In an interview with HuffPost Live, former president Jimmy Carter suggested that Jesus would approve of same-sex marriage. This is false, and Christians can know it is false by reading Jesus Christ’s own words in the Bible.
“I believe Jesus would approve of gay marriage, but that’s just my own personal belief,” Carter, a self-identified evangelical Christian who teaches Bible studies at a Baptist church, told HuffPost Live. “I think Jesus would encourage any sort of love if it was honest and sincere and was not damaging to anyone else, and I don’t see that gay marriage damages anyone else.”
The Hill, The Washington Times, Reason, Breitbart, and others erroneously reported that Carter made these remarks this past Sunday, but the video dates back to 2015. The issue remains a salient one in evangelical Christian circles, however, so it is important to address.
To his credit, Carter did say, “I wouldn’t be in favor of the government being able to force a local church congregation to perform gay marriages if they didn’t want to.” All the same, he argued that Jesus would approve of gay marriage.
In the interview, Carter admitted that while he believes Jesus would approve of same-sex marriage, “I don’t have any verse in scripture.”
That’s because there isn’t one. Jesus was very clear in His teaching about marriage, in His teaching about sexuality, and in His condemnation of sin. “Love” did not mean a vague feeling of attraction or a sexual desire to Jesus. What Jimmy Carter calls “love,” Jesus would call abominable sin.
It is true that Jesus does not always condemn sinners. In the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 (disputed among scholars but in keeping with Jesus’ teaching in the other Gospels), Jesus encourages the religious leaders to reconsider whether they would stone a woman caught in sexual sin. He famously says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Even after this, however, Jesus does not excuse her sin — He tells her to “go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:3-11).
This passage illustrates Jesus’ approach to sin — He condemns it. Even when He forgives someone of their sin, He encourages them to repent and to sin no more.
Importantly, Jesus’ idea of sin is taken from the Old Testament law. It is true that Jesus reinterprets the law to some degree — He makes it harsher and more difficult to follow. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), widely revered as one of the greatest moral teachings of all time, Jesus takes the standards of the Mosaic law and dials them up to eleven.
Jesus makes a series of statements with the formula, “You have heard that it was said of those of old … but I say to you.” He cites the commandment not to murder, and tells His followers not to harbor anger in their hearts. He cites the Mosaic command not to swear falsely and tells His followers not to swear at all, but to merely answer “yes” or “no.” He cites the passage “an eye for an eye,” and He tells His followers to turn the other cheek. He even tells them to love their enemies!
But Jesus makes two other statements that drive right to the heart of our culture’s obsession with sex and the issue of same-sex marriage. He cites one of the Ten Commandments — “You shall not commit adultery” — and says, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:27-28).
Jesus cared so much about sexual sin that He urged his followers to accept maiming over lust. Most interpreters think this suggestion was hyperbole, but hyperbole to illustrate a vital point. Lust in the heart is so heinous that it would be better for someone to lose part of their body than to have their heart dominated by sin.
Finally, Jesus gives a powerful commandment about marriage. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32).
Jesus repeats this command later, even going so far as to explain why divorce was temporarily allowed under the Mosaic law. When the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus by asking if a man can divorce his wife for any reason, Jesus quoted Genesis, saying God made humans male and female, and adding that God instituted marriage — “Let no man divide what God has put together” (Matthew 19:3-6).
When the religious leaders challenged Him, saying, “Then why did the Law of Moses allow a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus said, “Because of your hard hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives. It was not like that from the beginning.”
Jesus says He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-20). These passages show what He means by fulfilling it.
Jesus takes sin so seriously, He gives an ultimatum. “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
So this law Jesus refers to … what does it say about homosexual activity? Nothing good. “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination,” reads Leviticus 18:22. “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death,” reads Leviticus 20:13.
Leviticus does not single out homosexual activity. Both of these passages come in a laundry list of condemned sexual practices, mostly urging the Jews not to have sex with family members or a neighbor’s wife, and telling them not to have sex with animals. Sexual sin is not limited to homosexual activity, but it does include it.
In Mark 7:21-22, Jesus explains that it is not what you eat that defiles you, but matters of the heart. “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person,” He said (Mark 7:21-23).
The word translated “sexual immorality,” porneia in the Greek, is a very broad word. It can refer to prostitution, adultery, incest, homosexuality, or anything else explicitly condemned as sexual sin in the Bible. Jesus didn’t need to list homosexual activity, because it was implied.
Contrary to Jimmy Carter’s suggestion, Jesus would not “approve of gay marriage.” He would say that “gay marriage” is not marriage, and He would urge His disciples to avoid all sexual sin, including homosexual activity.
Jesus does offer compassion and forgiveness to those who repented and turned to believe in Him, and Christians everywhere need to remember this. God hates sin, but He loves the penitent who trust in the saving power of Jesus Christ. That said, being a Christian involves turning away from sin, and encouraging others to avoid it themselves.
According to the Sermon on the Mount, Jimmy Carter will be considered “least in the kingdom of heaven,” so long as he teaches others to accept homosexual activity and equates same-sex lust with “love.” These are Jesus’ own words, not “my own personal belief.”