Biblical Perspectives, Round 3
I have greatly appreciated this opportunity for dialogue. I have learned a great deal and expect to keep learning. I want to thank Dr. Brownson for his incisive but fair and cordial engagement.
In this final post, we have been asked to respond to our dialogue partner’s previous post and then to identify issues that need more thought and that form the basis for further conversation. I will take on these two tasks in order, first with responses to the previous post.
Dr. Brownson points to 1 Corinthians 1:21ff. — that the gospel is seen as “foolishness” in the eyes of the world—to challenge my claim that what “makes the most sense” biblically, socially and psychologically is that homosexual desire is a result of humanity’s fallen state. He points out that “what seems self-evident” may not be correct. This is certainly true. But Paul’s point in these chapters of First Corinthians is that “the person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness” (1 Cor. 2:14). As I noted in an earlier post, for two thousand years the Spirit-filled and Spirit-led church has recognized same-sex relations as contrary to God’s will for human sexuality. Are we really to believe that for all that time God’s people have misunderstood and misrepresented the Spirit’s voice? Let’s not forget that today it is “those without the Spirit”—the unbelieving culture around us—that is placing the greatest pressure on the church to conform in this area.
Dr. Brownson is also unhappy with the parallel I drew between “my own heterosexual inclination toward lust” and same-sex desire, because—he notes—lust is very different from a loving and mutual same-sex relationship. I agree that these are different. But my point was not to equate the two, but to identify both as disordered inclinations. My inclination toward lust is not in itself sinful. But it is disordered (a result of our fallenness). In the same way, the inclination toward same-sex relations is not sin. But it is disordered and a result of our fallenness. If we give in to these temptations (by lusting or in same-sex sexual acts), they become sin.
Nor is the reality of infertile heterosexual couples evidence that Genesis 1-2 could envision same-sex partners. When I said, “God could not have told marriage partners to procreate if he had in mind same-sex partners,” my point was that God’s command to procreate requires a heterosexual couple. My point was not the inverse—that every heterosexual couple can and must procreate. Infertility is another result of our fallen state. But this does not negate the fact that procreation is a key part of the very nature and institution of marriage.
Dr. Brownson makes a good point that it is unlikely that Paul coined the term arsenokoitēs (1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:9-10) just for this purpose, since Paul assumes his readers will understand the word. I will concede that point. At the same time, the striking parallel between this word and the terms used for homosexual relations in Leviticus 18:22; 20:13 LXX (arsēn +koitē) suggest to me that the term was likely a Jewish one of recent vintage, and that it alludes back to these passages. But we cannot be certain of this.
Dr. Brownson and I disagree on Romans 1 at two key points. He does not believe that lesbian relationships are in view in v. 26 nor that the male sexual relationship described in v. 27 is mutual (rather than coercive). Concerning the first, the verbal parallels between verses 26-27 seems too similar to deny that homosexual acts (lesbian and gay, respectively) are in view in both cases. Verse 26 says that women exchanged “natural sexual relations for unnatural ones” (or, more formally, “the natural use for the unnatural”). Verse 27 then says, “In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women [formally, ‘the natural use of the female’].” Paul’s use of “in the same way,” “also,” and the nearly identical language (“the natural use”) strongly suggests that he has the same kind of sin in mind in both verses.
As far as the mutuality of the same-sex relations in v. 27 is concerned, the phrase “for one another” (eis allēlous) would seem to indicate this. Further support for this comes from 1 Corinthians 6:9, where both the active (arsenokoitēs) and passive (malakoi) participants in same-sex acts are identified as guilty of sin.
Dr. Brownson also pushes back on my uncertainty concerning when homosexual desire becomes sin, suggesting that this is an acknowledgment that something is “off” in my perspective. But my uncertainty relates to the recognition that friendships are a good thing. At the same time, I think we would all acknowledge that friendships can become inappropriate and sinful when they cross certain lines of propriety. A man might have family affection for his wife’s sister. He may find her attractive and enjoy her company. There is nothing wrong with this. But at some point this relationship could cross the line to inordinate desire or lust, at which point it becomes sinful. When would this line be crossed in a same-sex relationship? My answer would be the same: when the enjoyment of friendship crosses the line to inordinate desire.
I know Dr. Brownson would challenge my reference to lust (or inordinate desire) here, claiming that lust is self-centered and without restraint, whereas same-sex love can be selfless and committed. But sexual desire for another person simply happens. It is not necessarily initiated by selfishness or lack of restraint. But if this sexual attraction is allowed to grow or is acted upon, then it becomes sin. I would argue that it is the same with same-sex sexual attraction. It may simply happen. But to nurture it or act upon it would be sin. (I will discuss the apparent “unfairness” of this below.)
Dr. Brownson also invites me to expand upon what I mean by “gracious tolerance,” especially in light of my subsequent interpretation of texts (where I conclude that same-sex relationships are contrary to God’s will.) The implication of his invitation, if I’m understanding it correctly, is that he doesn’t see how I can be “tolerant” and still believe that the Bible treats same-sex relationships as sinful. But this seems to be an inappropriate definition of tolerance. Tolerance does not mean that I agree with or affirm someone else’s beliefs or actions. It means that despite our differences, I still treat that person with love and respect. I don’t hate them, or persecute them, or seek to harm them. Instead, I love them despite our differences. If we did not disagree, there would be no need for tolerance. For example, I have a friend who is Jewish. I love him and treat him with respect and would never intentionally harm him. But I don’t agree with his beliefs. I have another friend who is an atheist. He lives a lifestyle that I consider to be immoral. Yet I show gracious tolerance to him. I love him and spend time with him and treat him with respect and dignity, and I pray for him. He knows I don’t agree with his beliefs or approve of his lifestyle, but we can still share friendship, mutual love and respect. It is the same with friends who are practicing homosexuals.
Finally, we have been asked to identify issues that need more thought and that should form the basis for further conversation. The church will no doubt continue to wrestle with the biblical texts and how they relate to contemporary same-sex relationships. Although Dr. Brownson and I remain convinced of our own interpretations of these texts, I hope we can continue to dialogue in hopes of finding more common ground.
Another area that needs more thought and discernment is how the church should respond in a society that is increasingly at odds with its moral standards. Some, like David Gushee, have warned that the church will lose its witness if it remains at odds with the larger culture. I would say the opposite. We will lose our witness if we give in to the world’s standards. The first century church was greatly at odds with the moral values of the Greco-Roman world. Yet it survived and thrived not by changing its values, but by standing firm on God’s commands while demonstrating sacrificial love, mercy and peace toward outsiders—even when facing persecution and loss. This represents the greatest challenge for the church today, to remain true to its convictions while practicing self-sacrificial love, joy and kindness toward those who oppose us. There is no place in the church for anger, hatred, ostracism or homophobia.
So how does this translate into relationships within the church? I think we are all struggling with this question. I believe the church should welcome and show Christ’s love to anyone who comes into its fellowship. We are all simply sinners saved by God’s grace. Jesus shared table fellowship with sinners and tax collectors and welcomed them. Though he did not agree with their sinful lifestyle, he continued to spend time with them and to love them unconditionally.
While the church needs to be a welcoming place, I don’t believe anyone who is involved in a consistently sinful lifestyle should assume a leadership role in the church. This pertains not only to sexual sins, but to persistent and unrepentant sins of any kind.
The church also needs to be more proactive in supporting and encouraging all those who come through its doors, whether married, single, divorced or widowed, whether homosexual or heterosexual. The church is a family, and as a family it needs to work hard to provide support and accountability. This means strengthening and supporting marriages. It means encouraging healthy celibate relationships that nurture the soul with deep and caring commitment and family affection. It means acknowledging the reality of sexual temptation and providing support systems and accountability partnerships to help all of us maintain sexual purity.
Some may respond that it is not fair that those with same-sex attraction do not have a sexual outlet, while heterosexual people do. But this argument from fairness will not get us very far. Unfortunately, life is never “fair” in the sense of the same for everyone. Not everyone has equal abilities or opportunities. Not everyone—whether homosexual or heterosexual—has the opportunity for marriage or sexual fulfillment. Some people are born with severe handicaps. Some are impotent. Some suffer from debilitating diseases. Some die much too young. Life in this fallen world is never fair. Yet we are still responsible to God for what he has given us. We are still called to live lives of faith, obedience and purity. This is because, ultimately, our hope is not in the fairness of this world, but in the fairness of eternity.
This does not mean that people cannot have full and satisfying lives. Joy and fulfillment can be found in deep and meaningful relationships that are not sexual. Of course, ultimate joy and fulfillment is to be found in the abiding fellowship we have through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Dr Strauss asks, "Are we really to believe that for all that time God’s people have misunderstood and misrepresented the Spirit’s voice?" Why is that so hard to believe, when it has happened with–to list a few subjects–female clergy, interracial marriage, remarriage after divorce, slavery, geocentrism, and all the way back to Gentile circumcision? This list alone doesn't make any revisionist reading necessarily correct, but it should open our hearts. If we are not constantly discerning God's will for us in Scripture as well as we can, however uncomfortable it makes us to keep probing our preconceived notions, we are not being faithful.
Then Dr. Strauss claims, "Let’s not forget that today it is 'those without the Spirit'—the unbelieving culture around us—that is placing the greatest pressure on the church to conform in this area." I question this, but at the very least, ignore the outside voices and listen harder to voices within the church, those who believe God has called them to same-sex partnerships. Not only do they challenge our simplistic categories that associate same-sex practice with cultural degeneracy outside the church, but they present to us a case that no biblical author ever faced: faithful disciples within the church who seek or maintain covenantal same-sex partnerships. Since no biblical author considered this possibility, we must acknowledge we are making a hermeneutical leap with either traditional or affirming readings of Scripture in this area.