I received this question from a philosophy professor who was seeking to get a Christian perspective on this controversial issue:
Q: In a moral issues class, during a discussion of same-sex marriage, a student stated, “I am a Christian. I would vote to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples because the Bible says God hates homosexuality.” I asked, “Ok, based on that premise, would you vote to approve capital punishment for adultery in the U.S., as in the Bible?” The student replied, “That’s different. The story of Sodom shows God’s view of homosexuality, but capital punishment for adultery was merely a cultural practice which need not apply today.” Is this approach to adultery merely cultural, while the approach to homosexuality is truly prescriptive in Christianity? Thanks!
A: The Bible describes homosexuality as unnatural (Rom. 1:26), contrary to sound teaching (1 Tim. 1:10), and unrighteous (1 Cor. 6:9). The Bible describes adultery as senseless, self-destructive (Prov. 6:32) and unrighteous (1 Cor. 6:9).
(It is worth mentioning here that there seems a tendency in the Christian community to focus extensively on sexual sins, when sins such as coveting or reviling are also called unrighteous (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:10) and bear similar consequences as the sexual ones. The point here is that sin is sin, and we should be cautious about condemning some while ignoring others.)
Under Mosaic Law both homosexuality and adultery were punishable by death (Lev. 20:10,13). But it is important to note that the Mosaic Law applied only to Israel and had a definite beginning (Ex. 19:3-6), and it had an equally definite end (Jer. 31:32). Prior to, and beyond the Mosaic Law, the only crime explicitly punishable by death (Gen. 9:6-16) was murder. As the Noahic covenant (Gen. 9) is an eternal covenant, the death penalty it mandated is also an enduring prescription – but only as a penalty for murder (as outlined in the covenant).
God’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah represented a unique (to say the least) divine judgment, not for any specifically identified sin (though an intention of homosexual rape is discussed in Gen. 19:5, still the judgment was pronounced before this event took place), but rather for sin that is “exceedingly grave” (Gen. 18:20). God’s actions at Sodom and Gomorrah are not prescriptive. (Otherwise, we should kill all who have “exceedingly grave” sin. Who is ready to cast that first stone?)
As God is the Judge, He will deal with sin. He offers mercy to all who believe in Him (e.g., John 3:16), and calls those who have new life in Christ to walk in righteousness as children of God (e.g., Eph. 2; 4:1-3).
How then should we legislate in a constitutional and democratic republic? It is often said that morality should not be legislated, but that is an absurdity, since all legislation deals with some aspect of morality, thus legislating morality is unavoidable in any society. The question is what morality should be legislated, and to what extent?
If one is using the Bible as a guide for legislation in areas such as homosexuality and adultery, the following are worth considering:
(1) Homosexuality and adultery are not approved by the Bible, still there is no enduring death penalty prescription for either of these activities.
(2) While sexual sins are unique, they are not so unique that other sins don’t matter.
(3) Government is not called to enforce Biblical morality, but it is described as an instrument of God’s judgment in its use of the sword – i.e., enforcing the death penalty for murder (Rom. 13:1-7).
Finally, as we live in a system that to some degree empowers its citizenry to govern, we all have freedom to vote our consciences. If it is the will of the people that certain immoralities not be accepted in the public square, then the people have the right, under our constitution, to make it so.
Still, I would offer a caution in this regard: that we the people remember that our role is not to replace Him as the Judge, but to have a government that is limited to its proper constitutional function, and one that does not seek to install a theocracy. He can handle such matters in His own time and in His own way. Government is not ordained to promote righteous character in people, rather it is a God-ordained instrument to punish the guilty and protect the innocent.
Finally, a remaining question to be considered (though one for a different time) is the very important question of whose role is it to define marriage. If the state has this defining authority, then it must equally consider all its citizens, and prohibiting same-sex marriage might turn out to be entirely unjustifiable. If the church retains this authority, then as the church is not bound by the same standards, the conclusion would be quite different. How this question is answered will determine other relevant questions, such as whether or not same-sex marriages should become a part of the fabric of America.
Interesting how the present debate revolves around a simple question (“what is marriage?”) and who gets to answer it.