Okay, here we go. Let’s discuss another hot potato! If you want to be informed of the latest and most sophisticated revisionist exegesis regarding homosexuality, these two books are important reads – one more scholarly (Brownson, a New Testament professor at Western Theological Seminary), the other more popular (Vines). These authors (especially Brownson) do a somewhat better job of wrestling with the biblical teaching on sexuality than some of the tired pro-gay arguments of a previous generation. At the end of the day, I remain unconvinced of their revisionist exegesis, but we should not dismiss it out of hand as unworthy of serious consideration.
Brownson’s argument is multi-faceted and cannot be simply summarized in one sentence. He makes a number of inter-related points in separate chapters that build up toward a cumulative case for the possibility that the church can accept committed, monogamous same-sex relationships as holy and good. Notice that he does not claim to be arguing specifically for “same sex marriage” per se, but for what he calls “marriagelike unions” (p. 122), “marriagelike covenants” (p. 169), or same-sex committed unions that “have a strong analogical similarity to heterosexual one-flesh unions” (p. 108). He speaks of “gay and lesbian unions, which seek to discipline passion and desire by means of lifelong commitment” (p. 203).
In order to make that case, he has to make several exegetical and theological moves. To begin with, he establishes the key point that we must first understand the “moral logic” behind Scriptural ethical teaching rather than simply stay at the surface level of exegeting the Hebrew and the Greek sentences. We have to engage in a more complex form of moral thinking that involves not just exegesis but hermeneutics. This is not something new – the entire church has already done this with the issue of slavery, and certain segments of the church (such as his own RCA denomination) have done it with respect to the issue of gender equality in church and in society. For those who are not egalitarians, this opening move may be less convincing, yet it can still be seen to have salience insofar as few of today’s complementarians would argue that absolutely all elements of the Bible’s patriarchal culture are to be continued today as if they were equally binding without any sensitivity to modern culture. Even complementarians engage in hermeneutics when applying biblical teaching on gender roles today. A good example is head coverings. Few modern Christians believe we should simply follow 1 Cor 11:1-16 literally. Rather, we seek to understand the “moral logic,” the underlying principle, and then apply it to our context.
Having established the necessity of hermeneutics before we can discern how to apply the moral teaching of Scripture to our modern situation, he addresses the primary obstacle in the way of the church’s endorsing same-sex unions as holy and good. That obstacle is the traditionalist assumption that the creation order revealed in Genesis 1-2 establishes the gender complementarity of male and female as essential to the marriage union. After all, doesn’t the text say, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24)?
I really appreciate the fact that Brownson addresses this issue of the creational pattern. Previous revisionists have ignored the “male and female” complementarity of Gen 1:27 and 2:24 (as well as Jesus’ appeal to these verses in Matt 19:4-6). But it is a credit to Brownson that he tackles this key biblical-theological issue head on. He attempts to show that gender complementarity is not essential to the concept of a one-flesh union. Instead, by a study of the Hebrew word basar (“flesh”) in the Old Testament, he argues that the “one flesh” language denotes the establishment of a new “kinship bond.” “The one-flesh union entails the giving and receiving of bodily love, a love that is intended by God to forge two people into a permanent shared life at the most intimate level” (p. 107). Note that biological gender complementarity is not essential to this definition.
I did not find his attempts to eliminate gender complementarity compelling. In fact, I would suggest in all seriousness that even Brownson himself does not appear to fully believe his own argument, otherwise why would he refer to committed same-sex sexual unions as “marriagelike”? Besides gender complementarity, what else is the difference between a committed same-sex sexual union and a heterosexual marriage?
Another critical aspect of Brownson’s book is his attempt to provide an alternative exegesis of that crucial passage, Romans 1:26-27. Here he relies on the work of David Fredrickson who argued that Paul’s attack is not against committed same-sex relationships per se but against the “excessive lust” of heterosexual men dissatisfied with ordinary heterosexual sex and seeking out homosexual sex in addition. After all, Paul does pinpoint lust as a key element of his moral concern: “men ... were consumed with passion for one another” (v 27).
However, Brownson doesn’t seem to be totally satisfied with the “excessive lust” interpretation, for he goes on to add two more reasons Paul opposed same-sex sex as something “shameful”: it is degrading to the passive partner since it treats a man as if he were a woman; and it is socially irresponsible because nonprocreative sex goes against the value that Greco-Roman culture placed on having children.
As to why Paul not only calls same-sex sex “shameful” but also “contrary to nature” (v 26) Brownson argues that this is because Paul saw it as violating the surrounding Greco-Roman culture’s gender hierarchy by forcing men to play the role of women. To make this work, Brownson has to interpret “nature” here as “culture,” a meaning that is possible but not likely here. All of this is speculative, and in the end it simply founders on the fact that Paul tells us exactly why he objects to same-sex sex. He thinks it is sinful because it involves “exchanging natural relations for those that are contrary to nature,” namely in the case of male homosexuality, “men giving up natural relations with women.” It is true, again, that he is concerned with “excessive lust,” but Rom 1:26-27 reads as if he also had a moral objection to same-sex sex because it is contrary to the gender complementarity of the male-female bond that is “in accordance with nature,” that is, with nature as created by God.
In sum, I believe that Paul’s fundamental moral concerns are driven, not by Greco-Roman norms regarding sex and gender, but by his reading of the creation narrative (Gen 1-2). Paul did not develop his moral concern by reflecting on objections that Greek and Roman moralists may have had with homosexuality. He developed his moral thinking based on what the Scriptures taught. And the Scriptures indicate that same-sex sex runs against the grain of the gender complementarity of the “one flesh” marital union established by God at creation before the Fall, a definition of marriage that Jesus himself endorsed as a transculturally binding norm that trumps even the concessions of the Mosaic Law (Matt 19:3-9).
I conclude this review by mentioning one particular chapter that I was challenged by and which pushes back against the traditionalist approach, not exegetically, but pastorally. I am referring to the treatment of the biblical theology of celibacy (Chapter 7). Brownson does an excellent exegesis of 1 Cor 7 and points out that celibacy is a gift and a calling, not simply a forced abstinence from sex. He takes Paul’s advice to those who are single, “If they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (v 9), and suggests that analogous advice, based on the “moral logic” of Paul’s counsel, could be given to gay Christians who do not have the gift of celibacy.
“What should the church say to the substantial majority of gays and lesbians whose sexual orientation is not amenable to change? All sides of the debate acknowledge that this group includes at least 70 percent of all gay men and a majority of lesbian women ... Can we assume that all gays and lesbians who cannot change their sexual orientation are gifted by God to exercise self-control, and thus are called to a life of celibacy? If not, wouldn’t it be consistent with Paul’s moral logic in this chapter of Corinthians to encourage these gay and lesbian persons not called to celibacy to live lives of faithful commitment in gay or lesbian marriages or marriagelike relationships? ... Even if one may not fully embrace the morality of committed gay and lesbian unions, such unions may represent a substantial moral improvement over anonymous and unrestrained sexual activity” (pp. 143-44).
Searching questions to ponder. In this Chapter at least, Brownson essentially makes a case for an accommodationist viewpoint similar to one that he himself articulated in 2005 prior to his recent shift toward a more affirming position. See his article, “Gay Unions: Consistent Witness or Pastoral Accommodation? An Evangelical Pastoral Dilemma and the Unity of the Church,” Reformed Review 59:1 (Autumn, 2005): 3-18.
I’m sure you have heard of Matthew Vines. If you haven’t, you can read a bit about his story here. This book is written on a more popular level than the Brownson volume, and there are several key points of overlap with Brownson’s argumentation, but it is worth reading as well. One of the key things that stands out is Vines’s self-conscious attempt to make an affirming argument that operates on the basis of a high view of Scripture’s authority. He writes: “Like most theologically conservative Christians, I hold what is often called a ‘high view’ of the Bible. That means I believe all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life ... My core argument in this book is not simply that some Bible passages have been misinterpreted and others have been given undue weight. My larger argument is this: Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships ... This book envisions a future in which all Christians come to embrace and affirm their LGBT brothers and sisters – without undermining their commitment to the authority of the Bible” (pp. 2-3).
I won’t bother to give you his interpretation of the key passages, since many of his interpretive strategies are so similar to (and in some cases directly dependent upon) those of Brownson. However, I would recommend reading his book since he distills the arguments in a way that is a little easier to grasp than Brownson.
One of the things that struck me after reading Brownson and Vines is the extent to which they both assume and utilize the egalitarian hermeneutic of sifting patriarchy out of the Bible by seeing the redemptive trajectory from the Old Testament to the climax of liberation in Galatians 3:28. They both argue that the overall movement of Scripture is from a pattern of life influenced by the patriarchal assumptions of the ancient world toward a higher vision of equality and mutuality as the arc of redemptive history moves toward the eschaton (Brownson, pp. 80-81; Vines, pp. 92-93). The persuasiveness of the Brownson/Vines case for an affirming view of same-sex relationships depends in large measure on whether one accepts that egalitarian starting point. The reason is that they both argue that much of the biblical condemnation of same-sex sex is rooted in outdated patriarchal conceptions of the inferiority of the female, specifically, the ancient view that when two men have sex the passive partner is thereby treated as an inferior female. It is bad enough to be a female. It is far more degrading and shameful to be a male who is treated as a female, particularly in the realm of sex. The Bible forbids men having sex with men out of concern to avoid this deep shame of the feminization of the male. But since we have moved beyond the underlying patriarchal conception of the inferiority of the female, the moral logic behind the biblical prohibition no longer applies.
I do not think that this means that all evangelical egalitarians are necessarily on a slippery slope leading inevitably to an affirming view of homosexuality. However, it is a nagging concern. There are legitimate worries about theological trajectories here. These books should be an eye-opener for more traditional evangelicals who are wavering on the issue of biblical gender complementarity. Perhaps they will be nudged to shore up their convictions on the issue of gender roles. Unfortunately, I have no doubt that many left-leaning evangelicals will be nudged the other way.