Gay Marriage is Not a Justice Issue: Rawlsian vs. Christian Justice

Gay Marriage is Not a Justice Issue: Rawlsian vs. Christian Justice

This was an important article a few years ago in light of the two historic Supreme Court judgments involving California’s Prop 8 and DOMA. It’s even more important given the acerbity surrounding the recent freedom of religion bills in Indiana and others states, and sweet grandma’s being dragged to court for not materially supporting gay weddings.

Let’s get something straight:

While gay marriage might be a constitutional imperative in a democratic republic, it certainly isn’t a Christian or biblical one.

Here’s why:

A_Theory_of_JusticeOver the past several years, several pro-gay Christians have sounded the drum beat, along with the rest of culture, that gay marriage is an issue of justice. Particularly over the past few months as things have heated up in North Carolina and now in the White House, liberal Christians who advocate for same-sex marriage say it is an issue of social justice.

They lump this issue in with a whole host of other social justice issues, claiming, for instance, that the right for gay and lesbians to marry is as much an issue of justice as the right for black people and white people to marry each other was a generation ago.

The problem with this argument is that it has much more to do with Rawlsian social and political theory than anything remotely to do with the historic Christian faith, not to mention God and His Holy Scriptures.

Their understanding of justice is Rawlsian, not Christian.

A few days ago I was reminded of my undergraduate studies of John Rawls, the 20th century American political and social theorist, and his “justice as fairness” slogan—I knew my BA in Political Science would come in handy one of these days! In his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice, Rawls argued that justice should be defined as fairness; justice as fairness is the central idea and aim of a constitutional democracy (TJ, xi) According to Rawls and his definition of justice:

justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled. (TJ, 3-4)

Thus, radical equality and individualism form the foundation to Rawls’ concept of social justice, as well as our own contemporary Western democratic concept of justice.

What is fair is at root in this justice, not what is right(eous).

And therein lies the problem for my liberal Christian friends’ argument:

God’s concept of justice has nothing to do with fairness or equality or individualism. God’s concept of justice has everything to do with righteousness, with the way things are supposed to be, which usually seems absolutely unfair to our 21st century, fallen sensibilities and grates against the hyper-individualism of modern democracies.

Sharply contrasting our modern concepts of justice is the Holy Scriptures definition of justice.

Early Jewish views of the cosmological order are conveyed by the Hebrew word tsedaqah, which is usually translated as “righteousness” or “justice.” The Greek word, dikaiosune , embodies the foundational ground rules that govern the relationship between YHWH and his people, and all humanity.

Biblical justice centers around YHWH’s character and His social ideal, which focuses on the theological and ethical norms established by God Himself. In other words: Justice is the way it’s supposed to be, which flows from God’s righteous character.1

The Torah gives some practical examples of how we are to practice tsedaqah/righteousness.

Such examples include: judging impartially, showing charity, taking care of the orphan and widow (symbols of the oppressed), and avoiding idolatry.2 In other words: Justice is the way things are supposed to be. And God is the one who gets to decide the way things are supposed to be, which flows from His own righteous character and, well, the fact He’s the Creator of the cosmos!

Several Psalms exemplify what we’re talking about here:

Ps 9:8—”He rules the world in righteousness and judges the peoples with equity.” (Here the other term for righteousness/justice is used: mishpat, a word that means judgement. So righteousness and judgment are intertwined.)
Ps 45:7—”You love righteousness and hate wickedness;” (YHWH loves the way it’s supposed to be)
Ps 89:14—”Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;” (The very foundation of God’s throne is righteousness and justice—the way things are supposed to be.)

How about some Proverbs:

Prov 14:34—”Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people.” (Here, the way things are supposed to be is contrasted with the way things aren’t supposed to be—one exalts a nation and the other condemns them. Of course that which exalts and condems a nation is decided by something/Someone outside that nation, not by themselves!)
Prov 21:21—”Whoever pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity, and honor.” (So whoever pursues the way things are supposed to be will find life, prosperity, and honor—all three have nothing to do with fairness, but with righteousness.)

And of course biblical justice/righteousness is rooted in the character of God himself.

Isaiah 5 says that “YHWH of hosts will be exalted by His mishpat—justice/judgment, and the Holy God will be proved by his tsedaqah—His righteousness.”

God decides the way things are supposed to be, and judges people accordingly. God’s righteousness is not at all concerned with our own notions of fairness, equality, and justice. Instead, God is entirely concerned with that which conforms to His own holy character, to the way things are supposed to be—of which homosexual practice and the modern social construct of “same-sex marriage” do not conform.

Justice and righteousness are the foundation of God’s throne. Fairness is not.

And YHWH, the Creator of the Universe gets to decide the way things are supposed to be, not John Rawls or Barak Obama or the Supremes.

So, my “progressive” Christian friends who want to advocate for the right of gay and lesbians to marry whom ever they choose to love, please take note: argue all you want for the constitutionality of same-sex marriage and the right for gay people to marry on the grounds of “justice” in the justice-as-fairness Rawlsian sense.

But please do not make this an issue of justice—it isn’t, at least in the biblical sense. Because neither homosexual practice nor gay marriage are righteous—neither are they the way things are supposed to be.


  1. See Kyong-Jin Lee, “Righteousness/Justice,” Page 1151 in Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism. Ed. John J. Collins and Daniel Harlow. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010, 1151. []
  2. Lee, EDEJ, 1151 []


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  • craigadams1

    The argument for same-sex marriage is an essentially secular argument. Liberal Christians tend to ally themselves with this argument by attacking the traditional judgments against same-gender sex. Of course, that, in itself, doesn't establish an alternate view — but that doesn't seem to bother them.

    • Thomas W. Fiechtl, Jr.

      Traditional judgements are, circular. Early Christians did not condemn homosexuality. It is, no doubt about it, a question regarding why Christianity changed its direction. The answer lies within 2000 years of discourse, resulting in a fundamentalism, an orthodoxy of finite, moralistic legalism that no longer follows Jesus’ commandment of love. The Great Commandment says it all. The alternative view is moralistic religous cult.

  • Pingback: No, Rachel Held Evans, You Win a Generation Through the Unashamed, Prophetic Proclamation of the Gospel | novus•lumen()

  • Carl Axel Franzon

    Good thoughts. Appreciate this as I have often heard this description of it being a justice issue and had trouble articulating why this did not work.

  • Nate Koenig

    ridiculous understanding of the scriptures! It is perplexing that the very same scriptures that are quoted were given to us within a historical context that of course, no longer exists. To argue the “justice” of God against homosexuality found in the Torah is appropriate only if one is to take the entire Torah as being a relevant norm for the modern concept of justice. If in fact this is your argument, then please, explain to me your support of parental stoning of disobedient children, which coincidentally is found only a few verses away from the homosexuality passage. Are you arguing that the destruction of disobedient children by parents is “God’s Justice”? If not, which I certainly hope you are not, then explain to me the process by which you take certain biblical passages to be culturally obsolete and not to be taken literally and how you on the other hand cling to other passages found within the same text, in fact the same chapter, and argue that this is simply God’s justice. What is needed is Christians that can take the vast contradictions of Scripture seriously and actually begin to discuss them constructively.

  • Thomas W. Fiechtl, Jr.

    Wow, Pastor Bouma, can’t say that I’ve struggled with gay marriage as Christians have of lately. I do see this whole issue as being righteous from the biblical sense. I was first introduced to you by your series on Paul Tillich. You did a bang up job with Tillich. I, at least, saw your series, at the very least a fair assessment of Tillich and, you took me to another level with my understanding of faith. What bothers me now is that you take marriage to be less of a covenantal relationship when it comes to same-sex couples committment. Although you did not relate to covenantal marriage in this edition of your blog, it must be addressed within any discussion of marriage. You did relate to justification. What it means to have been created in the image of God relates to what is just. I follow the theology of Paul Tillich. You know his theology. You therefore know his definition of sin. Covenantal marriage, whether it is hetero or homo, is justified. Where is the sin in a covenantal marriage? I’ll never understand conservative Christians condemning homosexuality. Quite frankly, the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. Such proof is another topic. For now, it is all about the relationship as justified by God.

  • Thomas W. Fiechtl, Jr.

    I question, “And God gets to decide . . .,” more like man gets to decide. I walked away from your series on Paul Tillich thinking that his theology, your impression was that Tillich’s theology was a new religion. Okay, the discussion then arises from the establishment of Christianity. I’ve thought that Christians were wrong in establishing that Christianity was established by Jesus. Jesus was Jewish and his mission was with the Jewish people. The establishment of Christianity was when the disciples began to put together what Jesus’ ministry was about. And 2000 years later. A study of Christian thought shows how Christianity has progressed and digressed. If the basic symbols of Christianity have changed, Tillich readdressed the original meanings and, if that is a beginning for a new religion well, I guess that your acknowledgement of Tillich’s brand of theology supports that thought. For me, readdressing basic symbols means returning to the original focus of Jesus’ ministry.

    This then, brings me to my point, your judgement on homosexuality lacks an understanding of Jesus’ original intent. Not as if that original intent was meant to evolve.

    Marriage was never something that God set in motion. Marriage never was a word in ancient Hebrew; nor was the word wife and husband and, for that matter, neither was the word divorce. These words become an interpretation, imparting modern Christianity’s personal god. I truly believe that throughout history man has tried to reason what life is about. Man’s perception, as perceived fantasy, as doctrine or dogma, is a struggle to return to God. Whether man’s perception, interpretation of a perceived, divinely inspired Bible becomes God’s Word then, how is it that there continues to be discourse on the Bible. The Bible to me is a living word. This then fits my understanding that creation continues every moment of time. One understanding remains True God’s relationship with man. This too is debatable but still remains as the understanding that carries throughout the Bible; love. As it should be. This alone defines morality, ethics, justice, freedom and equality. This alone is established by an understanding of what sin is and what God is only concerned about. Idolatry, pure and simple says it all but to say that same-sex marriage is against God’s law is to establish a personal god.

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    is entirely concerned with that which conforms to His own holy
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    is entirely concerned with that which conforms to His own holy
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  • Thomas W. Fiechtl, Jr.

    Ps 9: 8 may be considered as the first half of a prayer where Ps 10 is the second half of that prayer. As is, 9 and 10 are separate. 9 speaks “against the enemies of Israel” NAB 1971. 10 speaks “against wickednes within Israel” NAB 1971. A historical view of the two Psalms can be seen as “royal songs in which the king is associated with the people.” Jerome Biblical Commentary[35:27]. What is holy and sacred to Israel is her constitution. Israel is not holy and sacred because God made them so but by their own doing.

    Pastor Bouma, you are associating modern day understanding of marriage with the justice for the poor (Ps 9) to claiming that same-sex marriage is an injustice. Ps 9 does not speak to or about any injustice associated with marriage. To infer that 9 can be used to define the injustice of same-sex marriage lacks any connection to God defining marriage.

    Marriage, if you call what Genesis says about a man taking a woman (not wife) speaks of Gen. 4: 19 and the given perception of Genesis that incest was necessary to “multiply and fill the earth” (God’s command.) There is no other indication of what constitutes a marriage. God commanded the same for all creatures. Does this mean that God commanded marriage for animals too? Every instance used by modern Christianity concerning God’s command to marry is in itself laws governing justice for women and children; not what constitutes a marriage. History of marriage shows that Judaism did not have a marriage per se but it did eventually establish a contract, a civil contract protecting again, the woman in a relationship. What established that relationship is that a man had intercourse with said woman. Symbolically, representative of God’s kingdom, marriage as we know it is spoken in relation to a covenantal marriage, a commitment as relates to man having been created in the image of God, Genesis 1:27. This is the whole emphasis of the Bible; throughout, relationships. Is it no wonder why justice becomes an issue throughout the Bible too. Justice, equality, freedom.