This is a big passage in our world right now. Or maybe I should say my world, that is United Methodist world. So in today’s episode, I need to do some work to talk about this passage in the context of what’s happening in the UMC. The battle in our denomination around LGBTQ+ inclusion has been going on for 47 years, and the way that battle is fought is by launching Bible passages back and forth like hand grenades. Over the course of the debate, one of the big arguments for inclusion is Jesus’ silence on what we call today LGBTQ+ identities. So the conservatives went and found the place where Jesus addresses this to try to disprove the “silence” theory. Today’s post is what I believe to be a necessary and not-so-diplomatic corrective to just how abjectly disingenuous the conservative application of this passage is.
In verse 4, Jesus says, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?'” Out of context, you can see how one might come to the conclusion that Jesus seems to be defining marriage as between “one man, one woman”. But this is wrong. Just wrong.
I’m going to be very pointed here, because, frankly, I’m fatigued of playing nice on this one. It is the conservative wing of Christianity- and specifically, “traditionalist” faction of the UMC- that prides itself on Biblical interpretation, following the Bible, and being the people who let the Bible dictate polity, doctrine, and policy more than any others. In fact, their biggest argument in our 47-year fight on these matters has been that we progressives are creating a “departure from Biblical ethics.” We are “abandoning the Bible”. Yet their interpretation of this verse- their signature verse on these matters these days- is utterly disingenuous. The exegesis is dishonest, the theology is wafer thin, and the hermeneutic is rooted in 20th and 21st-century straight white male colonialism. The very people who claim to have the corner on Biblical interpretation don’t even use the tools at which they claim to be experts.
So let’s break this down…
First of all, context. My how they love to ignore context, the most basic component of Biblical interpretation. So let’s start at the beginning.
This passage is not a teaching on marriage. These words come out of the religious leaders trying to trap Jesus: “Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked…” (19:3). The premise for this whole conversation is a dishonest and disingenuous one to begin with. That matters. It says something about what the passage is really about. It’s not about what Jesus is teaching as much as it is about the way the religious institution is trying to discredit him. That’s the narrative.
But what is it that the Pharisees ask? They ask, “Jesus, is same-sex marriage Biblical?” NO! They ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” So first, if Jesus is teaching anything, he is explicitly teaching about divorce and is (at best) implicitly teaching about same-sex marriage. The traditionalist faction hinges their argument on what Jesus may (or may not) be implicitly teaching while abjectly ignoring what he is explicitly saying, and they do this by removing the context. It is dishonest, shameful, and manipulative interpretation. If you are going to marginalize LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church because of this verse, then you must do the same with anyone who has been divorced, and that’s a road I don’t think any of us want to go down. It is a harmful road.
The conversation continues between Jesus and the Pharisees, as they debate the minutia of the law on matters concerning divorce. Nowhere does the conversation ever go toward a generalized “definition of marriage”. Jesus does not “define marriage” here. He argues about the 1st Century Jewish law in regards to divorce. And may I remind us all that even if he is talking about marriage, he is not talking about marriage as we understand it in 21st-century America. He is talking about marriage in a context where women had no rights and no power.
Marriage in this context is about an economic exchange, and Jesus’ restrictions on divorce here are not about excluding and shaming people who get divorced, but they are to protect women who had no voice, rights, or power and could be dismissed and left with no source of income or well being because of misogynist laws. If Jesus’ citation of the “one flesh” words from Genesis are teaching anything it is calling out the way in which men in that culture merely used and abused their wives. He’s saying “Look, if you’re interested in what God wants in marriage, how about you treat women with a little more respect, dignity, and care and let them speak into your lives more, and stop treating them as your property.”
Not only is it abjectly wrong to apply this passage to 21st-century Western same-sex relationships and marriage, but it is abjectly wrong to apply it to 21st-century Western marriage at all! The traditionalist faction of the UMC (e.g.: the Wesleyan Covenant Association folks) is violating one of the most “Wesleyan” elements of our tradition. They are throwing the quadrilateral out the window.
Putting all of this in context, what’s really going on here is Jesus is addressing the hard-heartedness of the Pharisees. They are coming to him to “test” him with questions about the law. Why? Because they are threatened by the work Jesus has been doing to reimagine the law and the way it is lived out in community and in so doing “fulfill the law and the prophets” (Matthew 5:17). They are threatened by the way this reimagining bends and even breaks down the man-made boundaries of the Kingdom of Heaven, and so the religious establishment is doing whatever they can to discredit him to stop this breaking of the kingdom wide open so that they can continue to enjoy their power and control. So too is it with the traditionalist faction of the United Methodist Church.
With that in mind, it makes perfect sense to me that this faction of the UMC would use this passage as their signature passage to exclude. It’s exactly what the subjects of the passage are doing.