Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church – General Editor Preston Sprinkle
Part of Zondervan’s Counterpoints: Bible & Theology series, Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church is a constructive, and helpful, dialogue on the most significant cultural issue of our time. The four contributors – William Loader, Megan DeFranza, Wesley Hill, and Stephen Holmes – represent two views on the issue of homosexuality and the church. Loader and DeFranza argue for an affirming view, meaning that homosexual relationships should be encouraged and sanctioned within the church, while Hill and Holmes argue for the traditional view, that God designed marriage to be a procreative, covenant relationship between one man and one woman. All four contributors take the Bible seriously, maintaining a high view of Scripture whilst arguing their positions. Each contributor also demonstrates how Christians ought to engage in this significant matter by maintaining a respectful tone toward one another. As General Editor Preston Sprinkle says in his final comments, it really does seem that all four writers could push back on one another’s arguments, “yet still be able to hit the pub together afterward.”
In this review of Two Views on Homosexuality, I will briefly reflect each contributor’s argument as faithfully as I can, and then provide some of my own thoughts on the book and the arguments presented.
The Arguments of Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church
William Loader’s presentation comes first. He thoroughly outlines the biblical case against affirming homosexual relationships, including a valuable survey of contemporary, extrabiblical writings from both a Jewish and a Gentile perspective. The overwhelming weight of the evidence is prohibitive, meaning that homosexual relationships are not affirmed in Scripture. Despite this, however, Loader argues that new insights into human sexuality and psychology should cause us to go back to Scripture and seek a fresh understanding. “It is not disrespectful of writers of Scripture…to suggest that their understanding of human reality needs to be supplemented.” We have done this, he argues, in regards to cosmology, slavery, and the role of women. He concludes with a warning, “We can too easily find ourselves on the wrong side of the pattern of conflicts that have characterized the development of faith over the centuries, rather than on the side pioneered by Jesus.”
DeFranza’s argument is borne out of her research into intersex persons. If someone is not clearly male or female, yet can still be brought to salvation, there must be room in the church for homosexuals as homosexuals. This was the impetus for her journey from holding a traditional view to embracing the affirming view. In her essay, she deals at length with the important matters of historical context, particularly the presence of eunuchs in society and the nature of ancient Roman homosexual sexual activity. She also draws out the patriarchal nature of “biblical marriage,” and how this patriarchal view of marriage influenced the authors of Scripture. She argues, “No biblical passage indisputably condemns loving, same-sex marriages of equal-status partners; therefore, it is reasonable to consider whether Christians can once again add to the growing tradition of Christian marriage in order to include our gay, lesbian, and bisexual neighbors seeking to solemnize their unions in holy matrimony.”
Hill’s essay begins with a call to read the Bible in light of Christ, meaning that the properly Christian way to understand Scripture is to interpret everything through the lens of Jesus. In regard to marriage, the first, and most influential, person to synthesize a biblical view was Augustine, who concluded, in Hill’s paraphrase: “Marriage is a bond of male and female, ordered to procreation, sealed in faithful union, and signifying Christ’s love for the church.” Hill sees a holistic sexual ethic throughout Scripture, originating in Genesis, which serves as the backdrop of passages such as Leviticus 18 and Romans 1. What place, then, could gay and lesbian Christians have in the church, if they cannot be married? Hill calls for an increased emphasis on spiritual friendship, which provides a place for all Christians to experience intimacy, faithfulness, and devotion apart from genital sexuality. While same-sex sexual desire is disordered, he says, “what is not disordered is the desire on then part of a man to love another man – or a woman, another woman – with depth, faithfulness, and greater devotion than what one often finds in anemic versions of ‘friendship’ on offer in contemporary culture.”
Holmes rounds out Two Views on Homosexuality with an essay which, like Hill’s, depends on Augustine’s theology of marriage. Holmes maintains that, because of the power of sin, “the erotic desires of every fallen human person are misdirected, warped, and broken,” and therefore in need of sanctification by God. For many people, marriage is the school in which our desires are reordered. Holmes remarks on the uniqueness of how our culture understands sex, sexuality, and marriage: “the more we study the variety of human sexual norms across history and across cultures, the more we realize that it is normal everywhere except the modern West to be sexually attracted to, and probably sexually active with, both men and women.” Because, at root, we are all sexually broken, our sexual desires are in need of sanctification, of being reordered rather than being fulfilled. We cannot have one sexual ethic for straight people, and another, stricter, sexual ethic for LGBT people. The same sexual ethic applies to us all, and the church had better get serious about applying it equally to every member.
I have done my best to faithfully represent the arguments of each contributor, though certainly all too much has been left out. If this is a topic that interests you, I encourage you to read Two Views on Homosexuality with an open mind. I would like to conclude with three points which, I believe, are relevant to the argument, but which were not, in my view, sufficiently covered in any of the essays.
Two Views on Homosexuality deals thoroughly with the homosexual prohibitions in Leviticus 18 & 20, Romans 1, and elsewhere. There is one crucial passage, however, that gets very little attention, and that is the text of the letter from the Jerusalem Council, found in Acts 15. The hottest question in the early church was how much of Torah Gentiles were expected to obey. Should they be circumcised? Must they keep Kosher? What about the Sabbath? The Jewish leaders of the early church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, determined that it should not be difficult for Gentiles to turn to God. For this reason, they removed the heaviest burdens of the yoke of Torah from the backs of the Gentiles, only requiring four things of them: refrain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals, and from blood. (Acts 15:20)
The relevant question for this discussion is this: What did James and the other Jewish apostles mean by “sexual immorality?” The Greek word used here is porneia, which is a sort of “catch-all” term for sexual misconduct. It is a general term, and so we are left to ask the question, what kind of sexual activity would James, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, understood to have been porneia? Given that the entire controversy surrounded the yoke of Torah being placed upon Gentiles, it is reasonable to assume that porneia here refers to the unlawful sexual relations found in the Torah, specifically outlined in Leviticus 18 and 20. Because James used a general term for sexual immorality, we can safely assume that Gentile believers were expected to refrain from all of the sexual behaviors listed in this section of Torah, which includes same-sex sexual activity.
Acts 15 is the distillation of Torah prohibitions that apply to non-Torah observant believers, or Gentiles. The vast majority of Christians, today, fall into this category, and there is no reason to believe that the requirements of Acts 15 have been set aside. While we Gentiles who wish to turn to God are not expected to be circumcised, eat kosher, or observe the Sabbath, we are expected to refrain from, among other things, the sexual immorality outlined in Leviticus 18 and 20.
Loving, Committed, and Monogamous
Many Christians wish to maintain a high view of Scripture and, at the same time, affirm homosexual practice and relationships. This is the course that William Loader and Megan DeFranza took in Two Views on Homosexuality. It is often posited (and Defranza waved her hand in this direction without explicitly stating it) that the authors of Scripture did not have in mind loving, committed, monogamous same-sex relationships when they wrote their prohibitions against same-sex sexual activity. If they had, it is reasoned, they would have made allowances for such relationships. As it stands, however, most of the sexual relationships (heterosexual and homosexual) in the ancient were patriarchal and inequitable, so we are left to apply the Christian standard of love to these monogamous relationships.
The assumption, as I see it, is that what really matters in a marriage is love, commitment, and monogamy. This is, so the argument goes, what makes a Christian marriage Christian. Gender may be a variable, but monogamy and love are constants.
It is true that love, commitment, and monogamy are crucial to marriage, especially because these are what we see in the love that Christ demonstrates for the Church. But that does not mean that they are the only constants, or that gender is a variable for marriage. It is most likely true that the authors of Scripture knew nothing about loving, committed, monogamous same-sex relationships. However, it is also undeniably true that every biblical author knew an awful lot about loving, committed, monogamous incestuous relationships, and one very important one at that – Abraham and Sarah.
In Genesis 20:11-12, Abraham makes this startling confession. (He had, for the second time, ordered Sarah to tell the occupants of a certain land that she was his sister.) “I said to myself, ‘There is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife.” By his own admission, Abraham married his half-sister. However, despite knowing all about this loving, committed, monogamous (yes, I know, Hagar – but that was Sarah’s idea) incestuous relationship, Moses, 400 years later, ruled this kind of incest as sexual immorality. “Do not have sexual relations with your sister, either your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether she was born in the same home or elsewhere. …Do not have sexual relations with the daughter of your father’s wife, born to your father; she is your sister.” (Leviticus 18:9, 11)
Abraham and Sarah’s marriage was ruled, by Moses, as sexual immorality. This demonstrates that the prohibitions of Leviticus 18 are not variable or subject to change, based on the presence of love, commitment, and monogamy. They are constants in the realm of sexual morality, and prescriptions of a sufficient otherness required for sexual activity.
Orientation essentialism is the belief that sexual orientation is assigned at birth, and is immutable across a person’s lifetime. In other words, a person is either straight, gay, or bisexual, and this is a genetic characteristic that cannot change. This belief, widely assumed in our culture, is the bedrock of the Christian affirming position. If our sexual orientation is assigned at birth, then this is how God has made us, and we should not seek to change it, hide it, or reject it.
The problems with orientation essentialism are threefold. First of all, it is scientifically unverified. Despite what we believe at a popular level, a “gay” gene has not yet been discovered. Moreover, the largest studies of identical twins in which at least one twin is gay shows that the majority of these twin pairs do not share the same sexual orientation. If sexual orientation was determined by our genes, we would, presumably, see a much higher concordance rate amongst twins. This is not the case, however, and it has yet to be scientifically demonstrated that genetics play a significant, determinative role in sexual orientation.
The second problem is historical. The concept of sexual orientation is a Western invention (or discovery, if you like). The terms heterosexual and homosexual were coined in the 19th century as a way to marginalize same-sex sexual behavior. The whole concept of sexual orientation is, in other words, heteronormative.
The third problem is ideological. Orientation essentialism is deterministic. It posits that a person has no control over the nature of their sexual desires. It is, like gender, assigned at birth, whether the individual wants it or not. But determinism is directly opposed to the ideological spirit of the age, which is the autonomy of the individual. Our culture believes that each person is free to choose who they want to be. To burden someone with a sexual orientation they did not choose is unjust. Orientation essentialism may serve as a convenient means to find religious allies and change laws, but it ultimately flies in the face of the ideology of individual autonomy. For this reason alone, I believe that ten years from now we will be talking about orientation essentialism the same way we talk about the flat earth. What will affirming Christians do when their reasons for affirming same-sex sexual activity are judged as heteronormative and hateful?