I have re-read N.T. Wright’s book on Christian morality, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters at least a half-dozen times. In it, Wright, an Anglican bishop, gives a Biblical account of virtue ethics. Wright makes several interesting observations that touch on the compatibility of same sex-marriage with Christian belief:
(1) Chastity, Humility, Charity and Patience are virtues that were unknown before Christianity came on the scene. The pre-Christian world would not have seen them as positive things.
(2) To some extent, Christians inherited chastity from the Jews, who rejected all sexual activity outside of a marriage between a man and woman as dehumanizing. The New Testament is very clear that extra-marital sex is incongruent with being a follower of Jesus (cf. Mt. 5:28, Acts 15:20, 1 Cor. 6:9-18, Gal. 5:19, Eph. 5:3-5, Col. 3:5, 1 Th. 4:3, Heb. 13:4, Rev. 21:8). Christians add two things to the Jewish sexual ethic: a prohibition of divorce and remarriage (cf. Lk. 16:18, Mk. 10:2-12, 1 Cor. 7:11-16) and an exultation of the vocation to celibacy (Mt. 19:10-12, Lk. 18:28-30).
(3) In the ancient world stable sexual relationships between members of the same-sex were likely as common as they are today, although taking different forms. The Greek philosopher Plato spoke about such relations in his Symposium. Jews in 1st century Palestine knew of these arrangements and rejected them.
(4) While most people in the Roman world married, this did not imply that they intended to be exclusively faithful to their partner. For the pagans, marriage did not preclude the possibility of extra-marital liaisons.
Wright’s conclusion is that Jesus’ strict sexual ethic in the Sermon on the Mount and with regard to divorce and remarriage is entirely consistent with Paul’s strong negative words about homosexual acts elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Rom. 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9-10, 1 Tm. 1:9-10).
But don’t miss Wright’s larger point. The New Testament does not give a set of rules to govern moral behavior but rather calls us to cultivate virtues that embody but go beyond norms for behavior. A chaste person keeps rules, but keeping rules will not make one a chaste person.
What will make a person who keeps the rules of the New Testament a chaste person then?
Wright would respond that the only way to become a chaste person is by becoming a virtuous person. For example, a proud person who obeys the New Testament sexual ethic would hardly have the virtue of chastity. For Wright, the virtues are holistic. This is not to say that it is all or nothing when it comes to Christian virtues. Rather it would be to say that the virtues interlock in such a way that authentic progress in one virtue is only possible by making progress (albeit unconscious) in the others.
Here are the New Testament virtues:
Faith, Hope and Love (theological virtues)
Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness,Gentleness, Self-control (the fruits of the Spirit)
Wisdom, Understanding, Right Judgment, Courage, Knowledge, Reverence, Fear of the Lord (the gifts of the Spirit)
Here are the relevant passages from Plato (424-348 B.C.)’s Symposium:
” Those [males] who are inspired by this love turn to the male, and delight in him who is the more valiant and intelligent nature; any one may recognise the pure enthusiasts in the very character of their attachments. For they love not boys, but intelligent beings whose reason is beginning to be developed, much about the time at which their beards begin to grow. And in choosing young men to be their companions, they mean to be faithful to them, and pass their whole life in company with them, not to take them in their inexperience, and deceive them, and play the fool with them, or run away from one to another of them. But the love of young boys should be forbidden by law, because their future is uncertain; they may turn out good or bad, either in body or soul, and much noble enthusiasm may be thrown away upon them; in this matter the good are a law to themselves, and the coarser sort of lovers ought to be restrained by force; as we restrain or attempt to restrain them from fixing their affections on women of free birth.”
“Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women; adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous women who lust after men: the women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments; the female companions are of this sort. But they who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being slices of the original man, they hang about men and embrace them, and they are themselves the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature. Some indeed assert that they are shameless, but this is not true; for they do not act thus from any want of shame, but because they are valiant and manly, and have a manly countenance, and they embrace that which is like them. And these when they grow up become our statesmen, and these only, which is a great proof of the truth of what I am saving. When they reach manhood they are lovers of youth, and are not naturally inclined to marry or beget children,–if at all, they do so only in obedience to the law; but they are satisfied if they may be allowed to live with one another unwedded; and such a nature is prone to love and ready to return love, always embracing that which is akin to him.”