Legal v. Moral: How Adventists Should Respond to Legalized Same-Sex Marriage

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Legal v. Moral: How Adventists Should Respond to Legalized Same-Sex Marriage

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court decided that all states have to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and to recognize same-sex marriages validly performed in other jurisdictions. The legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. was determined in a five-to-four decision and supported by four reasons:

  • First, the right to personal choice is inherent in individual autonomy.
  • Second, the right to marry is fundamental in a two-person union.
  • Third, the right to marry safeguards children and families of same-sex couples.
  • Fourth, marriage is a keystone of our social order for heterosexual as well as homosexual couples.

As Seventh-day Adventist Christians, we understand that there is an overlap in what is legal and what is moral. For example, driving on the correct side of the road implies respect for life and property. At the same time we have to understand that what is legal is very often the bare moral minimum. Obeying the law is the beginning of our moral obligation, not the end. Scott Ray summarized it concisely by stating: “It [the law] is the moral floor, not the ceiling!” (Moral Choice: An Introduction to Ethics, 19). For example, there are many things that are immoral but not illegal. Adultery, at least in the West, does not get one into jail, and no one is prosecuted for lying, except under oath.

For Christ’s followers the canon of morality extends far beyond the decision of the Supreme Court in the matter under consideration. Scripture calls practicing homosexuality “wicked” (Gen. 19:7; Judg. 19:23),[1] an “abomination” (Lev. 18:22; 20:13, NRSV), a “shameful act” (Rom. 1:27, author’s translation), “unrighteous” (1 Cor. 6:9), and “lawless and rebellious” (1 Tim. 1:9-10), and the persistent practice has far-reaching consequences. Those end results in the Hebrew Bible are annihilation in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24), almost complete destruction of the tribe of Benjamin (Judg. 21:3, 6, 17), and capital punishment (Lev. 18:29; 20:13) in a theocracy. In the New Testament the consequences of homosexual practices are the following: God gave/handed them over, a euphemism for death (Rom. 1:26, 28; 4:25; 8:32), and exclusion from the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

Sandwiched between the decision of the Supreme Court and the high ethical demands of Scripture, Adventist Christians have to position themselves. On the one hand, Christians should be subject to the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1), yet on the other hand, they have to obey God rather than human beings when the laws of government contradict the laws of God (Acts 5:25). Civil disobedience is legitimized by the example of the apostle Peter when forbidden to preach and teach about the resurrected Christ. Howard Marshall concludes: “It is the price of being a Christian that one must be prepared to obey God rather than men – and bear the cost of doing so” (The Acts of the Apostles, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 119). Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, when sandwiched between government and Scripture, stated: “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen” (Martin Brecht, Martin Luther. Transl. James L. Schaaf, 1:460).

When Christians struggling with homosexuality hear the stern condemnation of Scripture, it often becomes overwhelming. However, Scripture does not condemn only the practice of homosexuality as “wicked,” an “abomination,” a “shameful act,” “unrighteous,” and “lawless and rebellious.” In Numbers 20:15 the Egyptian oppression of the Israelites is described as “wicked” (author’s translation). Proverbs 6:16-17 identifies proud eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood as an “abomination” to God. Committing incest also qualifies as a “shameful act” in Scripture (Lev. 20:21, author’s translation). “Unrighteous,” “lawless and rebellious” are qualifiers for lists of evildoers the apostle Paul enumerates in 1 Cor. 6:9-10 and 1 Tim. 1:9-10. Among those are fornicators, idolaters, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers, etc. The lists make it unmistakably clear that heterosexuals are not excused from the same stern condemnation of Scripture, although with regard to different vices.

The good news, though, is given by Paul himself when he declares: “And such were some of you” (1 Cor. 6:11, ESV). The Greek makes it very clear that these vices, which exclude both heterosexuals as well as practicing homosexuals from the kingdom of God, were habitual actions in the past. But because the Corinthians allowed themselves to be washed free from those sins, they were sanctified and justified through Christ. God offers a power greater than natural tendencies both inherited and acquired—a power that can free an individual from whatever separates him or her from Christ. When Christians deny that power, they are serving a pitiful God, who might encounter huge difficulties resurrecting anybody.

How than should we as Seventh-day Adventists deal with the practice of homosexuality?[2] First, Christ died not only for the sins of heterosexuals, but also for those of homosexuals—in fact, for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). Second, it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. Christ says: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). Third, if Christ came to call sinners to repentance, then we cannot, should not, and must not counteract what Christ is doing. Any encouragement to continue practicing homosexuality would be diametrically opposed to Christ’s work of calling sinners to repentance, and at the same time we would discourage practicing homosexuals from being saved.

Condoning persistent sin is everything else but love, even under the umbrella of tolerance. If you really love someone, you will do all you can to save that person. True love cares for the other person regardless of whether they are committing sexual immorality heterosexually or homosexually. Love cares because morality eclipses legality.

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[1] Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts are from the NASB.

[2] This article will not deal with those homosexuals who are struggling with their sexuality but seek to harmonize their lifestyle with the ethical demands of Scripture.

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About the author

Erhard Gallos

Erhard Gallos, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of religion at Andrews University. He previously pastored in Germany for six years. In addition to being a passionate teacher and student of God's Word, Erhard loves spending time with his wife, Irmgard, and twin daughters, Dorothea and Christiane.