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Bible, Gender, Sexuality

This guest post by Andrew Goddard assesses an important contribution to the debate about same-sex unions.

41oJQmCSe7LJames V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013). ISBN 978-0-8028-6863-3.

The General Synod’s decision to approve women bishops was immediately followed by questions as to whether the church would now change its teaching and policies in relation to LGBTI people. The question is an obvious one, particularly if both issues are understood primarily through the categories of inclusion or rights or needing to be in touch with our culture. If, however, biblical teaching is primary then the two issues are not so obviously connected and each needs to be considered in its own right in the light of Scripture.

Most (but not all) evangelicals have over recent decades become convinced that Scripture witnesses to God calling men and women to all forms of ministry and so concluded that the church must remove its traditional but unbiblical prohibitions. Most (but not all) evangelicals however have not been convinced that Scripture witnesses to same-sex relationships being something the church can affirm and bless, perhaps as a form of marriage.

This new book by James V. Brownson, New Testament Professor at Western Theological Seminary, Michigan and a minister of the Reformed Church in America, is the most thorough challenge yet to that view, making a creative and significant contribution to this debate. Many of his ideas are already being circulated through the work of Matthew Vines.

A challenge to traditionalists and to revisionists

In “reframing the church’s debate on same-sex relationships”, Brownson addresses both traditionalists and revisionists. To the latter he effectively says, “I basically agree with your conclusions but you must do more with the Bible than silence its negative texts about homosexuality and then appeal to love or justice”. To the former he says, “I basically agree that we need a biblical sexual ethic but your category of gender complementarity is unbiblical and once you replace it with more genuinely biblical categories and read the texts carefully you will see that faithful same-sex unions are not being condemned”. He offers four elements of “a broad cross-cultural vision for the center of Christian sexual ethics” (patriarchy, one flesh, procreation and celibacy) before tackling the key text of Romans 1 and exploring four more themes which he sees as marking the boundaries in Paul’s sexual ethic – lust and desire, purity and impurity, honour and shame and nature. Does he succeed?

His reading presents some important challenges to the traditionalist case which need to be heard and require a response. Many will like me wish – for personal, pastoral or political reasons – they could sign up to his claims and some will grab them as offering a biblical basis for what they already believe. My own view, however, is that the book’s exegetical, hermeneutical and theological weaknesses far outweigh its strengths.

Gender Complementarity

Brownson’s central attack on gender complementarity focuses on one particular form of this and one particular reading of Genesis 2 (by Robert Gagnon), a reading which is probably a minority reading among traditionalists. Certainly, along with Davidson (a traditionalist whose major study on sexuality in the Old Testament is surprisingly never cited) I would agree with much of Brownson’s reading of Genesis 2. In addition, Brownson offers no alternative account of the biblical, theological and ethical significance of being made male and female even though he wishes to stress the importance of complementarity generally and some of his own biblical categories (notably procreation and patriarchy) only work with some such account of this “combination of similarity and difference” (17) within humanity. This lack of a biblical anthropology in relation to sexual differentiation connects to a wider and even more serious concern: that he downplays the goodness and significance of our bodies and of creation, often by appeal to new creation.

Extra-biblical issues: Sexual orientation and procreation

Most of the book and its argument focuses on Scripture but at key points he relies on judgments beyond his own sphere of expertise as a biblical scholar. His claims about sexual orientation are crucial in a number of arguments (e.g. relating to Paul’s limited understanding and the new situation we now face or the alleged imposition of celibacy in a traditionalist view). Providing limited engagement with the literature, he works with crude binary categories (homosexual or heterosexual), a selective and uncritical interpretation of the range of experiences of sexual attraction, a strong sense of the fixed nature of orientation and no engagement with social constructionist accounts of sexuality or the testimonies of same-sex attracted Christians living out traditional teaching. Were different conclusions to be reached in any of these areas some of his arguments would be significantly weakened.

Turning to moral theology, his discussion of procreation raises the important challenge of non-procreative or infertile marriages but approaches the biblical material through the frame of a caricature of different Christian perspectives. He thus shows the allegedly Catholic view that procreation is the essence of marriage is unbiblical and instead favours the allegedly Protestant view that relationality is the essence of marriage and thus in principle extendable to same-sex couples. A better understanding of the tradition and the moral arguments again undermines his strongest claims here.

The Bible’s moral logic

In terms of biblical exegesis and hermeneutics Brownson’s strength is his concern to read not just a few texts but the whole Scripture canonically and contextually and to ask why Scripture says certain things, what he calls the underlying “moral logic”. However, more attention needs to be given to his method in discerning this logic and some of his specific claims about it in relation to sexual ethics. Having rejected gender complementarity as not an explicit concern in the texts and so not a biblical moral logic he then explains terms in the text (such as honour or nature) in ways which import the details of the proposed moral logic from the cultural context (for example homosexuality as feminising the male) with limited study of how the terms might be understood in a different light if interpreted canonically and theologically. This then allows him to claim the logic is culture-specific and so does not require us to follow it through and accept the biblical author’s conclusions. Is this not replacing the authority of the canonical text with a reconstructed moral logic which is not in the text but assumes biblical writers simply followed their culture’s moral reasoning?

Even where there is more of a canonical than contextual argument to challenge the traditional reading his conclusions are in need of stronger justification. In relation to purity, for example, he claims a threefold canonical trajectory which, while having elements of truth, fails to do justice to the New Testament’s continued concerns with the external (particularly what we do with our bodies), the need for separateness from sin, and the place of creation order.

Specific exegesis

On specific texts, there are a number of surprising judgments or omissions. To signal a selection:

  • a simple dismissal of the well-established view that arsenokoitai is a term originating in Paul’s reading of Leviticus 18 & 20 and instead a restriction of it to an active partner in a pederastic relationship;
  • a rejection of lesbianism being a concern in Rom 1;
  • no attention to the many echoes of Genesis and creation language in Romans 1;
  • a subjective reading of impurity which fails to explore the Pauline links between this term (akatharsia) and the more objective category of sexual immorality (porneia) in vice lists; and
  • a reading of 1 Tim that makes no mention of the echoes of the Decalogue in the vice list and instead unites three broad terms to narrow the concern down to the ancient equivalent of the current Elm Guest House scandal – a sex trade in young boys for older men.

“One flesh” and kinship

The most important element in his development of a new biblical sexual ethic is his appeal to “one flesh” as a kinship bond and the central category for sexual relationships. This keeps a strong covenantal ethic and critiques promiscuity but in wishing to create space for a sexual kinship bond other than marriage between a man and a woman he is proposing something which sits very uneasily with the biblical vision. Scripturally, sex is generally excluded from any kinship bond and to be contained within marriage. Acknowledging that “Scripture assumes that this one-flesh bond only takes place between a man and woman” he claims that “what is normal in the biblical witness may not necessarily be normative in different cultural settings that are not envisioned by the biblical writers” (109) but at no point does he explain the grounds for saying something that is normal – in fact consistent and universal – in Scripture need not be normative and required in a particular culture.

Bible, Gender, Sexuality: One Scriptural stream or two?

This leads us back to where we began. In his discussion of patriarchy Brownson writes of “two streams” in Scripture’s teaching on men and women – the patriarchal and egalitarian. In other words, Scripture requires us to deal with tensions within the canon. How do we, for example, relate the texts limiting women with the examples of women in leadership? Different answers give different approaches. In relation to same-sex relationships however there is no such tension or ambiguity within biblical revelation – the voice is consistent and coherent across the canon. That does not mean there are no exegetical or hermeneutical challenges and it certainly does not mean that Scripture clearly answers every personal or pastoral or missional question we face today in our culture. Brownson’s work helpfully challenges traditionalists to recognise and face difficulties of interpretation and application we can sometimes avoid. To be persuasive, however, in arguing for an alternative “biblical” sexual ethic that can embrace same-sex unions, Brownson needs to address a significant number of serious weaknesses in his handling of specific texts and other elements in his argument for his proposed alternative vision. In particular, he, like all revisionists, needs to offer not just a critique of gender complementarity but his own alternative constructive account of the mystery and significance of humans being made by God, in his image, as bodily creatures, male and female.


Goddard andrew(3)Further Resource:

Those interested in a much more detailed account and an engagement with the book’s central arguments, exploring the themes noted here and others, can download my paper available as a free PDF from the KLICE website.  This, in addition to offering a short summary of the book and an appendix summarising each of my critiques, covers the following areas:

  1. Brownson’s Method
  2. Brownson on Sexual Orientation
  3. Gender Complementarity – How Wrong Are Traditionalists?
  4. Brownson Among the Revisionists – What Does Brownson Add?
  5. Biblical Patriarchy, Equality and Same-Sex Unions
  6. Is “One Flesh” Rather Than Marriage the Bible’s Central Category for Sexual Ethics?
  7. Can We Separate Marriage and Procreation?
  8. Celibacy, Chastity & Compulsion: Singleness and Sexual Orientation
  9. Paul on Desire and Homosexuality
  10. What Is the Place for the Language of Purity and Impurity in a Biblical Sexual Ethic?
  11. Sex and Shame
  12. Isn’t Homosexuality “Unnatural”?
  13. Reading the “Classic Texts” Other than Romans 1
  14. The Discussion After Brownson

(Note: this is 72 pages, so more like a book than a ‘paper’!)


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18 Responses to Bible, Gender, Sexuality

  1. Tim Fox December 4, 2014 at 5:06 pm #

    A thought that has occurred to me is that for centuries Catholics and Protestants were at best antagonistic to one another, yet whilst our theologies have not changed that much (e.g. I struggle with Papal infallibility*, veneration of Mary, praying to the Saints, Transubstantiation, the need for priests to be celibate), both sides are happy to accept that the other can be a genuine follower of Christ and no longer believe their theology leads to total rejection by God.

    I wonder, if in the fullness of time, traditionalists and revisionists will similar agree to disagree but accept that the other can be a fully committed Christian.

    * I’m not sure if the current pope believes this 🙂

    • Jonathan Tallon December 4, 2014 at 7:22 pm #

      What happens if the current pope were to speak ex cathedra and declare that Papal infallibility is wrong…?!

    • Ian Paul December 4, 2014 at 10:10 pm #

      Tim, we might be getting on ok, but we are certainly not ‘accepting that the other is a genuine follower.’ Technically, I am an apostate and my orders are completely unrecognised by the RC—though the same is not true the other way around.

      A couple of years ago, the late Bishop of Peterborough suggested that Anglicans did not have a problem ‘in principle’ of having a pope. The subsequent protest showed how wrong he was!

      So this is a triumph of ecumenical realpolitik, not an actual theological recognition.

  2. Jonathan Tallon December 4, 2014 at 8:49 pm #

    Thanks for posting this, Ian, and thanks to Andrew Goddard for the review. It was of a high standard (not that I agreed with it throughout).

    I was interested, in skimming through Andrew Goddard’s review, of how often the critique wasn’t that Brownson was necessarily wrong in his reading, just that other possible (traditional) readings weren’t always given sufficient attention. Why does this matter? Because the implication is that Brownson’s reading is at least a defensible reading – plausible – and that it is attempting to do justice to the Bible.

    So here’s the question – can Brownson be called an evangelical?

    • Ian Paul December 4, 2014 at 10:10 pm #

      I am not sure that *is* the question, or why it should be. The question is: is he reading Scripture well? The answer, according to Andrew, is: ‘No’

    • Ian Paul December 4, 2014 at 10:12 pm #

      The reason all this matters is that the hermeneutical process needs to take place in community. We grow in confidence in our readings by engaging, in a critically reflective way, with alternatives to our understanding. Only by convincingly considering them can we be confident in our own hermeneutical construal.

      So by not considering better alternatives, Brownson is failing to offer a credible proposal.

      • James Byron December 4, 2014 at 11:52 pm #

        Ian: “The reason all this matters is that the hermeneutical process needs to take place in community.”

        Since folk disagree so much on interpretive principles, that community cannot be the Church of England, let alone the Anglican Communion. A liberal who doesn’t believe in biblical authority, or an anglo-catholic who believes in the authority of the magisterium, simply can’t agree a hermeneutic with an evangelical.

        Anglicanism’s gotten in the mess it has by attempting to impose a common hermeneutic, and derive policy from it. One size cannot fit all here, and policy cannot be decided solely on evangelical terms.

  3. Rev Peter Kane December 5, 2014 at 10:47 am #

    Many thanks to Andrew for his thoughtful and thorough critique of Mr Brownson’s book.
    I have to say that, having considered so many of the different attempts to ‘revise’ the traditional interpretation of Scripture, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that these authors are all desperately trying to make Scripture fit into their pre-conceived views on the matter. They seem to be coming up with all sorts of novel ideas, but the traditional position (both of Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism) will, in the end, prevail.

    • Rev Peter Kane December 5, 2014 at 11:21 am #

      In regard to the matter of ‘agreeing to disagree’, this might be more acceptable in the denominations which are of a ‘congregational’ ecclesiology. For instance, some Baptist churches are decidedly liberal and others strongly conservative on this matter. However, things are different for Anglicans, RCs, Orthodox and Methodist Christians, whose Churches are founded on the basis of being ‘in communion’ or ‘in connexion’ with one another. Thus as an Anglican, I simply could not remain ‘in communion’ with a Church which chooses to change its teaching on such a fundamental matter, should that happen. Yes, we do have differences of opinion over the issue of women in the priesthood and episcopate, but, as Andrew reminds us in his article, Scripture can be interpreted in different ways on this matter, and whatever one’s view on the matter, it’s not at all a question of whether something is a sin or not. (Indeed, it begs the question, first of all, as to what one understands by ordination in itself, something this will elicit different answers from different Anglicans). This is why this is generally regarded as a ‘second order’ issue, in contrast to the ‘first order’ issue of sexuality and sexual relations (linked as it is with the call to holy living).

      • James Byron December 5, 2014 at 6:12 pm #

        Peter, you’re already “in communion” with episcopal churches that allow lesbian and gay clergy to have sexual relationships (Scotland and America), and the Nordic Lutheran churches via the Porvoo Communion. That ship’s sailed.

        • Rev Peter Kane December 5, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

          That’s my point – if the CofE finally decides to go down the heretical route of the ECUSA, etc, I would no longer be able to remain in the CofE.

          • Clive December 6, 2014 at 7:42 am #

            I agree Peter, it would no longer be a Church without the Bible.

          • James Byron December 7, 2014 at 11:43 pm #

            Peter, you’re already in communion with TEC. (“Heretic route,” charming way to talk about your sisters and brothers in Christ!) What would change for you if the Church of England adopted their policies?

            Also, the church you’re a member of already remarries couples after no-fault divorce: according to Jesus, they’re living in adultery; and according to Paul, adultery is every bit as much of a “salvation issue” as gay relationships. If you can’t stomach one, why can you stomach the other?

        • David Shepherd December 10, 2014 at 11:03 pm #

          Come on, James,

          We’ve been here before. It was a long road for the divorced from the Root report until Synod agreed that there are exceptional circumstances in which a divorced person may be re-married in church.

          Within this pastoral accommodation, here’s one of the criteria for those (including past victims of adultery) who wish to re-marry in church:
          ‘Do the couple understand that divorce is a breach of God’s will for marriage?’

          So, even if it’s not a ‘salvation issue’, I could hardly imagine a same-sex couple who believe in gay pride coming to an understanding that, while there are exceptional circumstances for which the CofE accommodates same-sex attraction, same-sex relations are not part of God’s will for marriage.

          You don’t want pastoral accommodation, you want wholesale affirmation.

          Divergent beliefs about women in the episcopate are also a different matter. According to scripture, while the usurpation of male headship is an emerging concomitant of mankind’s rejection of divinely created order.

          In contrast, homosexual activity is presented by prophets and apostles as the concluding concomitant of judicial reprobation. It represents mankind finally relinquished to abandon their originating nature in pursuit of pleasure.

          • James Byron December 11, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

            David, this “pastoral accommodation” for divorce simply isn’t biblical: in Matthew, Jesus allows a narrow exemption for divorce on the grounds of sexual immorality. That’s it. Beyond that, there’s a total ban, and any remarriage is adultery, and therefore, a “salvation issue.” Jesus’ command is direct, unyielding, and absolute.

            The Church of England does nothing to stop its presbyters from routinely remarrying couples after no-fault divorce. That this is even a possibility should raise howls of protest far greater than those that greeted Jeffrey John upon his aborted appointment as Bishop of Reading.

            Why doesn’t it?

          • David Shepherd December 11, 2014 at 10:50 pm #

            I’d agree that connivance at the routine remarrying couples after no-fault divorce is both desperate and unconscionable.

            Let’s be clear about what is biblical. In 1 Corinthians 7, St. Paul issued instructions concerning sexual relationships in the church. While he promoted chastity outside of marriage, marriage itself was a legitimate means of ensuring that sexual desire was channelled towards monogamous commitment and responsibility. (vs. 1 – 9)

            He then echoes Christ own teaching regarding married believers in church: ‘To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife’ (vs. 10 – 11)

            However, he also distinguishes another category, those married to unbelievers. ‘To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.’ (vs. 12 -14)

            Here, the Greek for ‘willing’ is ??????????. It means cooperative agreement, not just passive acceptance, or resignation.

            St. Paul continues: ‘But if the unbeliever leaves (ch?rizetai), let it be so’. In respect of abandoning the marriage, Jesus used the similar word, chorizeto, which the KJV translates put asunder, i.e. divide.

            The apostle adds: ‘The brother or the sister is not enslaved (dedoul?tai) in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?’ (vs. 15, 16)

            He is saying that a Christian is under no obligation to an unbelieving former spouse who has comprehensively vacated the marriage. He also explains that there is no guarantee that mere resignation to maintain the marriage will effect redemption on an uninterested, uninvolved and unbelieving spouse. He would not say this, if he felt that such a believer had an enduring one-sided obligation.

            Consistent with St. Paul’s address to the church leadership at Corinth, it is for the presbyter to decide:
            a) Whether the former spouse was an unbeliever
            b) Whether a cooperative agreement to live with the believer is in place.
            c) Whether the unbeliever had vacated the marriage.

            If *all* those conditions are met, the church’s position is clear: that believer is not under obligation to the former spouse. Obviously, obligations to towards children and extended family remain, but according to the Bible, such a person is free to marry again with a clear conscience.

  4. Enoch December 7, 2014 at 12:45 am #

    You make some excellent points concerning Brownson’s argument. That said, I would offer one critique concerning your comment about women serving in pastoral roles. You say: “Most (but not all) evangelicals have over recent decades become convinced that Scripture witnesses to God calling men and women to all forms of ministry and so concluded that the church must remove its traditional but unbiblical prohibitions.” I have not read your work on this subject, and would be interested in doing so, but I think it is worth noting that across the pond in the US this is not in any way a settled question. Are you citing actual statistics here? These days there is not a whole lot of commotion about it, but I don’t think I would say that most evangelicals in the US support women’s ordination. In fact, there are large numbers of pastors, including many younger ministers, who would not support women’s ordination. For instance, The Gospel Coalition has gender complementarity written into their bylaws. Certainly most of the liberal mainlines have moved in this direction, but I don’t believe that most of those churches are growing anyway.

    • Kamal December 8, 2014 at 2:11 pm #

      Enoch, you’re right that women’s ordination isn’t a settled question in the US or evangelicalism in general. For example, Albert Mohler commented in his response to Matthew Vines’ book (http://www.albertmohler.com/2014/04/22/god-the-gospel-and-the-gay-challenge-a-response-to-matthew-vines/) that “…we have to give Matthew Vines credit for seeing this wedge issue better than most egalitarians have seen it. He knows that the denial of gender complementarity is a huge step toward denying sexual complementarity. The evangelicals who have committed themselves to an egalitarian understanding of gender roles as revealed in the Bible are those who are most vulnerable to his argument. In effect, they must resist his argument more by force of will than by force of logic.”

      Like you, I’d also like to see some figures on women’s ordination in evangelicalism.

      Having said all that, though, I suspect that Pentecostalism makes Andrew right on this point. I think almost all Pentecostal churches support women’s ordination and unrestricted preaching, and Pentecostals make up more than enough of evangelicalism in the US (and most of the world) to make that evangelicalism’s majority position there (and maybe almost everywhere).

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