A ‘Conservative’ Argument for Gay Marriage

Jason Micheli —  May 6, 2013 — 3 Comments

METHODIST1-articleLargeThe NY Times story about the Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree has been all over the web (at least the church nerd part of it). Ogletree is a United Methodist clergyman and professor of ethics at Yale Divinity School.

Ogletree recently performed a wedding ceremony in New York for his gay son, which obviously violates the current law of the United Methodist Church.

Ogletree is hardly the only Methodist pastor to preside over a heterodox wedding ceremony but, given his post at Yale and his former work in the Civil Rights movement, he’s the highest profile pastor to do so.

Ogletree’s move has set off the predictable- and, to me, increasingly uninteresting- condemnations. Some Methodist leaders in the New York area are pushing for a court trial.

Considering Ogletree’s age and retired status, such a trial would be a symbolic- and expensive- charade. But I’ll get off my soapbox.

You can read the story here.

Since yesterday’s Times story came out, I’ve seen numerous FB postings about it.

A few of you even forwarded the story to my email, asking me for my response.

My initial responses had nothing to do with the issue per se. They came to me in this order:

1. It struck me as (morally) gross that someone would refer to a father presiding at his own son’s wedding as ‘a crime.’ Making a father’s love sound like colluding with the holocaust is just bad character. Enough said.

2. I don’t think pastors should be performing religious rituals for their children or family members- baptisms, weddings, funerals. Dads should be dads, moms should moms etc. Don’t confuse one role with another.

After thinking about the article some more and what my requested ‘response’ would be I settled on this: 

Arguments in favor of gay marriage need to be more theological.

The Ogletree article, and Ogletree himself, largely views the issue through the lens of Civil Rights. That’s fine and that’s one (secular) way to approach it; however, Christians should be thinking Christianly about the issue.

What’s more, since the conservative argument for ‘traditional marriage’ trades heavily in scriptural and theological jargon, it’s all the more important for a counter proposal to employ the resources of scripture and theological reasoning.

Gene Rogers was my very first teacher of theology, back when I was an undergrad at UVA. As a theologian, he’s ‘conservative’ or, better put, he’s ‘post-liberal.’ He also happens to be gay.

Here’s an excerpt from him making precisely the sort of theological argument- one that is ‘conservative’ in its respect of and adherence to the historic tradition- I wish more Christians and clergy attempted to make:

Christian thinkers have argued against the notion that the diversity of creatures and persons is the result of the Fall rather than of God’s creation of a multifarious world, Aquinas represents a prominent strand of Christian thought on this point: the earthly environment demands to be filled with an ordered variety of creatures, he said, so that God’s creation will not suffer the imperfection of showing gaps.

Creatures require the diversity that the Spirit rejoices to evoke.

Multiplication is always in God’s hand, so that the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, the fruit of the virgin’s womb, the diversity of the natural world does not overturn nature but parallels, diversifies and celebrates it.

The Spirit’s transformation of the elements of a sacrament is just a special case of the Spirit’s rule over all of God’s creation.

What kind of diversity or otherness does the Spirit evoke? Does it evoke the diversity represented by homosexual persons?

Clearly, the majority opinion of the church has said no — that sort of diversity in creation is not the work of the Spirit.

But it is not at all clear that such a judgment is necessary.

Conservatives will suppose that by invoking the diversity of creation I am begging the question.

And yet, if the earth is to bring forth not according to its kind (more dirt) but creatures different from dirt and from each other, and if bodily differences among creatures are intended to represent a plenum in which every niche is filled, then the burden of proof lies on the other side.

It needs to be shown that one of God’s existing entities somehow cannot do its part in communicating and representing God’s goodness and do so precisely in its finitude, by its limitations.

What are the limits on accepting diversity as capable of representing God’s goodness? Conservatives and liberals would agree that a diversity evoked by the Holy Spirit must be a holy diversity, a diversity ordered to the good, one that brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, primarily faith, hope and charity.

Given that no human beings exhibit faith, hope and charity on their own, but only in community, it is hard to argue that gay and lesbian people ought to be left out of social arrangements, such as marriage, in which these virtues are trained.

In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, our human limitations are intended for our good. So too, then, the limitations ascribed to same-sex couples, or for that matter cross-sex couples: in Gregory’s words, their “very limitations are a form of training” toward communicating and representing the good.

The church needs both biological and adoptive parents, especially since baptism is a type of adoption. The trick is to turn these created limits toward the appreciation of the goods represented by others. Our differences are meant to make us yearn for and love one another. Says Williams:

“The life of the Christian community has as its rationale — if not invariably its practical reality — the task of teaching us to so order our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.”

Under conditions of sin, otherness can lead to curse rather than blessing, to hostility rather than hospitality. Certainly there has been enough cursing and hostility to go around in the sexuality debates.

But as created, otherness is intended for blessing and hospitality.

Conservatives often claim it’s dangerous to practice homosexuality, because it might be a sin. I want to propose that the danger runs both ways.

It is more than contradictory, it may even be resisting the Spirit, to attempt to deprive same-sex couples of the discipline of marriage and not to celebrate same-sex weddings. I don’t mean this kind of rhetoric to insult others or forestall discussion.

I just mean that the danger of refusing to celebrate love is real.

You can read the full of Rogers’ here


Jason Micheli


3 responses to A ‘Conservative’ Argument for Gay Marriage

  1. Terbreugghen May 6, 2013 at 9:49 PM

    sorry, I consider myself conservative, and I’ve avoided appeals to theological authority. I think there are structural reasons for holding conjugal, i.e., heterosexual, marriage above all other relations. Primarily it has to do with inbreeding. I live in a city where many women beginning in the 70’s eschewed marriage and created what can best be described as “broods,” consisting oftentimes of seven children with seven different fathers. Needless to say, these women were not that keen on keeping track of who was who’s kid, and the kids, being kids, did as mama did. So these kids grow up to 14-16 years old, and guess who they’re having kids with? The kids down the street, on the next block, etc. Except that in an increasing number of cases, they’re having babies with half-siblings. The collective IQ of this population is declining generation after generation, and this is the major reason why. And if you think it doesn’t affect you, safe in your suburban home whoever you are reading along, it does. This population is the source of increasing wealth transfer payments, social services recipients, and criminal activity against property and person, coming to a town near you. No, I’m not trying to scare anyone, I’m simply reporting what I’ve observed and been told by various local authorities.

    A visible conjugal marriage culture with special targeted INCENTIVES of status and financial benefit for maintaining that stable relationship, and social sanction for dissolving it does more than protect the emotional states of the young people in the marriage. It protects and enhances our entire society.

  2. Jason,

    You have requested we think about this theologically; so let’s do this.

    Stanley Hauerwas has refrained from commenting too much on this issue, beecause (at least from my discernment) he has very little else to say on the matter and there really are bigger fish to fry in the American Church’s theological imagination. His anarchist senitments are in conflict because he believes that the ethical framework from which the two opposing sides of the issue stand frame their arguments using language of “natural theology” and “natural ethics” to substantiate their arguments; both of which he finds inconclusive and uninteresting because of this. Being a vivacious advocate of Neo-Orthodox theology, he has no patience for such language because it is contrary to his anarchist sentiments and Barthian commitment to the “Word” that would force his hand to accept a “lesser of two evils” conclusion; which, as a man committed to non-violence, is unacceptable. Stanley desires neither the totalitarian idealization of sexual boundaries nor the libertarian, capitalist’s move of blowing all of them over. Thus, being both sides argue from an idealized interpretation of scientific data rather than communal theological commitments, Stan shrugs his shoulders and wonders what the hell people want him to say anymore about it. Because any fertile soil for frutful religious discourse has been hamstrung by the sword of Liberalism.

    In response to this, Stan sugggests that the real issue here is a theological framework concerning the sacramental nature of Creation. Second, he duduces from this what he views as the real problem; what he calls “romantic notions of love and marriage.” That is, underwriting the modernist assumption that there is this thing called “sexuality”and it must be expressed in one way or another and the best option if the “natural one” abstracated from communal commitments to whole ways of life.

    Thus, he notes that the Christian commitment to heterosexual, life-long fidelity has traditionally come from the Church’s commitment to revolting against all pracatices that piece together the human body and human interactions as the “locus of cosumption,” because perceiving it as something that flirts with this promotes an ontological ethical construct that reflects a theological commitment bereft of the life-giving, uber-creative, non-violent lover of sustainable human life reflected in a Creator with such traits. Having any other starting point Stanley credits Liberalism for.

    Doing this he points out the sterile, inconclusive ethical conclusions the most widespread way of thinking about this issue really is. This is to say: If all Christians want to do when taking part in the religious discourse of this issue is depend on the dubious ethical criteria of “what’s natural” when the greater concern for Christians is theological commitment to the “Sacramental nature of Creation,” we fail to first submit to the framework from which we should think about this issue as Christians who understand Creation not in terms of the idealistic, self-justified questions of naturalistic inquiry. Thus the question isn’t “what’s natural” but “what is divinely creative?” They are two different questions and the latter requires a considerably deeper theological account in order to think about this question christianly.

    He frames the discussion for exploring these deeper theological waters concerning the Christian understanding of sex in a chapter he called “Resisting Capitalism” in his book A BETTER HOPE. For Stanley, if the Church never reframes the debate, traditionally “conservative” defenders of “traditional marriage” have no theological foothold simply because if our ethical criteria can be reduced to simply accepting what’s par for the natural world, conservaive Christians are left looking like biggots. Which makes Ogletree’s agrument look pretty convincing, and the argument would be over. Which, for many, the debate IS over because of this.

    Nevertheless, he says something rather striking in the middle of the chapter. I will quote it and then let my comment end there so we can have push-backs and other comments:

    “In truth…most Mainstream Protestant churches in America do not know how to think about homosexuality. They do not know how to think about homosexuality because they do not know how to think about marriage and divorce. The churches have generally underwritten romantic notions of marriage– that is, you fall in love and get married so that it is an expression of your love. Such accounts not only destsory any understanding of marriage as lifelong monogamous fidelity but also make unintelligable the prohibition against same-sex relations. After all, the latter are often exemplifications of a loving relation…In particular, we might discover that love is far too vague a term to do any work in helping us to discover the disciplines necessary to sustain [and define] marriage…We might even discover that Christians do not believe that love legitimates sex or even that sex is an expression of love, but rather that marriage names that practice among Christians wherein the telos of sex finds material embodiment.”


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  1. Facile Friday | Gratia Veritas Lumen - May 9, 2013

    […] of the momentum of the LGBT movement. For balance here is Jason Micheli suggesting that rejecting Gay marriage ‘may even be resisting the Spirit, to attempt to deprive same-sex couples of the discipline of marriage and not to celebrate same-sex […]

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