On Kevin Rudd, the bible and marriage equality

Kevin Rudd’s appearance on Q&A on Monday may or may not help his election chances this weekend, but one thing it did is create a bit of a splash in the christian blogosphere regarding his answer to a question about marriage equality. As far as I know this has never been described as a “christian blog”, but I thought I’d throw in my two cents worth.

In case you haven’t seen it (and you can watch it here), part of Rudd’s reply to a question about how he can stand for gay marriage rights was saying that the bible describes slavery as a “natural condition” because in Ephesians 6:5-8 Paul tells slaves to obey their masters. In reply, bloggers like Sandy GrantDavid Dould, as well as the pastor who asked the question and a few facebook posts I saw, have taken umbrage with Rudd’s biblical interpretation, saying that the bible never describes slavery as natural.

I think they have a point too. But I also think that they have missed the real point, because by focussing on the specifics of biblical interpretation they are ignoring that for centuries christians built their wealth, even their empires, on the horrific exploitation of slaves. And they justified it from the bible. The reason the church’s doctrine on slavery is what it is now is because we live this side of the abolition movement, not because everyone who reads the bible will automatically decide slavery is wrong.

I also don’t see how anyone who defends the passage in Ephesians to which Rudd referred can then claim, as the pastor who asked the question did, that Matthew 19:5 (“a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife”) can be used as an argument against gay marriage. Just like Paul in Ephesians, Jesus here is making no absolute moral statement, just referring to what the social conditions of the time were. There is no mention or hint in this passage of whether homosexual marriage should be allowed or not. Instead Jesus is responding to the Pharisees, who were using the law to justify men abandoning their commitment to their wives.

In fact, Jesus is silent on homosexuality in all the gospels, with the possible exception of this very passage, where his very cryptic statement in verse 12 (“there are eunuchs who were born that way”) could actually be seen as a challenge to anyone trying to draw defined boundaries around what is “natural” sexuality or gender.

It’s very dangerous trying to draw moral absolutes, or laws, from the bible. While I’ll be the first to say that the bible provides a wonderful foundation for ethics, there are a number of things within it that our modern society would find morally deplorable.

In the Old Testament there are brutal laws and punishments (including laws about slavery), and the advocacy of wholesale slaughter of innocents and genocide in the early days of Israel as a nation. Neither fit very comfortably with Jesus’ later teachings. In the New Testament there is sexism present that certainly seems to contradict Paul’s assertion in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.”

Not only that, but as Paul is trying to illustrate in that Galatians passage, the Christian message is not one based laws, but instead on grace and faith. Fundamental to Christianity is the idea that we’re all sinners and it’s not keeping laws that makes righteousness, but faith and love. “For the entire law is fulfilled by keeping this one command: Love your neighbour as yourself.” That’s Paul in Galatians 5:14. Jesus says something pretty similar in Matthew 22:40, but it also sounds quite close to what Kevin Rudd said the other night.

Jesus is anti-laws. The above paragraph shows that, but as further examples I will take a few passages from just one of the gospels. In the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5, Jesus systematically tears apart a number of laws (you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery…) by pointing out that it’s useless to keep laws if in your heart you’re not honouring others and God.

In Matt 12, Jesus intentionally and openly breaks the law twice in front of the religious leaders, picking food and then healing someone, to show the ridiculousness of the Pharisees’ legalism. In Matt 15, the Pharisees are again his target, this time over eating laws. “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me… their teachings are merely human rules.” In Matt 23, it’s the same story. As well as beautifully calling the Pharisees a “brood of vipers”, he calls them out for giving “a tenth of your spices… but you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.”

This post is long enough without me going into detail on any of these passages, but I recommend you check them out more for yourself. My point is that Jesus’ teaching is more about breaking laws than making laws. The bible is not a legal guidebook.

Here’s another little side point while we’re talking about Pharisees. A number of ethical issues were brought up on Q&A the other night, from climate change to refugees to economics. Were christians quoting the bible to press Kevin Rudd on these? It shows the way the church has managed to funnel biblical ethics into a couple of issues while ignoring others. If anyone wonders why the tide of popular opinion is changing and people aren’t convinced with the biblical ethics the church is presenting, this might be a good place to start.

Back to K-Rudd and the biblical passage in question. The really remarkable thing about the book of Ephesians is that it’s a letter that addresses the slaves and speaks to them not as private property but as people with their own moral agency. Immediately following (6:9) is a warning to slave owners that “both their master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him.”

Not only that, but it’s being written by someone in prison (6:20), who claims his authority from another criminal – a man who had in living memory been executed by the government and religious leaders.

Things change, and so it happens that this once persecuted sect called Christianity has come to be the religion of kings and emperors. Of the economically privileged in today’s world who, like the slave owners of the past, enjoy prosperity on the back of the exploitation of others. Where once we were criminals, now we are lawmakers.

But core to the message of the gospel is still the image of God not ruling from a throne, but rejected and despised; hanging on a cross. The God who says that “whatever you do for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did for me.” (Matt 25:40)

Maybe the place for Christians to be seeking is not that of the legislators deciding who can be married and who can’t, but trying to be loving neighbours to some of the modern day outcasts – those who have grown up being called poofters, fags and dykes. Those who have been told by our society that a sexual orientation beyond their control is somehow inferior or wrong. Those who have been turned away from our churches like the sinners and tax collectors of the bible.

But a warning – identifying as Jesus does with the poorest and least can challenge some of our preconceptions and possibly change you forever. After I made the effort to go out and befriend those my churches had told me were immoral, I found myself standing alongside my gay/lesbian/bi/trans/queer friends, declaring that their struggle for equality was also mine.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “On Kevin Rudd, the bible and marriage equality

  1. Hi Andy,

    Thanks for your engagement on this issue. I wanted to take up a couple of things you write:

    The reason the church’s doctrine on slavery is what it is now is because we live this side of the abolition movement, not because everyone who reads the bible will automatically decide slavery is wrong.

    This is simply incorrect. The New Testament itself is clear (as Sandy pointed out) that slaves ought to be freed and that the slave trade is wrong. Long before the abolition movement, in the first few centuries of Christendom, Christians were opposed to the slave trade as a direct consequence of these NT texts. To suggest that opposition is a recent novelty is simply incorrect.

    I also don’t see how anyone who defends the passage in Ephesians to which Rudd referred can then claim, as the pastor who asked the question did, that Matthew 19:5 (“a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife”) can be used as an argument against gay marriage. Just like Paul in Ephesians, Jesus here is making no absolute moral statement, just referring to what the social conditions of the time were. There is no mention or hint in this passage of whether homosexual marriage should be allowed or not. Instead Jesus is responding to the Pharisees, who were using the law to justify men abandoning their commitment to their wives.

    Your key assertion here, that “Jesus here is making no absolute moral statement, just referring to what the social conditions of the time were” is simply incorrect and even the briefest referral to the text makes that clear. He says “Have you not read that in the beginning…” and then cites Gen 2. His rationale is not “this is what works for people nowadays” but “this is how God set things out in Creation” which is certainly an “absolute” in that it speaks to God’s intended purpose in Creation.

    In fact, Jesus is silent on homosexuality in all the gospels,
    Yes, but then as has been pointed out by many He is silent on a number of issues on which we think he is clear, such as rape. To point to His apparent silence on a specific application of sexual ethics is tantamount to a new legalism, being picky with exactly what he does and does not say – ironically it is that sort of picky pedantry that He speaks against in Matt 19.

    The better question to ask is “what is the model of sexual ethics which Jesus affirms?” and then the answer is clear. He affirms the creation order of heterosexual monogamy and he uses terms such as “porneia” (sexual immorality) (e.g. in Mark 7) that had commonly understood meanings. He assumes the sexual ethic of the Old Testament and the burden of proof is massively upon those who claim He revokes it.

    As for Jesus’ attitude to the Torah, I fear your approach is simply incorrect as Jesus Himself states,

    “Matt. 5:17    “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

    As for Jesus “breaking the law” the only thing he breaks is the Pharisees legalistic approach. For example He reclaims the Sabbath as a time of restoration and healing as per its original intention.

    That’s worlds away from “Jesus is anti-laws. ” Rather than “tearing them apart” as you assert, He actually strengthens them. He shows us the real intent of the Law, to speak not just to our actions but to our hearts. This is no legalism, of course, but it simply is not true that the law is just wiped away. Such a claim simply does no justice to the actual recorded words of Jesus.

    Having said all that, I’m in wholehearted agreement with your penultimate paragraph. But the ultimate one is poorly stated. Yes we stand in love with those who feel marginalised. Such love always reaches out to exactly where people are at, just as Jesus did. But such love loves too much to leave people where they are at, just as Jesus did. He loved people enough to call them to repentance and to follow Him. And since He has actually spoken clearly in the realm of sexual ethics in His own recorded words and in those of His apostles it seems to me that to truly act in love as He did is to do the same as Him – to love those who sin, declare forgiveness of sins to all who confess, call them to repentance and then stand with and support them in their struggle to be godly.

    • Thanks for your reply David. I thought somebody might bring up that passage in Matthew 5:17-19. I didn’t really have room to mention that specific verse, but you may have noticed that the sermon on the mount was actually one of the examples I used to make my original point.

      Jesus does say that he didn’t come to abolish the law, but what he does immediately afterwards is break down a series of laws and replace them with a moral code which you could never legally enforce – you can’t legislate against someone being angry or looking at a woman lustfully. I think it is an attack on the very idea of legalism – keeping laws is not the same as doing good, it just means navigating your way around written laws while still doing pretty much what you want.

      I think that verses 17-19, when written as an introduction to the rest of Matthew 5 (which they surely are), and in fact the rest of the “hypocrite” attacking sermon on the mount, are pretty consistent with my argument.

      And you pretty much say the same – that he speaks not just to our actions but our hearts. I’m not trying to argue that he wipes away the morality of the original laws (well, the love your enemies part does clash with the OT a little bit), only that legalism as a way of enforcing morality is something that Jesus is against. Instead he instructs us to love our neighbour – which forces us to try to do what is good rather than just avoiding what is wrong.

      Other than that I think there are a number of things we agree on, and a few we disagree on that debating here probably won’t change. So I’ll just leave it at that. I appreciate you writing graciously and sincerely, and I hope that we can both keep trying to love our neighbours the best we can.

      • davidould

        hi Andy, thanks for that detailed reply. Just a couple more things from me:

        I think it is an attack on the very idea of legalism – keeping laws is not the same as doing good, it just means navigating your way around written laws while still doing pretty much what you want.
        indeed. But I think you are in danger of confusing a rejection of legalism with a rejection of the law. As Christians we are against legalism and we’re against using the law as a means of justification. But we’re not against the Law in and of itself. Jesus, as we both note, applies the law very forcefully when necessary. His Apostle also tells us (1Tim1) “the Law is good if it is used “lawfully”” (ie according to it’s proper purpose).

        I fear that in rejecting legalism you also reject that good part of the law (which includes a clear statement about what holy sexuality does and does not look like) and in order to do so we end up doing violence to the actual meaning of what Jesus says.

        But yes, we do agree on lots. Thanks again for this opportunity to engage.

      • davidould

        one other thing, Andy. I note your reply doesn’t engage at all with the argument from Gen 2. I think this demonstrates a major flaw in the position that you and others put forward. I’ve yet to hear a convincing response on that particular line.

      • Andy, what leads you to conclude that Jesus was ‘replacing’ laws in Matthew 5? Ive always interpreted verses 21-48 as introducing additional policies rather than replacing old ones.

      • As I said above, the additional policies Jesus introduces aren’t laws. They are a moral code that is impossible to legislate. While he does seem to make the laws stricter, what he does (I think intentionally) is make new ethics that are based on our conscience rather than any law enforcement. The sermon on the mount is a consistent critique of hypocrisy and legalism, including this part.

      • davidould

        Andy, do you think it’s possible that the Sermon on the Mount is not so much introducing a new ethic as showing us what the original intended ethic of the Torah was?

  2. Beautiful stuff man. I got into a rather lengthy argument on facebook about K Rudd’s appearance the other day (actually began with a link posted by your bro). But your extra biblical knowledge explains things a whole lot more fully than I could.

  3. Christopher Paine

    Thanks Andrew – a well written piece which expresses the gospel msg so well.

  4. Thank you for such a wonderful explanation. It is so refreshing to read a Christian perspective that defers from the usual “homosexuality is wrong” theme.

  5. Yes, in Mat 19, Jesus is responding to the Pharisees’ question about heterosexual divorce, but in doing so, he quotes and affirms Genesis 2 and he teaches that when a man marries a woman, they become one flesh. IE they join together, completing the cycle that began at the creation of Eve, when she was created from Adam and one flesh became two. The illustration in Genesis 2 shows that such a process does not relate to two people of the same gender coming together. In the case of a homosexual union, there is no entering into the cycle of the two becoming the one flesh, because such a union doesnt involve the two genders required as illustrated in Genesis. By illustrating marriage as being the rejoining the flesh of the first man and woman, Jesus teaches that Christians marriage is inherently heterosexual. This notion of heteronormativity is echoed in the Epistles, eg Ephesians 5 where no room is allowed for same-sex marriages when it says “each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” This position is taken despite the practise of homosexuality amongst the non-Christian Greek culture at the time. If Jesus felt that it is okay for a Christian man to have a husband, why would he portray a Christian man’s spouse to only be a wife as per Luke 14:26?

    Im not entirely convinced that “the Christian message is not one based laws, but instead on grace and faith.” I would agree that the Christian teaching on salvation is not based entirely on laws (Eph 2), as salvation seems to have been for the Jews before Jesus arrived. But the Christian message still involves following many laws, or at least many principles. It seems strange to me that you point to Matthew chapter 5 to illustrate an argument that Jesus opposed laws – in that chapter, Jesus introduces quite a number of new laws for his followers to obey. I also disagree that the illustrations from Matthew 15 and 23 show us that “Jesus’ teaching is more about breaking laws than making laws.” Rather I suggest that those illustrations show Jesus to be concerned with attitudes and the heart of the laws, and his disappointment with the Pharisees attempt to overemphasise the letter of the law while underemphasising the spirit of the law. Jesus does not teach his followers to ignore all religious law. As he said in Mat 23:23 “you should have practised the latter [law] without neglecting the former [law].” Jesus also criticised the attempts of the Pharisees to prioritise tradition over religious law (Matthew 15:6). A person’s tradition, is often reflective of their moral code. It seems that KRudd’s moral code is that homosexual relations are okay and he would like to see a tradition where homosexual marriage is part of life. If that’s the case, then KRudd is perhaps likewise prioritising tradition over religious law, in violation of Matthew 15:6 etc.

    However both you and Rudd raise some good points. And at the end of the day, Jesus did not teach his followers to legislate Christian morality onto others. Jesus made a distinction between church and state (Mat 22:21). If non-christian homosexuals want to get married, it’s not really the business of Christians, who should be busy doing the things that Jesus taught his followers to do.

    • Thanks for your reply. I wrote a little bit about Matt 5:17-19 in a reply to another comment just above, so I won’t repeat that here. And I do like your last paragraph, but I think that doing the things Jesus taught us to do includes loving our homosexual neighbours, which is the question we as a church need to work out how best to do.

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