Thursday, February 27, 2014

Celibacy, Contraception, and the Church that Changes

In discussions about same-sex marriage within the church, there is a common argumentative strategy on the part of progressives to acknowledge that the Bible indeed says some negative stuff about same-sex relationships, but they will then try to diffuse the significance of this by going on to ask the rhetorical question, "What about slaves and women?" Just as people in the past used (or, as most of us would agree, "misused") the Bible and church tradition to justify pro-slavery and anti-women attitudes and practices, so now people misuse the Bible and church tradition to stigmatize and exclude gay and lesbian persons from full inclusion in church and society.

As I have written before, I think the analogies of women and slaves are helpful in some ways, but the analogies only go so far. They don't show that since we were wrong about those issues, we must therefore be wrong about this one. They just show that we might be wrong about this issue, since we have gotten things wrong in a major way in the past. These two analogies show that longstanding church tradition and a handful of biblical quotes do not suffice to guarantee one's position is authentically Christian, but, again, much more has to be said by the progressive Christian to make their case.

It seems to me that in this discussion and debate over the consecration of same-sex relationships, the church would be better served by focusing less on the analogies of women and slaves, and more on the analogies of celibacy and contraception. These two issues not only represent ways in which the church has radically changed its position, but since these two issues are from the realm of sexual ethics, they seem much more intrinsically connected to the issue of same-sex relationships.

Let's start with the issue of celibacy. While the orthodox church has always taught that marriage is good (primarily for procreative purposes), up until the Reformation era about 500 years ago it also taught that celibacy and virginity are morally and spiritually better. In fact, as a 4th century theologian named Jovinian learned the hard way, you could be declared a heretic for suggesting that marriage is just as good as celibacy.

When you put yourself in the position of the Reformers, and you make the argument that clergy don't have to be celibate because marriage shares an equal moral status with virginity, you are making an argument that goes against the church's way of interpreting the teachings of Jesus (Matt 19:12, Luke 20:27-40) and Paul (1 Cor 7) for nearly 1500 years. But the Reformers did it, and now we Protestant Christians take it for granted. What was essentially the most radical shift in Christian sexual ethics up until that point we would now yawn over if we heard someone debate it.

Fast forward another few hundred years to 1930, the year marking the first time any church denomination officially authorized the use of contraception. When the Anglican church made this unprecedented move, they were going against nearly two millennia of church tradition that strongly and universally condemned contraception. This is hard for us to appreciate now in this day and age, but the Christian condemnation of contraception was just as severe throughout history as was its condemnation of same-sex relationships. Although marriage had always been considered good in the church, marital sex, by and large, was only seen as morally good if it was for the purpose of procreation. Marital sex only for pleasure was seen as lustful and even "against nature." Therefore all contraceptive or intentionally non-procreative sex was seen as a grave sin.

Just as Christians could (and still do) appeal to the story of God's destruction of Sodom (Gen 19) to justify God's supposed abhorrence of all same-sex relationships, Christians could appeal to the story of God's killing of Onan (Gen 38) to justify God's supposed abhorrence of all contraception.

Defenders of contraception would want to argue that Onan was killed, not for contraception as such, but for selfishly refusing to honor his brother by agreeing to follow the custom of levirate marriage (levir is the Latin word for "brother-in law"), whereby if a man dies without having a son, his brother is obligated to try to reproduce with his widow so that a male offspring can be reckoned as his and can carry on the family name and control the land. This argument, though, doesn't sit well with the fact that the punishment for refusing to do this was public shaming, not death (Deut. 25:5-10), and in the history of the church there has been, up until 1930, a universal condemnation of contraception with this passage being used most frequently to show that God is against all intentionally non-procreative sex. While it is hard to say with certainty that the "original meaning" of the Onan story was a condemnation of all contraception (although a strong argument could be made that it was), we can say with certainty that this is how the church throughout history and across the globe interpreted this passage for nearly two thousand years. Yet now, even for the vast majority of Roman Catholics whose church hierarchy still forbids artificial contraceptive methods, contraception is not even seen as a live moral debate. In a period of less than half a century, contraception went from being universally condemned to being nearly universally embraced.

It seems to me that the ethical issue of contraception is the most insightful analogy for thinking through the church's ethical debates about same-sex marriage. Not only does it show a major reversal of a traditional church teaching, but the reasons for this reversal are deeply connected to the current movement among many to embrace same-sex marriage in the church. Contraception became permissible as the church's understanding of marital sex shifted to focus more on intimacy and pleasure, not just procreation. Once the church accepts that marital sex is good based on the values of intimate bonding and mutual pleasure, without procreative intent or possibility required, then it becomes much harder to say exactly what could be wrong with two people of the same sex living in a covenant relationship and basing their sexual lives together on these values as well.

While I understand the debate over same-sex marriage cannot be reduced to these considerations I have raised, in my experience those who are against same-sex marriage place a great deal of rhetorical weight on the "two thousand years" argument in their case. Its rhetorical power, however, masks its logical weakness and historical naivete.

"Who are we to question the universal and historic church on this issue?" they will say. Well, we are part of a church that has a long history of challenging what came before it. We are part of a church that has changed its mind about many things, including the value and purpose of sex. We are part of a church that is always in need of reform. We are part of a church that has been growing and changing for a good while now. We are part of a church that has made a tradition out of questioning tradition. That's who we are.


  1. To me, God was very clear on the issue of homosexuality in the old and new testament. I just don't see any wiggle room in the scriptures concerning this subject. I haven't found any scriptures that make homosexuality ok even if you are a committed loving couple. In other words, just b/c two homosexual people marry and live a committed monogamous life together based on "covenant" principles doesn't mean God changes His mind that homosexuality is a sin. I know you all probably know the scriptures, but I thought I'd list a few Old and New Testament scriptures on the subject.

    Leviticus 18:22 You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.

    Leviticus 20:13 If a man lies with a male as if he were a woman, both men have committed an offense (something perverse, unnatural, abhorrent, and detestable); they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

    Romans 1:18-32

    1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Do you not know that the unrighteous and the wrongdoers will not inherit or have any share in the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived (misled): neither the impure and immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor those who participate in homosexuality,
    10 Nor cheats (swindlers and thieves), nor greedy graspers, nor drunkards, nor foulmouthed revilers and slanderers, nor extortioners and robbers will inherit or have any share in the kingdom of God.
    11 And such some of you were [once]. But you were washed clean (purified by a complete atonement for sin and made free from the guilt of sin), and you were consecrated (set apart, hallowed), and you were justified [pronounced righteous, by trusting] in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the [Holy] Spirit of our God.

    1 Timothy 1:8-10 Now we recognize and know that the Law is good if anyone uses it lawfully [for the purpose for which it was designed],
    9 Knowing and understanding this: that the Law is not enacted for the righteous (the upright and just, who are in right standing with God), but for the lawless and unruly, for the ungodly and sinful, for the irreverent and profane, for those who strike and beat and [even] murder fathers and strike and beat and [even] murder mothers, for manslayers,
    10 [For] impure and immoral persons, those who abuse themselves with men, kidnapers, liars, perjurers—and whatever else is opposed to wholesome teaching and sound doctrine

    Jude 1:7 [The wicked are sentenced to suffer] just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the adjacent towns—which likewise gave themselves over to impurity and indulged in unnatural vice and sensual perversity—are laid out [in plain sight] as an exhibit of perpetual punishment [to warn] of everlasting fire.

    1. Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 both clearly allow for lesbian relationships (and none of the other verses you listed say anything about them.)

      In fact, taken literally, Leviticus 18:22 REQUIRES Lesbian relationships -- it unequivocally says that women should not "lie with a man as with a woman", indicating both that they should lie with women and should not lie with men in the same way.

      (Of course, you can also read both as simply saying that sex with men must be performed differently than sex with women -- you may lie with both men and women as long as you do so _differently,_ that is, as long as you are mindful of their genders and do not simply treat them the same. This is the only reading I can see for Leviticus 18:22 that does not clearly tell women who read it that it is an abomination for them to sleep with men.)

  2. Anonymous, I disagree with you. First of all, the definition of homosexuality is "a sexual attraction to (or sexual relations with) persons of the same sex". Wouldn't lesbianism fall into this category? I stumbled upon this article that addresses this subject. Copy and pasted below.
    Question: "What does the Bible say about being a lesbian? Does the Bible mention lesbianism?"

    Answer: Some are under the assumption that, while the Bible condemns gay sex between men, it nowhere condemns being a lesbian/lesbianism. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 mention men having sex with other men, but say nothing of women having sex with other women. In the Sodom and Gomorrah account in Genesis 19, the men of the cities wanted to gang rape other men. First Corinthians 6:9 mentions effeminate men, very likely referring to homosexuals, but does not mention lesbians. So, does the Bible in fact condemn male homosexuality, but not lesbianism?

    Romans 1:26-27 puts this invalid assumption to rest: “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.” Clearly, this passage puts lesbianism on equal ground with male homosexuality. Lesbianism is described as women exchanging natural relations (with men) for unnatural relations (with women). According to the Bible, being a lesbian is just as sinful as being a homosexual male.

    There’s an implication in Romans 1:26 that lesbianism is even worse than male homosexuality. Notice the phrase “even their women.” The text seems to suggest that it is more common for men to engage in sexual depravity, and when women begin to do it, that is a sign things are getting really bad. Men usually have much stronger sex drives than women, and so are more prone to sexual deviancy. When women commit unnatural sexual acts, then the degree of immorality has truly become shameful. Lesbianism is evidence of people being given over to “the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (Romans 1:24).

    Read more: