Dr. Mark Achtemeier

Covenant Network Regional Conference
Village Presbyterian Church

Kansas, City, Missouri
November 16, 2012

Three weeks ago in Minneapolis we saw how the Bible gives us confidence in God’s willingness to bless lives that depart in various ways from the majority pattern of marriage between a man and a woman. Today we turn again to the text of the Scripture with two questions in mind: First, according to the Bible, what particular kinds of blessing does God provide in and through our marriages? Second, is there something about these blessings that restricts their availability to a heterosexual context, or are they compatible with same-gender marriages as well?


We take up this discussion in pointed opposition to suggestions, coming from both conservative and progressive wings of the church, which claim that in order to affirm gay marriage we must distance ourselves from the text of Scripture. My response to that is: Don’t you believe it! We take our stand here on the solid rock of Christ and his Word.

In fact our goal here is to follow the example of the faithful biblical interpreter described Matthew 13:52. There Jesus says,

[E]very scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

We take from our treasure what is new: The unprecedented opportunity for gay people to live openly in faithful, egalitarian committed partnerships. We combine this with the treasure that is old, namely the Bible’s ancient wisdom about the purposes and blessings of marriage in the plan of God. Our hope is that out of this mixture of treasures new and old we can find a proclamation fit for the Kingdom.

Faithful Interpretation

Turning to our treasure that is old: what does the Bible say about God’s purposes for marriage and sexuality? To answer this question properly we must set aside the snippet method of interpreting Scripture, and begin with the recognition that the Bible as a whole tells a story about the way things are. Scripture tells us how the good world that God created has mysteriously fallen prey to powers of sin and death and corruption. It also recounts how our infinitely loving and patient Creator kept faith with a world fallen into ruin: God addressed humankind through promises given to the chosen people of Israel, and God fulfilled those promises by redeeming and reconciling the world through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Bible further relates how our risen Savior continues at work among us through the power of the Holy Spirit poured out upon his church. Even now the Spirit is at work preparing men and women for the final perfection that will overtake the entire cosmos when Christ returns in glory.

Our task as faithful scribes of the Kingdom, is to see how God’s blessings of love and marriage and sexuality fit in with that story. What role does the life of the body play in the story of our creation, fall and redemption? What is God’s role for it, how does God use it to accomplish the divine purposes?

Spiritual and Material

Now this may seem like an odd question to us, because we are accustomed to thinking of sexuality as a down-to-earth concern that has little or no connection with spiritual matters. We come by this assumption honestly: viewing the life of the body as a grubby, earthly, unspiritual part of life is a legitimate part of our heritage. But it is an inheritance that comes to us not from Scripture but from Greek philosophy, particularly the teachings of Plato. In stark contrast to the Platonic elevation of spiritual reality above material, the Bible teaches that human bodies no less than human spirits have an important role to play in God’s redemptive plan. Listen to what the Apostle Paul says about this in Romans 8:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.[1]

So what role does the life of the body play in God’s plan for human life?

God’s Original Intention

Our first clue about God’s intention for bodies and sexuality comes from the picture of un-fallen creation that we find in Genesis 2. There, you will recall, God fashions Eve from the rib of Adam, and then introduces this primal couple one to another.  The Bible movingly records the Adam’s joyous cry of recognition as God presents to him his partner: “Here at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…”[2] The text goes on to point out that “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

This original nakedness is significant.[3] Adam and Eve each recognize their partner as a gift from God, and their unashamed nakedness signifies the inclusion of their bodies along with their spirits in this gift. Nothing about this gift is covered up or withheld. Their relationship is one of mutual giving and receiving: each receives the other as God’s special gift and blessing, and each responds joyfully to this gift by presenting the whole self, body and spirit, to the other. This threefold communion of God, self and other, joyfully bonded together in ties of thankfulness and self-giving love, is a picture of God’s original intention for the life of the body. But as we all know, the story doesn’t end there.

The Tragedy of the Fall

Genesis 3 describes the fall and consequent corruption of this original communion of spiritual and bodily life. The fall takes place, as you will recall, when Adam and Eve eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The meaning of this act becomes apparent when we recognize that this forbidden knowledge of good and evil appears quite clearly in the story itself. God had told his human creations that this fruit was not created for human consumption.[4] But the fall takes place when human beings take upon themselves the construction their own independent standard for judging things good or evil over against the intention of God:

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate…[5]

The fall depicted in Genesis involves a transition from a world where good and evil are grounded in the objective reality of God’s loving will for creation, to a world of independent, competing systems of valuation. Adam and Eve assume the role of wannabe creators. They will henceforth define for themselves what counts as good and evil in the shadow-creation of their own imaginings.

The result of this development is the disruption of communion and their alienation from bodily life. Shame emerges immediately as a prominent feature of their life in the body. Realizing they are naked, they sew fig leaves together to cover themselves up.[6] This makes sense, because with the appearance of their independent systems of valuing, Eve and Adam can no longer rest in the knowledge that each one’s body is the gift of God to the other. Instead, the possibility looms that this other may be judging me on the basis of some unknown, independent scale of valuing. The result is shame, the crippling suspicion that my existence has been judged by another and found wanting. And so it is no longer possibility to cling to an uncomplicated view of bodies as the gifts of a loving creator. Now anxiety comes to the fore about how they are being perceived, judged and valued by other people.

The Easter Orthodox tradition has a poignant way of describing what happens in the fall. Adam and Eve start out as persons, they say: joyfully relational beings given by God to one another in thanksgiving and loving communion. With the fall, however, Adam and Eve fall away from their relational existence as persons and instead become…individuals.

Broken Relationships

The appearance of these independent schemes of valuing also causes a rupture in their communion with God. Following their rebellion, Adam and Eve respond to God with fear and hide themselves. The God who was once the giver of all good gifts has now become the author of a rival scheme of good and evil over against which Adam and Eve have defined themselves. Human bodies, once the crowning gift of God’s good creation now become a focal point of shame and fear. The experience of their bodies now involves the anxious recognition of their weakness and vulnerability before their Creator. Asked why he is hiding himself, Adam tells God, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”[7]

And isn’t it interesting how their need to hide their bodies from God echoes our own discomfort connecting sexuality with our spiritual life. Our default assumption is that church is no place for talking about material concerns like sexuality or even how we spend our money. Try suggesting sometime that people in your congregation share with each other how much money they make and how much they give away. The terror many of us feel in response to such a simple and potential helpful suggestion is testimony to how deeply our material, physical existence has been alienated from God.[8]I heard you walking in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

Genesis 3 goes on to describe yet another disruption in Adam and Eve’s relationship. Speaking to the woman, God says “[Y]our desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.[9]

Life in the body is transforming from a gift to a kind of imprisonment. In place of their original communion, in which Adam and Eve joyfully give themselves to each other, body and spirit, and receive each other as God’s gift, we now see a life in the body that is dominated by the interests of the autonomous self. The woman’s experience of her husband is now dominated by her own desire: Her husband is no longer the embodied expression of God’s love and favor toward her. Instead he has become instead an instrumental means for relieving the needs and wants and fears that afflict her in her newly-acquired independence. The man’s experience of his wife in turn is dominated by the anxious need of the autonomous self to impose its own systems of valuation on others. The superior strength of the man’s body no longer functions as a divine gift given to the woman for her comfort and protection. Instead it has become the self-serving instrument of his rule over her. How much of the history of men and women is contained in this single ancient verse!

Biblical Sexual Ethics

These Genesis texts provide a penetrating glimpse into the ways in which the life of the body comes to be included in both the glory of creation and the tragedy of the Fall. At the very least, the redemption of our bodies will mean a movement back toward that joyous, pre-fallen existence that we glimpse in Genesis 2. It is a picture of whole human beings, bodies and spirits together, given to one another in joyous, loving communion as the gifts of a benevolent Creator. No part of the self is withheld from this gift. No portion of this gift is devalued or judged as anything less than the gracious expression of God’s love for us.

And already in this picture we begin to catch sight of the underlying logic and sense that informs the ethics of sex in the Bible as a whole. Biblical sexual morality is that wisdom which guides human life to move in the direction of this joyous, life-giving communion.

Such morality steers us away from situations that distort or truncate this communion. It seeks to ensure that whole persons are given to each other in this communion, with no part of the self withheld. This is why sexual activity outside the covenant commitment of marriage falls short of God’s loving will for human beings: giving one’s body to another person apart from the accompanying gift of life and self results in a truncated communion that leaves the spirit anxious and impoverished and cheapens the bodily gift.

In a similar vein, the command against adultery makes sense, because the effect of infidelity is to divide the self that should be given wholly to the other. In adultery part of the self goes one place, and part another. This division of the self also undermines the possibility of true communion among persons that God in his love desires for us. And as we see in Genesis 3, when that self-giving communion for which we were created disappears, other darker and more self-centered agendas arise to take its place.

In short, “biblical sexual morality” starts to make good and reasonable sense when we look at it in the context of how bodily life is included in the biblical story as a whole.

Commands Without Reasons

This contrasts starkly with what I call the “ethics of taboo,” which extracts isolated commands from the text of the Bible and then clings to them blindly without any understanding of how they connect to the biblical story or to God’s plan and purpose for human life. I believe one symptom of taboo ethics is the deep panic one encounters sometimes at the suggestion that the church might need to rethink any of its teaching on sexuality.

Think about it: If I can give no reasons why the biblical commandments make sense, if biblical sexual morality is simply a collection of “thou-shalt-not’s” that I cling to without rhyme or reason or rationality, then calling into question a single part of that structure threatens to undermines the authority of the whole.

If the church can change its thinking on same-gender relationships, we are told, then there will be nothing to stop it from changing its thinking on everything else as well. Approving gay marriage will open the door to polygamy and promiscuity and people marrying their pets!

Well that is only true if people can’t give any reason for holding to the morality that they do. If that is the case, then pulling one brick out of the will brings the whole thing crashing down. But if we understand how sexuality and marriage connect with the plan and purposes of God as described in the Scripture as a whole, then we can give good reasons why polygamy and promiscuity are incompatible with God’s plan and purposes.

God gives us minds for a reason. Our Presbyterian and Reformed Tradition has made a specialty of nurturing a thinking faith, of worshipping God with all our minds. Clinging blindly to rules and regulations for which we can give no reason or justification falls short of God’s intention for us.


We have thus far considered God’s plan for bodily life as it appears in the Biblical accounts of creation and fall. We turn now to the role of bodies in the Bible’s account of our redemption.

The Role of Bodies in Redemption

Our Greek instincts perhaps kick in here again and protest that our redemption in Christ is an entirely spiritual affair. But every single time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we hear the words of Jesus spoken to us: “This is my body which is broken for you.” At the center of our salvation is Christ’s gift of his body, his whole self, offered up on the cross for the sake of the world.

Now the particular shape of Jesus’ sacrifice is relevant for us not just because it accomplishes our reconciliation, but because it helps us understand the shape of God’s will for our lives. When the New Testament speaks about God’s will for us and God’s work in us, it speaks about the Holy Spirit uniting us with Jesus and conforming us to the image of his self-giving love. And that image includes the gift of one’s bodily self. Listen to Paul’s description of it:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God…[10]

That is Paul describing the shape of our life in Christ. It involves bodies as well as spirits.

Creation and Redemption

God is the creator of our bodies, and so I don’t think it is surprising that bodies play a significant role in the accomplishment of God’s purposes, both in the Genesis account of God’s original intention for creation, and in New Testament descriptions of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice and our response to it. In both creation and redemption, God’s intention is clearly bound up with the loving offering of one’s entire self, body and spirit, for the sake of another.

Now we might think there is a problem drawing a parallel between the creation and redemption accounts, because we are of course talking about two very different kinds of bodily gift. The Genesis account of God’s original will for humankind depicts whole persons, embodied selves, given and received in joy as the blessings of a loving Creator. Jesus’ offering of his whole self, by contrast, is a gift of sacrifice and suffering for the sake of those whom he loves.

In both these cases bodies are included in the gift of one’s whole self. But the differences in these examples are obvious. Is it too much of a stretch to see a connection between the gift of bodies in marriage, and the gift of Christ’s body on the cross? In fact the Christian Tradition has very bold in bringing together these two biblical images of God’s will for our bodies.

Christian Marriage

In the Eastern Orthodox wedding ceremony, part of the service involves placing crowns on the heads of the bride and groom. Now we might be inclined to look at this and say “Oh how sweet, they get to be King and Queen for a day!” But as you might expect from the orthodox, there is a far deeper meaning to this.

In fact, if you ask the Orthodox about this, they will tell you that these are crowns of martyrdom that the church places on the heads of the married couple. The crowns point to the death of that self-enclosed, individualized self that takes place in marriage. It is one of the sanctifying blessings that God bestows in and through married life.

In Christian marriage these very diverse biblical pictures of the life of the body all come together. In line with the descriptions in Genesis, marriage presents us with the opportunity to joyfully offer our entire selves, bodies and spirits, as a gift to this other person, and to receive our spouse thankfully as a gift from God.

But in line with the New Testament image of Christ’s sacrifice, marriage is also a powerful instrument of our sanctification. The marital bond is one of the prime places where God works on us to bring about the death of that body of sin, to crucify it with Christ, and to raise us up and re-create us in the image of Christ’s own self-giving love. And Christ’s self-giving love is more than just a spiritual affair. The gift of our bodies to each other is an integral part of the loving and sacrificial gift of our whole selves to one another.

Paul makes the connection between marital life and Christ’s sacrifice explicit in Ephesians 5. Now understand, he is working with challenging material here: The default pattern for marriage in first-century Greco-Roman culture is extremely patriarchal by our standards. But even within the limits of that cultural inheritance, Paul makes the connection between the bonds of marriage and our growth into the image of Christ:

Wives, be subject to your husband as you are to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.

Marriage in Paul’s understanding, is a kind of icon or image of the self-giving love that binds Christ to the church.

A Life-Long Gift

Now lest those of us who are married start feeling wholly inadequate, let me emphasize that this image doesn’t come into being all at once. The joyous and sacrificial gift of one’s whole self to a beloved partner is a grace that the Holy Spirit brings about in our marriages gradually over an extended period of time. Christian marriage is one place in life where God works powerfully to break open our sinful, self-centered existence, and to draw us into the pattern of Christ’s total gift of self for another. Marriage and its attendant sexual expression are a means of grace that at one and the same time forms us in the image of Christ, and restore us to that image of that joyous, thankful communion in the garden that we see depicted in Genesis 2.

These then are the particular blessings of marriage that emerge from a careful consideration of the Bible’s witness. Here we see how Scripture connects love and marriage and sexuality to the purpose and plan of God.

For Heterosexuals Only?

Our question in assessing the Bible’s support for gay marriage is whether same gender relationships can become the instruments of God’s redeeming work in the manner we have described, or is there some particular aspect of heterosexual marriage that makes it the only context where God’s will for our marriages can be carried out?

Three weeks ago in Minneapolis we saw how the Bible gives us reason for confidence in God’s willingness to bring blessing outside of the established, majority pattern of marriage between a man and a woman. Now that we have a better understanding of what that blessing looks like, we need to ask if there is anything integral to heterosexual marriage per se that uniquely qualifies it to serve as an instrument for the kinds of blessings we have uncovered. The obvious candidates for uniquely qualifying aspects of such relationships would be procreative ability and gender complementarity.

On the face of it, it looks like the pattern of blessing we have described is equally available in a same-gender relationship. The unreserved gift of one’s whole self to another person, which God uses to form us more fully into the image of Jesus’ love, seems to be a possibility of same-gender relationships no less than heterosexual unions. Scripture in fact confirms the irrelevance of both procreative ability and gender complementarity to God’s redeeming, sanctifying purposes.

Scriptural Testimony about Procreation

We have seen of course how God’s purpose for marriage is to form us in the image of Christ. Jesus’ gift of his whole self on the cross is the goal and pattern and prototype toward which our marital gift of self draws us. So let us then ask the obvious question: is there even the remotest hint in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross that this act is somehow enabled or assisted or made complete by procreation or the presence of offspring?

The answer is an obvious “No!” Procreation was never a part of Jesus’ vocation. When it comes to cultivating the Christ-like, self-giving love that is God’s central goal and purpose for our marriages, procreation has no make-or-break role to play.

Procreation is of course a good gift from God, and one that the Bible celebrates. Our ability to have children is intimately bound up with God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”[11] But that particular mission has long since been accomplished, I dare say. There is no sense in which procreation is a necessary part of our growth into the image of Christ.

Long-standing church practice confirms this insight. Neither the church nor the Bible has ever even hinted that marriage should be denied to infertile couples, or to people who were past the age of childbearing. Procreative ability or lack of it has no bearing on the ability of marriage to serve as an instrument for the plans and purposes of God as they are revealed in the Scripture.

A Role for Gender Complementarity?

What then about gender complementarity? Is there something essential about human existence as male and female that makes heterosexual marriage a uniquely suitable arena for the accomplishment of God’s purposes? The Ephesians 5 passage we have already noted is certainly a gendered account. Paul draws parallels between the gender roles that are prevalent in the marriages of his day and the self-giving love that connects Christ to the church.

But consider this carefully: if gender complementarity were an essential part of this picture, it would necessarily show up in the spiritual prototype for which marriage is the image: If the complementarity of male and female played a necessary role in God’s redemptive purposes, Christ the bridegroom would have to sacrifice himself for his bride, a church that was composed entirely of women![12] If God’s purposes for our marriages depended on gender complementarity, then the prototype in which those purposes are revealed would have to be a gendered connection between a male savior and a female church.

But in fact the bride of Christ includes a great many male members. And that is a sure indication that the self-giving love which binds Christ to the church, and which serves as the pattern for God’s work in our marriages, is in no way dependent on the particular identify of the parties to the relationship as male and female.

In short, the Bible gives us no reason to believe that the spiritual blessings God bestows in and through our marriages are restricted to heterosexual couples. God’s purposes for marriage are as readily fulfilled through same-sex unions as they are through traditional unions of male and female.

An Opposing Witness?

Now there remains one obstacle to our concluding that gay marriage is entirely compatible with the Bible’s witness, and that is the existence of the so-called “clobber passages.” These are seven isolated, frequently-cited texts of Scripture that are often perceived as speaking very negatively about same-gender sexual behavior.[13] A great deal has been written on them elsewhere, and we will not spend time considering each one in detail.[14]

We will note, however, that their existence is puzzling for this reason: We have noted how the other sexual teachings in the Bible tend to make sense when we think about them in relation to the purposes of God we have been discussing. Biblical sexual morality seems designed to protect the giving of whole and complete selves to one another. That is why marriage is important to begin with: Marital promises ensure the gift of the whole self to another person, they associate the gift of bodily selves with the gift of lives and spirits and commitment.

Our consideration of the broad sweep of the biblical witness has led us to conclude that same-gender relationships are compatible with God’s plans and purposes for marriage no less than heterosexual unions. So why would these seven passages go against the overall pattern of the Bible’s witness, in which sexual teaching is designed to enable the fulfillment of God’s purposes?

Reading the Commands in Context

The answer becomes clear when we consider these passages in their historical context. They are not in fact talking about anything remotely resembling marriage. Careful historical work has made clear that the opportunity for ordinary people to live openly in faithful, egalitarian, same-sex partnerships was all but non-existent in biblical times, and throughout the history of the church until very, very recently. The types of same-gender behavior familiar to the biblical writers would have been cultic–involving pagan temple prostitution–or violent, or exploitative, or pederastic.[15]

Once we realize that these are the types of behavior that the clobber passages are referring to, we can happily affirm and embrace their teaching. These violent and idolatrous behaviors they are referring to are destructive of God’s plans and purposes for life in the body, and so of course the Bible writers would prohibit them. We should, too! But let us not for a moment think that in pronouncing a rightful judgment against same-sex violence and temple prostitution, that these passages are uttering a single word against faithful, loving, committed marriages.

Where we get into trouble with such passages is when we take their rightful condemnations of genuinely awful behaviors and generalize them as if they applied to marriage. That would be like taking biblical passages condemning rape[16] and using them to argue that heterosexual marriage is contrary to the will of God. It simply makes no sense.

We can wholeheartedly affirm these seven passages and agree with their condemnations of destructive and idolatrous same-gender behaviors. But that in no way compromises our conclusions, also drawn from the Bible, that faithful same-gender unions are entirely compatible with God’s essential plan and purposes for marriage.

The Bible’s Support for Gay Marriage

We have now come to the end of our experiment in reading the Scripture like the faithful scribe in Jesus’ teaching. We have taken what is old – the testimony about God’s purposes for love and marriage and sexuality that comes to us from the broad sweep of the Bible’s story. We have brought out this old, time-tested wisdom and combined it with what is new: the recently emerging opportunity for gay and lesbian people to openly makes vows and commitments to one another in the covenant of marriage.

The result of this combination of old and new is not the abolition of biblical sexual morality or the abandonment of Scripture’s teaching. The result is the right and proper extension of the Bible’s time-honored teachings on love and sex and marriage into these new relationships where it manifestly belongs.

The Bible is clear that the good and joyous and sanctifying purposes of God are powerfully at work in all of our marriages, gay and straight alike. A carefully reading of the Bible yields no reason to oppose gay marriage and every reason to approve it. It is time for the Presbyterian Church to re-engage the Scriptures in a serious way on this issue, and to proclaim this message as part and parcel of the joyous good news God has called us to share with the whole world!

Dr. Mark Achtemeier is a Presbyterian minister, writer and theologian residing in Dubuque, Iowa. He may be contacted at [email protected].

[1] Romans 8:22-23 (NRSV)

[2] Genesis 2:23

[3] In this discussion of Genesis 2 and 3, I am indebted to insights gleaned from Pope John Paul II, The Theology of the Body (Boston, MA: Pauline Books and Media, 1997), Part I.

[4] Genesis 2:16-17

[5] Genesis 3:6

[6] Genesis 3:7

[7] Genesis 3:10

[8] This little thought experiment originates in a lecture delivered by Prof. Stanley Hauerwas.

[9] Genesis 3:16

[10] Romans 12:1

[11] Genesis 1:28

[12] I am indebted to Eugene Rogers for this insight. See Eugene Rogers, Jr., “Same-sex complementarity,” Christian Century, May 11, 2011. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-04/same-sex-complementarity

[13] The passages are: Genesis 19:1-29, Judges 19:1-30, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:18-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-17, and 1 Timothy 1:10.

[14] See, e.g., the discussions in Stacy Johnson, A Time to Embrace: Same Gender Relationships in Religion, Law and Politics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,  2006); and Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church (Louisville: WJKP, 2006).

[15] For a fuller discussion of this point see Martti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998). A shorter but still helpful treatment can be found in Stacy Johnson, A Time to Embrace, pp. 13-19, 48-52, 123-152.

[16] E.g. Genesis 34

© 2012   P. Mark Achtemeier.  All Rights Reserved.