A Historically Christian View of Sexual Ethics
Review of “Does the Bible Support Same-Sex Marriage?” by Preston Sprinkle
One of the most consequential changes of opinion that I have witnessed in my lifetime is the American public’s change of opinion regarding same-sex marriage.
According to Pew Research Center, Americans went from opposing same-sex marriage 57% to 35% in 2001 to favoring it 61% to 31% in 2019. Support increased in every demographic group measured: party, ideology, gender, ethnicity, generation, and religion.
Among the religious groups Pew measured, a majority of Black Protestants and white evangelicals continued to oppose same-sex marriage. However, even among those two groups, opposition weakened over the first two decades of the 21st century. Among white evangelicals, for example, support for same-sex marriage rose from 11% in 2001 to 29% in 2019.
What Christians believe about same-sex marriage is not determined by public opinion polls, obviously. Rather, it is determined by the Bible. Christians traditionally have interpreted Scripture as prohibiting same-sex intercourse, which necessarily includes same-sex marriage. As many Christians have changed their minds about same-sex marriage, however, they have revised their interpretation of the Bible, advancing various arguments to justify their change of mind.
Preston Sprinkle examines 21 of these arguments in Does the Bible Support Same-Sex Marriage? and concludes that, properly interpreted, the Bible does not.
Before discussing those arguments, however, Sprinkle addresses two foundational issues: how to have a fruitful conversation and the historically Christian view of marriage.
Regarding fruitful dialogue, Sprinkle writes, “A profitable conversation … is one where everyone feels understood and honored — even if disagreement remains.” Such conversation seems rare these days, as people on both sides of this issue — or any other hot-button issue, to be honest — prefer to denounce rather than to discuss. Sprinkle is concerned about the matter of Christian ethics, but he is also concerned about the manner in which we discuss issues.
“When people are given relational space to choose to believe something,” he writes, “they’re more likely to actually believe it, as opposed to feeling like they’re being forced into it” (emphasis in original).
Regarding the historically Christian view of marriage, Sprinkle writes: “Marriage is a lifelong one-flesh covenant union between two sexually different persons (a male and a female) from different families, united with the purpose of telling God’s story of faithfulness and creativity; and sexual relationships outside this covenant union are sin.”
He advances five lines of reasoning in support of this definition:
- “Sex difference is an intrinsic part of what marriage is,” based on Genesis 1:27, 2:23–24; and Matthew 19:4–5.
- “Same-sex sexual relationships are always prohibited,” based on Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:26–27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:9–10.
- “The multiethnic global church affirms the historically Christian view.”
- “Marriage and sex are not essential to human flourishing,” based on passages such as 1 Corinthians 7:38, 40, but especially the example of Jesus.
- “Marriage has a purpose,” specifically, symbolism of Christ’s relationship to the Church (Ephesians 5:30–32), procreation of the human race (Genesis 1:27–28), and companionship (Genesis 2:18).
As a description of the historically Christian view, this seems right to me. Certainly, it is the view that Christians who favor same-sex marriage reject, so we now turn to their arguments for doing so. Sprinkle refers to those arguments as “conversations.”
What Christians believe about same-sex marriage is not determined by public opinion polls, obviously. Rather, it is determined by the Bible.
Here are the 21 conversations, as epitomized by the book’s table of contents:
- Sex difference is described, not prescribed, in Scripture.
- “One flesh” does not imply sex difference.
- No one actually believes in “biblical marriage.”
- Paul was not talking about consensual same-sex relationships.
- Romans 1 is condemning excessive lust, not same-sex love.
- The biblical writers didn’t know about sexual orientation.
- Romans 1:26 isn’t referring to female same-sex relationships.
- The word homosexual was added to the Bible in 1946.
- The biblical writers were products of their homophobic and patriarchal culture.
- Jesus never mentioned homosexuality.
- Paul said it is better to marry than to burn (1 Corinthians 7:9).
- Jesus’ sabbath hermeneutic informs how we should interpret same-sex prohibitions.
- God’s acceptance of Gentiles mirrors how we should accept LGB people.
- The trajectory of woman and slavery justifies same-sex prohibitions.
- The traditional view of marriage is harmful toward gay and lesbian people.
- Some people are born gay, so it must be okay.
- Same-sex marriage is on the right side of history.
- Christians are hypocritical.
- Love is love.
- It’s an agree-to-disagree issue.
- The traditional sexual ethic is not livable for LGB people.
These conversations come at the topic from a variety of angles. Some are exegetical: What is the meaning of this word or phrase? I would place Conversations 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 11 into this category.
Many of the conversations are hermeneutical: How do we interpret Scripture given the distance between its culture and our own? Conversations 1, 3, 6, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, and 20 fit this category.
The remaining conversations often prioritize social science. I would categorize Conversations 16–21 in this category.
I should note that these categories are mine, not Sprinkle’s. Also, several of the arguments involve exegetical, hermeneutical, and social-science considerations. Even so, there are recurring patterns in these arguments, and my three categories attempt to capture those patterns.
For each of the 21 conversations, Sprinkle offers a summary, points of agreement, and critical response. Let me use Conversation 10 as an example of how Sprinkle reasons:
Summary: “Jesus never mentioned homosexuality or same-sex relationships. His silence on the matter is taken in one of two ways. Some argue that Jesus’ love for marginalized people suggests that He would have affirmed the sanctity of a loving, consensual same-sex sexual relationship. Others say that even if we can’t say Jesus would have affirmed same-sex relationships, He seems to have been indifferent to the issue since He never mentioned it.”
Points of agreement: Sprinkle acknowledges the fact of Jesus’ silence on this topic.
Critical response: Notice that this conversation is hermeneutical. How do we interpret Jesus’ silence on an issue? While revisionists interpret Jesus’ silence as tacit assent, Sprinkle points out that this is historically unlikely for several reasons.
First, he writes, “If you examine all the statements made by ancient Jewish writers five hundred years on either side of Jesus (500 BC–AD 500), you won’t find any statement by any Jewish writer that comes close to affirming same-sex sexual behavior. Every time it’s mentioned, it’s condemned.”
This unanimity of opinion about this topic is remarkable given “the diversity of Jewish views on all kinds of topics,” including sexual ethics. Jesus did not hesitate to disagree with the Pharisees on other aspects of sexual ethics, such as divorce, so His silence on homosexuality may imply agreement with its condemnation. Permissiveness simply wasn’t a live option for Him.
Moreover, Sprinkle goes on to point out, “Jesus wasn’t silent on the central question in the debate: the question of sex difference in marriage.” In Matthew 19:4–5 and Mark 10:6–8, Jesus affirmed the heterosexual character of marriage in Genesis 2:4–5: “the Creator ‘made them male and female’” and “the two will become one flesh.”
Finally, Sprinkle argues, while Jesus did not use terms specific to homosexuality, He did condemn “sexual immorality” (e.g., Matthew 15:19; cf. Mark 7:21). The Greek term Jesus used is porneia. While this word referred to prostitution in the ancient world, first-century Jews and Christians used it of “all forms of sex outside of male/female marriage.” In context, then, Jesus’ condemnation of porneia implicitly included same-sex sexual behavior.
Because I am a Christian, and because public opinion about same-sex marriage has changed so rapidly in my lifetime, I have read more than a fair share of books on the topic, whether for or against. For a general reader new to this debate, I recommend Does the Bible Support Same-Sex Marriage? as a clearly written, fairly argued case for the traditional, biblical view of sexual ethics.
As that view is now a minority view in America, it behooves those of us who affirm it to understand the exegetical, hermeneutical, and social scientific arguments that predominate the debate. For me, the types of arguments Sprinkle makes are definitive. The Bible does not support same-sex marriage. That should settle the debate among Christians who affirm biblical authority.
But knowing what the Bible teaches is no longer enough. In a culture where an increasing number of our neighbors do not acknowledge biblical authority, and even self-identified Christians are critical of its teachings, Christians need to develop an apologetic for their sexual ethic. Such an apologetic would show the truth, goodness, and beauty of what the Bible teaches about this topic.
Perhaps Sprinkle could do that in his next book.
Preston Sprinkle, Does the Bible Support Same-Sex Marriage? 21 Conversations from a Historically Christian View (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2023).