As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to rule on same-sex marriage, Christians on both sides of the issue continue to invoke Jesus in support of their position.  Or, more precisely, they invoke a vision of ethics and morality (i.e., inclusivity vs. traditional moral values) that they associate with Christian teaching.  But how would Jesus actually have responded if asked “how should the Supreme Court rule on same-sex marriage?”

That’s anachronistic, of course, but it’s the kind of question that “teachers of the law” routinely flung at Jesus, usually with the intention of entrapping or discrediting him.  The legal elite of Jesus’ day peppered him with hot button legal and ethical questions like “should we pay taxes to Caesar” and “to whom do I owe neighborly duties?”  Often, these questions involved marriage and sexuality:  May a man divorce a woman for any and every reason?  How should a woman caught in adultery be punished?  If a woman marries seven different husbands in succession and then dies herself, which one is she married to in Heaven?  It’s not hard to imagine CNN legal analyst Jeff Toobin cornering Jesus and asking him, “Hey Jesus, how about same-sex marriage?”

It would be presumptuous of me to say how Jesus would answer that question, so I won’t.  But I will offer three observations from things Jesus actually said in response to similar questions.

First, Jesus would likely have faulted both sides of the debate for an excessively materialist perspective.  On one side, we hear that marriage is about procreation and child rearing.  On the other, that it’s about love and companionship.  But Jesus did not understand marriage primarily in terms of its temporal or material effects.  For Jesus, marriage was a spiritual representation of divine relationships.  According to Jesus, God created man and woman—male and female—in the image of God, mirroring the unity and diversity within the Godhead.  Jesus and later apostolic writers referred to Jesus as a bridegroom and the Church as his bride.  Jesus explained that in Heaven people would not be married to one another, since they would be in perfect union with God.  Thus, the ultimate good of marriage was not that it served immediate material needs but that it celebrated the eternal nature of God.

This understanding of marriage has precious little purchase in the contemporary, hyper-materialist world.  Even those who recognize marriage’s “spiritual” component usually mean that psychosomatically—marriage feeds long-term emotional and pyschological needs.  We’ve lost any sense of human institutions as good because of their correspondence to divinity.  Across the ideological spectrum, we’ve given in to Richard Posner’s wish of “unmasking and challenging the Platonic, traditionalist, and theological vestiges in Enlightenment thinking.”  It’s safe to say that Jesus would have had a different take.

Second, and in some tension with my first observation, Jesus might have responded to a question about same-sex marriage by distinguishing between the spiritual ideal and pragmatic legal rules.  That is what Jesus did on divorce.  When asked whether a man should be allowed to divorce a woman for any and every reason, Jesus responded that Mosaic law allowed for divorce because of the hardness of people’s hearts, but that things weren’t that way from the beginning.  Jesus was not advocating a change in the law, but a change in people’s hearts.

Christian thinkers have long debated the distinction between legal and spiritual marital norms.  When Britain was liberalizing its divorce laws in the 1940s, my two favorite Christian writers, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, took different views on whether Christians should advocate that secular legal institutions mirror the spiritual ideal.  Tolkien opposed the divorce reforms on the grounds that the spiritual should inform the legal.  Lewis argued for a pragmatic differentiation between the spiritual and the legal.  In my view, Lewis was closer to the position staked by Jesus.

Finally, chances are that Jesus’ answer would go to issues far beyond the narrow question presented.  This was almost invariably Jesus’ pattern when confronted with hot-button legal issues. He always found the question itself less important than the darkness it exposed.  Thus, he turned the question about paying taxes to Caesar into condemnation of his questioners’ failure to honor God, the adultery penalty question into an indictment of his interlocutors’ self-righteousness, and the divorce question into an exposé of spiritual hardness.  I shiver to think of how he might turn the same-sex marriage question back on us.  All of us.

25 thoughts on “How Would Jesus Rule on Same-Sex Marriage?

  1. Well, I do not see contrast between Tolkien and Lewis in the way you mentioned. Human law and spiritual are different, of course, but I and Tolkien think that it would be a better world if the spiritual informed the law. Maybe, Jesus would answer that way, “far beyond the narrow questions presented”.

    And, by the way, Tolkien was right about the result of divorce. Do not you think?

  2. Get real! Marriage in the day of Jesus bore no relation to marriage today. The patriarchs had many wives and David and Solomon had concubines. Marriage then had nothing to do with romance and “love.” The Romans gave no tax exemptions or deductions for being married.

    Of the few love stories in the Bible, the most prominent are those of David & Jonathan, Solomon and his lover, and Ruth and Naomi. There is no talk of romance anywhere. There are no honeymoons.

    The story that comes closest to describing the modern Amerikan marriage is that of Job and his heckling wife!

    Jesus only connection with marriage was at the wedding where he turned water into wine. The Bible gives no prescription for marriage and neither did Jesus or Paul.

    The modern sacrament of marriage is made of whole cloth.

  3. Pedro, I didn’t mean to take any position on what the content of divorce laws should be. My point was that Jesus described the law of Moses as pragmatic on divorce and did not advocate its reform. What he advocated was a spiritual awakening that would lead to godly marriages. But the law itself was designed as an accommodation to the realities of sinful human nature.

    Jimbino, I’m not sure what you mean by “only connection to marriage.” It’s true that the wedding at Cana is the only recorded instance of Jesus being at a wedding, but he taught about marriage and sexuality a lot. My post lists four examples (divorce, adultery, marriage in heaven, bride and bridegroom) and there are many others.

  4. Well, cranedan, I think you took position. Reread your post: “Lewis argued for a pragmatic differentiation between the spiritual and the legal. In my view, Lewis was closer to the position staked by Jesus.”

    Also, you answer to me just make things worse: “But the law itself was designed as an accommodation to the realities of sinful human nature.”

    Do you think that Jesus would aprove a law that does not lead to a godly marriage?

  5. Pedro, I’m taking a position that we should distinguish between the spiritual and the legal, but that doesn’t commit me to any particular content of the legal. Rather, it commits me to the view that, as to the legal, we need to be pragmatic, taking into account the realities of the fallen world rather than arguing that the law needs to reflect Christian ideals. Even among Christian pragmatists there’s a wide range of possible disagreement on what the content of any particular law should be.

    Would Jesus approve a law that does not lead to a godly marriage? Well, the law of Moses on divorce, set forth throughout the Pentateuch, allowed for divorce under circumstances that Jesus labeled immoral. Jesus’ point was that the law needed to do this because people’s hearts were hard. The law on divorce was largely about protecting vulnerable women when their husbands abandoned them. That incorporated a moral value–justice for the weak–but it did not strive as a matter of law for the ideal version of marriage that Jesus advocated. It was pragmatic, and I don’t read Jesus as calling for its repeal. “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.”

  6. Thanks for your answer, cranedan.

    But, sorry, you are mixing many things to make your point.

    Let’s see:

    1) What do mean by being pragmatic? Is it always accept the policies supported by majority, like abortion, or euthanasia, or Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or like Hitler in the past?

    2) I am quite sure that a Christian must fight for a Christian world, even knowing that our world is in Jesus Christ not this world. Otherwise, what are doing here for Christ? Giving the world to atheists or to Muslims?

    3) Regarding Jesus to Moses Law, consider that Moses was not the Lamb of God (Son of God). Moses was not God. Christ is. But Christ did not want to disrespect Moses. Jesus does not defend Moses law, but consider Moses time to argue in Moses’ defense. Jesus does not pointed out “that the law needed to be that way” as you said. Christ is the Truth, and He fulfilled the law, but gave the (new) real law, the real Truth, that must be follow by humans (all humans). Being pragmatic can accept every law, even those agianst Christ.

  7. Pedro, thanks for engaging with these important issues. I started writing a long exposition on the meaning of pragmatism, and then decided it wouldn’t be a good idea for this blog. So let me conclude with the following perhaps unsatisfying observation. Along with St. Augustine, I understand myself as a citizen of two different kingdoms–an earthly one and a heavenly one. My heavenly citizenship is not irrelevant to my earthly citizenship, but nor should I lose the distinction between the two.

  8. Yes, cranedan. I complete agree with you (and St. Augustine) now. Augustinean thinking is very profound and demanding to us.

    Many thanks for interesting (and important) debate.
    Best regards

  9. Dan, the material point here is that Christians do live in two different kingdoms. With that I agree. However, to what degree do I allow convictions originating from my heavenly kingdom inform my participation in the earthly one. Do I have a duty to discourage the state from establishing laws that encourage behavior I believe destructive to society or to human life, such as gay marriage or abortion? Or do I regard them as pragmatic issues that should be left to the state and disengage?

  10. Thank you for a wonderful article. I always liked Lewis’s description of divorce in Mere Christianity. To paraphrase, “the question of whether or not it can be done should not ignore the fact that divorce more like the cutting of a live body than the separation of a contract.” Or simply, just because something can be legal, does not imply that it’s desirable.

    I think you’re wholly correct, your line of reasoning would seem to favor the “libertarian” solution of separating some of the legal notion of marriage as contract with inheritance rights and tax benefits from the sacramental notion of marriage being in the image of the divine.

    While I realize there are many natural law arguments to the contrary, I think your premise could be developed to give a strong assistance to that position. Recognizing the diversity of our nation, once severed from the state, Christian sacramental marriage might be more, not less able to clearly mirror the divine ideal.

  11. Jimbino, Jesus discusses the nature and purpose of marriage in Mark 10 and Matthew 19. These are the passages discussed in the post above. The modern sacrament of marriage is based on these and other passages. It’s well supported textually by scripture. Even if you argue that marriage is not a sacrament, as most Protestants do, you have take these passages into account.

    Further, marriage in 1st century Palestine, and throughout the Greco Roman world of the time, was by and large monogamous.

  12. In response to Christian objections to same sex marriage, SSM supporters often respond that there’s no record that Jesus disapproved of homosexuality or same sex unions. I think they have a point, and when speculating on how Jesus would rule on same sex marriage, I view this omission as significant. Jesus clearly thought male/female unions were in some sense normative, but, as you mention, here and in other passages, Jesus made this point in such a way that it judged the one posing the question. So, for me, both Jesus’ way of answering the question about divorce, and his silence on the issue of homosexuality and same sex marriage, warn us that his ruling on the latter would center less on the soundness of our argument (after all the Pharisees and lawyers often had a good case) than on our intentions in bringing up the question.

  13. Charming Billy:

    The Romans famously married their sisters and some Greeks famously slept with their mothers. Jesus and Paul were lifelong bachelors.

    Mark 10: “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

    This passage consists of one non-sequitur following another. Will a man leave his parents because God made two sexes? Why a man and not a woman? Does she stay with her parents? What is the effect of the metaphorical “become one flesh”? And should man not separate copper from rock, just because God has joined them together? There is zero science and logic here and 100% religious superstition.

    Matthew 19: ‘I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Nowadays the wife can divorce her husband for any reason and vice versa.

    So what the hell do those passages have to do with wedding dresses, wedding cakes, honeymoons, joint bank accounts, community property law, tax deductions, hospital visitation, immigration rights and inheritance?

    Modern marriage bears almost NO relation to the marriage of Matthew 10. If anyone ever comes up with a justification for the 1200 Federal laws controlling marital rights and responsibilities, it won’t be based on either Mosaic law or Jesus’ rationalizations.

  14. Jimbino, the topic under discussion is what Jesus might have had to say about same sex marriage in light of his recorded responses to other controversial questions. Introducing federal marriage laws into the discussion without establishing its relevance to the topic is the non sequitur, not the scriptural passage you cited.

    If you want to discuss federal marriage laws and joint bank accounts you’ll have to tell us how this relevant to understanding how Jesus might have viewed the question of same sex marriage. Or, if you’re arguing that Jesus’s view of marriage is so different from modern views of marriage that it doesn’t bear comparison — because, for instance, they didn’t have wedding cake at Cana –then please say so.

    The you passage cited is in fact, logical, although it relies on suppressed premises. It may or may not be factually true, but that’s another matter. As I’m sure you know, a statement can be logically valid but factually untrue.

    For Romans and Greeks monogamy was the norm. Incest was the exception, which is exactly why cases of incest were seen as remarkable enough to record for posterity. Why do you think the gods punished Oedipus? Because he gave boring speeches?

  15. The Greeks were pederasts.

    The federal and state governments define marriage more than Jesus ever did. SSM would hold no interest if it weren’t for the bundle of rights and responsibilities conferred by federal and state law.

    Jesus muddied the waters significantly when he said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” which could be held to sanctify the gummint definition of marriage, slavery, waterboarding and our imperial wars.

  16. Jimbino, If that argument were genuine, then, it would follow that civil unions (although I prefer the term domestic partnership as it does not necessarily imply a sexual relationship), insofar as you were correct, would have been an acceptable solution. The trouble is, the cry is “equality and acceptance” The end goal of the SSM movement seems to me to be to force recognition of the legitimacy of their relationships on those who do not approve of them.

    That is precisely why severing the civil legal benefits from the religious image is so important in this case. I’ve been meaning to write an article on the difference in terms between civil union and domestic partnerships. In the first, a relationship is implied, in the second, a living arrangement is implied. I could be a domestic partner with my brother and share federal and state rights and responsibilities without any implication of a romantic or sexual relationship. I could not do so with a civil union, as by the nature of the term, it implies a certain type of relationship.

    Once we remove the implication of acceptance of the relationship, the religious objection to the matter suddenly disappears. All of the “rights” can be freely granted as long as the relationship is not what is being endorsed. (with the only remaining disputing I can foresee being adoption concerns)

    However, if the real concern of the SSM proponents is not, as you say, the federal and state rights and responsibilities, that would not be an acceptable solution, as it would not force others to recognize the legitimacy of their relationship.

    Fundamentally, one of those positions is correct and one is not. I believe the more attention that is drawn to the distinction, the closer we can come to a real, viable solution.

  17. Jesus is a sufficiently plastic literary figure that he can be marshalled to any cause: he can be, and has been placed at extreme poles of every issue that his followers have press ganged him into, and can be made to inhabit every intermediate point. This is the true omnipresence of the Christian god. He is everywhere that he is cited and attributed with an opinion. Whether anything that the historical figure whom Christianity has posited as the universal bodhisattva is preserved in the texts that became the four Greek Gospels is another question. Not even red-letter New Testaments concur on which words in the text are meant to be direct quotes and which are the words of the men fashioning the texts that were later selected as the narrative core of Roman Christianity.

  18. It’s an overstatement to say that Jesus can be marshalled to just any old cause. The plausibility of some views of Jesus is undermined by the text itself, not to mention our knowledge of the NT background. This implies there’s some kind of standard we can use to judge what Jesus said and did, even if we have to appeal to extrinsic evidence to formulate the standard.

    “Bodhisattva” is a felicitous stylistic flourish, but it’s not really accurate enough to be helpful.

  19. I was thinking of extremes like justification for centuries of chattel slavery and for responses like John Brown’s armed revolt, or the fact that both Axis and Allies believed that God was on their side, prayed to him and thanked him for their victories. There is no meaning “inherent” in any text, only those meanings found and extracted by readers. That’s what I meant by the plasticity of the figure of Jesus and the content of his teachings. I approach from a descriptivist point of view, not a normative one.

    In East Asian Buddhism the “Pure Land” sects believe in a divine being, Amitabha , who has set aside his own progress to create a heaven to which all who utter the name of the bodhisattva and call on him for salvation will be gathered, saved from the punishments of hell, there to be prepared for final advancement to Nirvana. It’s that idea of a personal saviour who has through self sacrifice played a special role on behalf of all humanity, based on his infinite love for humankind, that i was referring to. I think it’s useful to emphasise parallel beliefs when looking at religion. (In this comparison I’m looking at function and am not arguing for a direct link or undermining the idea that Mediterranean religions trace their saviour figures to Sun worship and annual renewal through god sacrifice, death, and renewal.) All human societies believe in beings outside the natural order that can affect or even direct it. Phenomena observed in all human societies are likely to represent manifestations of the infrastructure of the human organism, the workings of human instinct, and the pre-conscious brain functions that give rise to consciousness and the processes that create social reality.


  20. “There is no meaning “inherent” in any text, only those meanings found and extracted by readers.”

    But some meanings are more plausible than others. When you say there are “extremes” like John Brown, you’re assuming there’s a more plausible reading that allows you to judge that John Brown’s take is in fact extreme.

  21. Jimbino- for American Catholics, well, there’s a reason why the rather minor prophet Hosea, and the modern folk hymn named after him, is so popular at weddings.

    To me, that’s the model of what an American marriage should be. Not Job, but Hosea.

  22. You all are getting way too complex on this. Christ was about 1) compassion, 2) understanding and 3) inclusion. When asked by the Pharisee what was the most important commandment, he named two (love God and love your neighbor) and then said, “On these two commandments HANG all the law and the prophets.” Christ would definitely show love and understanding toward gay people and the hardships they have endured. He would not be passing laws to make their lives harder.

  23. @Pete

    I’m sorry, but I could make exactly the same statement about divorce. ‘Christ would definitely show love and understanding to divorced people and the hardships they have endured. He would not be passing laws to make their lives harder.’

    Except for the fact that he ACTUALLY said “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard, but in the beginning it was not so. Therefore I say to you (note the new law) whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery”

    Interpret that however you will, but I hardly think Jesus had any trouble passing laws that made someone’s life harder.

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