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Articles of Faith: Biblical Values for American Families

Date: 
May 16, 2005

by Reverend Jay Emerson Johnson, Ph.D.

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May 17 marks the first anniversary of Massachusetts offering equal marriage benefits to same-sex couples. For those of us who believe in those rights, and the more than 5,000 same-sex couples that have been married, it is a moment for reflection and celebration. Our joy, however, is mixed with a sense of loss, because 14 states have since passed measures banning legal recognition of same-sex relationships.

Religious opponents of equal marriage frequently use the Bible for justification of their stance. In March, the Southern Baptist Convention released the Nashville Declaration on Same-Sex Marriage, in which it based its opposition to equality on "the biblical teaching that God designed marriage as a lifetime union of one man and one woman." For biblical literalists, they don't know much about the Bible. Biblical families and American families share the word "family" in common, but not much more. But if we look beyond the radically different structure of Biblical marriage, modern families can still find timeless values in the scriptures to guide them.

First, it's important to recognize that the most common marriage pattern in the Bible is polygamy: not a union of one man and one woman, but a union of one man and as many women as he could afford to keep (see Solomon, and his 700 wives and 300 concubines). In the Christian scriptures, the two primary figures, Jesus and the Apostle Paul, are both unmarried and childless. Based on the model of Jesus and his disciples, the early church developed a radical model of family that broke with ancient kinship patterns in favor of a religious — and nonbiological — church family.

"Biblical family values" present just as many problems as "biblical families." Abraham's use of his slave, Hagar, to sire a child, and his subsequent banishment of her and the child to the wilderness (Genesis 21:14) would be considered unspeakably callous by today's standards. Yet according to the family values of his day, Abraham was acting completely within his rights. When Jacob steals his brother Esau's birthright, the Bible describes it not simply as an act of brotherly betrayal but as a necessary part of God's will for God's people (Genesis 27). Even more severe is Jephthah's sacrifice of his own daughter to fulfill the terms of a foolish vow (Judges 11:29-40) or Onan being put to death for refusing to impregnate his late brother's wife (Genesis 38:9). Parents who cover their children's eyes during Desperate Housewives, might be shocked to discover what lurid tales of betrayal, rape, incest, and adultery — all transpiring within traditional biblical families — lurk between the covers of their family Bible.

Not every biblical family relationship is as dysfunctional as these examples. But when biblical figures act virtuously, they often do so outside the bounds of "traditional family." The story of Ruth and Naomi is an account of same-sex devotion often read, ironically, during heterosexual marriage ceremonies (Ruth 1:16). David and Jonathan's relationship is presented with a tenderness lacking in most biblical marriages: David admits that his love for his friend "surpassed the love of women" (2 Samuel 1:26). In the Gospels, when Jesus is asked about his own family, he replies with an answer that was as radical for his day as it is now: "Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother" (Matthew 12:48-50).

The structures of biblical families are rooted in ancient cultural practices far removed from the sensibilities of Western society; the authors of the Bible would scarcely recognize the partnership of equals that marks a contemporary American marriage. But this doesn't mean we should abandon the Bible as a guide to family values. As the mutable institution of marriage evolves with shifting cultural norms, the Bible continually calls us back to what truly matters in human relationships. St. Paul wrote about these values, calling them the "fruit of the spirit": "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22). Surely these are biblical values every family would embrace. According to Paul, "love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude...It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). Even when knowledge and human institutions fail, these values, Paul says, remain constant: faith, hope and love. The greatest of these three, Paul concludes, is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Societal definitions of marriage and family will inevitably change over the course of history. It's clear that what is important in the Bible is not a family structure based on biology or even heterosexuality, but the quality of love exhibited in the relationships. And if same-sex couples exhibit such spiritual values, they deserve the legal protection and civil recognition of marriage. If we have any intention of preserving marriage or protecting families, we must base our support on values that are unchangeable: values such as faith, hope, and love. But the greatest among these — whether the couple is same-sex or heterosexual — is love.

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The Rev. Jay Emerson Johnson, Ph.D., a member of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Religious Leadership Roundtable, is an Episcopal priest and the programming and development director for the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California (www.clgs.org).


Biblical Values for American Families...
More from Members and Friends of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's National Religious Leadership Roundtable

Marriage is not a right, but a privilege-granting machine that favors those who are lucky in love by making them even luckier in the business of daily life. Connecting rights to marriage is, in my view, an outmoded approach to the common good. We need to admit that many of our religious traditions have not strayed far from their roots when it comes to marriage as a commodity exchange. Religious leaders need to put a wholesale reexamination of marriage on the agenda, leaving aside the same-sex distraction in order to think anew about how we envision a just society.

—Mary Hunt, Ph.D., Co-director of Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER), Silver Spring, MD.

Let us remember that the marriage debate here in the United States is not new. It began when African American slaves were forbidden to marry so they "jumped over the broom" — an African American tradition — in front of their slave masters to consecrate their nuptials. And then a century later the debate concerned interracial marriages between African Americans and white Americans. This history teaches us that marriage is a matter of the heart. Who marries whom is neither the business of church nor the state but only that of the two parties involved.

—Reverend Irene Monroe, Activist, Religion Columnist, Harvard Ph.D. Candidate, Cambridge, MA

In the final analysis, a biblical ethic for marriage does not come from ancient cultural practices, which change and evolve through time, but from the biblical values for all relationships, which are by their nature, timeless. Such an ethic calls those who would marry to a life-long, committed relationship which loves, healthy, responsible, just and full of integrity. Any two adults, gay or straight, who choose to live in relationship according to these values, should be free to marry and receive the church's blessing. And all such couples, gay or straight, should be able to access all the rights, benefits and responsibilities civil society provides to support and sustain this most basic of family settings.

— Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer, Minister for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Ministries, United Church of Christ, Cleveland, OH

To rely only on biblical scriptures for defining marriage would not only require that we pick among contradictory passages but also that we declare the Holy Spirit has had nothing to say to humankind about marriage in the last 2000 years. That would truly be blasphemy and totally contrary to the Lutheran doctrine of the Living Word of God."

— Bob Gibeling, Outreach Director, Atlanta Interfaith AIDS Network, Atlanta, GA

LGBT people often serve society by fulfilling certain spiritual roles and functions. In many ways, we propel society's forward movement and help it determine its limits. The issue of marriage today is a perfect example of this. Just by virtue of being who we are and wanting to be included in this institution, we are forcing society-at-large to re-evaluate the meaning of marriage. In forcing society to ask the question, "What is marriage for and what does it mean to be married?" LGBT people serve the greater good for everyone. For, even if painful and difficult, arriving at the truth is always good.

— Christian de la Huerta, Founder, Q-Spirit, author of Coming Out Spiritually, San Rafael, CA

I am reminded of Walter Wink's wisdom. He has said that the Bible does not have one sexual ethic, but does a have single love ethic. It is to this ethic of love rooted in justice that we are called to turn. There we discover that the gender of the couple is not an important criterion. Rather it is the love their union brings, embodies, and spreads that is the statement of its worth.

— Rebecca Voelkel, National Coordinator, United Church of Christ Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns, Minneapolis, MN.

To deny same-gender loving couples the protections, accountability and acceptance of their sacred commitment to one another is to do gross injustice to the Gospel call of hospitality. Indeed, Reverend Johnson is correct when he asserts that the greatest of these is love. To those who would disagree, they might be wise to heed the words of Scripture in I John 4: 7: "Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God."

— Reverend Steven Baines, Gay and Lesbian Affirming Disciples, Washington D.C.

I was baptized in our Lutheran church by my uncle who was my pastor. Our family has been Lutheran for generations. I want to be married in the church of my childhood, in the church that I was raised to love and call my own. For me, marriage is not just about the protections and benefits that come with the legal contract of civil marriage, it is also about God's blessing on two people in a life-long cherished relationship. I long for the day all churches understand the importance of that sacred blessing.

— Jacob Reitan, Director of Youth and Young Adults, Soulforce, Lynchburg, VA

The religious right wing does not have a monopoly on what is moral, just and good. God and the Bible do not belong exclusively to them. The struggle for same-sex couples to have the same rights, privileges and responsibilities of marriage as every other American is a fight for justice. The Bible says we are all created in God's image — not only straight, not only male, not only white people. All of us. Whether or not a relationship is sacred and sanctified should be based on the nature of the relationship — not on the sexual orientation or gender identity of the partners. In the face of the religious right-wing bigotry, our families are living proof that the spiritual resources of religion are not the exclusive preserve of one statement of society. Encouraging and imposing bigotry by denying the full rights of marriage while simultaneously vilifying GLBT people has made the term "Axis of Evil" sadly applicable to our own country.

— Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York City, NY

As a Friends organization, we acknowledge the guidance of the Bible, and we also believe in God's continuing revelation, both of which have given us a sexual ethic of love and justice. How will sexual expression and the integrity of marriage be judged? 'By their fruits you shall know them" (Mt 7:20). Does this relationship create an environment of love and justice? Does it further the creation of loving and sustaining community? Loving relationships stand on the Friends testimony of equality. We are called to follow the leadings of the spirit: to love each other and act responsibly.

— Kay Whitlock, National Representative for LGBT Issues, American Friends Service Committee, Missoula, MT

Unfortunately Christianity and Biblical literalists don’t have a corner in the market of prejudice against gays, let alone the issue of gay marriage. There are Hindus and Muslims and Orthodox Jews, among others, who believe that being gay and religious is mutually exclusive. Is it so hard to see that at the core of all religions is a profound spirituality that takes many forms, and at the core of all human beings is a great hunger for spirituality and love that takes many forms? We are all made in God's image and God is love. Isn't it a beautiful thing to be able to honor love that has found another love, even if it involves two people of the same sex?

I say, love and let love.

— Dhumavati, Kashi Ashram, Sebastian, FL

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The mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is to build the political power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from the ground up. We do this by training activists, organizing broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation, and by building the organizational capacity of our movement. Our Policy Institute, the movement’s premier think tank, provides research and policy analysis to support the struggle for complete equality and to counter right-wing lies. As part of a broader social justice movement, we work to create a nation that respects the diversity of human expression and identity and creates opportunity for all. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., we also have offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Cambridge.