Newsweek and the Problem of Hermeneutics

by Matt Sutton

For those of you who have missed the controversy, Newsweek’s Lisa Miller wrote a cover story on the religious case for gay marriage. To make her point, she essentially tried to debunk the more conservative interpretations of Pauline texts such as Romans 1 (“And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet”). To nobody’s surprise, she did not convince the anti-gay marriage crowd to rethink how they read their Bibles. Instead, she enraged them. Who is she, they asked, to be telling them how to read their scriptures?

They are right. Journalists don’t have the right to tell any community how to interpret their sacred texts, whether they are Jews, Muslims, or evangelical Christians. Asking conservatives to rethink Romans 1 and other controversial passages based on some scholar’s analysis of the “true” cultural context is futile. It would be more helpful to engage with the conservatives in a discussion of their own hermeneutical principles.

In true post-modernist style, I prefer to enter the evangelicals’ hermeneutical world. Once I have granted their interpretive presuppositions, I begin asking questions based on those presuppositions. Rather than deal with gay marriage head on, I want to know what the Bible says about marriage in general. Of course the evangelical understanding of marriage begins with Genesis 2: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” What is this “one flesh”? And when can it be re-divided? According to the ultimate authority, Jesus, a marriage can only be dissolved in the case of adultery. In the book of Matthew, Jesus preached, “But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.”

Yet how many evangelicals welcome divorcees into their churches? Even more important, how many ministers freely officiate over heterosexual re-marriages? Almost all of them.

If conservatives really believe that allowing homosexuals to marry is going to undermine God’s immutable laws and therefore wreak havoc on American society, they need to deal first with the problem that is closer at hand and FAR more prevalent—divorce. Until they fight to make church policy and American law reflect Jesus’ teachings on divorce, their efforts against gay marriage will continue to look much more like a crusade of hate than a legitimate response to the teachings of their scriptures. We need to either throw out the divorcees and the gays, or welcome them both to the altar. I prefer the latter.


John G. Turner said…
Matt, that's a great post. Has anyone written a history of evangelicals (or American Christians more broadly) and divorce? I bet it would be a fascinating study. This seems to have been a very live issue for evangelicals as of the 1950s but isn't anymore.
Anonymous said…
I wonder why in many evangelical we have pre-marital counseling, but not pre-divorce counseling. I know I could use counseling at all levels, but it's an indication of focus, I guess.
Anonymous said…
I think these remarks display a lack of familiarity with basic evangelical doctrine.

No evangelical church would welcome those who remarry with the intended plan of divorcing again. Remarriage is allowed to many where there is an expression of intent to cleave to the new marriage and repentance for any past unfaithfulness. But you are asking churches to allow marriage to those who plan to sin again by engaging in immoral sexual relations.

Accordingly, there is no connection between (a) gay marriage which seeks to institutionalize repeated sinful sexual relations and (b) remarrying those who may have erred in the past but resolve not in the future.

In the first case, sin is being blessed. In the second case, at worst, past sins are being forgiven for those who represent that they will not sin in the future.

But the case is further distinguishable in that the scriptures recognize no situation in which homosexual conduct is appropriate. To the contrary, the Scriptures treat divorce quite differently. Both Jesus and Paul grant that divorce may be appropriate in certain circumstances -- Jesus in the case of "porneia" and Paul in that case of abandonment by a non-believing spouse.

Evangelicals take the problem of divorce very seriously. In addition to being a great offense to God, the weakening of marriage in the United States is a great contrubtor to the personal and social dissolution of our country. The link between poverty and divorce is well established.

Social liberals have contributed in every way conceivable to the weakening of marriage in America. Prohibiting gay marriage -- and thereby recognizing that marriage is based on the complimentary of man and woman and directed to the nearing and raising of godly children -- is part of a worthy fight against the liberal agenda.
We need to either throw out the divorcees and the gays, or welcome them both to the altar.

Or, like Catholics, allow neither.
Matt Sutton said…

I appreciate your thoughtful response. However, I still think that you are ignoring the inconsistencies in the position that you are laying out. You write, “Remarriage is allowed to many where there is an expression of intent to cleave to the new marriage and repentance for any past unfaithfulness.” Jesus did not say that, and if you make that argument on the basis of some more abstract biblical principles, you are opening the door for all kinds of reinterpretations of Jesus’ explicit words. To again quote Jesus: “and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.” For men, at least, there is no adultery until remarriage. The new marriage, made possible by ministers’ willingness to officiate over the ceremony, is in fact the minister blessing active, immediate sin. To bless the remarriage is to bless the act of adultery. If you allow remarriage in the case of “expression of intent to cleave to the new marriage and repentance for any past unfaithfulness,” you have opened the door to the “liberal agenda” and gay marriage could and should slip right in. While I agree with you that “evangelicals take the problem of divorce very seriously” they certainly don’t take it as seriously as they do gay marriage even though it affects far far more people than gay marriage. As for my remarks lacking “familiarity with basic evangelical doctrine,” I am afraid your remarks lack familiarity with basic evangelical history. Prior to the modern upsurge in divorce, many/most conservative Protestants did not allow church members to divorce and remarry. Evangelical leaders’ interpretations have shifted with the morals of their congregations. So, I return to my original point: I don’t care what is or is not allowed in individual churches, but if people are going to use the Bible to try to legislate against gay marriage, they should be equally if not more committed to trying to legislate against divorce, except in the case of adultery. (And in the 19th century they did just that until it became unpopular and impractical). As Nathan Schneider points out above, the Catholics see the inconsistency of condemning one and not the other.
Anonymous said…
You assume that all remarriage of the divorced is adultery. This is incorrect. Neither Jesus's words (which condemn remarriage after divorces for reasons other than marital unfaithfulness) nor Paul's (which permit divorce after abandonment by an unbeliever) nor well-established doctrine support this proposition.

All evangelicals agree that remarriage after divorce in some situations would be wrong. But there has always been basic agreement that divorce and remarriage in some situations is permitted, with lots of diversity on the precise permissible grounds for divorce and remarriage, cf. the differences among Anabaptists, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer (roughly least to most expansive grounds).

Once this is recognized, there are many forms of divorced remarriage that would be permissible. For example, allowing two rightfully divorced persons to remarry poses no problem whatsoever. Allowing a rigtfully divorced person to marry a never married person poses no problems. As I wrote, remarriage for these poses no problems where they intent to cleave to the new marriage and repent for any past sins that contributed to prior marital problems.

As to your claims about history, there does not seem to have been any shift in the basic specturm of beliefs concerning the fact that in some circumstances divorce and remarriage are pemitted. This was always viewed with more scepticism by some camps -- especially by anabaptists. Now there are obviously many more previously divorced couples remarrying in evangelical churches, just as there are many more marriages between those with previously annulled marriages and civil divorces in Roman Catholic churches. In both cases, this does not reflect an abandonment of the doctrine that annulments with marriage and divorce with remarriage are only allowed on certain grounds. It does reflect new factual conditions -- the ease of civil divorce and the resultant rise in abandonments/the increase in sexual permissiveness and the resultant rise in maritual unfaithfulness. I have no doubt that in the recent past when society provided so much more support for marriage that pastors were more sceptical about those claiming past legitimate divorce. Where marital unfaithfulness and abandonment is rare, no doubt one would look at claims of such with more suspicion. Nor do I doubt that pastors today are more willing to leave the question of whether a divorce was proper to the consciences of those seeking marriage, given the factual complexity of contemporary marital conditions. But this is not a change in doctrine, only a response to a new situation.

So, there is no inconsistency in people who allow the divorced to remarry in their churches also opposing homosexual marriage. But even if there were hypocrisy, it does not follow that it would be inappropriate to focus on homosexual marriage. As recent events demonstrate, it is a politically achievable goal where rollback of the no-fault divorce would be more difficult. It is not inappropriate to begin with what can be politically accomplished.
Heather White said…
A fascinating post on an important topic. I'm sure there are evangelical Christians out there who support gay marriage within a "literalist" Biblical hermeneutic. It would be illuminating to know what those readings look like.

What I have found interesting about the Newsweek article and responses (and also the Prop 8 musical spoof)is how these cultural products attest to public Biblical hermeneutics that are as ubiquitous as pop psychology and as spectacular as the superbowl (well, almost).

What was admirable about the Newsweek article was its attempt to go beyond the usual spin cycle (A: the bible condemns homosexuality! B: Would you like a shrimp cocktail?) and to accessibly present methods for historical/critical biblical interpretation in something approaching the common sense appeal of biblical literalism (which is itself more complicated than its pretense to "open your Bible and read it for yourself.")
Wayne Ratzlaff said…
This post raises some interesting points. I would like to address the following questions/points to provoke further discussion:

1) Is there such a thing as a "true post-modern style"?

2) The post by "Anonymous" distinguished gay marriage from divorce and remarriage by arguing that the former represents a sin of the present and future, while the latter represented a sin of the past. However, when the church sanctifies remarriage, is it not implicitly providing consent to a past sin (or sins)?

3) Missing in this debate is an examination of the distinct roles of the church and the state. Approval of a marriage can come from either a civil judge or a church minister. In the case of the latter it is sanctified before God.

However, ultimate certification of that marriage is an exclusive power of the state (clerk of courts). Divorce, on the other hand, is a legal action granted by the state and not the church.

The posts by both Matt and Anonymous address gay marriage from the perspective of religious doctrine rather than from civil legality. While the church has a right to deny its blessing of gay marriage as a matter of doctrine, can, or should, its authority extend to the sphere of civil code?

3b) If a liberal religious denomination consents to gay marriage, what are the constitutional ramifications of an amendment banning gay marriage? Could not such a ban be considered unconstitutional in light of the Free Exercise clause?
Anonymous said…
Believe me when I say I'm no apologist for evangelicalism. I'm utterly frustrated with it as a movement or however else it is defined. I do resonate with what you're aiming at in this post.

Nevertheless, I think it only confuses matters when we try to talk about two issues at the same time. The issue of divorce is an important one, but I fail to see how the debate on its own merits clarifies anything about homosexual conduct. Even your post fails to be clear on this. You say you "prefer" the latter accommodation of both divorcees and gays at the altar. Why don't you just tell us what you think about the ethics of homosexual behavior, right or wrong, rather than base your opinion, or preference, on the apparent inconsistency of others? This is really weak, Matt.

Do you have an opinion on the biblical proscriptions of sexual behavior? Does the Bible condemn anything in your view, or nothing? If it condemns some sexual behavior, what are your own consistent hermeneutical principles for determining these boundaries? Evangelicals may be inconsistent or wrong, but they should be applauded for making a brave effort at least to have an interpretation.

Also, do you yourself believe that evangelical opposition is a "crusade of hate", or do you just want to suggest that some perceive this? Are they right to perceive this? Is an evangelical right to perceive bigotry from the other side? I wonder if all this obsession with the alleged bigotry on both sides is really helpful when we're trying to discuss something as profound as the biblical ethics of sexual behavior.

Let's have a little more bravery here, Matt. Come out and fight for what you believe in rather than taking a few potshots from under cover.
Matt Sutton said…
I don’t have the space here (or the time) to answer all of the good questions thrown at me, but I will attempt to answer a few.

Anonymous: “But even if there were hypocrisy, it does not follow that it would be inappropriate to focus on homosexual marriage. As recent events demonstrate, it is a politically achievable goal where rollback of the no-fault divorce would be more difficult. It is not inappropriate to begin with what can be politically accomplished.”

That is my point. Don’t you understand that for evangelicals to punish those who for the most part are not claiming to be part of the body of Christ because it is “politically achievable” rather than punish those within the church who play fast and loose with Jesus’ commands strikes outsiders as the worst kind of hypocrisy?? I hate to invoke this, but what about the “log in your own eye” instead of the “speck” in someone else’s?

Wayne: “3) Missing in this debate is an examination of the distinct roles of the church and the state. Approval of a marriage can come from either a civil judge or a church minister. In the case of the latter it is sanctified before God.”

Exactly. Separating civil/legal marriage from spiritual/ecclesiastical marriage would solve a lot of problems. I am all for it. It is the religious folks, unfortunately, who want to control social policy out of a fear that a government that sanctions gay marriage will somehow provoke the wrath of God.

“3b) If a liberal religious denomination consents to gay marriage, what are the constitutional ramifications of an amendment banning gay marriage? Could not such a ban be considered unconstitutional in light of the Free Exercise clause?”

Interesting question! Someone call the ACLU.

Manlius: “Why don't you just tell us what you think about the ethics of homosexual behavior, right or wrong, rather than base your opinion, or preference, on the apparent inconsistency of others? This is really weak, Matt.”

I have no problem with homosexuality whatsoever. I didn’t realize that this was unclear.

“Do you have an opinion on the biblical proscriptions of sexual behavior?”

I am mostly against polygamy, and celibacy too, which my reading of the Bible supports. Joking aside, I don’t accept the evangelical hermeneutic for exactly the reasons raised in my original post. I found it impossible to be consistent, at least as modern Americans employ the hermeneutic.

“Let's have a little more bravery here, Matt. Come out and fight for what you believe in rather than taking a few potshots from under cover.”

Potshots from under cover? What cover would that be? I do not yet have tenure, and I stick my full name on every one of these posts. As for what I believe, I am not sure anyone cares. The professor in me is committed to the Socratic Method. I prefer to ask the questions and raise the issues rather than come down from on high with solutions to all that ails us. You don’t really want to hear from another know-it-all academic do you?
Anonymous said…
what a great debate/dialogue. LOVE IT!
Anonymous said…
Thanks, Matt, for your response.

What I meant by saying you were "taking potshots from under cover" was that you were stating your opinions under the cover of others' alleged inconsistencies rather than putting forth your own coherent arguments.

I think we should make our cases against the best of what our opponents have to offer rather than relying on their weaknesses. Pointing out the current evangelical confusion over divorce and remarriage is not a good substitute for a reasoned argument against their view of same-sex marriage.

The newsweek reporter may or may not have made a good argument, but at least she tried. Your approach seems to be little more than a snarky response.
Anonymous said…
If there are inconsistencies here, they include the double standard that Sutton applies to evangelicals.

Per S. evangelicals can't enter politics until they have perfect moral communities. ( . . though his harsh judgement of the evangelical treatment of marriage demonstrates a lack of engagement with basic doctrinal distinctions . . .) But liberals work for political reform based on their morals in all sorts of areas where their own communities are lacking. They make a fetish of sexual equality . . . but where are their female and homosexual pastors? They make a fetish of diversity . . . but liberal Christians are the whitests congregations in America. Minorities find no interest in the gospel of white guilt.

Remove the log from your own eye and examine your own inconsistencies before you accuse others. Liberal Christiaity has been far more involved in politics, imposing its radical political morality, while hollowing out the very moral foundations upon which free societies necessarily exist. Liberal Christians are constantly preening with self-righteousness in one political movement or another while denying to themselves any grounds for making moral judgements.

This is the obvious inconsistency which has led to the death of liberal Christianity. One cannot claim moral religious authority by constantly disclaiming moral religious authority. Sutton wants to argue from the premises of evangelical religion (which he understands poorly) because liberalism provides no moral foundations of its own.
DEG said…
Matt was defending his points, not the points of your hypothetical liberal Christian. If you have a beef with this hypothetical "liberal Christian," then I suggest you track them down and lay into them.
John G. Turner said…
I think it's interesting that we're having this discussion on the day we learn Barack Obama has invited Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation.
DEG said…
Really??? I hadn't heard that. That is fascinating.
Anonymous said…
Good point, John. Obama opposes gay marriage and has also chosen a pastor who opposes gay marriage to pray at his inauguration.

Matt, could it be that Obama is also a crusader for hate? Is he acting out of fear, trying to control social policy to avert the wrath of God?
DEG said…
John and Manlius: I think it's telling that he asked Warren instead of, say, James Dobson, who has been a public anti-gay figure for years and branded himself (in the marketing sense) as a crusader for the Religious Right. Though he's catching heat now from the gay community, Warren has never tried to brand himself a crusader like Falwell, or Robertson, or Stanley, or Dobson. He is mostly known as The Purpose Driven Life guy and has been noticeably dodgey about picking up the banner of the Religious Right. As such, he's certainly not going to fire vituperous counter-attacks at the gay community's critiques of him because he's a classic example of the "cosmopolitan evangelicals" that Michael Lindsay writes about. Conservative on a lot of social matters, to be sure, but not confrontational or tribalist. He unifies more than he divides, and when he divides, he doesn't try to appear like he wants the other side shot down like dogs in a ditch. That's why Warren's been on Oprah and why he's fronting the big party on Jan. 20.

After talking about this pick with a few folks here, I think Obama's also picking Warren as the counter-Wright - a soft, cuddly, white, suburban pastor who may have anti-gay stances but is better known for affirming one of the primary creeds of the modern American civil religion: the American Dream is color-blind, unifying, and God blessed. Given that economic reality is challenging that notion right now, that makes Warren's a good fit for blessing Obama's forthcoming New New Deal (and it's $1 billion pricetag). I suspect that Warren will pray for all of us to be purpose-driven, make sacrifices, unify together, and (with the vague, non-tribalist, quasi-evangelical God's help) we will restore the American Dream for ourselves and our kiddies.
Paul Harvey said…
What Deg said (also bears mentioning that Obama opposed Measure 8 in Calif). Also, I find it amusing that our those who write under "anonymous" and pseudonyms have told Matt S. that's he taking shots while under cover. That hypocrisy is hilarious.
Matt Sutton said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
John G. Turner said…
Totally agree with Paul re: anonymous potshots. Furthermore, it's ludicrous to assert that Matt doesn't know or understand evangelicalism. Hope anyone making that assertion has at least read the Sutton corpus.

Good point Paul -- Obama's stance on gay marriage has been, to say the least, highly equivocal. Not in favor, not really opposed. I'm sure Obama knew he would catch flak from the Left for inviting Warren, and I interpret his decision to do so anyway as a sign that he meant what he said about trying to bridge cultural and partisan divides in America.

The Warren invitation is further evidence that we've moved into the post-Billy Graham era of American evangelicalism.
Anonymous said…
I was the one who used "under cover," but I thought I explained what I meant by it (not that Matt was being anonymous, but that he was hiding his own arguments under the cover of the inconsistencies of others). I admit that it was a confusing choice of words, but I don't think hypocrisy is a sensible accusation.

My problem with Matt's post is not that he doesn't understand evangelicalism (he clearly does) or that he would attack evangelicalism. In my view, he's completely right about the problem of divorce in evangelicalism.

Rather, my problem is that he used the inconsistencies of evangelicals to argue against the traditional reading of the Bible on homosexuality. That just seemed like a cheap shot to me.

If Matt wanted to argue that evangelical hermeneutics (of course, there's more than one) on the Bible and homosexuality is wrong or that it's right but the Bible is not to be applied to contemporary sexual ethics, that would be fine. But it's not serious to suggest that problems withing evangelicalism negate the necessity of the argument.

And by the way, Manlius is not a pseudonym; it's my middle name. My full name is Alexander Manlius Burgess.
Will said…
The notion that a journalist does not the "right" to "tell" evangelicals or other Christians how to read the Bible is nonsense.

Marriage in general and gay marriage in particular are public issues, having been made such by both churches and the state through centuries of the hybrid sacred-secular institutionalization of marriage and more recently by the activism of religious groups on the issue of gay marriage.

Even if not public matters in the specific political sense of state policies regarding marriage, which of course they are, gay marriage and interpretations of scripture are public in the civic and intellectual sense of major moral issues of our day.

Nor is it improper for journalists to write pieces that blend reporting and opinion. This too is an long established genre in news and commentary magazines on a host of issues.

If Christians want to say that their faith should shape their social and political stances, as a matter of right and obligation (which I don't disagree with), then they can hardly say that the Bible or their interpretation are off limits to journalists (both fellow Christian and non-Christian ones).

You can't have it both ways. If religious groups want the Bible and interpretations of it to not be bounced around in public life and politics, then they need to take a more strictly sectarian stance and stay out of public life. This is an inevitable and wholly legitimate consequence of a pluralistic public sphere.

That said, your point on divorce is well-taken.
Anonymous said…
You raise some good points. I do think citizens in a democracy should be able to base their views on any authority they wish (even if that authority is only their own opinion), but everyone else is also free to criticize it. Unfortunately, our society's competing authorities are leading to tragic cultural wars, and I, for one, don't know how we can resolve it.

The separation of church and state is a noble goal, and indeed I support it. However, I also have to admit that a strict distinction between religious thought and political power is relatively recent in human history, and I think that American history is just one example of how difficult this separation is to achieve fully.

When society has a consensus on a particular moral point, say murder or slavery, the conflict does not surface. Who cares if one is appealing to the Bible or to some other normative standard or to no particular standard at all? We all agree murder is wrong.

But what about the disputed areas of morality, for example, abortion? Who decides when life begins? (BTW, even if you say that no one can know, that is itself a moral position for a society to take.) Is it okay to appeal to the Bible? If so, what hermeneutical standards shall we employ? Are we regarding the Bible as a religious text or as an important book in Western history? Does it matter? Perhaps we can appeal to science. But science is about how or what is or what is not, not about why or what should be. What about reason? Maybe, but is reason empirical or contextual? Of course, reason can be used for all sorts of contradictory arguments. You see the problems.

Don't get me wrong. I'm comfortable with pluralism and am loathe to go around imposing my convictions about morality on anybody else.

But I also have to concede that society has to decide on some matters of morality. Some conduct will be criminalized, some condemned, some condoned and some endorsed. We all draw lines somewhere. We want murder criminalized. We condemn gossip but don't want to criminalize it. We want to endorse compassion towards our neighbors. It's great that there's still a lot of common ground. But the common ground is shrinking, and it's those pesky disputed areas that keep giving us the problem.

I believe allowing religious viewpoints to dominate is wrong, but excluding them from the discussion is also wrong. So where do I think the line should be? I wish I had that answer.
Anonymous said…
If anyone's interested, this thread ( contains an interesting discussion on many of the points we have made here.

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