Today, we are continuing our interview with James Brownson regarding his book “Bible, Gender, Sexuality”. Be sure to check out part one.
James Brownson is the James and Jean Cook Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary (Holland, MI.) He’s also the author of The Promise of Baptism: An Introduction to Baptism in Scripture and the Reformed Tradition. He blogs at http://www.jimbrownson.wordpress.com on topics related to the Greek text of the lectionary, his most recent book, as well as on theological education, the life of the church, and a few other topics that may catch his interest.
I know you wrote an entire section on Romans 1, and you could hardly do justice to it in a single blog post, but could you briefly outline how you understand Romans 1 as it pertains to homosexuality?
The same-sex eroticism addressed in Romans 1 is characterized by Paul as driven by excessive passion, as degrading, as impure, and as contrary to nature. What I try to do in my book is to seek to understand what each of these categories would have meant in the ancient world. Once this is determined, then the question becomes the extent to which the same strictures necessarily apply to all long-term committed gay or lesbian relationships today. I suggest that there is room for debate and discussion here, when Paul’s language is clearly understood in its original context.
Homosexuality is often compared to other sexual practices that are condemned, like incest, pedophilia, and polygamy. Why do you believe homosexuality is not comparable to these other sins?
Each of these is probably best treated distinctly. Some people compare homosexuality to incest, because both issues are addressed in Leviticus 18 & 20. And since incest is a prohibition which Christians continue to accept today (so the argument goes), the description of male-male sex as an “abomination” in the same chapters should also be relevant today. But this begs the question about why they are in the same chapter. It would seem that they are together because they both deal with sexuality, but that doesn’t make them equally binding. Robert Gagnon argues that they both are motivated by concerns over “too much sameness” in sexual relations, but I don’t think this argument has any exegetical backing. By contrast, I argue that what motivates the negative portrayal of same-sex eroticism in these chapters is a revulsion against excessive practices by surrounding nations, which speaks only tangentially at best to committed, long-term relationships today. There are lots of things that Leviticus teaches that Christians don’t accept today, so these texts, taken alone, are quite inconclusive.
The analogy with pedophilia often comes up when the persistence of sexual orientation is brought into the discussion. Just as pedophilia is often highly resistant to treatment, but remains always morally wrong, so (it is argued) same-sex behaviors continue always to be morally wrong, even if it is hard to change sexual orientation. But this analogy rather badly confuses things. Pedophilia is always self-evidently morally wrong because it is a violation of children, and is driven by self-centered desire on the part of the perpetrator. Whether committed same-sex relationships can be tarred with the same brush seems considerably less than evident. Or to put it differently, because children can never be fully accepting equal partners in a sexual relationship with an adult, and because such partnership is a necessary precondition for acceptable sexual behavior, pedophilia is always morally wrong. But it is certainly not self-evident that the same sort of argument must necessarily always apply to all same-sex relationships.
Polygamy enters the argument in a somewhat different way. Among the many possible forms of this argument, let’s explore this one: If marriage is not exclusively between a man and a woman, but can exist between any two people who desire to be together, what is to prohibit polyamorous relationships, say, between two men and three women? If they all want it, and accept the implications of the commitment, who is to say no? At the root of this complaint is the worry that the approval of same-sex relationships represents a capitulation in our culture to the idolization of personal preference, and the loss of any objective standards against which those preferences are to be measured. I’m somewhat sympathetic to this concern, but I think it needs to be expressed more clearly. I don’t think that the church should consider accepting same-sex relationships simply because “people should be able to do what they want, as long as everyone agrees and no one is harmed.” Rather, the question is whether for gay and lesbian people, as for straight people, erotic love can be drawn into sacrificial relationships of devoted love and concern for the other that reflect divine love. If these same dynamics can work in same-sex relationships, then these relationships can be sanctified and drawn into divine love. I’m not convinced that polyamorous relationships can reflect divine love in quite the same way, though that, of course, is a rather long discussion in its own right!
In the book, you discuss how the traditional view of gay relationships might contradict the witness of scripture in regards to celibacy. Can you explain how?
Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7 that some have the gift of celibacy, but not all (see 1 Cor 7:8-9). “It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” I take that to mean that for those people who experience the absence of sexual fulfillment as a serious impediment to faithful living, the committed love of marriage is the divinely ordained solution. All are called to celibacy at some points in their lives, but the question is whether gay and lesbian persons are necessarily all called to celibacy for the entirety of their lives. That’s problematic, given Paul’s acknowledgement of the difficulty implicit in universalizing a call to celibacy, though this problem is an unavoidable consequence of the traditional position.
Most people in the church have very little access to the lives of gay people. What do you wish the Church knew about about gay people?
I find that the most constructive question I can ask in a conversation on this issue is “Do you know personally and well someone who is gay or lesbian?” I find over and over that this is the single most important factor in reframing the way people think about this issue. Until people can put a human face on this issue, they tend to react given their own assumptions and experiences of gender. So that’s what I think is most important—not that people know something about gay people, but that people know gay people! Until that happens, it’s very hard for people to get outside their own (heterosexual) framework and assumptions.
What do you wish the Church would do differently as they continue to debate the issue of homosexuality?
My first prayer is actually not about the issue, but about the status of the disagreement within the churches. I hope that Christians can do a better job of recognizing that there are brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree on this issue. To acknowledge such a disagreement among Christians doesn’t mean that the issue doesn’t matter. Christians can, and often do disagree on issues that are real, substantive, and painful. But something changes when we see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, in the midst of our disagreements. We may be more inclined to listen. We may be more prone to recognize that we don’t know everything already. We may be more patient, and trust that the Spirit can work to lead us into the truth, even when we disagree. We may be willing to live with each other in our differences more graciously. That would be a huge first step!
Beyond that, the church needs to recognize that the traditional approach simply isn’t working. Reparative therapy is ineffective in the vast majority of cases (witness the collapse of Exodus International). Gay and lesbian people find that the answers that the church attempts to offer often don’t address their experience, and in far too many cases cause pain, rather than bring blessing (witness books like Justin Lee’s Torn). And young people, by and large, just don’t buy the traditional sorts of arguments. Something isn’t working here, and the church must open its eyes to that truth.