Shekinah Glory

Why I Support Marriage Equality
June 28, 2009, 1:33 pm
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A few weeks ago I participated in a press conference with a group in Southeast Washington called Clergy United. All of the major local press outlets were there. The location was a historic African American church in Marion Barry’s district. This location was picked because it was a press conference in support of Marriage Equality for Gays and Lesbians and Barry has made so many negative comments about gay marriage while mischaracterizing the African American community’s unanimity on this subject. Various speakers from a multitude of Christian traditions spoke to the press about the Declaration of Religious Support for Marriage Equality that we had all signed. Today I would like to talk about why I strongly support this document and my feelings about marriage equality as a member of the clergy.

Before I wade into the hedges I think that the parameters of the discussion need to be clearly demarcated. I believe that there are two separate arenas that need justification when the civil and liturgical rights of marriage for gays and lesbians in the United States is discussed. This is to talk about the state’s role in sanctioning marriage and the church’s liturgical and biblical self-understanding on the subject.

Separation of Church and State is a bedrock principle in our democratic process for liberty. Ever since the early Baptists introduced it in the 17th Century Rhode Island Plantation it has been a protection for minority religious groups that would otherwise have been compelled to conform to the majority’s worship. In some cases it literally saved the lives of dissenters. It is a principle that protects each and every religious group from the tyranny and persecution of the majority.
I do not believe that in our 233 year striving for an inclusive secular state there is sufficient room for legislative, legal or administrative opinions on actions that should be regulated by the church. To wade into a liturgical and sacramental act is too often to side with a majority or to take only a powerful interest’s opinion into account at the exclusion and persecution of a minority. So, while the state might have a compelling interest in recording marriages for the protection of abuse to minors, the restriction of an individuals civil rights, tax, census and historical purposes it does not strike me that it will do any better at defining marriage for religions than it would be at telling us how Jesus can both be divine and human. We must have less, not more governmental intrusion in acts that historically have been liturgical and sacramental.

Now to the biblical and liturgical elements of an argument for marriage equality. Let me from the outset say that I refuse to start my discussion on the evangelical or fundamentalist’s level. That would be to string together a group of biblical passages to support my belief that Gay marriage is okay for Christians to practice. While I believe that there is ample evidence to suggest that most of the passages against gay marriage trotted out to call it an abomination are being ripped from their cultural context to support something that the writers of Leviticus or Romans would never recognize. While making a strictly biblical quotes argument on sexual ethics might be compelling to some, I do not believe that it presents anything but an ambiguous and conflicting moral direction.

To take this type of conservative biblical argument against marriage equality seriously I would have to also admit I believe that the bible has a coherent and unified stream representing a unchanging divine narrative thread throughout. Having read the Bible from cover to cover several times I believe that it takes Herculean efforts to unify texts that are diverse and span literally hundreds if not a thousand years of revelation to God’s people. I am not willing to choose one small part of the Biblical narrative that fits my political or cultural outlook to defend or defeat marriage equality. If I was a literalist then I would feel compelled to also advocate arranged marriages, polygamy, premarital sex if it brings about marriage to a brother, the idea of a kinsman redeemer, equating women betrothed in marriage to the ownership of cattle, immediate acceptance of those extolling the type of erotic premarital sex eloquently poeticized in the Song of Solomon and the bisexual friendship covenant that we see between Jonathan and David in today’s text.

Instead of attempting to unify what I believe can never be unified I would rather point to general ethical principles that I believe both Christ and Paul espoused. First, there is the freedom in Christ that releases us from the bonds of law and turns us to a much more fulfilling and humanizing path of mercy and grace. Instead of the chaos that is often predicted by those who seem to need rules and restrictions in their lives, freedom in Christ actually brings a much more challenging set of living conditions. All things are permissible, but of course not all things are beneficial. I would rather live with a sense of freedom whose ethic is a responsibility to others and not reducing life to rules or regulations.

Second, Christ appears to accept those whose behavior we find unacceptable. It is a gospel of good news that speaks to the woman at the well, the woman with a non-stop period, tax collectors, lepers, wealthy women, rogue religious leaders, thieves and a demon possessed man living amongst the tombs. For, Paul it is us uncircumcised gentile who can never fulfill the requirements of the law who need acceptance. Both show a general acceptance that God’s grace is ever expanding and accepting of those that we might find unacceptable.

Last, it appears Christ is less worried about individuals keeping sexual purity than he is that we grow a faith rooted in mercy, hospitality for strangers and in love. Jesus gives no moralizing tomes to the two women he meets who do not conform to societal norms for sexuality. Instead the first he gives an opportunity to spread his message of living water and for the other he turns against those who are judging her. Both quite antithetical to judging homosexual’s lifestyles. Even after a Romans text that many have used to vilify homosexuality as sin Paul exclaims to the church, “Judge not that you be judged for in the same measure that you judge others you will be judged.” It seems to me that nurturing a humble, caring faith that turns toward mercy, love and justice for the suffering is more important that keeping a group’s particular rule or concrete regulation.

Even if I thought that the act of homosexuality or bisexuality that led to two women or two men entering into a loving relationship with each other was wrong, which I do not, in the ethics that I believe Paul and Christ espouse it is not my concern. It is the responsibility of the two who have entered into that mutual covenant in all aspects of their relationship with each other, their neighbors and God to sin no more. As a pastor I am not to deny their covenant, but as with any couple to encourage them to live within a covenant of mutuality with their new spouse, within their community and with their God. To me there is no credible distinction of that covenant between them as being a blessing or a marital vow.

Freedom is frightening because it means a loss of control. Yet, freedom is exactly what we need more of in our country and the church itself. Freedom will mean that a moralistic majority will not be able to impose their liturgical and sacramental sexual restrictions upon a minority that is currently being denied their basic human rights. Freedom in the church will mean that no matter what you think of this issue you will be forced to show tolerance, love and mercy to those whom you believe to be outside the realm of acceptable practice.


14 Comments so far
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I read your sermon with great interest for obvious reasons, Brian (since I serve on the GA Special Committee on Christian Marriage & Civil Union), but I still can’t seem to find satisfactory answers to my two questions: Firstly, why should we stop the marriage definition at between just two people? Why not between three or more? If we don’t legalize polygamy, are we being discriminatory? There are obviously more examples of polygamy in scripture!

Secondly, why do same-sex marriage supporters keep calling it marriage equality when, in one broad stroke, they’re literally rendering the other gender irrelevant? Isn’t heterosexual marriage the greater equalizer in that it brings both genders to the same place?

Just some food for thought!

Comment by Bill Teng


I do not expect you to agree from your evangelical interpretation of scripture, but I would say that it is really only you that have the issue with polygamy. I think it is clear that I am not interested in stringing together different topics brought up in an ancient near eastern view of sexuality. Is there really an issue with polygamy in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America? I don’t think the opponents of gay marriage are serious about being literal with the Biblical evidence. Polygamy is the least of their issues on this topic. I believe that bringing up Polygamy is merely a very effective apologetical argument of misdirection against gay marriage, a shell game against dealing with the issue of civil and liturgical rights of homosexuals in the church directly. Who is to say that if gays are allowed to marry there wont be bride prices, that our young daughters will be made to sleep with aging kings? These are Biblical as well, but are not seriously a part of the ecclesial discourse on this subject.

Second, I do not believe that women have found full equality and if they have come close it has been a relatively recent historical development. I don’t think anyone would seriously think that heterosexual marriage has been the great equalizer of the history of humankind. Women in marriage are equated with cattle in the Old Testament. No, I don’t consider this to render the other gender irrelevant and would need to know your definition of relevancy to agree or disagree. Maybe I am misunderstanding, but I find this argument to be a little strange.

I feel that it is important to be frank in these discussions so that there is no ambiguity. Good luck on your meetings with this important GA committee. I obviously believe that marriage should be available for both homosexual couples as well as heterosexual couples, but I do know that there will be plenty in my own camp who will strongly disagree with me. Your work will remain in my prayers.

Comment by pastorofdisaster

Polygamy is a real issue today and not merely a “near eastern view of sexuality” ~ it is still practiced today in most Islamic countries, Africa, as well as in certain communities. In fact, right at the heels of legalizing same-sex marriage, polygamists are already filing law suits demanding same equal rights to marriage.

What I was trying to say is that if we didn’t define marriage, it would come to mean nothing and anything! I am dead serious about my question because I’d really like to know on what moral ground would we have the right to say that polygamy or polyandry is wrong or that marriage should be reserved for just two people ~ once the floodgate is open, you lose your right to pick and choose who you want to include or exclude!

What I meant by my second question has to do with the fact that it takes a male and a female to procreate (to complement one another) which is the great equalizer and not about the unfortunate (and sinful) practice of sex discrimination.

I’m indeed being very frank and respectful in my approach to bringing about dialog and discussion. You may dismiss these questions all you want, but if you’re sincere in trying to find the truth, you’d need to eventually address them.

Comment by Bill Teng


You keep combining two separate issues. Polygamists filing suits demanding same equal rights to marriage is not part of my concern in a ecclesial forum. Either keep the discussion to the church or to the state, do not co-mingle them. No one that I know of is espousing polygamy in the Presbyterian Church (Unless evangelicals are deciding to be ultra literal). I also think that the “floodgate” argument is another slippery slope apologetical approach to the argument. It sounds frightening and scary as an argument, but is not reality. Plus, I do not believe it is germane to the issue at hand. Unless, polygamists are clamoring to be married in the Presbyterian Church. Of course you may know something that I do not. So, no I do not think that it is something that I must answer. It sounds like an evangelical problem (I am not a literalist).

Plus, we will be defining the parameters of marriage if we allow for homosexuals to be married. There have been historically same sex relationships that have been recognized in church history without controversy. Polygamy, not so much. I am not muslim so I will not defend or explain their particular history. I do not live in Africa and will let the Conservative Anglicans who have decided to be under African bishops that approve polygamy and oppose homosexuality sort that out. I will let the courts sort out the secular polygamist cases that filter through the U.S. court systems.

I don’t think that anyone is asking that the content of the monogymous relationships in a marriage change. It would be the fidelity and chastity of two humans who are entering into a covenantal relationship validated by their worshipping community. I think that is a pretty clear understanding of marriage (not anything goes). For many it really has to do with the sex act. Will those acts that are being done by two committed adults in a committed relationship be validated as a marital act or defined as sin no matter what the vows that each individual has taken to each other.

I think your argument for complimentary sex roles speaks for itself. Equal with different roles is what I heard all my life in the Evangelical world. Not really equal by any definition. Plus, I am a bit uncomfortable having procreation being the center of a couple’s understanding. Too many who are infertile to take this seriously. I guess that since I believe in total equality I no longer ascribe to that complimentary theology of my childhood.

Comment by pastorofdisaster

I’m concerned that you keep labeling me as “evangelical” and so I must be a “literalist” and I don’t think it’s really helpful or productive for us to have this conversation any longer ~ My sincerest regrets!

Comment by Bill Teng

I am sorry I thought that you were a self-affirmed evangelical. If you are not I am sorry to label you as one. I do not have a problem if you are. l certainly do not think you are a literalist. I think that is impossible on this subject as I stated above. But if I hurt your feelings or you are offended by my responses I sincerely apologize and ask your forgiveness. I have had intermittent internet and have been trying to get these responses in while I have limited access.

I do think that complimentary views of sexual roles in our context are usually considered reformed evangelical though. I was making a distinction about the fact that I no longer espouse that theology.

Comment by pastorofdisaster

The trouble with the procreative argument goes beyond infertility to age, minimizing the value of commitments between older couples who are post-fertile. Really, using the Bible as any sort of model for marriage opens up huge cans of worms of all shapes and sizes, doesn’t it?

Comment by Songbird


I agree.

Comment by pastorofdisaster

No, I’m not upset or offended, Brian, just saddened ~ because of your dismissive tone! I am a proud evangelical but not a conservative and certainly not a literalist (I was heartened to see Mark Achtemeier started his comments to a Senate committee last week with the statement, “I come before you as an Evangelical Christian”).

You may not know this but I have a gay uncle who has been with the same partner for over 40 years and I love them both, and that my wife and I have been married over 22 years and we don’t have any children of our own. And so when I made my statements, they’re not for arguments’ sakes but about an attempt to understand the truth.

Dueling emails obviously are not the ideal forum for this conversation and I’d love to sit down with you sometime (as former CMAers) over coffee (or a beer) and have a chat. Thanks.

Comment by Bill Teng

I agree about the format not being ideal for debate. Nor was my post intended for debate, it was a sermon to explain to my congregation why I had signed a particular document. I also realize that my comments came across as overly dismissive, for that I am very sorry. Sunday is not a good day to answer anything on my part. Also, as I said I was desperately trying to answer you in between dropped signals. My internet has been down at work and at home for more periods than it has worked. I literally had a 5-10 minute window to answer. Prudence would have dictated that I waited until the problem was fixed (and it has). Since you are not the first to raise this criticism of my responses I do not want you to think that I shirk my responsibility. Internet problems is not a good excuse for being rude, so forgive me.

I still do not think that Polygamy is a credible issue in our context. It may be trouble for some literalist evangelicals (of which you are obviously not included). Yet, if you are not a literalist, I do not exactly see the problem. It seems we both oppose this in civil and cultural forums. I just do not see it being an issue in the PC (USA).

I am glad to know your context and struggle. Carol and I have been married for 16 years and our views on this issue have obviously shifted dramatically. Many evangelicals are shifting radically on this issue i.e. Richard Cizick.

On the second issue I think face to face would be a much better forum, because as I stated earlier I am not sure that I am understanding what you are saying. From my end it sounds strange, which almost confirms that I do not fully understand what you are trying to communicate.

I would love to get together with you over coffee (will have to save the beer for Carol). We will be leaving for New Zealand on thursday, but when we get back I think it would be great to chat.

Comment by pastorofdisaster

Actually Richard Cizik and I share the same sentiment in that I’d support same-sex civil union but not marriage.

I’m envious that you’re going to NZ ~ one of the places that my wife and I have been talking about going for a looong time. Have a great time and call me when you get back.

Blessings, Bill

Comment by Bill Teng


I appreciate your commitment to the struggle for marriage equality. It seems that more pastors (myself included when I was serving) would do well be follow your lead and be honest about our feelings about a host of issues, gay marriage/ordination perhaps being the most important.

I especially appreciate your not making a distinction between being pro-civil unions but not gay marriage. It seems to argue from that perspective is to presume that a union between two members of the same sex that has lasted 40 years is somehow less holy than a marriage between members of the opposite sex and that seems incredibly arrogant.

Also, you are right when you suggest that trying to piece together an ethic of marriage from the Bible is a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack. I like your read on David and Jonathan and the “bi-sexual” relationship they shared.

Anyways, just a couple of thoughts I had after reading your sermon and the subsequent comments. Don’t feel like you need to respond if you are about to head to New Zealand, just say hello to Frodo for me.



Comment by Jamie McLeod

Since we’re having a discussion here ….

I live in NJ. We’ve tried same-sex civil unions. They were created to be identical under the law to heterosexual marriages (with the exception of their definitional aspects). Civil unions are supposed to have the same rights as marriages.

It hasn’t worked. Civil unioned couples continue to have their rights denied. Some of those denials are due to an appeal to federal law, which does not recognize civil unions – this is particularly true in health coverage. Other denials are due to innocent or willful ignorance of the new laws – people are getting deined access to their civil union spouses in hospitals.

Because these civil unions lack the name “marriage”, people are being denied the rights given to them by the law simply because the policies and contracts related to government and institutional services use the term “marriage”.

I would hope that the committee will take NJ’s example into account. Here is the report of the state team assigned to study the issue:

Comment by Mark

Thanks Mark.

Sorry to reply so late. Haven’t had internet for three days in the New Zealand Bush.

Comment by pastorofdisaster

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