Gay and Christian? – A Summary of the Issues

Many of you have asked me to jot down a few thoughts on sexuality and the Church.  For the purposes of this post, I am not presenting an argument or taking a position. My aims here are as follows:

  • To provide an outline and summary of some of the important issues in this discussion. My hope is that individuals, church leaders, and others will find the summary helpful in their discernment.
  • To obliterate all simplistic and absolutist interpretations, and to demonstrate the incredible complexity of this issue..
  • To challenge folks from all sides of the discussion to think more carefully and to be more gracious towards others who do not share their position.

I am fully aware that it is nearly impossible to engage with this sort of issue without being critiqued by folks from every angle. I simply ask that you be gracious, constructive, and instructive. I am always happy to be corrected where necessary, but please know that I will delete uncharitable comments without hesitation.

Brief background: I minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a denomination which, after a number of recent changes to church government and our constitution, makes it possible for churches to ordain men and women who participate in sexually active, same-gender relationships (one might summarize this description as “gay,” but I’m unconvinced that “gay” assumes sexual activity). Churches are required to make this determination under the guidance of scripture and the confessions. As such, varying interpretations have resulted in varied practice. My current ministerial call has blessed me with ministry to several people who identify themselves as both gay and Christian. As such, this is not merely an academic issue for me; it is a personal one. I do not pretend to have any or all of the answers, but I have indeed spent a lot of time studying the issue as honestly and as carefully as possible.

Cultural/Societal Concerns

Terminology. “Homosexuality” is a modern term, originating in the late 1860s. It does not appear that “homosexuality” was understood in the ancient or biblical world as it is today. In fact, many homosexual people prefer the term “gay” since it is a less scientific, and for some, a less dehumanizing designation.

Identity and Ontology. By way of postmodernity, popular culture now largely assumes that sexuality is a fundamental ontological category. That is, at our core, we are not defined by heritage, ancestry, tradition, geography, location, personality, or even as being made in the image of God (this final category is, of course, where the Church has to get its act together). Instead, we are sexual, and we are a certain type of sexual. “Coming out” has thus become an enormously burdensome matter because one feels the pressure of proclaiming and displaying the very core of their identity. Rejection thus means rejection of their existence as a human being. I should add to this point that this ontology of sexuality makes the separation of “orientation” from “act” rather tenuous.

Historical and Cultural Context. “O Philip Melanchthon!… A hundred times when worn out with labors and oppressed with so many troubles, didst thou repose thy head familiarly on my breast and say: ‘Would that I could die in this bosom!’ Since then I have a thousand times wished that it had been granted to us to live together” (Reformation Theologian John Calvin,1561, a year after the death of his friend Philip Melancthon). Had Calvin written this today, would our society label him “gay?” (He wasn’t). We need to recognize how history and culture shapes what is “acceptable” in same-sex relationships. If American pastors today, following the apostle Paul, instructed the men of their congregation to kiss each other on the cheek (which is still practiced in many cultures), how would most modern, western Christians respond? Interestingly, many cultures to this day widely accept same-gender affection. In China and many parts of Africa, it is common for men walking down the street to hold hands. In the Korean Army, during their communal showers, it is common one soldier to scrub another’s back. (Thanks to Doug Dobbins for these insights).

Friendship. Is it possible today for two single men in their thirties to go out to dinner together to a nice restaurant without bearing the suspicion of homosexuality? What if they shop together? What if they live together? This is not merely a matter of dangerous stereotypes, it is a matter of shifts in cultural psychology and our definition of friendship.

Gender Stereotypes. Our culture seems to have perpetuated stereotypes that widen the gap between “acceptable” heterosexual identity and what we label “homosexual.” It would seem that straight men, in order act “straight,” need to enjoy sports, work with their hands, eat greasy food, dress a certain way, etc. Many single men, even straight men, who do not engage in these stereotypical activities, or who display characteristics that are often perceived less “masculine,” will tell you that they have been suspected of being gay.

Polarization and Confusion. Along the same lines as gender stereotype, society has polarized sexual identity and contributed to the sexual confusion of our culture, including the confusion experienced by some gay people. A young adolescent woman in a church youth group where I was ministering wondered whether or not she was gay, admittedly not because of any internal desires she felt, but due to her frustrating relationships with boys and the particular group of people with whom she identified. Eventually it became clear to her that she was not “gay,” but the confusion she experienced was rather telling of the sociological factors we as a society have precipitated and perpetuated.

As already suggested, one of the difficulties in addressing the gay question lies in the fact that there is so much confusion and inconsistency within heterosexuality. One often overlooked issue is familyolatry, the tendency for westerners to baptize the ideal of the nuclear family, even though Jesus clearly condemns this sort of idolatry. To be clear, I do not think that God is against two parents and and 2.5 kids, but I do think that God is displeased with how this formula has excluded the possibility of a broader, communal family identity insisted upon by Jesus and enacted in many other cultures. The “ideal” American family has become so ingrained within the Christian community that it has unintentionally brought devastation to gay men and women who fear that attaining that “dream” is impossible. As I learned through a gay friend, the prospect of not realizing this “dream”, more so than any concern for sexual fulfillment, is often the substance of a gay person’s pain and fear.

The Gay Experience

Spectrum. There is a vast spectrum of gay people. Gay people understand this; Straight people do not. Using broad brush strokes to define the gay population is not only offensive, but also very inaccurate. Many evangelical Christians will read the account of a gay-turned-straight person and assume that all gay people can simply go through the same transformation if they pray hard enough or do all the right things. This is not true. Some gay people fall in the middle of the spectrum where such a change of attraction may be possible if they desire it. Others, however, will find such a change virtually impossible.

Nature/Nurture. Some gay people will tell you that their childhood or home life clearly precipitated and informed their orientation and/or desires. It is true that many gay people come from terribly broken families and situations. However, others do not, and they simply have no explanation other than, “this is who I am.” Period. (See Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting). For some, the “choice” to be gay is no more a choice than an American’s choice to grow up speaking English. English is not a biological disposition, but when was the last time you tried to un-learn it? (Yes, the analogy is imperfect, but I stand by my point). The church needs to drop the nature/nurture angle because it is theologically suspect. After all, we believe that the world is a fallen place, and that we are born into sin and brokeness. Thus, nature and nurture are far more fluid and interwoven. Do we not employ all sorts of habits, disciplines, liturgies, and practices that we hope will make us more Christian? Surely we would assume and even hope that such “nurture” would inform our “nature.”

Gay Christians and Scripture. Many openly gay Christians believe and accept the passages that the church has traditionally used to argue against homosexuality. However, instead of seeing such biblical texts as a moral argument against homosexuality, they see them as opposing particular expressions of promiscuity, relational abuse, sexual exploitation, idolatry, and godlessness. In the mind of some gay Christians, one can be faithful, monogamous, and Godhonoring in their love for their spouse or partner. As Rowan Williams puts it ,“There are plenty of Christians of homosexual inclination who would say something like this: ‘I want to live in obedience to God; I truly, prayerfully and conscientiously do not recognize Romans 1 as describing what I am or what I want. I am not rejecting something I know in the depth of my being. I struggle against the many inducements to live in promiscuous rapacity — not without cost. I do not believe my identity as a desiring being is a complicated and embarrassing extra in my humanity as created by God. And it is hard to hear good news from the Church if it insists that my condition is in itself spiritually compromised.’” (From: The Way Forward?)

Hopes of Gay Christians. One of the more heartbreaking aspects of the church’s dilemma is that there are many gay people who simply want a spouse, a family, things which most take for granted. The church often overlooks this part of the gay experience. It is often assumed that the primary desire of gay people is no more than same-sex intercourse. But how does the church respond to the gay Christian who wants to live a holy, sinless life that includes marriage and family?

Fear. Perhaps more serious than the problem of homophobia is the fear that that it instills within many gay people. Many hide in fear of being “detected.” It has prompted self loathing, deep insecurity, and a high rate of suicide among gay people.

The Ancient World

Ancient Near East. As noted above under “terminology,” for many cultures of the Ancient Near East, sexuality was not regarded as either homo- or hetero-, but rather as a vast spectrum of preference and social statuses/roles. ” The central distinction in sexual morality was the distinction between active and passive roles. The gender of the object… is not in itself morally problematic. Boys and women are very often treated interchangeably as objects of [male] desire. What is socially important is to penetrate rather than to be penetrated. Sex is understood fundamentally not as interaction, but as a doing of some thing to someone…” (Nussbaum, Philosophical Interventions, 73)

Israel. Israel was unique in its de-sexualization of God. The God of the Hebrew Bible, unlike most other God’s of the Ancient Near East, was not a “sexual” God. In Egyptian religion, the god Osiris had sexual relations with his sister; In Canaan, El, the chief god, had sex with Asherah. In Hindu belief, the god Krishna was sexually active; In Greek beliefs, Zeus married Hera, chased women, abducted the beautiful young male, Ganymede, and masturbated at other times; Poseidon married Amphitrite, pursued Demeter, and raped Tantalus. In Rome, the gods sexually pursued both men and women (See Prager, “Judaism’s Sexual Revolution”).

Temple cult. Israel was unique in her early rejection of temple/cult male prostitution. The Bible records that the Judean king Asa “put away the qdeshim [temple male prostitutes] out of the land”; that his successor, Jehosaphat put away out of the land …the remnant of the qdeshim that remained in the days of his father Asa”; and that later, King Josiah, in his religious reforms, “broke down the houses of the qdeshim.” (See Prager, Ibid)

First Century Context. Classical Greek literature, before and after the New Testament, demonstrates a wide range of homosexual relationships. Many of these relationships were based on social status, prostitution, pederasty, or other such practices. Still, others were likely of the same social order and were consensual.

The Bible

The Bible says “No,” but… Many who want to affirm same-sex intercourse as an acceptable christian practice nevertheless acknowledge that when the Bible does talk about same-sex intercourse, it condemns it. The question, however, is what kind of same-sex intercourse is being condemned? Prostitution? Pederasty? Exploitation? Any form of same-gender sexual intercourse? Did the authors of scripture ever encounter loving, monogamous, sexually-active, gay relationships? If not, is using scripture to address the circumstances of such relationships today appropriate? Ganted, the biblical authors were likely exposed to a wide variety of sexual expression. Ancient literature, including Greco-Roman literature, demonstrates wide range of homosexual practice; it is difficult to for me to assume that biblical authors – not least, Paul – had never encountered loving, monogamous homosexual relationships. Nevertheless, it is speculation.

Sodom and Gomorrah. I’m unconvinced that same-sex intercourse is the primary concern of these passages. According to Ezekiel, condemnation of same gender sexual intimacy is not the point of the story. Rather, Ezekiel compares the sins of Jerusalem with those of Sodom, which he says had “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) Sodom and Gomorrah, which were basically wealthy, gated communities, had disobeyed the law of hospitality.

Word Studies. Many have narrowed the debate to two word studies, specifically the Greek words “arsenokoitai” and “malakoi.” These words have proven to be nutoriously difficult to translate and understand. “Arsenokotai,” found in 1 Cor 6 and 1 Tim 1, and translated in all sorts of ways (sodomites, homosexual offenders, etc), is relatively rare. Its appearance in ancient Greek literature is (1) limited to Paul and later usage which appears to be dependent on Paul and (2) in some instances appears to be an economic term, e.g. exploitation. “Malakoi” is widely used throughout ancient literature but also difficult to translate (often “male prostitutes”). It is used in other places, not least by Jesus, as meaning “soft” (e.g. “soft” robes in Matthew 11, Luke 7), but in the context of sexuality probably means effeminate, or weak, perhaps referring to the passive sexual partner, especially young boys.

Leviticus and “arsenokoitai”. The prohibitions against same-gender sexual intercourse in Leviticus 18 and 20 present Christians with a very complicated issue of interpretation. Due to the complex nature of interpreting and applying Leviticus, the Holiness Code of Leviticus 17-26, which says “a man lying with another man as if with a woman” is an “abomination” (Lev 20:13)  cannot definitively provide us with answers on its own terms. If it is a self-contained moral injunction, then one must also concede that we ought not to be eating shellfish or wearing clothers that are made of mixed fibers. Christian interpretation requires that Leviticus be read Christologically (i.e. in light of the gospel), and where clearly intended, through the lens of the New Testament.  Some traditionals methods of interpretation have long made a distinction betwen the civil, ceremonial, and moral law in the Old Testament, because the NT appears to retain much of moral law while discarding elements of the civil and ceremonial law. As such, one must continue to love their neighbor (Lev 19,) but do not have to be circumcised. However, these distinctions are not always clear, especially since the good follks of anitiquity didn’t compartmentalize “moral” and “ceremonial” as much as we moderns (this is why Paul’s instructions for Jew-Gentile relations in the NT are so scandalous and difficult for us to understand). So, what about the passage in question?  The Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) of Leviticus 20:13 reads, “Whoever lies with a man as with a woman [meta arsenos koiten gynaikos], they have both done an abomination.” Paul, in 1 Cor 6, appears to have coined a compound word from this passage, “arsenokoitai,” in which case the prohibition against male-male sex would be retained as moral law in the NT. I do not think this is a “slam dunk” for traditional interpretations, but it is a more exegetically responsible approach to Leviticus, a book which, for Christians, makes little sense without the NT. Early Christians knew this, Westboro Baptists et co apparently do not.

NT Context. One of the difficultes encountered in interpreting the above passages lies in understanding their context. We know that in both Corinth and Ephesus (the context of 1 Tim), religious prostitution, incest, and other forms of cultic sexual practice was a factor. Thus, one must more carefully consider whether Paul has a broader definition of same-sex intercourse in mind, or only that which is practiced in the contexts of those receiving his letters.

Romans. The most significant passage in the scriptural debate is Romans 1. Here, one is not dependent on translating “arsenokoitai,” “malakoi,” or any other particular word for that matter. Rather, several questions arise about the broader context of Romans 1 in the biblical narrative and the mind of Paul. Far from a temple cult context, “unnatural desire” is whats at stake. But unnatural to whom? Some have suggested that Paul is speaking of those who are betraying their natural desires and acting in an unnatural way. Others who oppose this view have suggested that Paul has in mind something akin to “natural law.” This passage has proven to be a significant obstacle for those who wish to affirm same-gender intercourse on a biblical basis. Instead of an ad hoc usage, it appears that Paul is situating his argument against the backdrop of creation and the fall of mankind (Genesis 1-3).

Positive NT Statements. Folks often point out that Jesus never addresses homosexuality, and it therefore must be acceptable. Obviously, this argument from silence is not really an argument at all. All we can really say with respect to Jesus, based on the extant evidence of the New Testament, is that he appears to assume and support monogamous heterosexual marriage as a normative social convention. We can only speculate as to how Jesus might have addressed a gay person (but I do think on this point the burden of proof lies with the more progressive interpretation). Paul in Ephesians describes the union of husband and wife as analogous to the mysterious union of Christ and the Church. The important point is that while much of the debate is over whether or not scripture prohibits same-sex intercourse, scripture never positively affirms same-sex intercourse.

Additional Theological Issues

Creation. Because the debate clearly cannot rest on word studies or even individual passages of scripture, many have rightly taken a step back and considered the issue from a broader theological perspective. “Creation” plays a major role at this level of the debate, not least due to its apparent function in Romans 1. But is the male-female union of flesh essential to God’s creation? How does this argument hold up if we look at creation through Christological lens? If creation is for, by, and through Christ, what does this say about “gender” and “sexuality” with respect to creation?

Be fruitful and multiply? If heterosexuality is the design of God, what is its purpose? Is there a “final cause” as Aristotle might put it? Is there a teleological argument? If it is to be fruitful and multiply, then most Christians have a lot of answering to do. Is the primary purpose of sex intimacy and pleasure or is it making babies? If the former, its difficult for those opposed to the acceptance of gay sex to base their argument on the creation mandate. If the latter, why contraception? Why birth control? Why planning convenient times to have children based on our goals, plans, and perceived financial security? (My Roman Catholic friends might offer an “I told you so” on this point, but the truth is that contraception and birth control rates among Catholics are surprisingly high.)

Sin. Obviously one of the central issues whether or not same-sex intercourse is sin. But what is sin? In my own denomination, sin is defined as “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 14). This definition of sin is not used by all communions. For instance, the Orthodox church understands sin in terms of our verious passions. Such a definition could prove helpful since it challenges all to deal with various desires and temptations, not just “outward” expression.

History of Bible Interpretation. While the slavery/women/gays grouping is not always helpful (my view is that scripture addresses these groups in different ways for different reasons), it is instructive for us to consider how we understand the history of biblical interpretation. We must ask ourselves, “Given the way I read scripture, If I were a slaveowner in 1840 in the southern U.S., what would I have thought about slave rights and/or emancipation?” While this question only provides counter-factual conjecture, our honesty on this point may have us reconsider how we interpret the bible in light of historical circumstances. What historical/cultural factors are influencing our reading of scripture, in either direction for that matter? No one is off the hook.

God’s work in History. Following the same line of thought, is it possible for God to bring about new interpretations, insights, and methods for theological interpretation? In some ways, this was the case when Peter was being told in Acts 10 to “kill and eat” even though this was clearly against the biblical laws that he had followed his whole life. What parameters are we given for answering such questions responsibly and Christianly? The history of biblical interpretation suggest that there are such parameters, but there needs to be a consistent way of establishing, respecting, and employing them.

The Church

Hypocrisy. Even if a Christian has concluded that any instance of same-gender sexual intercourse is outside of God’s will, where is the outrage over the overwhelming “heterosexual” sinfulness that pervades every corner of society? Where is the prophetic indictment against infidelity, premarital sex, sex outside of marriage, divorce, all forms of promiscuity, joking about sex, and other seemingly accepted norms that most say are outside of Christian orthodoxy?

Discipline. The breakdown of church discipline (which is not inherently punitive but is concerned with order, purity, and unity) in mainline communions has contributed to the impotence of churches when dealing with this issue. We lack the structures and avenues for appropriately addressing a vast majority of theological, ecclesiological, and moral concerns. Its difficult to play baseball when there are no foul lines or when the umpires are only there to get paid.

Catholicity. The vast majority of world Christendom condemns homosexual sex of any type. One cannot ignore this fact. If the unity of Christ’s body in the eschaton matters – and it does – then the Church must listen to, well, the Church. Additionally, the acceptance of homosexual practice in some communions is creating a gap between wealthy, white, western churches and the poorer churches of global south and east. This does not settle the debate, however. We can look back through history and see that “catholicity” does not preclude the need for “voices in the wilderness,” and therefore does not provide a slam-dunk argument for traditionalists, but it is an aspect of the debate that is often ignored.

Interpretation. Given the ongoing ecclesial fragmentation of the western world, individuals often presume to have unilateral access to the scriptures. But to what degree should interpretation be a corporate enterprise that takes historical continuity seriously? Are we being rash in our conclusions? Protestants are not off the hook here – the Church matters. How does biblical interpretation effect the life of the church and vice versa? Are our interpretations prompting division or unity? Discord or peace? Immorality or Purity?

Women. For the sake of argument, lets say Paul believes that homosexual sex is a violation of what was intended “since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). The problem is, Paul’s insistence in 1 Tim 2 that women should not have authority over men seems to be far more clearly and explicitly rooted in the order of creation, much more so than any argument concerning homosexauals in Romans 1. Those who wish to affirm women in ministry but reject homosexuality specifically on the basis of the order of creation have a bit of a problem on their hands.

Divorce. Does the church take Jesus at his word concerning divorce? I understand this is a sensitive and complicated issue, but thats precisely the point. Is it not hypocritical for various ecclesiastical communions to ordain divorced (or even divorced and remarried) people while condemning a healthy, monogamous partnership between two people of the same sex? A traditionalist might reply “two wrongs don’t make a right,” but in any case, it seems that the scriptures are far clearer regarding divorce, which God “hates” (Mal 2).

Moving Forward

Engage. I remain very frustrated with Christians, not least many of my colleagues in ministry, who will not take the time to exegetically, theologically, pastorally, and ethically engage with what may well be the most pressing issue of our time. Make no mistake – The issue of homosexuality in the church is a crisis, and turning a blind eye is unfaithful and irresponsible. Such dismissal will render impotent our prophetic vocation as the church, and our witness to the world. The scriptures must be read, studied, interpreted, and proclaimed. We must seek the spirit’s guidance in this process.

Love. The failure or absolute unwillingness to love gay Christians and bear the burden of their deep struggle is all too common and is of course sinful. The vast majority of us know a gay person. Whatever your view on the morality of homosexuality, you have a moral obligation to love homosexual people. Do not judge them. It is not your job to sift through wheat and tares.

Listen.Listen to the experience of a gay person who truly wants to honor Christ. Listen to your community of faith as they reason together and seek God’s guidance. Listen to the communions of world Christendom. Listen to God as he speaks to you through his word, not matter how hard it may be to hear.

Deal with Sin. Wrestling with how to address the issue of homosexuality has brought upon me deep conviction about my hypocrisy and willful ignorance in many areas of my life, as a husband, friend, and minister. I find it hard to believe that any Christian could honestly struggle with this issue and not feel conviction over sin.

Burden Bearing. Do not belittle the experience of a gay Christian by ignoring their painful struggle. Should you chose to affirm same-sex intercourse as acceptable Christian practice, do not neglect the fact that gay people have experienced a lot of brokenness, crises of identity, societal prejudice, and oftentimes, dissonance as a human being.

Dangerous Assumptions. Many Christians assume that gay Christians must not care much for the scriptures or Church doctrine. This assumption is dangerous, as many gay Christians do intend and desire to take the scriptures seriously and are in fact quite “evangelical.” Some may take a vow of celibacy, so do not assume that they would not. To be sure, some gay Christians are turned off by “accepting” or “inclusive” churches that do not care for boundaries of orthodoxy. Thus these assumptions are relevant to both “traditionalist” and “progressive” camps – no one is off the hook.

Diversity. I am concerned that some think that the ordination of sexually active homosexuals is a great step in diversifying the church. This is naive. Even if mainline communions accept and affirm homosexual sex, it must not be celebrated as a token of “diversity.” Most mainline communions remain incredibly white, rich, and western. This is a sinful problem, and it is not going away anytime soon.

Charity. We must be charitable. According to the scriptures, truth is not truth unless it is spoken in love.

  1. #1 by douglasdobbins on February 25, 2012 - 5:43 am

    Hi Adam,

    Thank you for these thoughts. I agree with exactly how you have sketched the problem. My only disagreement is your willingness to partner with Gay Clergy.

    But you have laid the issues out in exactly the correct way. And if I were not a Catholic, I would have good reason for approving of Gay relationships. Like conservative Protestants, I believe Romans 1 condemns same-sex intercourse. With you, I agree that homosexuality is a cultural construct, one which is unhelpful in this discussion. That is why I simply delimit Paul’s condemnation to same-sex intercourse, along with any movement of the will toward that intercourse. All other same-sex activities I take to be approved.

    Yet my reason for applying Paul as I do comes from my Regula Fidei (Rule of Faith). Protestants today are increasingly willing to overturn Paul’s authorial intent. This is seen in the Evolution debate, specifically on the issue of the historicity of Adam. Paul’s first-century worldview, they believe, was an innacurate picture of anthropological history. Paul believed Adam actually existed; but Paul was wrong. The theology of Paul, they claim, is what must be preserved. Conservative Protestants increasingly argue in such ways. This hermeneutic seems no different than the pro-gay hermeneutic. That is, one group disagrees with Paul’s anthropology, and another disagrees with his ethics. Paul’s worldview inhibited his understanding of history; it also inhibited his ethical applications. The pro-gay hermeneutic seems analogous to that of many Conservative Protestants. What is important, for both groups, is the theology which stands behind the application. For the pro-gay interpreters, that theology is expressed in one phrase: love they neighbor as thyself (Gal 5:14). These two hermeneutics seem analogous. And if I were not Catholic, I would have little reason to adopt one while rejecting the other. I do believe there would be a slight advantage to the non-gay hermeneutic. But whatever advantage it has would be so small as to instill little interpretative confidence.

    Truth is, my rejection of same-sex intercourse comes from my Rule of Faith. I define scripture, read scripture, apply scripture according to a Regula Fidei (Rule of Faith). And this rule cannot be violated, because it has a Divine origin. Conservative Protestants correctly exegete the relevant texts. But their methods of application are suspect to me. The Apostle’s first-century worldview, for many of them, is fallible in matters of anthropology, but it is infallible in matters of ethics.

    One might argue against my assessment. The conservative Protestants I have mentioned – the ones imputing error to Paul’s anthropology – are few and rare. Most conservative Protestants would not violate Paul’s intention, whether in anthropology or ethics. Yet here is my counter-argument. True, most protestants are reluctant to impute error to Paul’s intent. But Most conservative Protestants accept the validity of those who do impute error. This imputation of error, however, must only extend to Paul’s anthropology. Conservative Protestants cannot stomach imputing error to other foci.

    I am speaking of Peter Enns. And I believe it is permitted to speak his name, because he has become a figurehead for this debate. Michael Bird, N.T. Wright, and other Evangelical scholars disagreed with Enn’s theology. But they still affirmed him as valid teacher. They even supported him when he was fired. Yet why do they not do the same for pro-gay interpreters? I cannot think of a good reason why they should not. Both Enns and pro-gay interpreters impute error to Paul’s intent. And Evangelical believe both groups are wrong to impute error. Yet Enns is accepted as orthodox, while the pro-gay interpreters are not. I cannot fathom a good reason for this distinction. This state-of-affairs seems arbitrary to me.

    My point is simply this. Application of Scripture seems to be a problem for Protestants. There is no settled method. Both sides – non-gay and pro-gay – agree that historical exegesis is good. Yet both sides differ on how to apply scripture. In my opinion, Conservative Protestants have been inconsistent in rejecting teachers with pro-gay hermeneutics. They reject these teachers, suppsedly, because they openly transgress Paul’s intent in Romans 1. Yet they accept other teachers who transgress Paul’s intent in Romans 5 (vis a vis the historicity of Adam). And what, we might ask, of those pro-gay interpreters who would never disavow Paul’s intent? Why are they to be rejected, by Conservative Protestants, when Enn’s is accepted despite imputing error to Paul?

    • #2 by adam on February 28, 2012 - 11:53 pm

      I’ll bullet my points in an effort to be concise:

      – What do you mean by “partner with gay clergy”? When I did I suggest either way that I do or do not partner with gay clergy?

      – Are your comments about homosexuality in the church or about Protestants vs. RCs? It doesn’t seem to me that you actually engage w/ the issue other than to say Protestant hermeneutics provides no consistent answer. Do you have a theologically-informed position other than deferring to the regula fidei?

      – Protlogy, anthropology, and ethics are all related, but to suggest that imputing error to Paul’s anthropology is no different than imputing error to his ethics is a non sequitur in my opnion. While I don’t go the Enns route, living by the spirit is not dependent on Adam being the first human being. This goes back to the classic plight/solution issue in Paul. Even if Paul is wrong about the origins of “plight,” he is not necessarily wrong about “solution.” I’ve found arguments to the contrary to be weak.

      – Are you or are you not suggesting that all conservative protestants follow or affirm Enns? You say that those who take a similar route to Enns are “few and rare.” Yet your whole argument seems to be based on the premise that conservative protestants impute error to Paul’s anthropology, a la Enns. Who are all these conservative protestants you speak of that impute error to Paul’s anthropology?

      – What do you mean by “valid teacher”?

      Frankly, I’m not interested in getting into a RC/Protestant debate on this thread, but if you have any personal exegetical/theological convictions regarding homosexuality, I would be interested in hearing them…

  2. #3 by Ryan Hamilton on February 25, 2012 - 10:26 pm

    I agree, this is one of the most important issues facing the church. Glad you’re tackling this subject. Looking forward to future posts on this topic.

  3. #4 by Rob Harbison on February 27, 2012 - 3:15 am

    Excellent article, thanks for stepping into traffic. Hope you looked both ways.
    Regarding your comment “I minister in a denomination in which churches may, based on their interpretation of Holy Scripture and our confessional tradition, decide to ordain openly and sexually active gay Christians.” True enough, but before we give the impression that PC(USA) is handing out bumper stickers that say “Gay is OK!”, the rest of the story is that the denomination restricts marriage to a man and a woman (Book of Order W 4.9001). So, for example, a church in our denomination in New Hampshire (gay marriage legal) that calls a gay pastor may not have that pastor preside over a gay marriage…at least for now. This will certainly be a focus of the work of the church in the coming months and years. Alas, I don’t recall that charge in the Great Commission. While our nation slides into spiritual apathy, we choose to fight over such things.
    Regarding the “conversion” of gay orientation to straight; that seems to be an unconstructive endeavor on the whole. Perhaps there are a small percentage of people for whom that is helpful, but I do believe for the majority of gay people, they indeed have an honest, deep orientation. I think the suggestion that this sort of thing ought to happen is not helping the argument of those opposed to gay ordination. To call it “therapy” is probably a misnomer that would be rejected by the APA, but I’m no expert. I suppose I am agreeing with the “Nature” argument, although those would not be my words; not exactly how I believe God made us in the garden; It seems to be the best one-word name for how I feel on this. Moving on.
    On your reference to Nussbaum’s comment about sex in the ancient near east, “Sex is understood fundamentally not as interaction, but as a doing of some thing to someone…” I find Nussbaum offensive on a high order. Don’t we have a word for making broad generalizations for a race of people based on perceptions? Perhaps I’m naive, but the suggestion that an entire culture did not know a type of covenantal, loving monogamous sexual relationships seems to be painting with too broad a brush. But I take his point that sex wasn’t regarded in that culture the way I regard it.
    Adam, on your “The Bible says “no”, point: I don’t think it depends on what the definition of “is” is…my denomination upholds a comment about passages that are perhaps hard to understand. It says, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” If the use of the word homosexual is a mistake; if the broader context is also wrong…well, you are starting to unzip a bag of problems bigger than this issue. I need to know that the tomb is empty, Jesus died for my sins, God loves me. I get that from an authoritative cannon. No mulligans allowed.
    Regarding your paragraph on hypocrisy and “where is the outrage over the overwhelming “heterosexual” sinfulness that pervades…” Can I introduce you to the movements to encourage our youth to stay chaste until wedlock? Can I show you the Sunday School material pouring out of evangelical publishing houses, but sadly not PC(USA) on this very thing? Should I have tapped the heated arguments on this topic in open forum in my church and posted them on Youtube? It may not make the editorial cut of Cosmopolitan, Maxim, or Men’s Health, but the outrage is growing.
    On moving forward and “love”: I challenge your conclusion that our failure to love gay Christians is all too common. I believe that gay Christians feel rejected and unloved at even the suggestion that there should be a dialog about this…but that doesn’t mean I don’t love them. My daughters question my love of them with childhood logic when I make them eat vegetables, or get an inoculation, or turn off the TV…doesn’t mean I don’t love them. This is indeed a challenge.

    • #5 by borno on February 29, 2012 - 1:28 am

      – Maybe you could clarify your comments about “conversion.” Are you saying that if a gay person wants to become straight, then we should discourage that? There are in fact many documented cases of individuals who seek to alter their orientation/desires. My point here is really just one of awareness – most folks don’t consider the vast spectrum of gay “orientation.” We need to be aware and sensitive to all individuals and not assume what their “orientation” or desires might be.

      – Nussbaum actually supports your case since Israel would have been unique as a nation that rejected this dehumanizing form of sexuality. She is only going with the evidence and her conclusions reflect the majority historical interpretation. That being said, your “broad brush” criticism is fair, and especially warranted when dealing with later Greco-Roman contexts.

      – Regarding the bible, I’m afraid that not doing our homework on “secondary” matters (i.e. not resurrection, incarnation, etc) is precisely what has landed us in this mess. There is truth regarding sexuality, and we need to work hard to understand it. This requires careful biblical exegesis (including careful historical and textual analysis). If the “authoritative canon,” as you say, speaks to the issue at all, then we have responsibility to address it since it falls within the “whole counsel of God.” If scripture is infallible (as I believe), then we can be confident that this effort, accompanied with prayer and humility, will not lead us astray. The Bible says something about sexuality, and that matters.

      – Regarding hypocrisy and “outrage,” I should have been more specific. I am in fact referring to the impotence (pun intended) of mainline communions like the pcusa when it comes to addressing sexuality, marriage, abstinence, etc. Those within these communions who do address such matters are often labled fundamentalists, and that is sad.

      – I will concede that there are in fact many in the church that do care about the issue and do seek to love gay people. However, I maintain that the failure to love gay people is common. There is a reason gay Christians feel rejected by the suggestion of dialgue. Most dialogue (not all) has been unconstructive, merely academic, and fruitless. Perhaps I should qualify my point by adding that willfull ignorance, dismissiveness, and avoidance of the problem and theose it concerns is also a failure to love. MLK was right, “the opposite of love is not hate; its indifference.”

      Thanks again Rob.

  4. #6 by Jim Truesdell on March 1, 2012 - 6:39 pm

    Actually, a lot of the confusion about sexuality in our culture can be directly linked to distorted heterosexuality! The heterosexuals have made sex an identity issue. The heterosexuals have made sex a defining mark of relationships. Especially for men. Men can not have loving and affectionate relationships with friends and family without thinking “does that make me gay?” Not only does it distort my male friendships, but it keeps me from experiencing depth in female friendships. My sins and the cultures sins have a strange convergence.

    You might also want to wrestle with the notion of sexuality as commodity.

    • #7 by borno on March 2, 2012 - 12:33 am

      Great point Jim. “Sex as commodity” is a major factor that needs further attention.

  5. #8 by Rob Harbison on March 2, 2012 - 3:24 am

    Any peer reviewed literature on counseling/assisting people who want to change orientation? There are case studies on all sorts of things. I pick up a sense from the gay Christian community that they reject the proposition. What do we know/not know?

    • #9 by adam on March 3, 2012 - 4:02 pm

      Rob, based on the majority of peer-reviewed studies, both APA’s (psychological and psychiatric) are opposed to this sort of counseling. Still, there are many organizations/ministries that are devoted to it and who have lots of support. It is difficult for me to have a strong opinion one way or the other because (1) I’ve read many articles by folks who celebrated their change, (2) I know others who have gone through these organizations with no change, (3) what the APA says is not always best for the church or for the Christian.
      My initial point was only that there is a spectrum of gay Christians who will find some paths more viable than others.

  6. #10 by Vance Freeman on March 2, 2012 - 9:02 pm


    Thank you for taking time to post this. This is a very helpful, brief but thorough exposition of the issues.

    To single out one issue, I think the identity and ontology issue is related to the general failure of evangelicals to develop and teach a comprehensive theology of the body. As a high school youth leader in the PCUSA, I was disappointed that I had to turn to the RC church to find a comprehensive curriculum on sex and the body. I was even more disappointed when I went to my fellow church leaders and staff with the suggestion that we teach some version of the program (which is taught to adults and youth). It’s just not done. I was even told by a parent that, “We know that high school kids are probably going to have sex.”

    Two years later, my church is struggling over how to react to our denomination’s approval of homosexual ordination without a fundamental understanding of the theological issues. The result is that many church goers (and clergy) on both sides of the argument engage the issue of homosexuality with the language of identity politics and rights liberalism rather than theology. In other words, the culture has dictated to the church both how to think about sexuality and how Christians are to debate it.

    Can we turn the ship around?

    Thanks again, Vance.

    • #11 by borno on March 3, 2012 - 12:48 am

      Vance, are you addressing me or Rob? Wasn’t sure, although you did say “Rob.” At any rate, I do find your comments helpful, as we desperately need a nrewed theology of the body and sexuality.

      • #12 by Vance Freeman on March 3, 2012 - 3:44 am

        Sorry for the confusion, Adam. I was addressing you, but I just started typing right after reading the comments and typed Rob instead. Thanks for the response. Shalom!

    • #13 by Rob Harbison on March 5, 2012 - 9:47 pm

      would love to hear any insight you have on teaching relationships, etc. Did you find helpful books or curriculum? Did you write something?

  7. #14 by douglasdobbins on March 2, 2012 - 10:15 pm

    Adam wrote “My current ministerial call has blessed me with ministry to and with several people who identify themselves as both gay and Christian.

    Adam wrote again: “What do you mean by “partner with gay clergy”? When I did I suggest either way that I do or do not partner with gay clergy?”

    Doug comments: You specifically said you “minister…with” Gay Christians. And the context was that your denomination decided “to ordain openly and sexually active gay Christians.” I always try to read people with accuracy. I think most will consider my exegesis of your statements to be reasonable.

    I will suspend further comments. It seems I have unfortunately inflamed our dialogue.

    • #15 by borno on March 3, 2012 - 12:52 am

      Thanks. Your exegesis of my statements is reasonable and I should have been more clear. Point taken.
      I am sincerely interested your thoughts on this issue (otherwise I would not have taken the time to respond to you with my comments/questions), but if you would rather not participate in the discussion, I will not hold it against you.

  8. #16 by Jim M on March 3, 2012 - 7:05 am

    Thanks for the peaceful tone.
    Let’s get to the heart of things. The issue isn’t primarily exegetical.
    I once counseled a couple who were having an affair with each other, despite both being married. Their rationale was fascinating. It involve an over-thought look at the gray areas of marriage, sex, and relationships. They had kept their heads in those gray areas for so long that adultery had come to look acceptable to them.
    The argument in favor of the moral equality of gay relationships is based on an obsessive fixation on gray areas. If one steps back from the trees to see the forest, it becomes very clear that homosexuality is a matter of confused identity in an area that can be very confusing. What should clear up the confusion is simple reproductive biology and the sociological norms for homosexual practice.
    The only moral foundation behind arguments in favor of homosexuality is “No one is getting hurt.” All morality is the management of natural, unchosen impulses. That management is always difficult, painful, heartbreaking, etc. But if you fixate on the gray areas of nuance, you simply end up coming up with rationale for moral laxity.
    And omitted from all of your considerations is the teaching, “By their fruits you will know them.” And the churches that have chosen to affirm gay ordination are dying.

    • #17 by adam on March 3, 2012 - 4:08 pm

      Thanks Jim. These are helpful insights that you provide. I’m curious what you mean when you say, “What should clear up the confusion is simple reproductive biology and the sociological norms for homosexual practice.” Do you have in mind a natural law argument? What are the sociological norms for homosexual practice?

  9. #18 by Jim Taylor on March 4, 2012 - 7:14 pm

    Adam –
    Sorry, but your arguments appear to me to be attempting to dance around clear scriptural statements, and to try to muddle their meanings. Please know that I am not uncharitable, and wish the best for all, but just feel that we need to interpret things clearly! At every point you challenge traditional interpretations of these texts, and it sounds to me like the Genesis passage that reads, “Has God really said…?” It is hard to take the intent of passages that go against one’s grain, but I feel we have no choice if we wish to remain intellectually honest and biblical.


    • #19 by borno on March 4, 2012 - 8:36 pm

      Thanks Jim.
      For this particular post, challenging traditional interpretations is precisely my aim. This is not because I necesarily disagree with all traditional interpretations, but because I think it forces people to think more carefully. I have not yet posted my position or an argument either way.

      I strongly agree that we need to interpret things clearly, but this only happens if we are forced to be clear. Both “tradional” and “progressive” interpretations of the text are often not interpretations but rather opinions based on sloppy readings of the text.

      For many reasons, the traditionalist intepretation does seem to have the scriptures in their corner, but this only begs a long line of questioning concerning hermeneutical biases, i.e. what is the bible? what does it mean that it is “God’s word”? Does historical context matter? How do we “apply” scripture? If the traditionalist wants to be regarded as “intellectually honest and biblical,” these questions need to be answered. “My bible says so” won’t cut it. My bible says God’s people shouldn’t wear clothes made of more than one fabric, so what are we do do with that? Yes, there are answers to these sorts of questions, but they require careful exegesis and theological reasoning. Thats my point.

      All that being said, I will be posting my own position and arguments sometime soon and I think you will see that I take scripture very, very seriously. The biblical exegesis regarding homosexuality is a fascinating study.

  10. #20 by boydmonster on March 7, 2012 - 4:31 pm

    Adam, this is a great balanced introduction to the issue today. As a ‘conservative’ episcopal pastor, this sort of balanced treatment is sorely needed. I think you’ve clearly articulated both sides of this argument at their best. My one critique would be that it’s my understanding that the words ‘arsenokoitoi’ and ‘malakoi’, at least as Paul uses them, are much clearer. In other words, if we ask the question “What did Paul mean when he used those words,” I don’t think that there is much of an argument but that he was referring to men engaged in homosexual practice. I understand that then you need to parse out culturally what Paul’s experience would have been, but I think linguistically the issue on those words is much more settled than is often presented. You make a good point by referring to their extra-biblical usage, but I still don’t think it changes much of what Paul was driving at. In fact, I’m worried that the reading that takes malakoi at face value simply as a soft or effiminate person might be more condemning than if it is referring to the soft male partner in a homosexual engagement. My concern here is that in your effort to be fair handed, it seems that the strong biblical position on sexual morality isn’t portrayed as clearly as it actually exists. Again, you’ve done a great job here of presenting the issues and I’ve learned a lot about how to speak charitably about this just by reading your post. Thanks!

    • #21 by adam borneman on March 7, 2012 - 5:13 pm

      Thanks for your comments and encouragement. I am sympathetic to your points, actually, as I am more and more convinced that Paul is coining a word that he draws from the two words “arsen” and “koites” in Lev 18. This is in fact a position held by many “progressive” as well as “traditionalist” (and some who have no dog in the fight whatsoever). Regarding malakoi, I take it that “effeminate” in the greco-roman world was synonymous with the “soft” and/or “passive” partner, so it has a different meaning than we might assume in our current context.

      • #22 by boydmonster on March 7, 2012 - 7:08 pm

        Adam, thanks. The etymology of those words is helpful. I think the important difference is that Paul seems to be focusing on the homosexual act itself. The great cultural difference as I see it is that Paul wouldn’t have ever used the terminology of “sexual identity,” “preference” or whatever. The human being wasn’t defined by his/her sexual preferences, but what they did, thought, and believed. Even in their most literal sense, the terms cannot mean “homosexual” but rather “those who commit sexual acts of a homosexual nature.” I think it’s an important distinction to make because I know people who have had sexual impulses that have made them feel a bit like they’ve been bit by a vampire. “If I’m attracted to X than I must be a X-sexual.” It can be freeing to understand that they aren’t defined by their attractions.

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