Is orientation an Evangelical argument for same-sex marriage?

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Is orientation an Evangelical argument for same-sex marriage?

Wednesday, 18 October 2017  | Nigel Chapman


Right now in Australia we’re voting on same-sex marriage. Same-sex orientation is the heart of the Yes campaign, but many Evangelicals and Christian lobbyists ignore it in their advocacy – as we often do in our theology. When we don’t ignore it, something unexpected follows: we find a same-sex marriage between same-sex oriented partners does not match the moral reasons found in scripture for condemning same-sex relations. Arguments from nature and theology, as well as from consequences, are expected to support the biblical condemnations. However, their general nature raises the question of whether same-sex orientation is an obvious exception to even the best of our general norms. Without this presumption of immorality, same-sex marriage offers a better Evangelical response to same-sex orientation than our existing alternatives of mixed-orientation marriage and mandatory lifelong celibacy. Moreover, it matches the biblical ideal of marriage better than some marriages that God recognised in scripture – meaning God recognises it as marriage too. This comprehensively resolves the challenges that same-sex orientation has presented to Evangelical life and thought. It follows that same-sex oriented Evangelicals should fall in love and marry, and Evangelicals in general should celebrate this in society and in the church.

I’m a straight Evangelical. I grew up in country NSW, had a dramatic conversion experience on a farm as a teen, studied Computer Science, took up university ministry, worked professionally in IT, put myself through a Master of Divinity degree at one of the better Evangelical colleges, and spent eight years helping lead a new Baptist church in Darlinghurst in Sydney, statistically Australia’s gayest suburb. That was eye-opening. 

Photo: Upstairs meeting space at the former IMAGINE Surry Hills Baptist Church in Darlinghurst.

I know a man who once had electro-shock therapy for same-sex attraction. I’ve met one who was bashed and left in hospital for weeks for holding hands on a local street, whose parents then refused to visit him. A friend of friends took their own life. A missionary to a Muslim-majority region shared his same-sex orientation with his organisation, who dumped him almost instantly – as did his family – then circulated rumours to his colleagues and churches. In each of these events Christians responded badly by not knowing what to do with same-sex orientation. The difficulties are not always this dramatic, but they are ongoing, and we’re not good at publicly talking about this.

In Australia at the moment, we are voting on same-sex marriage. When I look at this debate with my experience of church in mind, I find it strange how rarely same-sex orientation is mentioned by the Christian ‘No’ campaign. Isn’t that the major reason anybody wants a same-sex marriage? But this also reflects how rarely orientation appears in Christian writing on same-sex marriage. Same-sex orientation is not well understood by many Christians, probably due to the trouble that we have discussing it. So I will start by saying what I mean by this term.

Understanding same-sex orientation

Same-sex orientation is the experience of growing up with attraction to the same sex instead of attraction to the opposite sex, not in addition to it (which is actually more common). It is exclusive and permanent. With apologies to the ranking Australian biblical scholar who once joked that all important theological truths should be expressed in TULIP acronyms, here is what people describe as their experience of same-sex orientation and what I will evaluate in this article:

Same-sex orientation

is a

Total inversion

of heterosexual desire,
whose occurrence is a

Universal phenomenon

in human societies,
which consists of

Loving and romantic
same-sex attraction

as well as sexual
that is


not chosen, and


not changeable.

Consider every time in your life that you’ve been conscious of romance or arousal. How many times would that be every day? For how many days? Think of all the names of the people who prompted these thoughts and feelings. Now imagine it was always caused by people of the same sex. How would you have handled that? Some Evangelicals reject orientation as simply the rationalisation of immoral ‘practices’. However, celibate Christian gays, who aren’t defending any ‘gay lifestyle’ at all, describe the same experience. For any readers not persuaded on this point, and unable to talk to someone with direct experience, try reading Wesley Hill. We need no theory about why this happens to some and not to others to acknowledge that it does happen to some.

How common is same-sex orientation? The Australian Study of Sex and Relationships (Richters et al., 2014) surveyed 20,000 Australians and found 1 in 65 people experience exclusive same-sex attraction, and that more again can be attracted to both sexes. So far as I have seen, this is representative of studies in the western world. This ratio means that more than 370,000 Australians and 110 million human beings in total are same-sex oriented. Writing Themselves In 3 (Hillier et al., 2010) surveyed 3,500 ‘same sex attracted and gender questioning young people’ in Australia, finding that most were conscious of this by the age of thirteen – younger than we might have guessed. We can’t predict it, so it happens randomly for all practical purposes. Our family members, friends, church members, church leaders and we ourselves were all just as likely to have been same-sex oriented. It’s not something we can ignore.

In this article I ask if same-sex orientation means that Christians who oppose same-sex marriage should actually support it. Say you believe that (1) same-sex relations are highly immoral in every case considered in scripture; (2) God’s ideal of marriage is only ever heterosexual in scripture, (3) sex outside of marriage is immoral in scripture, and (4) without minimising the need for diligence, education and humility, scripture is authoritative for Christians. For the record, I can sign my name to those four statements. But say you then you have to come to terms with same-sex orientation, if not for yourself then for others. I will argue that someone with normal Evangelical convictions on these matters can and should support same-sex marriage as a response to orientation – and not just in society but in our churches also. This means establishing that same-sex relations are not immoral for same-sex oriented Evangelicals in a same-sex marriage, and that God celebrates these as biblical marriages. Put more bluntly, God has things in hand, and marriage solves our problems. Of course, to many readers this will seem hilariously or tragically impossible. I invite your feedback on any apparent errors in my argument. In what follows I will assume familiarity with Evangelicalism, with all the relevant passages of scripture, and with recent Evangelical discussions of the topic. 

Figure 1. The question of Evangelical Same-Sex Marriage.

What are the options?

As Christians and as Evangelicals, our usual response to same-sex orientation has been what is today called a mixed orientation marriage. Of course this was not normally thought of in those terms. Orientation was not understood for most of our history, and still is not by many people. Back in the day, having children was a primary duty to parents, family, tribe and nation; you had to do it for security in life and honour in society. Love itself was secondary, never mind orientation. Even after orientation came to public notice through the 1900s, these marriages were still commended in the hope that discipline or adaptation, psychiatric treatments or conversion therapies, would make them work. They still occur but they are rarely recommended now. Experience and common sense suggest that a union in which desire cannot be mutually shared is unfair to both partners, is distant from the biblical ideal (see below), and is a recipe for disaster. They were common in the past when things were different, but we can do better now.

However, the failure and decline of therapy efforts has left us with only one generally approved alternative. Thus we now have a movement of celibate gay Evangelicals who don’t expect to change or marry, but are instead inspired by celibacy in the Christian ascetic tradition. Because most same-sex oriented people are aware of their orientation by early adolescence, this means mandatory lifelong celibacy. It is difficult to overstate what an innovation this has been in recent Evangelical thought. Monastic or priestly vows were at least chosen but, even then, the early Protestants rejected them entirely. Calvin in the Institutes called them insane audacity and presumption when God had provided marriage. He said that they were no vows at all, but foolishness to be repented of. Christian scripture teaches chastity, meaning sexual abstinence outside of marriage. It teaches celibacy, that is, abstinence from marriage itself, if someone has the ‘gift’ and the desire to do so. But celibacy cannot be imposed upon a person, nor can marriage be forbidden to them, and anyone who feels unsuited to their singleness can always choose to marry. But now, because we have discovered orientation, we believe a random subgroup of the population should be celibate for life. Of course, many straight Christians also remain single their whole lives, but not without at least the hope of marrying. Consider, as a gesture of solidarity, committing to just five years of celibacy (or if married, to five years of abstinence) if you think that’s nothing too demanding. And of course, we all have sorrows and suffering to bear, and some of that is unavoidable and unfair. But that led no biblical writer to recommend mandatory lifelong celibacy. Jesus might have made such a commitment, but it’s quite the understatement to say that his situation was unique.

Neither of these alternatives are the biblical ideal. But does that justify looking to same-sex marriage as a possible solution? We would guess that nobody in scripture ever thought of same-sex marriage as an answer to anything. If it were the case that same-sex marriages could be ‘what God has joined together’, that would at least give us a third alternative. But as we generally understand things, these unions can’t be moral on the one hand and cannot be marriage on the other – at least, not in God’s sight.

For some of us, this issue is a litmus test of Evangelical orthodoxy. This is helped by the fact that many of the prohibitions come with no reasons attached – so is God’s authority enough for you? This is particularly so in commands or vice lists, but even in Romans 1 the scandal of same-sex relations is a starting point, not a conclusion. Of course, Evangelicals have sometimes found that seemingly categorical prohibitions needed rethinking. One pointy example from mid-last-century was whether an abandoned young mother could remarry. When presented with a question that scripture does not address – and I will argue orientation is one of these – we have a well-established process. We identify the author’s motivating principles, set them in canonical context, find our common horizons with their situation and so try to understand God’s mind in both scenarios. It seems to me that Paul especially expects his condemnations to make sense. He thinks that the same-sex relations he addresses are foolish and ignorant, not just immoral. We should therefore expect them to be something that we can reason about.

Is it immoral?

The Old and New Testaments name or allude to at least a dozen moral reasons for condemning same-sex relations. Some of these will be immediately familiar from scripture, especially Romans 1, Leviticus 18, 1 Corinthians 6. But other apparent allusions will only be seen through familiarity with Jewish and pagan writing from the period. William Loader’s introduction to the background texts in the recent Counterpoints book on Homosexuality is the best place to start, or try Philo of Alexandria’s On the Special Laws, §38, for a taster. These issues include promiscuity, unfaithfulness to marriage, prostitution, including temple prostitution, the neglect of marital responsibilities, exploitation and abuse including pederasty, the feminisation of young men to make them appeal to older men, states of mind we would now call sexual addiction or predation, and probably disease transmission too. These things were common in antiquity, and pointing them out was a slam-dunk for a Jewish writer telling off the pagans. However, these issues do not in any general way apply to same-sex marriages today. On the contrary, those seeking same-sex marriages insist they want their faithfulness and commitment recognised. Monogamy resolves the problems on this list, just as it does for heterosexuals.

Moreover, while same-sex relations are always strongly condemned in scripture, same-sex orientation does not seem to be in mind when it does. In the most important passage, Paul in Romans 1 says several things about same-sex desires themselves, and what he says does not match up with same-sex orientation as we encounter it. He understands that ‘shameful passions’ arise through the influence of religious paganism, and a progressive and wilful corruption of both character and heterosexual desire. It is one of several ‘exchanges’ that people make as they descend into the depths of sexual immorality. These are passions to which Gentiles have been ‘handed over’ in judgement, seemingly in some more specific way than simply having fallen human natures. But this description of same-sex desires in Greco-Roman life is not a good description of same-sex orientation. Recall the TULIP definition with which I began. When kids grow up to be same-sex oriented in Christian families and churches, this does not happen as a consequence of culture or religion, nor of their own voluntary choices, nor do we consider it a source of shame or a result of divine judgement, even in the broad and figurative sense of natural consequences. Paul also treats these desires as a problem specific to gentile society, whereas orientation occurs in all societies. Paul’s statements here exclude the possibility that he is thinking of orientation at all, even if he knew of or credited any ideas of that kind. Accordingly, these condemnations that relate to the nature of same-sex desire do not apply to orientation. Presumably he did not think Leviticus required him to address anything of the kind, and with all other references being made in passing, there appears to be no positive argument that orientation is being considered in scripture.

This means that the dozen-or-so directly moral reasons that we can identify for the biblical condemnations don’t apply to the major case we must evaluate in modern life: a same-sex marriage between two same-sex oriented people. So far as I have seen, no Evangelical writer has noticed this consequence of addressing orientation and marriage together; rather, we argue from morals and marriage in general, and believe this covers all cases. The sheer force of the biblical condemnations commits Evangelicals to defending them. These are solid moral reasons which made good sense then and now. But they just don’t apply. They are linked to depravity, godlessness, rebellion, compromise, and so on, but these concerns themselves only apply to same-sex marriages if we already know that those unions are immoral. This point has to be reached without implicitly assuming it.

As an aside, our moral commitments may be strongly reinforced by revulsion at the thought of anal intercourse. This is not a gay-specific concern, as many heterosexual couples do so, and many male same-sex couples do not. However, it is easily avoidable for any couple, gay or straight, who have medical, moral or any other kind of objections to it. This specific sense of revulsion does not apply to all same-sex relationships.

Is it unnatural?

The moral arguments we have discussed from scripture do not feature in our public advocacy. We may be noticing that we have trouble making them stick. But we may just think they ought to be discussed more privately, or that they lead to shouting matches about bigotry. Whatever the reason, we use broader principles in their place. These vary depending on our audience, but mainly come from nature and theology, as well as some anticipated consequences. Can these make the biblical condemnations apply to orientation and marriage – or provide new reasons why it is immoral? Let’s start with the word ‘unnatural’.

In the New Testament letter to the Romans, both male and female same-sex relations are called unnatural, which is paralleled with being highly immoral, while heterosexual relations are called natural in contrast. This nature language is both strong and ambiguous. What is natural can be confused with culture, for example, although the condemnations of same-sex relations in scripture appear transcultural and grounded in God’s moral nature. The word unnatural can also be a euphemism for something revolting or unspeakable; if this means immoral, then immoral in some unusually twisted way. But we haven’t established that a same-sex marriage would be immoral. We can establish, though, that ‘unnatural’ refers to perversion in this passage: Paul’s topic is the the wilful ‘exchange’ of heterosexual desire and practice that followed from and reinforced all of that other immorality. But yet again, a wilful exchange of desire doesn’t happen in same-sex orientation, and sexual relations in a same-sex marriage don’t match the reasons we can find for the scriptural condemnations.

In Romans 1 there are apparently moral references to what is natural and unnatural, and there are several back-references from Romans 1 to Genesis 1, though they are not all obvious in English translation. For these reasons, we think Paul is linking the moral condemnations of same-sex relations with God’s design for the created order. So we argue from the natural order, human nature, supposed natural laws, personal and social well-being, nature as God’s good creation, procreation and stewardship, the corrupt state of human desires, heterosexual marriage as God’s intention, eschatology and marriage symbolism, social norms, traditional interpretation, and differing ideas of gender complementarity. We use ‘sexual complementarity’ as a single super-category for these and other arguments: Haven’t we read that he made them male and female?

Discussing this long list of natural and theological rationales is not possible in a short article. But we can address the kind of arguments they are: They all at least intend to function as arguments from general truths: truths of God, of nature, human nature, both individually and together. Against these it seems foolish for an individual to rebel. It’s like fighting the stars in the sky. But then, isn't same-sex orientation an exceptional case, where what’s good for most of us is clearly not good for specific individuals? A general statement either has no exceptions, or accommodates them, or is in some way falsified by them. Which is this? Curiously, Evangelicals seem to agree that orientation is a special case, to which heterosexual marriage can’t apply. This is apparent in the two alternatives we have for same-sex orientation. We look at a mixed orientation marriage, and see that the foundations of love, desire and intimacy are missing. So we favour mandatory lifelong celibacy instead, though it’s even harder to defend pastorally or biblically. We don’t force the biblical ideal of heterosexual marriage onto an obviously exceptional situation. After all, it doesn’t matter how good a general, godly, or biblical ideal is if we are addressing a case to which it does not apply.

We could grant, I think, that all of those arguments from nature and theology work as intended. They reinforce a biblical and heterosexual ideal of marriage as the framework of human well-being, both for individuals and societies. They reinforce the condemnations of same-sex relations that appear in scripture. Let’s imagine every one of them was in the back of Paul’s mind when he wrote ‘unnatural’, or when he alluded to Genesis. Do they give us moral condemnations that apply to same-sex marriages of same-sex oriented partners? They don’t appear to. Orientation and marriage, together, still don’t match the actual moral condemnations we can find in scripture, insofar as we can find moral reasons to evaluate them by. And far from being a rebellion against nature (as creation), same-sex orientation is exceptional to it. And exceptional in a way that Evangelicals already think makes it unsuited to heterosexual marriage.

Directly moral arguments are more convincing than these kind of general arguments, and more authentic, too, since morals are what actually motivate Evangelicals on this issue. But we don’t use them. And our arguments from nature and theology can seem unduly academic when they’re set beside our same-sex oriented friends and family, neighbours and colleagues. All this helps explain why the Australian campaign against same-sex marriage now focuses primarily upon the fear of consequences. But that’s a far remove from scripture, which we think we are defending. Neither nature nor theology nor consequences had to stand alone in the Old or New Testaments, where strong moral condemnations could be presupposed and argued publicly. We have no biblical guarantee that they can, whether for the practices condemned by Paul, or when applied to orientation and same-sex marriages today.

What I have said thus far clears up some inconsistencies between scripture and modern Evangelical practice. Why does Scripture offer not a single trace of sympathy on this issue, while modern Evangelicals take pains to emphasise their deep compassion for those ‘struggling’? Why could Paul brightly assure the church in Corinth ‘that’s what you were!’, yet our conversion therapies could never justify this confidence? Why does Paul think ancient pagans knew these things were wrong, and yet our far more Christian-influenced contemporaries think in terms of human rights and anti-discrimination laws? Why are we utterly convinced that God’s self-evident moral truths must be defended at all costs, yet we can’t or won’t argue from them in public life? It’s because we are talking about orientation, and Scripture was not. That’s why the arguments aren’t working like we think they should.

Is it marriage?

While I have had to pass over some large and complex issues here, I think I have by now have offered enough of framework to show how and why a same-sex marriage between same-sex oriented Evangelicals would not biblically condemned on moral grounds. However, this does not establish that such relationships are marriages in God’s sight, and that is the question we must fundamentally settle. For a start, we have to measure them against the biblical ideal of marriage. By ‘biblical marriage’ Evangelicals do not mean any old marriage that happens to be in the Bible. The New Testament’s use of Genesis frames the period from patriarchs to kings within a larger, more consistent ideal.

We should briefly outline this ideal. While you might have never heard a passage like Song of Solomon chapter 7 preached in church, romantic love and sexual delight are necessarily part of the ideal. This goes with a public commitment to lifelong monogamy. It means becoming a new family (‘one flesh’) as parents in a household, caring for extended family, and raising and educating children. It involves friendship, belonging, and helping and comforting each other through life’s adversities. In this way our human sexuality, however marred and flawed, tends to sustain all human life, and social life, and thus the care of God’s creation. These points are largely common across cultures, but others have specifically Christian significance. Singleness forms the habits of self-control that we will need in marriage. Marriage is a covenant before God by two spiritual partners. They pray together and raise godly children, so a Christian will ordinarily marry another Christian. Their bodies will belong to each other, intimacy will mean delighting in each other, and this will be a mutual remedy for uncontrolled desire. Their households, among other things, will express the hospitality of the gospel in society. And Christ’s self-sacrificial love will be their model. That is, they will display in their union the greatest New Testament ‘mystery’ or revelation of all. There’s more, but this captures a large part of it.

Does same-sex marriage fit this biblical ideal? Scripture’s condemnations made this question seem unthinkable, but they do not apply for orientation. Same-sex marriage lacks sexual complementarity, and natural procreation with it. But lacking heterosexual love and desire already conflicted with the biblical ideal of marriage. It seems at least as exceptional as a merely infertile couple marrying – an exception to the ‘procreative’ nature of marriage that Christians consider entirely reasonable. Every alternative appears to have a flaw. It seems to be a choice between a loveless marriage, no marriage ever or one without a family. Which is best? But those options are not quite correct. A constitutionally infertile couple can have and raise children now, and any couple could adopt. That doesn’t necessarily mean surrogacy. We could imagine Evangelical same-sex couples arranging to adopt children who would otherwise be aborted. So, if raising a family is no longer impossible, or no longer essential, or if same-sex marriage is an exception to general norms, then this means that all the seemingly cross-cultural aspects of the biblical ideal of marriage (love, commitment, help, family) can now be fulfilled by same-sex marriages; and thus the more specifically Christian aspects too, which are less bodily in nature. On the other hand, not all of these aspects can be fulfilled by our Evangelical alternatives. Same-sex marriage thus appears to the best alternative.

But the ultimate question remains: does God affirm and celebrate same-sex marriages? At this point an unusual example from the Old Testament may be helpful to us. Polygamy is well established as the designated bogey-person of the same-sex marriage debate – ‘What next, huh?!’ How can we discard something so central to marriage as monogamy and mutuality? Yet it’s clear that some polygamous unions were accepted as marriages by God in Christian scripture. Abraham, Moses and David each offer examples of this. Those marriages don’t match the ideal, are never positively commended and probably are not defensible in our society today – but they were marriages in God’s sight. Yet same-sex marriage, which preserves monogamy and mutuality, is closer to the biblical ideal than they were. We can argue from the lesser to the greater in this case. If God once recognised polygamy, then he now recognises same-sex marriages. That would mean that they are not only the closest thing to biblical marriage for someone who’s same-sex oriented, but also that in God’s sight they actually are marriages. Not a ‘redefinition’, not a ‘civil partnership’, but a marriage. In which case we can hardly fail to call it a biblical and an Evangelical marriage.

What does it mean for Evangelicals?

If this argument is sound, it means that same-sex marriage solves our Evangelical problems with same-sex orientation. It is warranted by the nature and frequency of same-sex orientation, and by the fact that this will continue in our churches through all future generations. It is warranted by the difficulties this has posed for Christian life and ministry, by the concrete harms that followed from our lack of good alternatives and by our general paralysis in speaking publicly about these issues – even on simple matters like preventing bullying in schools. In the case of orientation, same-sex marriage doesn’t match the biblical condemnations of same-sex relations. It is closer to the biblical ideal of marriage than any alternative, and more so than marriages that God acknowledged in scripture. Being grounded in same-sex orientation and Christian discipleship, it presents no slippery slope into social anarchy. Involving less than 1% of marriages, it doesn’t threaten heterosexual norms or their general benefits. It doesn’t leave us asking for exemptions from discrimination laws we ought to be supporting.

But that’s not what matters the most. What matters most is the one or two percent of Christians who will always be same-sex oriented. This is something like 33 million people in the world, who could be any of us. Many of them have followed Christ with pain and cost that it is difficult for others to comprehend, and many have been crushed. What does this mean for them? Or you, if that is you?

If you are same-sex oriented, Evangelical same-sex marriage before God means that your sexuality, expressed in marriage, is holy to God – and that nothing else and no-one else can change that. It means that you can fall in love and marry, just like ‘normal’ Christians. It means no intrinsic shame. No love/hate relationship with love. No pity. Just the regular, everyday hope of meeting someone you love. It requires the same holy living and discipline as others, but not the superhuman disciplines of mandatory lifelong celibacy – unless you genuinely can accept that, and you want to. It means that Christian faith does not exclude you from sexual intimacy and romantic love, from a faithful covenant of love, from affection and companionship into old age, or from a godly family of your own. Nor from an intimate spiritual partnership, or the mystery of Christlike and self-sacrificial love for one another. It means that Christian faith and same-sex orientation do not bar you from marrying before God.

Nigel Chapman has a Master of Divinity degree and spent 8 years helping lead a new Baptist church in Darlinghurst, Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at and @eukras.

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