Is God’s View of Sin Arbitrary?

February 17, 2012

Certainly, our views of what is right and what is wrong should not be shaped by public opinion.  Nevertheless, we should be aware of what other people think.  The most recent public opinion polling on whether we should allow same-sex marriage shows a nearly evenly divided public:

The support has been steadily rising and the opposition has been steadily declining over the past fifteen years.  Older people are more opposed; young people are more strongly in favor.  On the broader question of whether homosexuality should be accepted, 58% agree and only 33% disagree.

I don’t think that Friends should accept or approve of something just because public opinion favors it.  For generations, Quakers have been pacifists even though most others are aghast at pacifism. Rather, the increasing majority for believing homosexuality to be acceptable only prods us to be clear that we have found God’s will in this matter, not just swayed by a majority or a prejudice.

Nor should we seek God’s will in the judgment of law courts.  But here, too, there is something to learn.  A recent decision in the 9th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals found California’s Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional.  Proposition 8 was a referendum item, approved by a slim majority of the voters of California, overturning a law that legalized same-sex marriage.  A U.S. District Court overturned Proposition 8, and now a U.S. Circuit Court panel has affirmed that decision.  In the judgment of the two courts, Proposition 8 violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “the equal protection of the laws” to all.

The testimony before the District Court explored whether forbidding same-sex marriage served a legitimate government purpose.  Marriage, after all, confers certain rights and benefits upon those who enjoy the status.  (A U.S. Governmental Accounting Office study identified 1049 rights or benefits that come with marriage.) The government could discriminate against same-sex couples only of it could be shown that there was a legitimate governmental purpose in requiring that marriage be restricted to opposite-sex couples.

In the trial before the District Court, the defenders of Proposition 8 could not produce a single expert witness to make a case for limiting marriage to opposite sex couples.  That’s because the evidence is now overwhelmingly clear: there is no harm to others from same-sex marriage.  For example, children raised by same-sex couples are as mentally healthy and well-adjusted as children raised by opposite sex couples.  There is no evidence that gay marriage undermines heterosexual marriage.  Etc.  The opening argument in the case by (Republican) attorney and former Solicitor General Ted Olson is worth reading: :

Those defending Proposition 8 were left arguing that “traditionally” marriage has always been between one man and one woman, and that various religious traditions are opposed to same-sex marriage.  (Actually, the argument from tradition doesn’t hold much water. Various cultures at various times have practiced a variety of marriage practices.)

These arguments were rejected by the court.  The courts have ruled that the defenders of Proposition 8 would have to show evidence of harm from same sex marriage and they did not (could not) do that.

This is all argument before the courts, not argument before God, seeking God’s will, so why mention all this?  Because we should ask ourselves whether God teaches us some things are sinful because they are harmful, or whether He declares them sinful just because He says so.  Does God intend to understand why some actions are sinful, or does He simply expect us to do as He says without our needing to understand why? Is God just saying (as parents sometimes do) “do it because I said so?” or is He helping us understand why some things are sinful?

Several of the sins declared to be “thou shalt nots” in the Ten Commandments – murder, stealing, adultery, covetousness, bearing false witness – are all items where I believe we can demonstrate there will be harm to other humans if we commit these sins.  The sins, that is, make sense.  And they make sense in roughly the same way that the courts have been seeking, but failing to find, evidence of harm on which to forbid same-sex marriage.  If there is no harm to others, why would God declare same-sex marriage, same-sex committed, loving relationships to be sinful?

Several of the others are ones where the harm would be to God: having other Gods before Him, having idols, talking the Lord’s name in vain, failing to remember the Sabbath.  And the last is one where the harm would be to your parents: failing to honor and respect them.  Again, all these make sense.  You can imagine giving reasons and evidence in support of them.  God’s declaring them sinful makes sense.

I don’t believe in an arbitrary God. Do you?  If God is not arbitrary, why should same-sex marriage or same sex committed, loving relationships be considered sinful?

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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