Talking to Students about Homosexual Marriage

Homosexuality has been around for a long time. It is mentioned in the Bible at least as far back as the time of Abraham (Gen. 19:4–5) and perhaps even the time of Noah (Gen. 9:24).1 The Bible consistently condemns such activity.2 For most of history, homosexual activity has continued, but in secret and under general social condemnation, with occasional outbursts of brazenness. Since about 1970,3 however, the gay-rights movement has been unapologetic in its desire for public acceptance of homosexuality.4 The movement has framed the question as primarily a civil-rights issue, opposing the discrimination that moral opposition to homosexuality usually entails.5 This activity has led to a number of changes in the law, forbidding discrimination against homosexuals in various venues.6

Gay-rights groups argue, however, that the removal of discrimination against homosexuals will not be complete until homosexual couples have equal access to all rights and privileges of heterosexual couples. For several years now, this principle has focused on the extension of marriage rights to homosexuals.7 In 2003 the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the state’s constitution forbade the withholding of marriage rights from homosexuals if such rights were extended to heterosexuals.8 Shortly thereafter, the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, announced that his city would begin issuing marriage licenses to gay couples despite California’s specific laws to the contrary.9 These two events brought the issue of gay marriage to the forefront of social issues in the United States.

In Christendom most loosely defined, there is both great support for gay marriage10 and great opposition to it.11 Among conservatives, opposition to homosexuality, and consequently to homosexual marriage, is virtually unbroken.12 Perhaps surprisingly, however, conservatives are not necessarily in agreement about what to do about homosexual marriages as a matter of public policy. The different positions spring from differing views about the role of government in society.

Most conservatives hold one of three positions on the question of the government’s responsibility on moral issues. The first is Christian Reconstructionism, or Theonomy.13 This view, which is fairly common among Reformed (Calvinist) groups, springs from postmillennialism, the idea that the church will create the kingdom God on earth, after which Christ will return to take His throne.14 In this view, Christians should exercise as much control as possible over the governments of the world, eventually15 gaining such influence that the laws of God are put into place over the entire world.16 Knowingly or unknowingly, many activists in the so-called "Religious Right" are motivated by this philosophy, which they view as an extension of Jesus’ teaching that His people are to be salt and light in the world (Matt. 5:13–16).17

A Second view is the "Divine Right of Kings" approach, modified slightly to fit a more democratic age. This view, which springs from Romans 13, holds that God places rulers, good and evil, in power for His own purposes and that they are to be obeyed unless they issue laws that require the believer to violate a clear command of Scripture.18 Paul describes the role of government as to "execute wrath on him that doeth evil" (Rom. 13:4). There is disagreement among proponents of this position as to how far government should go in "enforcing morality." Most would agree on laws against murder and rape, for example, and on laws to enforce public order (such as traffic laws). Many would hold, however, that while the state may regulate, say, drug use, and should be obeyed when it does, it does not necessarily have to address such matters legally.

A third view is commonly called libertarianism. Under this philosophy, a state governs best that governs least. It has a right to act only with reference to the most basic needs of its citizens, specifically the need for protection from foreign invasion and domestic crime—and this latter is defined only as acts that violate the basic rights of the citizen, such as murder, rape, and theft. Libertarians generally hold that a person’s actions should not be illegal unless they directly interfere with the basic rights of a fellow citizen. Most libertarians would argue, for example, that private recreational drug use should be legal—though, of course, harm caused while driving under the influence should be atoned for.

Even though a theological conservative is almost certainly opposed to homosexuality on moral grounds, then, he may not necessarily be in favor of government restriction on homosexual marriage. His approach to the gay marriage issue will be driven by his philosophy on the appropriate role of government. The theonomist will argue that the state must enforce God’s condemnation of all homosexual activity, and so, of course, gay marriage is out of the question. A member of the "divine right" school will probably (but not necessarily) favor government restriction of homosexual activity on the basis of the state’s obligation to punish evil and reward good. A libertarian will want to "keep the government out of the bedroom" and perhaps will not even object to gay marriage in principle, so long as the state does not use its power to require dissenting citizens to voice agreement with what they view as a deviant lifestyle.

Beyond these philosophical presuppositions, there are a great many arguments both for and against gay marriage.19 Some of the most common against the policy include the following:20

  1. It will harm the seriousness and sanctity of the marriage relationship, which in turn will undercut social stability.
  2. It will start the culture down a "slippery slope" toward chaos, with the state eventually legalizing and protecting pedophilia, bestiality, polygamy, and other deeply destabilizing practices.21
  3. It will violate the religious rights of citizens who see homosexuality as a moral evil by requiring them to extend recognition to homosexual couples.22
  4. It violates the primary purpose of marriage, which is procreation.

As might be expected, gay activists have proposed counterarguments against each of these and more.23

Classroom analysis of this issue should attempt to address the more difficult issues in this controversy and to wrestle with the arguments of the proponents of gay marriage in a way that is honest and biblical. The lines of thought and sources provided here should help you do that.


Dan Olinger teaches Bible and theology at Bob Jones University and Seminary.


1This passage is appropriately vague about the specific nature of Ham’s sin, and all interpretations involve considerable speculation. Perhaps Ham’s only infraction was seeing his father naked and demonstrating disrespect by speaking condescendingly about it to his brothers. Some suggest, however, that if this is the case, the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime. It is also worth noting that the phrase "to see [or uncover] [someone’s] nakedness" is often in the Bible a euphemism for sexual activity (e.g. Lev. 20:17). Yet similar wording is used in v. 23 of this same passage in a clearly literal sense. The suggestion of homosexual activity is a decidedly minority view. Well-trained scholars, both conservative (Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17 in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament [Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1990], 322–23) and liberal (Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis [Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1964], II, 150–53), have argued against it. For a thorough and well-documented discussion of the various interpretations of this passage, see Allen P. Ross, "The Curse of Canaan," Bibliotheca Sacra, 137 (July–September 1980), 229–30.

2See, for example, Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Deut. 23:17; Rom. 1:26–27;I Cor. 6:9–11; and I Tim. 1:10. In recent years gay activists have disputed the clarity of these passages, suggesting, for example, that they condemn homosexual lust (as the Bible also condemns heterosexual lust), not all homosexual activity. OT passages are commonly explained away as part of the archaic Mosaic Law. See, for example, http://www.religioustolerance.org/hom_bibl.htm; http://www.soulforce.org/article/homosexuality-bible. But these arguments are hermeneutically extremely weak, more eisegetical than exegetical. See careful discussions in Greg L. Bahnsen, Homosexuality: A Biblical View (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978); Joe Dallas, A Strong Delusion: Confronting the Gay Christian Movement (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1996); John W. Drakeford, A Christian View of Homosexuality (Nashville: Broadman, 1977); Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001); Kenneth O. Gangel, The Gospel and the Gay (Nashville: Nelson, 1978); James R. White and Jeffrey D. Niell, The Same Sex Controversy: Defending and Clarifying the Bible’s Message About Homosexuality (Minneapolis: Bethany, 2002); Don Williams, The Bond That Breaks: Will the Homosexual Split the Church? (Los Angeles: BIM, 1978); and Donald J. Wold, Out of Order: Homosexuality in the Bible and the Ancient Near East (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998).

3On June 27, 1969, a series of riots broke out against the NYPD outside a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village, New York. The gay rights movement sees the Stonewall riots as a key formative event.

4 Key organizations fronting the movement include the Human Rights Campaign (www.hrc.org), the American Civil Liberties Union (www.aclu.org), Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (www.glaad.org), National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (www.ngltf.org), and Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (www.pflag.org). Perhaps the most well-known aggressive and radical gay rights group, Act Up (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), has lost considerable influence since the late 1990s. The New York chapter maintains a website (www.actupny.org).

5 Some more traditional civil-rights activists have expressed aversion to the gay-rights movement’s "co-opting" of the civil rights theme. See, for example, http://www.washingtontimes.com/national/20040517-111615-5431r.htm.

6As of press time there is no federal law specifically prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals as such. Gay-rights activists do argue for protection based on broader wording in federal law, specifically Title 5, Section 2302 of the U.S. Code: "Any employee who has authority to take, direct others to take, recommend, or approve any personnel action, shall not, with respect to such authority . . . discriminate for or against any employee or applicant for employment on the basis of conduct which does not adversely affect the performance of the employee or applicant or the performance of others" (subsection b.10; the complete U.S. Code is available online at http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/#SECTIONS). There are a number of specific state and local statutes prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals. See a thorough listing at http://www.hrc.org/ under the link to "Laws & Elections | State."

7Perhaps one of the earliest essays promoting this idea came from Andrew Sullivan, a British immigrant to the United States, former editor of The New Republic, self-described political conservative, Roman Catholic, and gay activist. See his essay arguing for gay marriage, originally published in The New Republic in 1989, at https://newrepublic.com/article/79054/here-comes-the-groom.

8The complete text of the decision is available online at http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=ma&vol=sjcslip/sjcNov03c&invol=1.

9The text of Newsom’s letter to the clerk of court ordering this action is available online at http://news.findlaw.com/hdocs/docs/glrts/sfmayor21004ltr.html. Newsom argued that the equal-protection clause of the California Constitution trumped specific state law forbidding homosexual marriage. For further discussion of those laws, see the California Attorney General’s case filed against Newsom in the California Supreme Court (http://appellatecases.courtinfo.ca.gov/search/mainCaseScreen.cfm?dist=0&doc_id=312005&rc=1) and the accompanying amicus brief filed by the Campaign for California Families (http://www.lc.org/attachments/Amicus_Brief_Lockyer.pdf).

10 Most of the mainline denominations as well as liberal religious groups, such as the Unitarian-Universalist Association, have many active members in good standing who reject the authority of Scripture and consequently see no reason to oppose homosexual behavior or homosexual marriage. Though the conservative wing of the United Methodist Church has prevented passage of resolutions endorsing homosexuality, a great many UMC clergy favor such endorsement (http://www.umc.org/site/c.lwL4KnN1LtH/b.3989587/k.636A/General_Conference_Issues.htm, under the heading "Sexuality"). A similar situation exists in the Presbyterian Church (USA) http://www.pcusa.org/101/101-homosexual.htm). On the other hand, the Unitarians are not divided on the issue (http://www.uua.org/lgbtq/witness/199573.shtml). A useful general resource, though dated, is J. Gordon Melton, ed., The Churches Speak on Homosexuality: Official Statements from Religious Bodies and Ecumenical Organizations (Detroit: Gale Research, 1991).

11The Roman Catholic Church famously opposes homosexuality (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19861001_homosexual-persons_en.html), as do most conservative Protestant groups, such as the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (http://www.lcms.org/graphics/assets/media/CIC/minhomfam.pdf), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (http://opc.org/GA/homosexuality.html), the Evangelical Methodist Church (http://www.emchurch.org/resolution-concerning-homosexuality/), and the Southern Baptist Convention (http://www.baptist2baptist.net/Issues/Marriage/default.asp). Fundamentalist groups are also, not surprisingly, in opposition.

12Andrew Sullivan is perhaps the most well-known exception, though he is by no means alone—and many conservatives question his conservative bona fides. See note 7 above. For another significant dissenting view, see Letha Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Molenkott, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978). For a thorough discussion of the range of views within self-proclaimed Christianity, see William Dudley, ed., Homosexuality: Opposing Viewpoints (San Diego: Greenhaven, 1993) and Lawrence Robert Holben, What Christians Think about Homosexuality: Six Representative Viewpoints (North Richland Hills, TX: Bibal Press, 1999).

13A leading spokesman for this position was Rousas Rushdoony, whose organization, the Chalcedon Foundation (www.chalcedon.edu),continues since his recent death.

14See http://reformed-theology.org/html/books/five_points/chapter4.htm for a description of postmillennialism by an adherent.

15Postmillennialists draw support for their position from the biblical "Kingdom Parables" (Matt. 13), several of which (mustard seed, leaven) speak of the kingdom as growing slowly but certainly.

16Rushdoony’s magnum opus, The Institutes of Biblical Law, constitutes his attempt to lay out a biblical pattern for what the laws of the world should be under such a "representative theocracy."

17This despite the fact that most activists in the Religious Right are in fact premillennialists.

18The classic biblical illustration of proper civil disobedience is in Acts 4, where Peter refuses an order by the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin) to cease preaching the gospel (vv. 19-20).

19See the following website: http://www.hawaiireporter.com/bad-arguments-for-gay-marriage.

20For these and other arguments, see http://www.citizenlink.org/FOSI/homosexuality/maf/A000004753.cfm; hhttp://famguardian.org/subjects/SexualImmorality/Homosexuality/TheDeceitOfGayMarriage.htm; Charles A. Donovan, ed., In Defense of Marriage: Why Same-Sex Unions Miss the Mark (Washington: Family Research Council, 1996).

21See one gay activist’s response to this argument at http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2004/05/slippery_slop.html.

22Specific examples include landlords who might be forced to rent apartments to homosexual couples. It’s worth noting, of course, that legally recognizing gay marriage will not be the determining factor in this problem, since unmarried homosexual couples might well put a landlord into a similar situation today.

23See, for example, http://atheism.about.com/library/FAQs/phil/blphil_eth_gaym.htm; http://invader.blogs.com/main/2004/03/the_nonargument.html; William N. Eskridge, The Case for Same-Sex Marriage: From Sexual Liberty to Civilized Commitment (New York: Free Press, 1996).

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 Updated October 21, 2015.

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