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Christian Ethical Arguments Regarding Same-Sex Marriage

Stephanie Schauder

Stephanie Schauder (’15) is from Huntersville, NC. Although she has not yet declared her major, she is interested in Environmental Studies and Economics. On campus she is a Chidsey Leadership Fellow, a member of the Habitat for Humanity Club, involved in Methodist College Fellowship, and helped start a creation care bible study. She also enjoys teaching Sunday school and Youth Group at Davidson United Methodist Church. Her essay was written for Dr. Perry’s News and Commentary Writing 101 class.

The ethical dilemma concerning same-sex marriage is especially difficult for Christians. A basic Christian duty is to follow the will of God despite the views of others. However, this task is not always straightforward because there are many scriptural injunctions, especially in the Old Testament, that Christians consider unnecessary in today’s world.1 Yet, other directors (such as the Ten Commandments) are believed to transcend time. Much of the debate about homosexuality in the church has centered on which category of rules same-sex relations fall into. No clear biblical distinction exists to differentiate the scriptural laws contemporary Christians follow and those they no longer consider appropriate; instead, the relevance of these directives has been determined over time by church leaders in prayerful consideration of God’s intentions. However, religious leaders differ dramatically in their opinions about same-sex marriage, leaving many Christians confused. Some believers assert that the biblical rules about homosexuality are ancient culture-specific, and therefore inapplicable to today’s world, while others contend that these instructions were divinely-inspired and cannot be amended. Several different Christian news sources have published articles containing varying ethical arguments to support their own conclusions on this issue. This essay will assess the strengths and limits of the arguments for or against same-sex marriage.

In Christianity Today, Edith Humphrey makes the normative claim that the law should not permit same-sex marriage because God commanded that his followers not engage in any sort of homosexual relationship. She cites Leviticus 18:22, which claims that these relations are “an abomination.” To her credit, Humphrey addresses the counterargument that rules regarding sexual relations might belong to the long list of Old Testament laws that Christians believe are no longer necessary. However, she asserts that the commands regarding homosexuality belong to a different category than many of the laws about kosher food or sacrifices because they were still important to the new Christian church. As the church evolved, many of the old Jewish rules were deemed unnecessary. Yet, Humphrey reminds us that Paul wrote in his marriage-2-300x205 Christian Ethical Arguments Regarding Same-Sex MarriageEpistle to the Corinthians about specific sins they should avoid such as drunkenness, “scorning what is holy,” adultery, and homosexual behavior.2 The new Christian church included many people who were not previously Jews, and did not follow the rules of the Old Testament. Thus the leaders of the church were forced to discern which of the Hebrew laws were necessary and which distracted believers from God. Humphrey asserts that because Paul placed such high value on the sinful nature of homosexuality, it must be contrary to God’s will.3 Clearly, Humphrey believes that same-sex relations should be prohibited simply because they are against God’s will, and no other explanation is required.

Humphrey makes the following deductive argument: If God says something is wrong, then it is wrong. God says homosexual relationships are wrong, therefore they are wrong. However, the premise that “God says homosexual relationships are wrong” is debatable. Humphrey believes this premise to be true because Paul affirmed the rules against homosexuality in the Old Testament during the creation of the Christian church. Yet, if she believes that these directives are the literal will of God simply because they are consistently expressed throughout the Bible, then she must explain why Christians do not follow many of the other rules that the Bible stipulates. In fact, it was common practice in biblical times for women to cover their heads, and the unveiling of a females’ hair was shameful.4 Paul affirmed the need for women to be modest and wear head coverings while praying, just as he affirmed the rules against homosexuality.  ((1 Corinthians 11:1-16, New Revised Standard Version.)) Nevertheless, the majority of Christians now consider head coverings unnecessary. If no factors other than biblical consistency are considered, it is arbitrary that homosexuality should be condemned and exposed heads in church deemed permissible. A deductive argument is valid if its conclusion follows logically from its premises. However, it is only sound if the premises are true.5 This argument could only be sound if Humphrey also accepted every other rule that is consistently laid out in the Bible.

Humphrey employs the ethical argument of Divine Command Theory, which posits an action is morally correct if God commanded it, and morally wrong if God did not. However, even if she was able to present a sound argument using Divine Command Theory, it is questionable whether the theory itself is logical in light of other Christian beliefs. In The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels asserts that Divine Command Theory is flawed in that it assumes God’s directives to be arbitrary. Therefore, one cannot claim God commands a certain action because it “is good,” but rather actions must be god because God commanded them. Thus God himself cannot be good.6 It is possible that a person could accept that God acts arbitrarily. Yet, many Christians believe that God commands his followers to act in certain ways because these behaviors are morally correct. Consequently, even if Humphrey’s argument were sound, in order to use Divine Command Theory, she would have to reject that basic Christian belief in the goodness of God.

A different normative argument against same-sex marriage assesses overall utility. Robert Sokolowski, of the National Catholic Weekly, claims that allowing same-sex marriage is unnatural and would have detrimental impacts on society. He argues that if marriage is separated from the goal of reproduction, then there is no reason why citizens should not marry their relatives, friends, or anyone else just for legal and financial benefits. He asserts, “Why not permit polygamy and polyandry?” Sokolowski believes that allowing same-sex marriage would contribute to economic problems, as unmarried friends would marry simply for benefits. However, more importantly, he believes that it would lead to mass confusion about the human purpose. He asserts, “Once we live in delusion about such an important issue, we will inevitably be misguided in regard to many other human things: religion, human relations, law, governmental policies, moral judgments, and even our cultural inheritance.”7 Sokolowski feels that procreation resulting from a traditional marriage is the basic purpose for humans. He reasons that if society allows unnatural homosexual relationships, there could be detrimental consequences for the next generation because the focus of society would be on personal pleasure instead of long-term benefit.

Yet, Sokolowski’s argument commits a slippery slope fallacy. In How to Think about Weird Things, the authors remind us that this type of argument asserts that one action will lead to an unfavorable chain of events that could have been prevented had that action not been taken. A slippery slope argument is a logical fallacy if there is not a strong reason to believe that the supposed effects will follow from the initial action.8 It is doubtful that the rest of society would change its opinion about marriage (or foresake same-sex relationships) as a result of homosexual marriage becoming legal. Sokolowski asserts that the fight for same-sex marriage reveals a change in values associated with the conception of the traditional family. Yet, he fails to consider that perhaps a law about same-sex marriage would not initiate a cultural change, but instead reflect one that has already occurred and that would not be made worse by  a same-sex marriage law. Also, even if a cultural change occurs, it is unlikely that it would be as detrimental as Sokolowski predicts. Both the Civil Rights movement and the feminist movement also had opponents who believed equality would be detrimental for society. Yet, time has shown that many of these projects were ill-founded. Similarly, there are many other countries where same-sex marriage is legal, and it has not seemed to affect family structure and human purpose. Sokolowski would need stronger evidence in order to prove that same-sex marriage is harmful to society.9

Christians have appealed to different ethical argments to try to find a moral truth about homosexuality.

Interestingly enough, Sokolowski does not use God’s will as justification for his position on homosexuality. Instead his argument resembles a Utilitarian conception of ethics. Utilitarians contend that a particular action is morally right if it generates more overall happiness in society than any other option. Even if a particular action may seem unfair to a certain group of people, a Utilitarian would defend it if its ratio of benefit to harm were better than that of any other option.10 Sokolowski feels that allowing same-sex marriage would have many negative impacts on the future of society. In fact, he believes that the ratio of negative to positive consequences of homosexual marriage would be much higher than that of current marriage laws. Therefore, he feels morally justified in opposing same-sex marriage.

Yet, one of the weaknesses of a Utilitarian argument such as this one is that it does not take into account other ethical values such as justice and equality. A strictly Utilitarian conception of morality would possibly allow discrimination, slavery, and other unjust institutions if they were proven to produce more social good than any other option. Therefore, a moral argument cannot be strictly based on consequences. Sokolowski does not consider that denying gay couples the right to marry is unjust and perhaps a form of discrimination similar to racism or sexism. Therefore, even if Sokolowski had managed to present a strong Utilitarian argument against same-sex marriage, it still may not constitute the correct moral action.

In fact, a non-consequentialist moral argument, which values justice and equality, is often employed in support of same-sex marriage. Mary Frances Schjonberg, of the Episcopal News Service, reports such an argument as Bishop Waggoner presents it. Waggoner argues that God’s desire for fidelity and Jesus’s teachings about inclusivity are more important than rules prohibiting same-sex marriage. He asserts that marriage is a “lasting and biding commitment [that] is neither temporary nor causal. It is, rather, the means through which divine love is shared and experienced in the greatest depth and fullness.” Furthermore, he asserts that privilege should not be denied to anyone on the basis of gender.11 Waggoner feels that a church that claims to be loving and open to anyone, should allow homosexuals the spiritual journey of the sacrament of marriage.

Waggoner takes a non-consequential view of morality and values equality of all people. He feels that a homosexual’s desire to be married reflects a desire to make a  holy covenant with God and a partner and to be a faithful loving spouse. Although he asserts that equal rights should be given to homosexuals simply because it would be unjust not to do so, he attempts to refute his opponents with an inductive argument demonstrating same-sex marriage would not have a negative effect on society. He reasons that many same-sex couples are already involved in loving, committed relationships outside of marriage, and that these relationships have not caused any significant ill to society. Therefore, legalizing these relationships will not hurt society because they exist anyway. According to Waggoner, allowing same-sex marriage is not only fair, it is logical because such relationships exist anyway.

Most Christians believe morally correct actions are equivalent to acting in a manner worthy of God’s approval. However, a problem arises when in a situation such as same-sex marriage, it is difficult to determine exactly how God would want humans to behave. Some people reconcile this dispute, as Humphrey did, by invoking Divine Command Theory. Yet, all Christians are not in agreement about God’s opinion on homosexuality. Even if they were, employing Divine Command Theory would mean that Christians could not also uphold the goodness of God. Because most Christians believe that God commands actions because they are good, it is reasonable to conclude that if a particular action is morally correct, then God would condone it. Christians have appealed to different ethical arguments to try to find a moral truth about homosexuality. Sokolowski feels that same-sex marriage is morally wrong because it would be harmful to society. However, he does not provide strong supporting evidence, and his article contains the slippery slope fallacy. Even if same-sex marriage was somehow proven to be harmful to society, he does not consider the importance of other ethical values such as justice or equality. Waggoner, on the other hand, does consider these values, and he comes to the conclusion that in keeping with Jesus’s message of love and inclusivity, the correct moral action is to provide equal rights to homosexual couples. He even concedes that same-sex marriage would not cause a significant social harm. Waggoner’s argument is the strongest because it contains no false premises or fallacies, and does not make sweeping assumptions as the other arguments do.

Bibliography

Baskin, Judith. “Covering of the Head.” Jewish Virtual Library http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0008_0_08618.html. (Accessed April 27, 2012).

Humphrey, Edith. “What God Hath Not Joined.” Christianity Today. September 1, 2004. http://global.christianpost/com/news/theologian-what-the-true-church-must-do-amid-normalization-of-homosexuality-72808.html. (Accessed April 13, 2012).

Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 4th Ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

Schick, Theodore, Jr., and Lewis Vaughn. How to Think about Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Schjonberg, Mary Frances. “Washington State’s Two Bishops Support Same-Gender Marriage Law.” Episcopal News Service. February 16, 2012. http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2012/02/16.washington-states-two-bishops-support-same-gender-marriage-law (Accessed April 13, 2012).

Sokolowski, Roberet. “The Threat of Same-Sex Marriage.” America: The National Catholic Weekly. June 7, 2004. http://americanmagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=3627 (Accessed April 13, 2012).

 

 

  1. In Leviticus 5:1-10, for example, the author declares that it is a sin to touch the carcass of an unclean animal, and that if a person does this, he should make a special sacrifice to the Lord. (New Revised Standard Version). []
  2. Edith Humphrey, “What God Hath Not Joined,” Christianity Today, September 1, 2004. http://global.christianpost.com/news/theologian-what-the-true-church-must-do-amid-normalization-of-homosexuality-72808 (Accessed 13 April 2012). []
  3. Humphrey, “What God Hath Not Joined”. []
  4. Judith Baskin, “Covering of the Head,” Jewish Virtual Library http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_002_0008_0_08618.html (Accessed 27 April, 2012). []
  5. Theodore Schick, Jr. and Lewis Vaughn, How to Think about Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001): 34-42. []
  6. James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 4th Ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003): 50-53. []
  7. Robert Sokolowski, “The Threat of Same-Sex Marriage,” America: The National Catholic Weekly June 7 2004. []
  8. Schick and Vaughn, How to Think about Weird Things, 54. []
  9. The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, and Portugal have all legalized gay marriage. []
  10. Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 102-109. []
  11. Mary Frances Schjonberg, “Washington State’s Two Bishops Support Same-Gender Marriage Law,” Episcopal News Service, February 16, 2012 http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2012/16/washington-states-two-bishops-support-same-gender-marriage-law/html. (Accessed April 13, 2012). []
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