One of the most controversial verses in the New Testament regarding whether or not same-sex and Queer relationships are affirmed by God comes from Matthew 19. It’s a sneaky verse not often considered a “clobber” passage, but to engage in responsible dialogue surrounding LGBTQ persons and faith, this is one we need to be able to address.
I have heard articulate, non-affirming scholars like Dr. Sean McDowell (PhD in Apologetics and professor at Biola University) argue that this verse and its context demonstrate that Jesus unequivocally affirmed straight marriages. Sean makes thought provoking arguments to back his claim. However, I make the case that Jesus critiqued something else entirely within the pericope of Matthew 19 that Sean has completely missed.
The portion of Matthew 19 being treated here is from the NRSV:
“When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he cured them there. Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” He answered, “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’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”
The Pharisees in the gospel accounts had an agenda; besting Jesus rhetorically especially in matters pertaining to Torah Law. Why? It’s simple, really: Jesus was authoritative, he had power to heal, he performed miracles and was rumored to be the Messiah. In addition, Jesus happened to know quite about about the Torah too. In antiquity (1st century CE), Pharisees had the power to teach Torah in the synagogues. They were the keepers and teachers of the Law. They knew every verse down to the letter. They had studied the Torah their whole lives under teachers and they had a serious problem with the actions and language of Jesus.
Jesus openly broke Torah and taught others to do the same. Jesus broke the Sabbath, he touched “unclean” people who were bleeding, he raised people from the dead and touched them, he engaged, interacted, and had relationships with people on the margins; people who were poor, deplorable, oppressed, discarded, and socially on the periphery. He spent a tremendous amount of his time with multiples of varying people groups: Gentiles, foreigners, women, children, the mentally disabled, the sick, etc. Jesus was a problem and created problems in terms of how people should be following Torah Law. Jesus subverted the rules.
The Pharisees sought to test Jesus in his knowledge of the Law and asked him a question about divorce. To the audience in antiquity, the knowledge, concept and understanding of sexual orientation did not exist. This understanding did not exist in the ancient Near East either, the context for the Hebrew Bible. The understanding of sexual orientation is a modern concept first recognized in the late 19th century. Therefore, Jesus had no reason to address sexual orientation, nor was he being asked about it. Jesus was asked a very specific and direct question about divorce. Divorces in antiquity were only possible between a man and a woman because those were the only people in marriages at the time and the only context marriages occurred in. There was no point of reference for the audience to understand anything other that what was happening around them culturally. If Jesus were making a critique on “homosexuality,” it would be the equivalent of Jesus randomly talking about the iPhone to folks living in first century Palestine. That’s how off the radar this understanding and reality would have been to this audience.
Let’s consider Sean Mcdowell’s argument. Sean argues that because Jesus quoted from Genesis 1 and 2 that Jesus, in a way, addressed homosexuality. One of Sean’s callouts is that if Jesus only meant to speak to the issue of divorce, he could have simply referred to only Genesis 2:24 and end the conversation there. However, Jesus did something interesting and he quoted not just from Genesis 2:24, but he also quoted from Genesis 1:26-27.
This is particularly relevant to Sean’s argument because Jesus’ use of Genesis 1:26-27 and Genesis 2:24 combined for Sean, demonstrated God’s intentionality of the male and female binary and its coming together for the explicit purpose of marriage; hence, why Jesus buttressed Genesis 2:24 with its supporting verse from Genesis 1. Therefore, Sean argues that Jesus made explicitly clear that the only acceptable kind of marriage union can only be legitimized before God if it echoes verbatim the complementarian theology that Sean presupposes must be true from the Genesis texts.
But, that is the problem with Sean’s argument; he presupposes the complementarian view as already being true. What comes forth from that? A very binary and complementarian view which bolsters heteronormative rules and ideologies. In order to agree with Sean’s argument you must already believe complementarian ideals are the rule. Ironically, Sean and other non-affirming biblical scholars all too often argue that folks like myself, from the opposing and affirming view in academia, skillfully manipulate the biblical text to say what we want it to say. Even if that were true, it never means that Conservative, Evangelical scholars do not or cannot ever do the same. Sean views the entire Bible with the presupposition that it already will condemn same-sex romantic relationships. Try as he may, he cannot fully remove that belief from his hermeneutic. And yet, impartiality to a certain extent, is one of the goals of hermeneutics; to remove as much as possible, our own subjective feelings, situational feelings, and previously ingrained teachings and beliefs from ourselves in order to view the text as objectively as possible.
If scholars like Sean did this on a more frequent basis, they may see what I and other affirming scholars are able to see from Matthew 19. Jesus does not say that marriage must only be between a man and a woman. Jesus never critiques that at all. In Matthew 19, Jesus critiqued an abuse of a power dynamic which favored only men in marriages during antiquity. The exact abuse occurring were men advantaging themselves with power given to them by Torah, to legally divorce their wives for whatever reason they chose. As for the women? Women had absolutely no power within a marriage to divorce their husbands even if he raped her, abused her, did not love her, cheated on her, or had multiple wives, etc.
In both the ancient Near East and the first century, according to Torah Law, women were the property of the husband. Furthermore, since men were permitted to divorce their wives for any cause they wished through utilizing their power through the Israelite legal system, this left the divorced wife in an incredibly vulnerable position economically, socially, and psychologically. The men got to walk away unscathed under this patriarchal dynamic.
Jesus’ use of Genesis 1:26 is very relevant in his answer to the Pharisees. Because God created humankind in the image of God with equity, with wholeness, without hierarchy, without power dynamics, and without one subjugating the other. Men in marriages who obtained certificates of divorce were violating and abusing God’s design of equity between humankind. These men violated the essence of God’s Law to love and to steward their relationships with other humans by creating and following a system which favored only men and bolstered their power.
Jesus offered Genesis 1:26 to the Pharisees as a corrective and a reminder to them that perhaps they had gotten it all wrong. As for Genesis 2:24? In this scenario, the man was to leave the protection of his family in order to cling to his partner and to create a new kinship bond. But does any marriage in the Hebrew Bible actually demonstrate this? The short answer is no. There is not one marriage that reflects the monogamous, heteronormative ideologies that Sean and other scholars purport. All of our beloved patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible for the most part had multiple wives, they did not leave their families to cling to their spouses, they did not always leave their property or lands. In fact, beyond Genesis 2:24, there were and are other “marriage models” listed within the Torah practiced by Israelites.
Perhaps, in light of these facts and the histories of marriages within the Hebrew Bible, Jesus recalled the obivious to the Pharisees with Genesis 2:24; a construct never followed in the Hebrew Bible altogether. Jesus reminded the Pharisees of the historical shortfalls and clear deviations in Israel’s history from Genesis 1:26 and Genesis 2:24.
Matthew 19 and Jesus’ response to the Pharisees had nothing to do with Jesus reiterating a gender binary from Genesis 1. Jesus did not reiterate a dualistic structure based on genitals, he reiterated the equitable creation of humankind and their equal standing before God. He reiterated that a mistake had been made in stewarding human relationships in love. And then what did Jesus do? He turned around and pointed to the woman’s power in the relationship and gave her permission to divorce due to adultery. Jesus reinterpreted the structure and the system removing sole power from men.
To sum, Matthew 19 offers a corrective to the nature of relationships and critiques the faultiness and abuse of the power dynamics within them. Matthew 19 is not a reinforcement of heteronormative marriages. It is instead, a reinforcement of the person’s equal standing within the relationship. This is a powerful reminder to scholars like Sean McDowell, that sometimes even trained Evangelical apologists can miss the mark and when they do, they put the lives of LGBTQ folks at stake.
Grace and peace,