Gay relationships in the Bible?

I have been reading the new edition of Jeffrey John’s book, now titled Permanent, Faithful, Stable, Christian Same-sex Marriage,in preparation for writing a couple of pieces on human sexuality. In the course of his discussion, Canon John makes brief reference to the miracle of the healing of the Centurion’s servant in Lk. 7:1-10 // Mt. 8:5-13, and draws on Theissen and others to suggest that ‘[a]ny Jew … would almost certainly have assumed they were gay lovers.’ (p. 14) On this basis, and because ‘the possibility that the relationship was homosexual would not have escaped Jesus, Matthew or Luke’ (15), Canon John argues that ‘it is a real question whether we are intended to see Jesus deliberately including a gay couple here as yet another category of the despised and rejected…’ (15)

I had heard this line before, of course, although the argument that it fitted a pattern in the healing miracles of extending grace to the excluded was new to me. It occurred to me, though, that it was not a text commonly considered in the literature on theological accounts of human sexuality, and a quick search confirmed that: Stan Grenz noted that the argument had been made in Welcoming but not Affirming; beyond that, as far as I could determine, silence. The text is not even treated in Robert Gagnon’s compendious The Bible and Homosexual Practice (except for a note about God-fearers amongst the Gentiles, with the intervention of the elders in Luke’s version being held up as evidence.)

This story seems to play extensively – along with the relationship of David and Jonathan (which gets a bit more discussion – see both Grenz and Gagnon, or Eugene Rogers, Sexuality & the Christian Body, e.g.) – in ‘semi-popular’ defences of the acceptance of faithful same-sex marriage in the church, at least in my hearing; given that, the silence of serious sources – from any side of the debate – is unfortunate.

It does seem clear, however, that neither account will stand up as a Biblical defence of faithful same-sex marriage. This is not because of the silence as to the precise relationship – Grenz’s point about the centurion, and Gagnon’s point about David and Jonathan – but because, even if we were to accept that the relationships were actively sexual, neither gets us anywhere near a picture of ‘faithful same-sex marriage’. Holding up David as an exemplar of any account of sexual ethics seems to me to be rather ambitious, given the details of his career; it is surely really very obvious that he was not someone who experienced exclusively same-sex erotic attraction and who was seeking a faithful and exclusive sexual relationship with another man…

As for the centurion, it is very plausible that a Roman centurion would engage in sexual intercourse with his slaves, both male and female; it was a standard way for a slave owner to assert control over his possessions. (There is an extensive literature on this.) Raping a slave to assert ownership and control is some distance from any  ideals of Christian marriage I know of, however. Even if we hypothesise some sort of unusually affectionate relationship (Luke has the slave as ‘precious’ - entimos – to his master), we have to insist that a properly loving relationship can never occur in the context of ownership – we open the door to all sorts of horrific ethical possibilities otherwise.

This is not the end of the argument of course – hardly even the beginning (Oliver O’Donovan entitled his book on the debates within the Anglican Communion A Conversation Waiting to Begin…). An intelligent discussion proceeds by testing and weeding out bad arguments, however, and these arguments are just bad.

7 Comments

  1. Sze Zeng
    Sep 19, 2012

    Hi Dr Holmes,

    I happened to come across Gagnon’s treatment on this issue here (if you have not already read it): http://www.robgagnon.net/articles/homosexCenturionStory.pdf

  2. Beau Quilter
    Sep 20, 2012

    If we surmise from Luke 7 that gay relationships are granted tacit approval by Jesus, then by the same logic, are we not missing a far more obvious interpretation of Luke 7: that SLAVERY is granted tacit approval by Jesus.

    Fortunately, human moral behavior is finally beginning to outgrow the need for “Biblical defense”, although (if we begin counting from the spread of Christianity) it’s taken us the better part of 2000 years to renounce the slavery of captives and all women.

    As humans begin to value loving, committed relationships without sexual prejudice, why look to the bible for moral defense? In the biblical view of marriage, the wife is the slave to the husband.

    You can argue that with both slaves and wives, the New Testament urges owners/husbands to “love” their slaves/wives, but as this post wisely asserts:

    “We have to insist that a properly loving relationship can never occur in the context of ownership”

  3. James
    Sep 20, 2012

    Thanks, I appreciate your thoughts about both David and the centurion.
    With regards to the centurion, I would only advise caution in saying, “a properly loving relationship can never occur in the context of ownership,” because of the relationship between the Christian and God.

    • Beau Quilter
      Sep 21, 2012

      I would say that the relationship between Christians and their God is a great example of why properly loving relationships can never occur in the context of ownership.

  4. The inequality of the centurion-slave relationship doesn’t really weigh against same-sex marriage, given that all heterosexual relationships in the ancient world were also unequal, with the woman at worst being treated as property and at best as an inferior. Modern marital ideals have thankfully evolved in a more egalitarian direction, but this is separate from the gender question.

    • Graham
      Sep 24, 2012

      I don’t think it’s right to say that “modern marital ideas” have taken us into a more egalitarian direction. Anyone who has spent some time reading Paul has to admit that his ideas about marriage and sex were revolutionary and presented a major paradigm shift, tying them to the gospel.

  5. G.H.
    Sep 21, 2012

    “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. . . .  I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Matt 9:12-13). Thus, the fact that Jesus may have healed the Centurion’s male lover would seem to imply the exact opposite of moral acceptance. But at the very least, to argue that Jesus’s healing of a person was tantamount to an approval of that person’s way of life misses a central aspect of God’s revelation through the body of Christ: that He loves each of us despite our sin, not because our sin isn’t actually sin. Grace is available not to the moral, but to the faithful.  And the gospel is quite clear that it was in fact the Centurion’s faith that earned him Christ’s compassion. Nothing is said of his morality. Indeed, I guarantee you that the Centurion had the blood of many innocent Jews on his hands. Is that to imply that Jesus approved of imperialism and genocide?

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