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Vail Daily column: Squaring scripture with same-sex marriage

Jack Van Ens

Reeling from a societal whiplash, evangelical Christians wince at what’s hit them. In 37 states, same-sex marriage is legal. National support for gay unions keeps rapidly growing. Even the Supreme Court appears ready to rule that same-sex marriage cannot be legal in some states and banned in others.

Evangelicals believe the Bible prohibits same-sex marriage. They interpret scripture to teach that God blesses only a marriage between a man and a woman. When Billy Graham held up Holy Scripture and declared, “The Bible says,” evangelicals heard him stating, “God says.” These Christians believe the Bible is the supreme authority on salvation and ethical behavior.

Such convictions complicate the Republican Party’s goal of appealing to more than their base, right-wing older white men. Gay-rights activists who align with the Colorado Log Cabin Republicans signed up for a table at the Western Conservative Summit this coming June at Denver’s Colorado Convention Center. Their request was initially denied.

Colorado Christian University sponsors the Summit. Open to right-wing Republican groups, the university is closed to same-sex marriage. Conservative evangelicals who head Colorado Christian University believe marriage should be denied same-sex couples because the biblical definition of marriage only recognizes a man and a woman. To save face, the Colorado Republican Party now says Log Cabin Republicans can share a booth with them. This maneuver lets the university off the hook because it doesn’t directly OK gays having a table at the Summit.

Today, evangelicals who favor such severe restrictions on marriage are forced to re-evaluate how the Bible informs faith and practice. The Public Religion Research Institute reports that support for marriage between gays among white evangelicals has shot up double digits in the past decade. Among older evangelicals, endorsement grew from one in 20 in 2003 to one in five in 2014.

During the past three years, evangelical youth copy cultural trends that endorse same-sex marriage. Their support jumped from 20 percent in 2003 to 42 percent in 2014. A huge generational gulf divides evangelicals. Ask believers older than 50 years about gay marriage. A majority point to scriptural texts that define it as sinful. Then ask their children and grandkids the same question. Most respond that it’s wrong to deny gays their civil rights to marry whomever they chose.

This disagreement replays stormy arguments over scripture and slavery prior to the Civil War. Christians held competing biblical convictions about slavery. Southern evangelicals endorsed slavery and traditional marriage because of how they read the Bible literally.

In contrast, progressive Christians taught the Bible’s overriding themes of individual dignity and equality made slavery immoral. Today, the Bible’s emphasis on practicing hospitality to all people makes same-sex marriage just, say progressive Christians.

Pro-slavery evangelicals were convinced biblical texts showed they had the better of the argument. From Genesis to Deuteronomy, scripture described ancient Hebrews practicing chattel slavery. Throughout the centuries, biblical storytellers told of how Abraham’s descendants owned slaves. Cultural norms didn’t condemn slavery. Scripture prescribed legal rules for it, spelled out in Exodus 21.

Evangelical slave masters declared that Jesus didn’t condemn slavery. They overlooked Jesus’ kindness towards people, regardless of social rank. Abolitionist Angelina Grimke’ refuted these pro-slavery texts, which Southerners read as God’s word. Grimke couldn’t conceive of him ever owning a slave.

Similar concerns regarding biblical authority stir evangelicals today. Do they obey biblical edicts in Leviticus and from Saint Paul that regard the gay life-style as sinful? Or, are these ancient passages relics from an anti-gay culture that practiced slavery? In early February, the Alabama Republican Party’s chairman thundered that his dear state would “reap God’s wrath if we embrace and condone things that are abhorrent to God, such as redefining marriage.”

Shortly afterwards, mainline Presbyterians who read the same Bible and regard scripture as authoritative for faith and practice approved same-sex marriage. Their updated manual for weddings now reads: “Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family.” These progressive Presbyterians believe God is more interested in the quality of the marriage — based on life-long fidelity, trust in and mutual mercy between partners. God doesn’t much care if two men, two women or a husband and wife are wed. Quality of caring, not sexual identity, defines who gets married.

Specific biblical texts frown on same-sex marriage. Major scriptural themes function as a counter-balance. They discount gender for determining who gets marriage because Christians must respect their neighbors, including homosexuals. Will older evangelical Christians re-work their stance on the relationship between biblical authority and same-sex marriage? A majority of their offspring already have.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries.


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