So why does so-called gay marriage matter for the Christian? After all, it seems that there are many self-professed Christians who are learning to accommodate it. In 2003, the Episcopal Church consecrated Gene Robinson as the ‘first openly gay’ bishop, and in 2012 authorized a rite of blessing for homosexual relationships. And in 2014, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) endorsed homosexual weddings and approved a constitutional amendment redefining marriage as between “two people” rather than “a man and a woman.”
So the pressure to accept homosexuality and so-called gay marriage as normative within the church is indeed significant. However, if we remember that all social orders are in fact religious, then we can get a better handle of what precisely is happening here.
Religion and Sacraments
All religions have some kind of sacramental system. By sacramental system, I mean the use and presence of physical material tokens in rituals that reveal the nature of physical reality in accordance with a particular religious vision. All cultures are comprised of a series of rituals, and these rituals in effect bind together into a single coherent whole the natural world with the cultural, and thus constitute a particular vision of reality. Through ritualized processes, such as rituals of nationalism (on display before sporting events) and consumerism (gifts of exchange at the mall), certain acts, utterances, beliefs and practices become as natural as the natural world around us, and thus the culture that flows out of ritualized processes is taken for granted as natural and normal. This is simply another way of saying that all religions reveal themselves through a sacramental system, the reordering of material reality around a particular religious vision.
Now, with the Apostle Paul as our guide, I believe that we can see how homosexuality, together with abortion, actually represents an alternative sacramental system to that of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Sexual Immorality vs. Baptism
In 1 Cor 6:9-10, Paul invokes what we might call a vice-list that constitutes the realm of what he terms the ‘unrighteous’:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.
For Paul, the purpose of this vice-list is to get the Corinthians to understand that they are no longer defined by such a world. This is because the Corinthians were baptized into a fundamentally different realm of existence:
Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (6:11)
What I find of interest here is Paul’s choice of baptismal terms, apolouein (to wash). As distinct from Greek washing terms such as plunein for the washing of clothes and niptein for washing the face, apolouein is normally used for the complete cleansing of the body. And the body is very important here. As Paul develops in 1 Cor 6:14, the Corinthian Christians have been baptized such that their bodies are now oriented ethically into a harmonious relationship with the glorified body of the risen Christ.
The key here is the contrast between sexual immorality and homosexuality on the one hand and Christian baptism on the other: while Christian baptism orients the body ethically towards the glorified body of the risen Christ, sexual immorality and homosexuality orient the body away from Christ and towards idolatry. This mirrors Paul’s exposition of homosexual acts in Rom 1:26-27, which he sees as a type of ‘anti-sacrament’ that rejects God as creator and ruler of the cosmos. The denial of God’s natural order as represented in the sexual compatibility of male and female is itself an explicit expression of refusing to honor God as creator and sustainer. Thus Paul sees an inextricable link between idolatry (the worshipping of creation rather than Creator) and homosexuality (the anti-sacrament of idolatry).
Thus, for Paul, sexual immorality and homosexuality stand in stark contrast to the sacrament of baptism, which indicates that baptism and sexual immorality/homosexuality represent two incompatible bodily orientations: one towards Christ, the other towards idolatry.
Abortion vs. the Lord’s Supper
It’s been observed by scholars that the acceptance of homosexuality in the modern era stems from the secularized separation of sex from marriage. This separation was fueled at least in part by modern contraception, the ultimate manifestation being abortion. This inextricable link between abortion and modern attitudes towards sex manifests itself as a sacramental link as well.
You will notice that in Paul’s exposition of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor 10:20-21, he contrasts the Eucharist with sacrificial meals in a pagan temple:
I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to be in fellowship with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.
For Paul, those who participate in Greco-Roman sacrifices participate in an event that occasions the manifestation of ‘demons’ (daimonia), such that they sacrifice to demons and not to God. As such, Paul sees Greco-Roman sacrifices as effectively orienting the world away from God and toward demons, which involves nothing less than a perversion of the cosmos.
However, this perversion involves an important counterpart: if being ‘in fellowship with demons’ entails a social order that orients the cosmos away from God, then it is ‘fellowship with Christ’ (v.16), in the Lord’s Supper, that reorients the world back to God.
As a modern sacrificial system, abortion may be seen as a blasphemous parody of this vision of the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, this is precisely what Peter Kreeft has observed, in that both abortion and the Lord’s Supper use the same holy words: “This is my body.” The Lord’s Supper represents a sacrifice to God, abortion a sacrifice to demons; the Lord’s Supper is an expression of self-giving love for the salvation of others, while abortion is an expression of self-centered love at the expense of others.
And the Apostle Paul simply could not be clearer on the consequences of the Corinthians adopting these anti-Christian practices: To the extent that Christians embrace this anti-sacramental social order, they reconstitute the world in accordance with idolatrous social conditions and thus in effect deny the sufficiency of the cross to usher in the messianic age.
This is why so-called gay marriage matters for Christians. It matters because it represents nothing less than an alternative sacramental system and religious social order that stands in stark contrast to that of the shared life-world of the church. And to accommodate the church to such practices is nothing less than to subsume a distinctively Christian social order to an idolatrous social order, which in effect denies the significance of the Incarnation of Christ, the one in whom all things are made new (Rev 21:5).
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