Jesus does not mention homosexuality or same sex marriage in the Gospels.
Some Christians believe that Jesus did, however, when the Pharisees asked him his stance on divorce (divorce, mind you, not same sex marriage). They believe this for two reasons:
- Because Matthew 19v9 contains the word porneia, and
- Jesus appeals to Genesis 1v27 and 2v24, which acknowledge the obvious fact that human beings are both male and female.
Matthew vs Mark and Luke
Matthew 19v1-12 is very similar to Mark 10v1-12. The majority of Bible scholars believe that Mark was written first (it’s called Markan Priority). For example, 95% of Mark appears in Matthew.
Mark and Matthew are different regarding Jesus’ teaching on divorce. The original Greek of Matthew 19v1-12 includes the word porneia, often translated “sexual immorality,” as grounds for divorce. Mark 10v1-12, the parallel of Matthew 19v1-12, does not include the word porneia. In fact, in Mark 10 and Luke 16v18, Jesus gives no exception to his prohibition of divorce. Matthew adds the porneia clause, which most or all English translations understand to mean adultery, having sex with someone other than the spouse. Matthew also adds a clause to the end of the question that does not appear in Mark, “for any and every reason.”
In addition, Mark, writing primarily to a Greco-Roman audience, indicates that a woman could divorce her husband. Matthew does not include any mention of a woman divorcing her husband. Matthew wrote primarily to Jewish Christians, and in Jewish courts, a woman was not permitted to initiate a divorce. It appears that either Matthew or Mark and Luke contextualized Jesus’ teaching on divorce to their audiences.
These differences, alone, between Mark 10, Luke 16 and Matthew 19 cause problems for proponents of biblical inerrancy, especially those who believe that God is the source of every single word in the Bible. Either Mark and Luke contain an incomplete quote from Jesus, or Matthew adds the adultery clause and omits the clause about a woman initiating a divorce in Mark. Both raise questions that must be considered.
In addition, some Christians believe that because the definition of porneia may include same sex acts, and Matthew has Jesus using the word porneia, it follows that Jesus speaks against same sex acts. If it is true that Jesus has same sex acts in mind by the use of porneia (remember, porneia is not included in Mark or Luke as ground for divorce), then Matthew 19 would mean that Jesus permits a man to divorce his wife if she engages in lesbian acts. I suppose this would be the case! However, to fit the context of the passage, the word porneia in Matthew 19 is usually translated into English as adultery or unfaithfulness.
These passages have been used to clobber those who are divorced. This is unfortunate because the context of the passages is different from the context of our 21st century Developed World.
In Mark 10 and Matthew 19, the religious experts ask Jesus a specific question, hotly debated in their time. King Herod Antipas, the local client king of the Roman Empire, had recently divorced his wife so that he could marry his half-brother’s ex wife (!). Famously, John the Baptist criticized Herod’s behavior, and Herod had John executed. Divorce was a hot topic in Jesus’ culture partly because of the selfish, individualistic behavior of royal families.
Here are the actual questions the Pharisees ask Jesus (notice that Matthew adds an additional clause at the end):
- Mark 10v2, “Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
- Matthew 19v3, “Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’”
Notice all of the specific scenarios we connect with marriage and divorce that are not listed in this question:
- Domestic violence
- Emotional abuse
- Same-sex relationships
- And, of course, in Matthew there is no mention of a woman divorcing her husband!
In his answer, Jesus does not address any of the above questions that 21st century Americans might have about marriage and divorce.
Polygamy appears in the Old Testament, but monogamy had become the cultural norm for marriage by the time of Jesus. The famous rabbis Hillel and Shammai, contemporaries of Jesus, debated the grounds for divorce that could be used by Jewish men. Hillel gave the more permissive interpretation that a man could divorce his wife for trivial reasons. Shammai gave the interpretation that a man could only divorce his wife because of adultery. A woman was not permitted to divorce her husband in Jewish law, although Roman law did permit a woman to divorce her husband (Mark 10v12).
In Mark 10 and Luke 16, Jesus’ answer is even stricter than that of Shammai. In Matthew 19, His answer is in agreement with Shammai.
Some Christians believe that because Jesus quotes Genesis 1v27 and 2v24, stating that God made humans male and female, people who are gay cannot be married. Simply put, pointing out that human beings are both male and female does not prohibit people who are gay from being married.
Reading a statement about same sex marriage into Genesis 1 and 2 is an example of an informal logical fallacy called hasty generalization.
An example of hasty generalization would be: A person visits a farmer’s market and sees that the stand operated by a particular farm is selling only red apples. The person might jump to the hasty generalization that the farm only grows red apples. It may very well be that the farm grows various kinds of apples, but the farmer already sold all of the green ones that day.
Assuming that God condemns same sex relationships because Genesis states that God created males and females is a hasty generalization. Same sex relationships are simply not mentioned in Genesis 1 and 2, nor in Mark 10, Matthew 19 or Luke 16.
By appealing to Genesis 1, Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees is in favor of a committed, monogamous relationship versus a man divorcing his wife for a trivial reason. Neither the question nor the answer addresses homosexuality or same sex marriage.
Again, Jesus’ answer does not address domestic violence, neglect, or even the right of a woman to divorce her husband. These passages cannot even be used to write divorce laws in the U.S., let alone laws regarding same sex marriage.
Marriage is Between…
In current American politics, Genesis 1v27 and 2v24 is used as the biblical support for the slogan “Marriage is between one man and one woman.” I hesitate to say that marriage in biblical cultures was seen as between one man and one woman, because the bride was most likely a teenage girl.
In cultures of both the Old and New Testament, most marriage was an arranged between a 25-30 year old man and a girl who would now be a freshman in high school. The typical monogamous marriage in biblical cultures was between a man and a teenage girl (this probably true of Mary and Joseph, as well).
To be precise, current politicians who want to use the Bible in its cultural context to speak about same sex marriage could say, “Marriage is arranged by the parents and is between one man and one teenage girl.” That doesn’t make for a very good political slogan… and it would require a very large bumper sticker.
Polygamy was common in the cultures that produced the Old Testament. Abraham enters into a polygamous marriage with his slave(!), Hagar. He then divorces her and leaves her to die with their child. Paul commends Abraham’s faith, in Romans 4v3. Solomon famously had 700 wives and 300 concubines. His polygamy is not criticized in 1 Kings 11v2,9-11, but his idolatry is. Polygamy was quite common and uncriticized in the cultures in which the Old Testament was written. Genesis 1 was not used to criticize Abraham or Solomon.
Of course, Genesis 1 is true, that God created human beings as male and female. It’s also true that a small percentage of human beings are born intersex, literally both male and female. That alone creates a question for thoughtful, compassionate people.
Of course, male and female marriage and complementary genitalia makes male-female marriage the statistical norm for the human race. At the same time, we know that there is a percentage of people who do not naturally fit into this mold and are attracted to the same sex. What do we do with those persons whom God has also created?
So far, the standard Evangelical answer to persons who are gay has been, “Either marry someone you’re not attracted to, or live the rest of your life alone, without romantic companionship. If you choose companionship with someone you’re attracted to, then you’re an abomination, a reprobate, and you’re bound for hell… but… God loves you!” For obvious reasons, this does not communicate the love of Jesus to people who are gay.
So What Does Jesus Think Are Grounds for Divorce?
According to Matthew, Jesus says adultery (porneia) is grounds or divorce, but Mark and Luke do not include that clause. If Christians wanted to make a divorce law based on Jesus’ teaching, we would not know which verses should form the basis of the law. Three Gospel passages say two different things about the grounds for divorce.
Regardless, Jesus is not interested in making laws. The Pharisees are the ones interested in debating laws. They wanted to discuss legalistic rules regarding divorce, while Jesus pointed them to the ideal, the bigger story of what God intends for marriage.
Their question to Jesus, (poorly paraphrased) is, “Jesus, what is the minimum reason I can give to trade in my wife for a younger model?”
Jesus’ answer and appeal to Genesis 1v27 and 2v24 is in support of committed monogamy. Jesus answers (poorly paraphrased) “You’re looking for a legal loophole that permits you to commit adultery, but God intends for marriage to mean more than that.”
This is great advice for any marriage.