Jesus on (Same-Sex) Marriage

June 19, 2012Chris Burkhardt

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There is no consensus as to what the purpose of marriage is. But whatever its purpose, it is political. Private friendships, romances, sexual partners, economic alliances, housemates and other relationships are sometimes subject to legal agreements of lease and contract. But more often they are informal and mutually beneficial arrangements. Marriage is all these relationships made public and explicit. It benefits from social recognition and acceptance in return for public accountability in ways that previously private (and often implicit) vows of commitment that create new families do not.

Marriage is how society — or its body of political representatives — controls the reproduction of society: who can legitimately rear children and inherit property. The state traditionally subsidizes favourable families and de-legitimizes (and sometimes criminalizes) unfavourable forms based on age, ethnicity, gender, consanguinity, number of spouses, or whatever other criteria creeps into the imagination of the masses and our masters as constituting a proper or “natural” union.

The twentieth century saw the end of so-called miscegenation laws; laws which were the result of a confused project to restrict the reproduction of American society based on ethnicity and skin color. For those who see through the distorted logic of racism, there remains no comprehensible reason to exclude families from social recognition based on arbitrary notions of “race” that too often grab hold of humanity’s haunted mind. Likewise it is no easy task for many of us to understand those who currently wish to restrict marriage based on gender.

President Obama recently evoked his Christianity in prompting his change of heart about same-sex marriage. Others have been known to appeal to Christianity to argue against same-sex marriage. In his 2003 argument for privatizing marriage, one commentator wrote of the gay marriage debate, “It’s going to get ugly. And then it’s going to get boring.”[1] Well, it’s gotten boring. Nay, beyond boring, it’s gotten frustratingly monotonous watching marginalized groups clamor for acceptance from their oppressors while all sides explain what Jesus would do.

I can think of one vaguely philosophic, though not very compelling, argument against abstract homosexuality. That is an argument from teleology: since men and women are endowed with some complementary bits, they are naturally meant to pair off. That argument not only assumes a binary gender, but to apply it to marriage is to presuppose that the sole purpose of marriage is sex and biological reproduction. Nobody takes that position.[2] Despite those apparent weaknesses, Jesus does use such a teleological argument against divorce in the accounts of Matthew and Mark:

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:3-6)

One great thing about Jesus’ responses to the Pharisees is that he often confounds them by intentionally quoting passages of the Old Testament out of context (there’s a lesson there about sacralizing a book). In Genesis (2:24), which Jesus is quoting, the reason men and women are compelled to unite as ‘one flesh’ is because Woman was originally made from Adam’s rib. It’s an explanation for marriage—or at least for sexual union. Jesus divorces (pun!) the explanation (the rib story) from the result (the drive to sexual union) and substitutes the less etiological gender binary of Genesis 1:27 (‘male and female He created them’) as an explanation.

In Genesis 2, God separates Woman from Adam, and later men and women rejoin themselves in sexual union. In Matthew 19, Jesus ignores the mythology and reverses this story: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Now it is God doing the joining and people doing the separating. I’ll give my high-level interpretation: Men and women are attracted to each other not because of some imaginative creation myth, but because that is the nature of mammals with their sexuality and whatnot. Society will reproduce itself both biologically and culturally.  — “Life finds a way,” as one chaos theorist put it.[3] Even well-meaning attempts at regulating reproduction by establishing legal institutions to control who can legitimately begin or dissolve a family aren’t a part of Jesus’ vision of society.

As usual the Pharisees don’t quite catch that Jesus just reversed their assumptions and they continue their line of legal questioning: “Oh yeah, smart guy? If God did not intend divorce, then why did Moses allow it?” (Matthew 19:7). Jesus responds the same way he did in the Sermon on the Mount, by replacing law with morality. Moses told you not to murder; I tell you not to be angry. Moses told you not to commit adultery; I tell you not to lust. Moses told you to keep your oaths; I tell you not to make oaths, simply say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Moses said an eye for an eye; I say give to those who steal from you. Moses said love your neighbor; I say love your enemy. Moses told you to be civilized about divorce; I tell you that divorce is tantamount to adultery (compare Matt. 5:31 and Matt. 19:8-9).

To his disciples, marriage without divorce essentially made marriage unworkable (“If this is the case, then it is neither profitable nor advisable to marry”). Jesus’ response was, “then don’t get married.” Actually he said that not everybody could accept the teaching, but some will renounce marriage “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

So, even though Jesus uses the limited gender-binary language of Genesis, his answer here can also be applied to the question of same-sex marriage: Don’t let legal institutions separate what God has joined. More generally, don’t let the state supplant your morality with its laws by dictating what kind of society you will produce and reproduce. I cannot see how gender similarities or differences play into that teaching.

Elsewhere Jesus took an even more explicit stance on marriage:

The Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”

Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” (Matthew 22:23-31)

Whatever literal resurrection the Sadducees had in mind which gave rise to paradoxes like the widow being married to all of her husbands in heaven, their vision was not the same as the one Jesus had been teaching in which “people will neither marry nor be given in marriage.” I don’t know what the hell he meant by “they will be like the angels in heaven,” but it’s clear that whatever the concerns of the Life that Jesus taught, marriage is not one of them. As such, I do not believe it is consistent for anyone to appeal to Jesus’ teachings to decide who should or should not be included in the legal institution of marriage, unless the answer is nobody. An appeal to Jesus in order to justify extending or denying the state privilege of marriage to certain populations requires ignoring the few things he is recorded as saying on the subject.

[1]                 Kinsley, Michael. “Abolish Marriage.” Slate. The Slate Group, July 2, 2003. Web. Accessed May 25, 2012. <>

[2]                 Many traditions, such as Catholicism, do place procreation as a primary purpose of marriage. The Second Vatican Council, for example, reemphasized that “the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown.” (Paul VI. Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes. 1965.)

[3]                 Okay, a fictional mathematician: Ian Malcolm from Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. In the motion picture adaptation, Dr. Malcom warns about the folly of trying to control the park’s population by cloning only female dinosaurs: “Life breaks free, expands to new territories, and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously … I’m simply saying that life finds a way.”


  • Leslie

    I do not know you and I do not mean to be harsh, but you should be aware of the impression you make when you write things like, “Well, it’s gotten boring. Nay, beyond boring, it’s gotten frustratingly monotonous watching marginalized groups clamor for acceptance from their oppressors….”

    I cannot imagine a person who is a member of a marginalized group saying it is boring and monotonous to watch their people rise up to fight discrimination. As the parent of a gay son, what is monotonous is hearing the same old excuses for continuing oppression while a majority of Americans refuse to even recognize it as oppression. What is frustrating is hearing the stories and the struggles of gay people and their families discounted again and again.

    Perhaps it’s hip to be bored, but your statement puts you on the side of the privileged, uninvolved bystander and it makes the rest of your post sound like a disembodied exercise in logic. I doubt that was your intention.

    • H H Brown

      Sometimes marginalized folks fight for justice and sometimes we fight for assimilation. The marriage equality struggle falls into the latter category. In our country, single people, regardless of orientation, are afforded fewer rights and privileges than married people. Ending state-sanctioned marriage and the tax breaks that come with that institution would be just. Queer folks fighting to be part of the institution that held us back looks like assimilation and is. I recommend reading Against Equality: Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage for a radical perspective on the marriage fight. This issue is more complex than the pro-gay or anti-gay stances politicians use to pit us against one another. The current conversation around this issue has gotten stale. I know I’m bored. But even more than that, I am disgusted with the queer community, my community, for acting like this battle is about anything more than comfort and conformity.

      • Nekeisha

        Hi HH…I would welcome hearing more from you about this. I see your point, appreciate it and am in agreement with you that the state having a role in marriage in the first place is the problem. In some ways, fighting to be recognized by the state actually reinforces their power by saying that 1) it is okay to vote on people’s humanity and 2) that the state as the decision-maker on “rights” (not only in giving them but in taking them away) is legitimate. However, being in a marriage relationship that was once both outlawed and deadly (interracial) I also wonder if what you are alluding could not be twisted and used in a repressive way? I am not sure how to articulate the question I am asking very well. I guess what I am getting at is that as long as there is a legal system aren’t there huge benefits to being recognized by it and wouldn’t some of those reasons actually go deeper than just wanting to fit in or be comfortable? My thinking might be pretty muddy on this, which is why I would like to hear more…Maybe you have a JRad submission brewing? :)

        • rusti

          The mainstreaming of gay issues has definitely reduced homophobia in one sense, but has in another sense taken the focus off of the structural homophobia that is inherent in patriarchal society. Marriage (gay or not) upholds patriarchy and heteronormativity. I can see your point Nekeisha that getting society’s “blessing” makes us a little safer, but i feel like it diverts the real conversations about sexuality, gender and relationships that need to be taking place.

        • H H Brown

          A submission might be in the works ;) I guess my frustration with this cause stems from my larger frustration with the gay community. In the 90s our folks stopped fighting for justice issues and started begging the government for military inclusion and marriage. I’m pining away for a gay liberation movement that I wasn’t old enough to witness…ya know, the bad old days.
          Knowing our history, I’m also aware that queer folks have made covenants with one another, formed families, and had beautiful lives that weren’t ruined by being denied marriage equality. I think the government’s sudden intrusion into unions that have rarely had any intuitions’ blessing is more frightening than those commitments being without legal recognition. I want to live into that world where the American legal system doesn’t exist and for me that means that I have to let God bind my partner and me and have faith that we will be provided for, that our future children will be protected. I’m stepping out in faith while being really intentional about my commitment. Queer folks have always had to do that. I don’t want to lose that necessary intentionality when the government makes it “easy” on us.
          But I would never insist that this is the right answer for all queer folks. There are lots of gay people who feel like they deserve government-sanctioned marriage. It’s their prerogative to struggle for that. But as a Christian whose allegiances are made to God and not the state, I’m more interested in seeing the church do right by queer folks. I want to hold the church accountable on this issue not the state.

          • J2P29910

            As a member of the Stonewall generation and having survived “the bad old days”, I too, often feel a bit alienated from what sometimes appears to be a preoccupation with domesticating our relationships (and ourselves)
            into what seems to be some sort of white bourgeoise normalcy.

            However having also lived through the worst of the AIDS epidemic and witnessing homophobic families reasserting their rights over their children with total disregard for the integrity of the most important relationship in that child’s life and having seen the financial and tax penalties that a surviving partner has to pay that a surviving spouse would never experience, I see it a little less ideologically and a little more pragmatically.

  • ChrisBurkhardt

    Hi Leslie,

    Thank you for your comment. You’re right, that’s not the impression I intended to make.

    To be clear, I do not find anybody’s struggle for dignity to be boring or unimportant. While I do find the debate over public policy and the two choices it offers — either privilege for some, or privilege for some and a very few more — to be monotonous, you are right that I’m writing from a theoretical (er, disembodied exercise in logic) rather than a practical position. In the real world, where marriage is a fact, there are actual people suffering under discriminatory policy who don’t always have the luxury of being so bored.

  • ChrisBurkhardt

    For another look at gender in Genesis 2, see Chelsea Collonge’s JR article “A Holy Queering Part Four”:

  • John T

    I find much of the pro-gay marriage perspective from Christians a little short sighted, if not hypocritical (I am not talking about Chris’s article, I agree with it). Too often gay liberation is presented as assimilation into the nuclear family norm and key issues of sexual oppression – for straight, gay or others – are swept under that carpet.

    The church’s sexual taboos have done serious psychological damage to many more straight people than gay people. Every single young person brought up in the church is made to feel guilty about their emerging sexuality whatever it is, including masturbation – either through direct condemnation or an embarrassed silence where support should be. Not all of them have been strong enough to rise above the guilt.

    As long as the church condemns or is silently uncomfortable about sex outside of marriage, be that gay or straight marriage, then it remains as a force of sexual oppression.

    The underlying psychology of the church equates sex with evil – something that must be repressed until it can be properly contained and regulated in marriage. It is this underlying psychology alone – a fear of sex – that determines so-called christian models of family and sexuality. Yet this fear of sex cannot be found in the bible.

    If we were to embrace a biblical model of marriage it would include polygamy and concubines – no apparent fear of sex there. The biblical adultery taboo is about crossing tribal structures, not sexual boundaries. Polygamy and concubines are not a ridiculous and irrelevant model for the contemporary world, many indigenous tribal people live this way today.

    However if we are to say that the shifts in time and culture makes the biblical model irrelevant to ourselves here and now, we can still look to the essence of the biblical model – its underlying purpose behind the specific cultural manifestation. What might that be?

    It seems to me, there are two ways the bible looks at marriage – one is as a metaphor of the covenant between God and Israel, and I won’t go into that here except to say that the bible describes theology by marriage, not marriage by theology i.e. the man does not represent God in the family but God is described as a husband – that is a partner of Israel.

    The other (which is the basis of the broader metaphor) biblical notion of marriage is it is a context for children – for the next generation.

    In a society without a state, as was biblical tribal society, a person does not find their place in society as a citizen or a participant in a democracy (peculiarly gentile concepts) but as a member of a family – an extended tribal family with tribal land rights and therefore a sense of belonging to place.

    There has been much feminist critique of biblical anthropology as a patriarchal inheritance structure. While this may to an extent be true, it is the marriage that determines the inheritance and the bride(s) must be of the appropriate tribe and her descendants are catered for. Concubines can come from anywhere outside the tribes of Israel but are included into the family structure and their children/descendants have full family rights (e.g. King David was descended from a concubine). Also the women’s law has not been included in the bible, but that too is another story.

    But the point is, the extended polygamous tribal marriage structure provides a sense of belonging, place and inheritance – for everyone, by birth, marriage or adoption. This it seems is the underlying biblical principle of marriage – the extended tribal family is the alternative to the imperial/colonial state (Egypt, Babylon, Greece and Rome).

    We all have children in our extended families (however we choose to define that) and therefore the responsibility for providing a sense of belonging, place and inheritance to the next generation is the responsibility of all of us, not just biological parents. Today, such matters should not be approached through the confined space of monogamous nuclear marriage, no matter what sexual practices occur within it.

  • Joel

    Good article. I would suggest that since the Sadducces did not believe in a literal or any kind of resurrection, they were being sarcastic and using sarcastically the very problem which would have been that of the Pharises, hence making the Pharisses AND Jesus look silly before the populous. As they did not, like the Pharisses or Jesus accept the Writings or the Prophets as Scripture, Jesus is is telling them they do not understand the Scriptures or what they were about either!

  • Symon Hill

    Thanks very much for this. I’m still reflecting on it. The most interesting part is, of course, your analysis of Jesus’ words. However, one phrase elsewhere in the article stood out for me: you refer to watching “marginalised groups clamour for acceptance from their oppressors”. This is a really important point. It challenged me to remember that I am struggling for human dignity and equality, not begging the powerful to make some limited concessions. We need to bear this in mind in the ways in which we act and campaign. Thank you!

    Symon Hill

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