Bible’s message is misinterpreted by clergy opposed to same-sex marriage

Guest Column by The Rev. Kenneth Chalker.

Maybe President Obama’s motivation for “coming out” and affirming his support for same-sex marriage was politically calculated. Perhaps the president’s statement, as hard as it may be to imagine, had nothing to do with politics. Maybe, the president’s statement supporting an opportunity for a lesbian or gay couple to enter into a legally recognized, binding, civil, marriage covenant and contract was an expression of his true conviction.

But whatever his motivation, President Obama’s statement of support for same-sex marriage is far more genuine than the unholy response of opposition his statement has received from too many clergy.  To be sure, the statements of ordained pastors — African-American in ethnicity or otherwise — thundering their opposition based on their view that God, through the Bible, teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman is just not true.

Such a view is at best shoddy, biblical scholarship. At worst, it is a very cruel lie.

The Christian Bible contains remembered stories, teachings, written memories of historical events and settings which — in some places in the text — had their origin in traditions which were more than 4,000 years old by the time of Jesus’ birth. In all that time, the rules of engagement, as well as the definition and practice of marriage, changed a number of times.

So, to assert that the Bible reveals an unchanging and unchanged definition and practice of marriage is a monstrous fabrication. Then, to go on and claim in the very same breath that the Bible advocates the civil practices of marriage as understood and defined by Western Culture in the 21st century is just plain holy smoke.

For the most part, marriage in the ancient world of Palestine and in the days of Jesus’ physical presence on earth was all about ownership of property, lines of inheritance and the recognized status of the landed, ruling class of a carefully defined economic and religious class of men. It had nothing to do — unless by happy unintended consequences — with a relationship of mutual love and emotional support. Rather, marriage was defined and understood amid the background of male-centered, theocratic, primogeniture legalities that within those structures afforded enormous legal license and privilege to the man and all to the exclusion of his wives.

An adult man in the world of ancient Palestine and surrounding geography could legally and morally have as many wives as he could afford, and in such number as could advance his social and economic status.

In terms of legal status, spiritual value and sexual behavior, women were not valued as persons of sacred worth or protected on the same level or in the same way as men. It is why Jesus challenged that spiritual and civil discrepancy by, among other things, intervening in the stoning of the woman “caught” in the act of adultery (government in the bedroom again), challenging the way in which divorce was practiced and by embracing children not as property, but as being the best living example of the nature of the Kingdom of God: embodying the characteristics of innocence and wonder.

The Bible does not teach marriage as between one man and one woman in a covenant of exclusive, spiritual and legal mutuality as well as expectation of sexual fidelity. That is why Jesus, who stood in the long line of reform and rabbinical tradition, was so clear in challenging the excessive and repressive practices of civil marriage that abused women and which were sanctioned by religious authority held by the all-male priesthood.

What is of greater importance to various writers of the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible and the 27 books of the Christian New Testament than a definition of marriage is the value and integrity of committed relationships. In regard to that critically important teaching, we still struggle in getting it right. And if anything, perhaps too many of us clergy, as well as many others, are examples not of lifting up and practicing what the Bible actually teaches, but as those who are masters of abusing relationships.

One more time and for the record: Clergy preaching that the Bible, in the name of God, defines marriage as between one man and one woman are wrong. Further, the hostility, self-righteous bigotry and condemnation of gay and lesbian couples that their “priestly” comments enable and inflame are examples of the very same religious bigotry that Jesus challenged 2,000 years ago.

Such religious voices helped crucify Jesus once. Too many “religious” voices continue their complicity in what continues to be the state-sanctioned execution of what the Bible really teaches: the importance of a loving, committed relationship that liberates the heart and soul from the power of hate, loneliness and despair.

Are we not all entitled to have such a relationship recognized and protected by law? I believe such a relationship is already blessed under heaven.

The Rev. Kenneth W. Chalker is senior pastor at University Circle United Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio.

This column appeared in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer on July 9, 2012, and is reproduced with The Plain Dealer’s permission.