Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Some notes from a Progressive (Evangelical) Christian Viewpoint.

by Rowland Croucher

As I write, today (14/7/2014) the story of a gay man who’s just come out of his painful closet – Australia’s most successful Olympian Ian Thorpe – is everywhere in the public media. (ABC NewsMail’s headline: “Ian Thorpe says he concealed sexuality out of fear”. The Melbourne Age’s editorial: “The rate of self-harm and suicide for homosexual youth ranks well above their peers and is a telling sign of an urgent problem that must be confronted”). [1]  Ian is now one of the three highest-profile gay men in Australia – with Federal Greens politician Dr Bob Brown and the Honourable Michael Kirby (former Justice of the High Court). [2] 

And in the media, just this month, are many stories of married lesbian and gay couples who have returned from celebrating their nuptials in New Zealand or in a British consulate, or elsewhere, who now face (temporarily, we hope) a complicated legal status in a country which hasn’t yet caught up with the the UK, NZ, Canada and other similar Western progressive nations on this issue… 

Same-sex marriage (SSM) or ‘gay marriage’ is the legally recognized union of  two people with the same biological sex and/or gender/identity. Advocates of SSM often prefer the term ‘Marriage Equality’.

As of 28 June 2014, 16 countries (Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, the UK, Uruguay), and several states/sub-national jurisdictions in the US and in Mexico allow same-sex couples to marry. Coming up: Scotland (late 2014?), and the European Court of Human Rights (as soon as enough countries fall into line). [3] Australia? The process will almost certainly get under way when the conservative Coalition parties allow a conscience vote.

Around the world there is rising support - a clear majority now in all Western nations, across every age group, political ideology, gender, race and many religious denominations -  for legally recognizing same-sex marriage. Support for SSM is now (15/7/2014) higher in Australia than in any other country, including NZ and the UK, when they passed marriage equality laws.

The recognition of SSM is a political, social, human rights, religious and civil rights issue: as were the paradigm shifts associated with the slavery, race,  [5], divorce, and gender equality. Gays and lesbians are not going away: they pay taxes too, so they ask “Why should we settle for a lesser status (eg. equivalence to ‘de facto’ or civil unions) rather than be allowed full marriage, with all the relevant social and legal protections?”

The doyen of English-speaking public theologians, Martin Marty, endorses these judgments: “The gay rights movement has achieved more swiftly than any other individual rights movement in history, not merely the impossible but the unthinkable.”[6]  And: “In the glacial scheme of social change, attitudes about gay marriage are evolving at whitewater speed.” [7].  US Supreme Court decisions may slow that speed, but “it seems certain that in the not too distant future, we will look back on today’s opposition [on this subject] the way we now view opposition to interracial marriage - as a blatant violation of basic constitutional commitments to equality and human dignity.” [8]  Indeed, “Issues connected with [SSM are] the most church-dividing since the Council of Nicea or the Protestant Reformation.” [9]   

Conservative politicians tend to argue that SSM is antithetical to civilization as we have understood it: marriage is between a man and a woman. Christian and Jewish conservatives include an appeal to tradition and/or biblical authority. The fall-back position for many Catholics and some Protestants: “Gay marriage is against Natural Law, so it’s simply wrong.” But Marty opines: “[Natural law] teachings, when invoked, tend to match what people have already decided, on other grounds, is right or wrong.” [10]

Here are three important professional bodies’ contributions to the discussion:

The UK Royal College of Psychiatrists (April 2014): “Homosexuality is not a psychiatric disorder… The College holds the view that lesbian, gay and bisexual people are and should be regarded as valued members of society, who have exactly similar rights and responsibilities as all other citizens. This includes equal access to healthcare, the rights and responsibilities involved in a civil partnership/marriage, the rights and responsibilities involved in procreating and bringing up children, freedom to practise a religion as a lay person or religious leader, freedom from harassment or discrimination in any sphere and a right to protection from therapies that are potentially damaging, particularly those that purport to change sexual orientation.” [11]            

The American Anthropological Association (2005) has stated that the results of more than a century of research on households, kinship relationships, and families, across cultures and through time, “provide no support whatsoever for the view that either civilization or viable social orders depend upon marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution.” [12]  

And from the American Academy of Pediatrics (2006): “There is ample evidence to show that children raised by same-gender parents fare as well as those raised by heterosexual parents. More than 25 years of research have documented that there is no relationship between parents' sexual orientation and any measure of a child's emotional, psychosocial, and behavioral adjustment. These data have demonstrated no risk to children as a result of growing up in a family with one or more gay parents. Conscientious and nurturing adults, whether they are men or women, heterosexual or homosexual, can be excellent parents. The rights, benefits, and protections of civil marriage can further strengthen these families.” [13]  

Pronouncements such as these have dramatically influenced the thinking of anti-SSM advocates. As the theologically liberal Christian Century editorialized (to coincide with the US Supreme Court’s initial consideration as to whether gays have a constitutional right to marry, March 2013):

“It’s remarkable not only how much public opinion has recently shifted toward endorsing gay marriage, but how thin are the legal arguments now arrayed against it. Neither the brief offered by ProtectMarriage on behalf of California’s Proposition 8 nor the one by House Republicans on behalf of the Defense of Marriage Act attempts to argue that same-sex couples are a threat to society or children. The House brief simply asserts that it is “rational” to believe that children fare better when raised by biological parents of both sexes — without marshaling much evidence for this view.

“Both briefs introduce as part of their case against same-sex marriage a curious new argument about the ‘social risks’ presented not by homosexual couples but by heterosexual couples. The point is that reckless sexual relations between unmarried heterosexuals can produce unintended offspring, which are a potential burden to society, whereas reckless sex between homosexual couples doesn’t pose this threat. Therefore, the briefs say, society has reason to offer heterosexual couples, not gay and lesbian couples, the distinct benefits of marriage.

“One immediate objection to this inverted argument is obvious: Why should gays and lesbians be denied the benefits of marriage because they don’t present the same social risks that heterosexuals do? In any case, denying gay couples the right to marry would not do anything to steer reckless sexually active heterosexuals toward the responsibilities of marriage.”

Is procreation a defining element in defining a legitimate marriage?

“Inside and outside the church, marriage has long been defined as the lifelong commitment of two people to sharing all things in life — children, property, money, joys, sorrows, poverty, prosperity. What Christians have added to this general understanding is not an insistence on procreation but rather an insistence that marriage mirrors in some way God’s fidelity to creation and to God’s people. Because marriage reflects God’s faithfulness, Christians believe that living out an unconditional lifelong commitment to another person offers a way of living more deeply into God’s purposes for one’s own life. Marriage offers a path leading one out of selfish desires into greater concern for the welfare of others. That distinctively Christian understanding of marriage would not be damaged by a legal endorsement of same-sex marriage. It could even be enhanced.” [14]

A couple of interesting published comments followed that statement: “Luther and Calvin both challenged the theological norm of their day that marriage was first, for the procreation of children.  Rather, they posited, God had provided a way out of human loneliness via the call to lifelong committed relationship.”

(Jesus’ and Paul’s recorded words never connected the institution of marriage with procreation).

[Re Church and State]: “In Europe, marriage is first a matter of state law. If a couple desires to have their marriage blessed by the religious body of their choice, they may do so. With the blurring of the separation of church and state comes the confusion between ‘rights’ and ‘rites.’ Let the state define people’s legal right to wed, but let religious bodies define and exercise the rite of marriage that reflects their faith, tradition and practice.”

Conservative vs Progressive Hermeneutics

Conservative ‘People of the Book’ (Jews, Christians, Muslims) tend to offer early in their rationale on this issue, quotes from their holy books, interpreted by authoritative teachers. For such traditionalists, male-female union is an icon of creation: the two genders are complementary. And same-sex liaisons get a mostly ‘negative press’ in all three religions’ traditions.

But what to do with a law like this one? ‘If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.’ (Lev. 20:13).  Martin Marty again: “Most quoters stop there, but it goes on: ‘They shall be put to death’. Seriously, if the first half of that verse is divinely-inspired and authoritative, who are we moderns to decide that the second half is not, and that it can be shrugged off?  The same goes for other scriptural death penalty cases.  As every smart… New Atheist reminds us, Leviticus and Deuteronomy command capital punishment in numerous clear and specified instances:  when children curse their parents, when anyone blasphemes, and even when a son is persistently disobedient.  He should be put to death: that’s God’s law… No Jews are Jews because God told their ancestors to commit omnicide against the Amalekites.  No Christians, whose book also includes Leviticus and Deuteronomy, use it to punish men who have intercourse with a menstruating wife.  No Christians in our cultures use the Bible, which never de-legitimizes slavery, to legitimize slavery.” [15] 

And surely sins listed in Romans 1:26, 1 Corinthians 6:9 etc. do not refer to life-long loving unions between same sex couples.

Progressive Christians tend to reinforce their worldview with assertions like these:

1. It’s not smart to conceptualize too many realities as dualistic binary oppositions: we live in a world of ambiguity.

2. The Sodom and Gomorrah story might still be important for fundamentalists, but doesn’t feature so much these days in scholarly discussions. It was a story about gang rape, not loving unions.

3. Jesus (eg. Sabbath laws) and Paul have encouraged us to view a legalistic interpretation of the Mosaic law as antithetical to grace. Galatians states the underlying principle, and it's worth noticing Paul's conjunctions. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no longer 'male and female': for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). [16]

Progressives tend to be guided by a higher commitment to ‘grace’ rather than law/dogma, as they believe Jesus was with his ethic of inclusion. Thus many erstwhile opponents of SSM have radically changed their mind when a loved-one ‘came out’ as gay. (What’s new, many progressive apologists ask: the same thing happened with the inter-racial and divorce paradigms).

So progressive Christian theology is more dynamic than static. ‘The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his holy Word.’ The apostle Peter learned this the hard way and in the encounter with the gentile Cornelius changed his mind on who was/was not accepted by God.  The Adam and Eve story is especially relevant for singles: a man with a man is a lot closer to a man with a woman than a man who chooses no partner at all. Gays and lesbians surely don’t have to be sentenced to lives of terrible loneliness.

An important question: how did humans learn to discriminate against certain individuals/groups? Rene Girard has been most helpful here with his notion of mimetic rivalry: humans learn bigotry from parents/significant others. Society is believed to be at risk from ‘alien others’, so they must be opposed/ humiliated/punished/exiled… even killed. In other words, these alien individuals or outgroups become ‘scapegoats’ in a society’s quest for purity, salvation, orthodoxy, whatever.

But the supreme Judeo-Christian ethic is a commitment to Love for God and neighbor. And re our conjugal partner, the marriage vows affirm: "For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part."

John Maynard Keynes used this provocation to effect: “When the facts change, I change my mind. And you, sir?” History is littered with conservative ideas which collided with the findings of science and stoked the fear of cognitive dissonance. I for one would not like to be judged as being on the wrong side of history this time around…


So among Christians – at least in the West - there’s been a significant migration from conservative to progressive thinking on this broad issue [17] (I leave it to more-knowledgeable others to generalize about Jewish and Islamic trends). A significant factor: Conservative Evangelical Christians were the drivers of world-wide mission in the last few centuries, but were slow to engage with some serious human-rights issues, in deference to the host governments where they ministered. But the times are a’changing: now they are partnering with Ecumenical/Liberal Christians, Catholics, Jews, secularists, and feminists on many fronts, reminding us of Alfred North Whitehead's dictum: "Great ideas enter into reality with evil associates and with disgusting alliances. But the greatness remains, nerving the race in its slow ascent." [18]  

The Last Word: US Bishop Gene Robinson

Gene Robinson is the world’s first openly gay bishop elected to the historic episcopate (2003). He married Mark Andrew – his partner for a total of 25 years - in 2008. They ended their union on May, 2014, about which he writes: ‘My belief in marriage is undiminished by the reality of divorcing someone I have loved for a very long time, and will continue to love even as we separate. Love can endure, even if marriage cannot.’ [19]

The thesis in his book God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage: ‘Marriage is a sacrament and nothing in Scripture or orthodox theology precludes our opening the institution to same-gender couples. The legal marriage of two same-gender people – like the rather recent opening of legal marriage to interracial couples – retains the traditional meaning of marriage while expanding the number of people whom it may benefit.’

Here’s a summary of Gene’s ten theses: (1) It’s time for gays to be treated with the same dignity as heterosexuals; (2) Jesus said ‘Do to others what you would have them do to you’; (3) ‘Civil Unions’ don’t affirm a partner’s full rights; (4)  Nowhere in Scripture is there a wholesale condemnation of the loving relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people; (5) Jesus was champion of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized; (6) Marriage is a matter for the state, and historically is quite fluid: until relatively recently interracial marriage (miscegenation) was forbidden in America, Nazi Germany, South Africa and elsewhere; (7) There are plenty of reasons why marriages are stressful and end in divorce. None of them relate to the idea of gay marriage; (8) Religious opposition to same-gender marriage is an example of the violation of the separation of church and state: the Church is trying to meddle in the rightful business of the State;  (9) Parenting? No research supports the widely held conviction that the gender of parents matters for child well-being; (10) It’s not about homophobia (“a word I don’t use; it’s a conversation-stopper”) but justice.

“The opportunity to love one person and to have that love sanctioned and supported by the culture in which we live is a right denied gay and lesbian people for countless centuries. It’s time to open that opportunity to all of us. Because in the end, God believes in love.’  [20]


[1] The Age 15/7/2014 

[2] ;


[4] Lisa Cox: ‘Support growing for same-sex marriage’, The Age, 15/7/2014,  p.8 

[5] But it’s interesting that black churches in the US are divided over SSM: see Maza, Carlos. “Three Things The Media Should Know About Rev. William Owens And His Coalition Of African-American Pastors.” Equality Matters (blog), August 8, 2012. Accessed July 13, 2013. ; “Black Pastors Condemn Supreme Court For Ruling on Gay Marriage.” Atlanta Daily World, June 26, 2013. Accessed July 13, 2013.
“The Black Church.” Accessed July 13, 2013.

[6]  David Cole may have been the first to describe the legalizing of same-sex marriage with this observation, “Getting Nearer and Nearer’,  New York Review of Books, January 10, 2013, reviewing Michael J. Klarman’s From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage (OUP) 

[7]  Citing Ellen Goodman Sightings  1/14/2013, “Gay Marriage Tidewater”

[8]  Ibid.

[9]  *Sightings* 3/1/10, “Biblical Literalism”

[10]  Marty, Sightings,  1/14/2013


[12]  American Anthropological Association (2005) "Statement on Marriage and the Family from the American Anthropological Association",  Retrieved 10 November 2010

[13]  Pawelski, J. G.; Perrin, E. C.; Foy, J. M.; Allen, C. E.; Crawford, J. E.; Del Monte, M.; Kaufman, M.; Klein, J. D.; Smith, K.; Springer, S.; Tanner, J. L.; Vickers, D. L. (2006). "The Effects of Marriage, Civil Union, and Domestic Partnership Laws on the Health and Well-being of  Children". Pediatrics 118 (1): 349–364. Cited here:

[14]  ‘FROM THE EDITORS’, Christian Century, ‘Blessing Gay Marriage’, March 04, 2013

[15]  Sightings 3/1/10, ‘Biblical Literalism’ by Martin E. Marty

[16]  More from a conservative Christian viewpoint: Michael Bird, Gordon Preece, et. al. Sexegesis: An Evangelical Response to Five Uneasy Pieces (Anglican Press, Australia, 2002). ‘Shows that the traditional reading of Scripture, as against homosexual practice but for homosexual people, still makes sense of the Bible text. This is contrary to the more liberal revisionist reading of Scripture in Five Uneasy Pieces []. Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (2002) is still one of the most thorough volumes – written by an outstanding scholar who is both theologically conservative on this broad issue, but is also a non-inerrantist: his work is commended by James Barr and many other highly acclaimed conservative Christian theologians many of whom are also polemicists in their opposition to Fundamentalism. [See Amazon’s impressive list of commendations].  See also Rev. Dr. Mark Durie’s views, here:

[17]  My first book: Recent Trends Among Evangelicals,

[18]  Martin E. Marty: Human Rights Bedfellows, Sightings, October 4, 2004; Allen D. Hertzke. Rowman & Littlefield: Freeing God's Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights; Johan D. Van Der Vyver and John Witte, Jr. Martinus Nijhoff eds., Religious Human Rights in Global Perspectives: Legal Perspectives (Vol. I), Religious Perspectives (Vol. II)

[20]  ]  Bishop Gene Robinson, God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage, 2012. For a longer review/summary visit 

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