Reading Scripture, Round 2

Here are the questions I’ve been given, and some responses:

  • What can you affirm about the other person’s position and his/her reasons for taking that position?

There is a great deal that Dr. Strauss and I share in common.  I essentially agree with what he identifies as “some contextual points of agreement,” and I also think they represent an important delineation of common ground from which to begin our work.

I also find Dr. Strauss’s “criterion of purpose” to be essentially in agreement with what I am saying, using the language of “moral logic.”  We agree that we need to ask why the Bible says what it does, particularly when dealing with complex, cross-cultural matters.  I also find myself to be essentially in agreement with Dr. Strauss with respect to how to interpret the Bible when it comes to the role and authority of women–the diversity of the canonical witness is an important clue here.

Finally, I recognize and affirm Dr. Strauss’s desire to take the Bible seriously, and agree that this is a core value for all who want to read Scripture as committed Christians.

  • What concerns do you have about the other person’s position?

First, I want to flag a key line that comes early in Dr. Strauss’s piece.  He states,

I firmly believe that homosexual desire (like my own heterosexual inclination toward lust) arises from fallen human nature and is not part of God’s will for human sexuality.  This seems to me the clear teaching of Scripture and also makes the most sense emotionally, socially, and psychologically.

It’s particularly the last section–what makes “the most sense”–that I want to highlight.  What “makes the most sense” to us is not always what represents the will of God.  Paul repeatedly speaks of the Gospel as “foolishness” in the eyes of the world (e.g. 1 Cor 1:21ff.).  We need to be able to hold what seems self-evident to us at arm’s length at points.

But quite apart from this, I’m not at all convinced that a homosexual orientation should be viewed as analogous to a heterosexual inclination toward lust. Lust treats the other person as an object; not all gay people treat their partners this way.  Lust avoids commitment; not all gay people do.  Lust is essentially self-centered; not all same-sex desire is.  Heterosexual lust is normal desire, but cranked up, with an absence of restraint, and a self-centered focus.  I’m not convinced that all same-sex desire fits this paradigm.  I would love to hear from Dr. Strauss more about the analogy between heterosexual lust and same-sex desire. I see a lot of problems here.

With respect to Genesis 1, Dr. Strauss writes, “God could not have told marriage partners to procreate if he had in mind same-sex partners.”  But the church has never used this rationale to deny marriage to heterosexual couples incapable of procreation.  I agree that procreation is an important purpose of marriage, but I disagree that all non-procreative couples should be refused marriage.  The church has never said that.  So why should we single out gay non-procreative couples and deny them marriage, when we don’t treat non-procreative heterosexual couples similarly?

With respect to Leviticus, I agree that purity is not the only concern motivating these texts to forbid same-sex sexual activity.  But I don’t think that appeal to the death penalty is a helpful signal of cross-cultural relevance.  The Bible calls for the death penalty for Sabbath-breakers (Ex. 31:15. 35:2, Num 15:32ff.), and outsiders who come too close to the tabernacle (Num 1:51), etc.  One simply cannot reason automatically from the severity of the biblical penalty to its cross-cultural relevance.

With respect to Paul, I want to offer a word about Dr. Strauss’s claim that Paul coined the word arsenokoites in his New Testament letters.  This represents a basic misunderstanding of how lexicography works.  If Paul is making up words, it seems pretty clear that his readers–especially the predominantly gentile readers in Corinth–will not know what he is talking about.  In order for words to have meaning, there needs to be a shared context of understanding between speakers and hearers.  That shared context is simply absent if Paul made up this word.  I just don’t buy that.  This is a fairly new term, but most likely understood by both Paul and His hearers, and not Paul’s invention.

Finally, with respect to Dr. Strauss’s reading of Romans 1 near the end of his piece, I (along with other scholars) am not convinced that these verses are referring to lesbian relationships.  For the first 300 years of the church’s history, the reference to “their women” in Rom 1:26 was always understood as referring to non-procreative heterosexual engagements that were “contrary to nature,” e.g. oral or anal sex.    I am not convinced that “inflamed with lust for one another” in v. 27 necessarily refers to “mutual” relationships, nor that all same-sex desire necessarily fits this description.  Nor do I accept, for reasons listed in my previous posting, that Paul is alluding to Gen. 1-2 in these verses.

  • What key question do you think the other person has avoided or has not addressed adequately?

I would like to invite Dr. Strauss to reflect further on his own commitment to “gracious tolerance” in his second paragraph (with which I agree), and his subsequent exegesis, which seems to leave little if any space for such tolerance.  What is the basis on which such “gracious tolerance” should be given?  How does this translate into actual church practice?

I also would like to invite Dr. Strauss to push harder on his own unanswered question, “At what point does homosexual desire become a sin?”  Dr. Strauss acknowledges how difficult it is to answer this question, and avoids making a clear answer.  But I wonder whether the difficulty in answering that question in a way that might actually be helpful to LGBT folks is a signal that something is “off” here, and that perhaps this way of framing the question is not the correct way.

Dr. Strauss argues that the Bible consistently and unequivocally rejects all same-sex relationships.  But this begs the question of why the Bible does this, and what sorts of relationships it has in view.  Dr. Strauss insists that the purpose of the Bible requires that all same-sex relationships must be in view, even those marked by discipline, mutual commitment, and faithful love.  It seems to me clearly to be the case that the Bible does not have such relationships in view when it addresses same-sex behavior.  I’ve documented this from many sources.  In other words, I want to push Dr. Strauss to reconcile a disparity between his “purpose of a commandment” hermeneutic, and his “canonical consistency” hermeneutic.  These two have to be brought into a deeper conversation with each other.  When we do that, the question of why the Bible says what it does consistently becomes a more pertinent question.

I also  want to push Dr. Strauss a bit on his interpretation of Gen. 1-2.  He insists that these chapters require a definition of marriage as “between one man and one woman.”  But for over a thousand years, the Hebrew people interpreted these chapters in a way that allowed them to justify polygamy.  Surely that represents something of a problem with any reading that says that “one man and one woman” is the only way to read the text.  I think polygamy is wrong, but I base that conclusion on the teaching of Jesus as he interprets Genesis, not just on Gen. 1-2.

I want to push a little further on the analogy of slavery.  For 1800 years, you simply will not find a Christian writer who says that the institution of slavery is essentially contradictory to the gospel.  Sure you will find people uncomfortable with it, and those who locate it only in this present age.  You will find plenty of advocates for more humane treatment of slaves, as well as some who even discourage slavery.  But you won’t find folks saying that the entire institution should be done away with.  That didn’t happen until the 19th century, and folks who resisted this change made very similar arguments against the abolition of slavery that we hear now being made, resisting gay and lesbian committed relationships.  I’ll grant that Dr. Strauss has identified some anti-slavery motifs in the Bible, but most of these weren’t really recognized and articulated with their full force until the 19th century.  

I’m actually convinced that something similar needs to happen with respect to gay and lesbian committed relationships.  If, 50 years from now, the church doesn’t say that we now understand the biblical teaching on sexuality more clearly, and are able to obey its core teachings more deeply, we haven’t made any real progress.

That leads to my final observation in this category.  I want to invite Dr. Strauss to consider a distinction between heterosexual marriage as “normative” and as “exclusively normative.”  I agree with him that Gen. 1-2 has heterosexual marriage in mind.  But I want to press further, to ask what it is that these verses single out about heterosexual marriage.  I then want to press still further, to ask whether same-sex unions might also fulfill those same core ideals, particularly complementarity and companionship.  I don’t disagree that the Bible has heterosexual marriage in mind.  But I want to ask whether those same norms can also be applied more broadly.  One way to do this, for example, is to think of the marriage vows that lie at the heart of a Christian marriage service.  Can gay or lesbian couples make these same vows to each other using the same words, and fulfill them in a Christian way?  If so, why should they be forbidden from doing so?

  • What insights can you glean from the other person’s initial post as to ways in which he/she is seeking to be faithful to his/her particular understanding of  commitment to the Christian faith?

Clearly, Dr. Strauss is seeking to take Scripture seriously.  I applaud that commitment.  He is seeking to find balance, and to discern common ground.  I also appreciate that.  I accept (with a few quibbles) the hermeneutical principles with which he begins and agree that they are a helpful starting point.  Dr. Strauss clearly is trying to create space for cultural factors in interpreting Scripture, something that not all participants in their conversation worry about sufficiently.  This is critical, I believe, to an appropriately missional reading of Scripture, as the gospel crosses cultural boundaries.  

Dr. Strauss also understands deeply that we are in a crisis situation with respect to the relationship between the church and the larger culture with regard to sexual ethics.  Our context is one which ignores, more than ever before in the history at least of this country, what the church teaches about sexual ethics.  We have to pay attention to that, and Dr. Strauss is seeking to do that.

  • What, if anything, did you find out about the other person that surprised you or caused you to change your view of him/her?

I didn’t know Dr. Strauss prior to our engagement here, so I can’t say that my view has “changed.”  However, I appreciate particularly Dr. Strauss’s concern for hermeneutical clarity, which is a helpful perspective in this conversation.  I also find his writing accessible and clear.

I find that most of our disagreements are on specific and debatable issues.  That, in itself, may help to explain why Dr. Strauss seeks a “gracious tolerance” with those who disagree.  But it also invites a further conversation about the status of our disagreement, and the extent to which, in general, Christians should be able to recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ when they disagree on this question.  That is an important conversation in its own right.


2 replies
  1. says:

    The death penalty for male-male sex in Leviticus has a commentary tradition in Judaism, and even ultra Orthodox rabbis today will point out that for this penalty to be deserved the men have to be public and flagrant in the act of sex, and they have to persist in it after being warned to stop.

    Jewish literalism has always tended to bend toward tolerance that shields individuals, families, and the community from division and violence. Would that Christian literalism did the same!

  2. says:

    In this post I want to respond to both conversants on a general point, and then Dr. Brownson's discussion of Genesis 1-3.

    Brownson and Strauss begin by agreeing that homosexuals hardly ever overcome same-sex attraction and that "reparation thereapy" (so-called) is at best useless and many times destructive of the persons seeking "change."

    Both writers begin with mistaken anthropologies. "Conversion" or "reparation" therapy presuppose that sexual identity is a valid concept and that there are persons whose sexual attraction to persons is innate and so much a part of who they are that it forms the core of their identity as persons.

    Any approach to this issue that assumes that there is such a thing as a homosexual (or a heterosexual, for that matter) is a dead end. There is no basis in scripture for such a notion. Mankind is created male and female. As Brownson notes, male-female relations are presupposed in all references in scripture to marriage, adultery, and the normal ordering of the gift of human sexuality.

    While gays don't have much luck converting from homosexual (which does not exist) to heterosexual (which also does not exist in the real world), thousands do report a release from the compulsion to act out sexually on the same-sex impulse, and many actually do enter into healthy and meaningful male-female relationships, sexual and otherwise.

    The etiology of same-sex attraction disorder is well documented in medical and psychological articles. The more we learn about this disorder the more we know that this complex matrix of desires and behaviors is not innate, and certainly not genetic.

    It is also well-documented that gay persons who are not happy with their condition benefit from psychotherapy at about the same rate as other forms of psychological problems: depression, anxiety, ocd, whatever.

    More important to this discussion, Jesus came to break bondages and set prisoners free. Those who want Jesus more than they want to persist in their bondage can be healed and delivered from their bondage to sin. The problem is not homosexual behavior, which is merely a symptom of deeper brokenness and hurt. Persistent participation in a supportive community practiced in the wide range of resources available in the ministry of healing prayer can work miracles.

    Regarding Dr. Browning's treatment of Genesis 1 – 3, Adam received his helper not because he was lonely or needed companionship. It was the Father who realized that the aloneness of the man was not good. Adam was clueless up to that point.

    The complementarity and polarity of male and female exist in the first instance to form the basis of the perfect wholeness that exists (pre-devastation, of course) in the one flesh image in which Adam and Eve were created.

    Regarding the procreative purpose of marriage, the 1632 Book of Common Prayer teaches that marriage has three purposes: Procreation; to provide a way to avoid the sin of fornication; and for the unique companionship that is the one flesh union that can only exist in a marriage between one man and one woman.

    The bond that exists in intimate same sex pairs is, unfortunately, a neurotic parody of the one flesh union created by God.


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