Posted by: frroberts | October 15, 2017

The New Testament and Same-Sex Marriage

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)


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