In this essay I will continue my review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships by examining chapter six: “The Question of Celibacy for Gay and Lesbian People.” The first sentence of the chapter states well the question that drives the chapter. “Does the difficulty of life-long celibacy provide biblical grounds for considering same-sex relationships morally acceptable?” Keen answers yes. How does she arrive at this conclusion? Does she make a compelling case?
Exceptions for Extreme Circumstances
The first step in Keen’s argument is to establish that the Bible and evangelical churches make exceptions to moral rules under certain circumstances. In normal circumstances divorce is forbidden, but Paul allows divorce in the case of abandonment (1 Cor 7:15). In this circumstance the option of saving the marriage does not exist. Thoughtful evangelicals, who view abortion as a terrible evil, recognize that in the situation where saving the life of the mother will come at the cost of her unborn child and saving the child will cost the mother’s life, abortion is permissible. You cannot save both, and there is no good option.
Keen now applies the principle derived from the extreme cases discussed above to less extreme cases. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-7, Paul instructs married couples not to use their devotion to God as an excuse to deprive one another of sexual fulfillment. Paul advises unmarried people to remain unmarried, but, if they are unable without great distress to remain celibate in this condition, they are free to marry. According to Keen, Paul thereby makes a compassionate concession to human weakness and need by approving marriage as an alternative to celibacy or promiscuity.
Celibacy as “Suffering.”
To prepare the reader for her application of Paul’s situational thinking to same-sex relationships, Keen’s first task is to establish a strong analogy between the two types of relationships, heterosexual and homosexual. According to Keen, long pastoral experience and recent psychological studies have demonstrated that being gay and lesbian is not a choice and can very rarely be changed. Moreover, single gays and lesbians who attempt to remain celibate, like single heterosexual people who make this attempt, usually fail. Hence traditional alternatives to forming covenanted same-sex relationships within which sexual fulfillment can be achieved are unrealistic: for most gays and lesbians, marriage to a person of the opposite sex is not a workable option, and changing one’s orientation is nearly impossible. In Keen’s estimation celibacy is “unfeasible,” produces great “suffering,” is “impossible” for most people, and produces “physical and emotional death.” She roots the suffering and unfeasibility of celibacy in divine creation:
“But the reality is that human beings are biologically made for sexual relationships, not life-long celibacy.”
“God created us with a strong familial drive to couple with another person and build a home.”
Keen now closes the loop. Paul understands that most single people cannot without great unhappiness devote themselves to a life of celibacy. As a matter of caution in view of temptation to fornication and compassion in view of the suffering involved in celibacy, he permits them to marry even though he thinks that in the present circumstances it would be better to remain single (1 Cor 7:29-31). Keen argues that Paul’s logic can be applied to gay and lesbian people. Given the divinely created drive to “couple with another person” for companionship and sexual fulfillment, the pain of celibacy, and the lack of alternatives, the Pauline concession to marry can be applied to gay and lesbian people as a “humanitarian” exception to the rule. Keen is not arguing that if Paul were confronted with the predicament of contemporary gay and lesbian people and armed with the new knowledge we possess about sexual orientation, he would come to her conclusion. No one can know what Paul would do. She argues, rather, that if we exercise the same concern for human weakness and compassion for suffering as Paul exercised in First Corinthians 7, we will come to the conclusion she does. We will provide a way out of the “ethical dilemma of the gay person unable to achieve celibacy.”
Traditionalists’ Lack of Compassion
For the most part, Keen admirably refrains from impugning the character of her traditionalist opponents. However near the end of this chapter, she slips into a plaintive mood. The contemporary church’s lack of sympathy for the plight of its gay and lesbian members, she speculates,
stems from traditionalists’ bias towards concerns more familiar to the majority of church members…their neglect of gay and lesbian people and their plight reflects traditionalists’ grievous disregard of minority church members’ needs—not unlike the early church’s favoritism of Hebrew widows over Hellenistic widows during food distribution (Acts 6:1-4).
In making this accusation, Keen draws a not so subtle analogy between traditionalists’ rejection of same-sex relationships and such irrational and ugly prejudices as racism and sexism. Why does she insert these barbs? Is she “preaching to the choir” of people who already agree with her conclusions? Or, is she appealing to those evangelicals who have already been influenced by progressive culture’s successful categorization of gay and lesbian people as an oppressed minority? (The “nagging question” I mentioned in my previous post.) In any case, it seems out of character with the thrust of the book.
Keen concludes the chapter with an answer to the question with which she opened it:
By extrapolating from Paul’s instruction that people with strong passions should marry, a case can be made for the moral acceptability of same-sex covenanted relationships.
Keen’s Argument Concisely Stated
1. If Paul makes exceptions to moral rules in view of human weakness and to prevent the suffering and harm that would be caused by imposing them, we may also make such exceptions under the same or analogous circumstances.
2. Paul makes such exceptions.
3. Hence we may also make such exceptions in the same or analogous circumstances.
4. Contemporary Christian gay and lesbian people find themselves in a predicament the same or analogous to the predicament of those people for whom Paul made exceptions to otherwise binding moral rules.
5. Hence we may also make an exception to the moral rule against same-sex relationships for Christian gay and lesbian people for whom other alternatives are not possible or would cause grievous suffering and harm.
Regarding #1: The first clause of premise one is conditional. The truth of the second clause depends on the truth of the first.
Regarding #2: Number 2 appears to be false. Does Paul really make exceptions to moral rules based on circumstances? In the case of divorce (1 Cor 7), he seems simply to acknowledge that abandonment by the unbelieving partner constitutes a de facto divorce unrelated to a decision made by the believer. With regard to Paul’s advice for single people to marry if they cannot remain celibate, Paul never asserts that celibacy is a moral requirement for anyone. Hence permission to marry is not an exception to a moral rule. If Paul does not in either of these cases make an exception to a moral rule, he sets no precedent and gives no guidance about how to make exceptions to moral rules. At best, he gives us guidance about living wisely within a general moral framework.
Regarding #3: Because #2 (the minor premise) is false, #3 (the conclusion) does not follow and may also be false. Its truth, if it is true, would have to be established on other grounds.
Regarding #4: Because the conditional clause in #1 is false, the minor premise #2 is also false, and #3 does not follow, #4 is to some extent moot. It goes nowhere. However it still deserves comment. If I am correct that Paul did not make exceptions to binding moral rules in 1 Corinthians 7, then #4 contains a false assertion. The two situations are only superficially analogous. Finding yourself abandoned by your spouse is to be a victim not a perpetrator of an immoral act, and for unmarried people to enter into traditional marriage was never against divine law. Keen’s argument serves no purpose unless it presupposes that same-sex intercourse was forbidden. And Paul does not give people permission to engage in forbidden acts.
Regarding #5: As a conclusion to the entire line of reasoning, we cannot say that #5 is false, only that it does not follow. Making a weak or fallacious argument for a thesis does not prove the thesis false. If you believe on other grounds that Keen’s thesis is false, a weak or fallacious argument may confirm your doubt. However, if you believe on other grounds that Keen’s thesis is true, you may overlook her argument’s weaknesses, or you may draw on those “other grounds” to support your belief, or you may attempt to formulate stronger arguments.
Next Time: “Is it Adam’s Fault? Why the Origin of Same-Sex Attraction Matters” (Chapter 7).