A Necessary Corrective to Matthew 19: It’s Not About Same-Sex Marriage

victor-iaquA2snPbk-unsplashIn prepping for a presentation tonight on the Bible, the UMC, and LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church, I stumbled on this, which I posted on the blog for our church’s recent series on the Gospel of Matthew. For the sake of it being more accessible, I thought I’d post it here too (mostly so I can find it easier!). As I say below, it’s my “not-so-diplomatic” corrective to applications of Matthew 19.

The battle in the United Methodist Church around LGBTQ+ inclusion has been going on for 45+ years, and the way that battle is fought is largely by launching Bible passages back and forth like grenades. Over the course of the debate, one of the arguments for inclusion is Jesus’ silence on LGBTQ+ identities. To counter this, the conservatives went out and found the place where they believe Jesus addresses this in an effort to disprove the “silence” theory. Matthew 19:4 has become a verse on which they hinge their exclusion. This is my not-so-diplomatic corrective to just how abjectly disingenuous the conservative application of this passage is. 

In Matthew 19:4 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, one can see how one can come to the conclusion that Jesus seems to be defining marriage as between “one man and one woman” here. But this is wrong. Just wrong, and I am fatigued of the traditionalists’ misappropriation of Jesus’ words.

The conservative wing of Christianity (and specifically, the “traditionalist” faction of the UMC) prides itself on Biblical interpretation, adherence to the Bible, and being the people who insist the Bible drive polity and doctrine more than any others. In fact, their biggest argument in our 45-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-century straight white male colonialism. The very people who claim to have the corner on Biblical interpretation don’t even use the tools they claim to be experts at using and which the claim the progressives have abandoned.

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 look at this contextually.

This passage is not a teaching passage, like passages from the Sermon on the Mount are. 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 one to begin with. The Pharisees are not interested in a dialogue on marriage here. This is not about what Jesus is teaching as much as it is about the way the religious institution seeks to discredit him. That’s the narrative.

But what is it that the Pharisees ask? They ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” 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. If you are going to marginalize LGBTQ+ people 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 merely argues about 1st Century Jewish law regarding divorce. Furthermore, 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 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 and culture.  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 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, stop treating them like property, and start treating them like partners.”

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 is violating one of the most “Wesleyan” elements of our tradition. They are throwing the quadrilateral out the window.

Quickly, we also need to look at the Scripture Jesus is quoting, which is Genesis 2. Again, context: The Genesis 2 story is not a teaching on marital structures. It’s an origins story. It is first and foremost of about humanity as a whole and is dealing not so much with the what and how of humanity, but the why. One could argue that because it is an origin story, God is establishing a “one man, one woman” directive for all humanity and all time, and that is exactly how traditionalist interruptions read this. But there’s another way to see this that fits into the Biblical narrative better and that is this: Adam and Eve do not represent a human couple as much as they do humanity as a whole. This is not a story about one family. It’s about the beautiful diversity of all humanity and the way in which we are called to work with one another, in concert and harmony with our varying gifts and identities, to care for- that is, to “till and to keep”- the garden that is God’s world. To make this a directive on a narrow view of marriage for the 21st Century West is to severely minimize it and even colonize it. And furthermore, if that is what it’s about, how come it doesn’t take us too long in the narrative to get to a sanctioned culture with men who have multiple wives? It must be about something much, much bigger.

Putting all of this in context, what’s really going on in Matthew 19 is a Jesus who 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. 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 does whatever it can to discredit him and stop this breaking of the kingdom wide open so that they can continue to enjoy their power. That’s what Matthew 19 is about: Threatened power. 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.

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