well with people in your congregation.  He is married to Mike, his same-sex partner of ten years, who is not a Christian.

  1. Mike comes to social events with Denzel.  Do you encourage Denzel to bring him to church?  If so, what do you say to anyone in your congregation committed to celibacy on the basis of same-sex orientation?
  2. What do you recommend he read to form an opinion on same-sex issues and Christian faith?
  3. A church board member cites Matthew 18:15–19 and 1 Cor 5:1–13 as justifications for excluding Denzel from the church; and Rev 2:20 for doing the same with any leader who disagrees.  How do you suggest this discussion proceed?

VII.  Kelly and Clive – uncomfortably angry Christian parents

Kelly’s teenage son attempted suicide and turned away from faith after LGBT bullying in his Christian school, and how his complaints were treated.  Clive is active in his local parents’ group resisting what he calls the march of radical liberal dogma into public schools.  Neither have any patience whatsoever with complicated biblical arguments.

  1. Kelly: “Nobody chooses to be gay!  Why can’t people even talk about this?  People quoted the death penalty in Leviticus at my son!  Why don’t churches protect and support our kids?”  Your reply?
  2. Clive: “Those people don’t respect religious freedom and are telling teens to experiment with their sexuality!  They think everyone who disagrees with them is a homophobic bigot!  Why don’t churches protect and support our kids?”  Your reply?
  3. You are asked to mediate a discussion in the home group they both attend.  Each thinks their position is self-evident to any decent human being, and has a long list of talking points, straight off the internet, that they constantly jump between.  How do you try and guide this discussion?

6.   License

'How Same-sex Marriage Solves our Evangelical Problems with Same-sex Orientation' by Nigel Chapman1 is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC 4.0).  Non-commercial is defined in the CC licenses as “not primarily intended for or directed towards commercial advantage or monetary compensation.”  Contact the author regarding any other use.  The text below is the official short summary of the license on the Creative Commons website, which is licensed CC-BY:2

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1 https://chapman.wiki/read/eukras/how-same-sex-marriage-solves-our-evangelical-problems-with-same-sex-orientation
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