A Galileo moment: pastoral reflections on same-sex marriage

by Stephen E. Pitts

“What happens when a gay person falls in love?”

This is a question that has weighed heavily on me for well over 30 years. As people visited me in my study and “came out,” it began to dawn on me that the simplistic answers that evangelical churches had proposed when confronted with such questions were no longer viable. Answers such as: “That kind of love is impossible since same-sex attraction is pathological,” or “Such love would have to be suppressed since it is prohibited by the Bible.” At best, this kind of approach makes God’s intention for sex a rather arbitrary matter, i.e., falling in love and marriage is strictly for heterosexuals and that is just the way it is. At worst, it is cruel in its denial of the same kind of commitment to a faithful “until death do us part” kind of relationship that heterosexuals enjoy.

Christians certainly start with scripture as a guide. The literature of the Covenant Church expresses this as “we believe that the Bible is the only perfect rule for faith doctrine and conduct” (Preamble to the Constitution and Bylaws) and that the Bible is an “altar” on which we meet the living God (Covenant Ministerium, 1963), and countless other examples. This posture is a good place to start for people who are looking to God for ultimate guidance. Having said that, we can also acknowledge that scripture does not explicitly answer all of our questions about who we are. When it comes to sexuality, the overlapping areas of medical, therapeutic, and scientific research have much to say and if we ignore such science, we do so at our own peril. Historically the church has made some extremely foolish blunders in ignoring science, such as insisting that the sun and planets revolved around the earth when Copernicus and then Galileo proved otherwise. Because the church held that the earth was center and no biblical texts could be found to contradict that view, the church would not yield to science for another century!

The Westminster Confession provides another approach. Starting with the phrase, “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture,” but then adds this most enlightening statement, “or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture; unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.” The Bible is not merely a prescriptive playbook of what we can or cannot do when it comes to human sexuality. And it certainly does not address the question put forth here, “What happens when a gay person falls in love and wants to spend the rest of their lives in a committed, faithful relationship?”

Again, is this kind of love an impossibility? Is it to be denied and suppressed to permanent abstinence? What if your child or sibling or grandchild falls deeply and permanently in love with someone of the same gender? Can we deduce from scripture a more inclusive view on human sexuality or, at the very least, enter into a conversation about it?

Plenty of essential issues of science and human sexuality are not addressed in the Bible. Before I entered the ministry, I had an eight-year career as a social worker with the state of Oregon’s child and family welfare agency. Our agency had broad responsibilities including child protective services, foster care, adoptive care, and more general family services. In fulfilling those responsibilities, we contracted with a number of clinical psychologists who served as consultants for us as we dealt with various issues in our caseloads. There were numerous occasions during those years when the topic of homosexuality came up both as it applied to specific cases and in more general “theory and practice” conversations. As early as 1971, the psychologists we knew were starting to seriously doubt the standard categorization of homosexuality as a disorder. In both personal practice and their understanding of evolving research, their conclusions were that same-sex attraction was not pathological and furthermore was not something that was chosen. No one knew how homosexuality developed, but there was a clear consensus that it no longer should be seen as a disorder. As a result of research in a number of different medical, psychological, and therapeutic arenas, in 1973 the American Psychological Association began the process of eliminating homosexuality from its list of disorders. Shortly thereafter, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Medical Association, and a host of other medical and mental health credentialing and professional organizations followed suit. In more recent research in the field of genetics, an article in Science magazine in October 2018 pointed out that there are four genes that are a determining factor in sexual orientation. Being gay is not a simple choice that one makes. It develops in the same manner that heterosexual identity develops. This is a common sense conclusion born out when those of us who are adults and assuming heterosexuality ask ourselves the question, “When did I ‘choose’ to become heterosexual?” It used to be that the church could fortify its position with science. That hasn’t been the case now for well over 40 years.

As a pastor, in each of the churches that I served, people came to me privately to say that they were gay or came as parents or siblings to say that their family member was gay. In the 1980s and the early ‘90s, the congregations I served seemed rather muted in response to the growing awareness of gay people in society in general and the church in particular. Most evangelical churches held to stated positions that marriage was reserved exclusively for heterosexuals. Celibacy was the only other option for everyone else. But in the meantime, there has also been a call for respectful conversation on the issue.

I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the exclusivity of a “marriage is reserved for heterosexuals only” approach. In addition, the seemingly endless debates have become not only wearisome, but increasingly angry and even intolerant of faithful dissent or even further conversation. During conversations with several academic colleagues it was pointed out to me that the current debate in the Covenant Church is almost exclusively weighted toward a hermeneutic of “prohibition” which focuses on what the Bible specifically prohibits. From this standpoint, the texts prohibiting homosexuality seem quite clear. But if one is limited to viewing the Bible in such a way on this or any other given topic, numerous problems arise.

On the issue of human sexuality then, what if our approach were to be based not just on what the Bible prohibits, but rather the question “What does it mean to be human created in the image of God?” This is a primary question from the field of theological anthropology. What if we deduce by good and necessary consequences what the Bible is actually saying and has been saying all along about who we are as humans created by God?

Dealing with that primary and essential question leads us deeper into our created humanity to a point where we are inevitably led to the realization that we are created to be in a loving relationship with God and with one another. In his classic I and Thou, Jewish religious philosopher Martin Buber points out that in the I-Thou relationship, the “Thou” is freed and steps forth in its deepest sense. It is a relationship that “fills the firmament” and everything else lives in its life. This is the core element of our humanity — to be in relationship with God and with one another. And for many — not all, but many — the need for that deep relationship that “fills the firmament” means the need to be in a relationship with God and also a monogamous, faithful relationship with another, which is to say, marriage.

Turning then to the heart of this essay as the “conversation starter” that it is meant to be, we have learned from medical science that same-sex attraction is not a disorder, nor is it pathological, nor is it chosen. Rather, for a certain percentage of the population it is as normal and occurs more frequently than does red hair. This is most certainly true. We can also deduce that for many, the core human need for relationship includes the need for marriage and this is of God. This is also most certainly true.

Celibacy may be appropriate for some, but eventually we are compelled to actually answer these questions:

1. What happens when a gay person falls deeply in love with another?

2. Are we really to deny the possibility and authenticity of such love?

3. And if that love is indeed normal and part of our created human make up as derived from being created in God’s image, are we to deny the blessings and sanctions of the church of Jesus Christ?

Those of us in heterosexual marriages need to ask ourselves how we would respond to the command of celibacy and the denial of the full range of ministries of Christ’s church if these standards were reversed and applied to us. Again, these are common sense questions and the logic of the gospel presses hard here.

In reference to the intersection of science, the Bible, and theology, Dr. Timothy Johnson, former ABC News medical correspondent and ordained Covenant pastor, wrote in Pietisten in 2019, “ . . . I fear we are repeating (the) mistake of using a handful of ancient texts to oppose growing discovery about variations in human sexuality. I have no doubt that within the next ten years, medical science will explain such variations in terms of genetics and hormonal influence during pregnancy. And once again, those who insist on applying a very few biblical texts as binding modern wisdom will find themselves on the wrong side of history with needed and embarrassing apologies to those who have been harmed by ‘dead dogmas.’”

The church today may indeed be facing another Galileo moment. But of greater concern is whether our stubbornly clinging to a hermeneutic of prohibition is destroying our theology of imago Dei. One crucial way to avoid this is to find ways to carry on our theological conversations with openness to both currently understood and new discoveries from the world of medical science while we listen respectfully — absent of anger — and remain open to faithful dissent.