The case of Bishop V. Eugene Robinson of the Episcopal Church raises the issue of whether a bishop engaged in a homosexual relationship ought to be confirmed. I contend that on a matter of this kind the primary focus of the church needs to be on marriage, and in this case homosexual marriage. I approach this question in terms of Scripture and the tradition of the church. First, we turn to Scripture to see what is taught there.
The term homosexuality as we understand that word today appears nowhere in Scripture. In fact, the word was not coined until the nineteenth century. Moreover, there is no evidence that the Scripture addresses the matter of sexual orientation as that characteristic is now understood. In Scripture the attention is given to same-sex practices. It is a minor concern and appears in only five passages. (I exclude two passages on same-sex rape that are not under consideration here. Rape of any kind is wrong.) Biblical scholars hotly contest all of these passages.
Two passages in the Hebrew Scriptures prohibit same-sex practices. Located in Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20 these passages are part of the Holiness Code. There is little question that a good deal of the Holiness Code has been surpassed and transformed by the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament church, for example its purity codes and certain drastic punishments not in the spirit of Christ. Certainly much of that Code is not regarded as authoritative for the church in its deliberations today. To make a case against homosexual marriage one must go beyond these texts.
In the New Testament three passages cast same-sex practices in a negative light. I Corinthians 6.9 names two groups who will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Two Greek words are used for these groups, and their translation is a matter of contention among New Testament scholars. One of the words (malakoi) means "soft" and "effeminate," morally and in other ways. The translation of the other word (arsenokoitai) is highly contested. Its meaning is not clear. This second word is also used in I Timothy 1.10. Some claim that it involves an active and superior man (the penetrator) and a passive and inferior one (the penetrated) in a sexual act. Others maintain that it is a reference to same-sex prostitution. Yet, other studies suggest that the sex acts referred to in these passages involve some kind of economic exploitation, and so on. In none of these cases can one move to a blanket condemnation of all same-sex practices. Too many expressions of same-sex activity fall outside these more specific prohibitions.
The most important text is that of Romans 1. 24-27. Here Paul is addressing the polytheism and idolatry of Gentiles. In this idolatry God gives these Gentiles up "to degrading passions" expressed in same-sex relations by both men and women (this is the only time women are addressed in terms of same-sex sexual acts in Scripture). The same-sex practices in this passage result from idolatry. Moreover, Paul sees sexual desire as of one kind. That is, same-sex desire is not a different sexual orientation in Paul, but rather an inordinate and excessive desire. The desire that, say, a man has for a woman is the same desire in same-sex desire, only of greater degree. So, because of their idolatry God gives up the Gentiles to this excessive desire and same-sex practices. To be sure, sexual practices growing out of idolatry are to be condemned, whether they are homosexual or heterosexual. This prohibition, however, does not address a host of same-sex practices as it does not address heterosexual practices that do not result from idolatry.
In short, all of the references to same-sex activity in Scripture are negative. It is not condoned anywhere. Yet, each passage either occurs in a biblical context that has been surpassed and transformed (the Holiness Code), or it addresses specific instances and these cannot be universalized. For example, one cannot accept the characterization of same-sex practices in Romans 1 without taking seriously that the practices condemned there are those resulting from idolatry. This important passage does not engage all that is before the church today, especially homosexual marriage. We must, therefore, look beyond these five texts to come to an adequate stand by the church.
To address Christian homosexual marriage, attention must be turned to the tradition of the church, and here I am indebted to the work of Daniel M. Bell, Jr. St. Augustine is the major figure in the teaching of the church on marriage. For him marriage is an office, a duty in which one serves the church and the larger society. This office serves three ends. First is the procreative end, which is understood by Augustine as raising children for the Kingdom of God. It is not primarily having children of one's own in a biological sense. The second end is the unitive end in which couples learn faithfulness to each other and to God and become thereby witnesses to an "order of charity." The third is the sacramental end, which for Augustine relates more often to the indissolubility of marriage.
These three ends are sustained in the later Middle Ages. While Augustine sees marriage as serving to restrain lust, in the later Middle Ages a more positive view develops in which marriage contributes to growth in holiness.
In the Reformation the three ends are basically accepted but with modifications. Marriage as an official sacrament of the church is rejected, but it continues to be sacramental, that is, it can point to God, especially in the mutuality and companionship of couples with each other. Further, the sacramental sense relates not so much to the indissolubility and restraint of sin issues-which are now taken up in the unitive function-- but rather to that of mutual support and companionship. Finally, the procreative end loses its central importance, and other functions such as marriage as a mutual society take center stage.
Among Methodists, John Wesley edits the Book of Common Prayer and sends it to the United States in 1784. He retains the section that lays out the three traditional ends of marriage, but in a 1792 revision of the marriage liturgy U.S. Methodists dropped these three ends. Since that time marriage as loving companionship is central, though fidelity and the indissolubility of marriage are not absent. The procreative end is no longer or seldom used.
The point is that marriage in the Christian tradition serves a number of ends: procreation, fidelity, sacrament/al, mutual support and companionship, mutual society, and loving companionship. What is striking is that all of these ends can be met by homosexual marriages, even the procreative end when the procreative end is understood as raising children for the Kingdom of God and not primarily as a function of nature [a biological function]. On these grounds, it is appropriate for gay and lesbian Christians to be married in the church, and it is not in violation of Scripture or tradition.
The objection to this argument by some Christians is to raise up Mark 10:7-8 where Jesus states that "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." The argument is then made that this is the only form scriptural marriage can take. The issue addressed in this passage, however, is divorce. Jesus is responding to a hard-hearted test of his authority. Extending his response to a blanket denial of homosexual marriage goes well beyond the text. Moreover, it is uttered by a single Christ who did indeed leave his mother and father to engage in his Incarnate mission. So long as we are dealing with a single Christ who left father and mother for a different reason, we must be open to other possible options, especially options that fulfill the ends of Christian marriage traditionally understood.
In conclusion, biblical teaching does not address a host of same-sex practices, among them homosexual marriage. Moreover, the ends of marriage as understood in the tradition of the church are ends that homosexual marriage can fulfill. So the issue in the confirmation of a bishop in a homosexual relationship is not whether he or she is gay, not even whether he or she is a practicing homosexual. The question is: is he or she married to this partner, and if so, does this marriage meet these ends?