Editor’s note: The recent series of articles by David Gushee on homosexuality generated an unusual amount of response. ABP solicited these two representative responses — from Peggy Campolo , an advocate for gay Christians, and George Guthrie, a professor at Union University.
By George Guthrie
There exists a fundamentalism on the theological left, as well as the more broadly published fundamentalism on the theological right. Both fundamentalisms communicate, “You must agree with my position and my applications or I will vilify you.” These strident cousins eschew dialogue as compromise and often take an approach that shouts, “If I can label you, I have dealt with you; and if I can label the information you present (e.g., “this is just garbage”), I have dealt with your research and ideas.” In his ABP article, “The path to discernment on homosexuality,” David Gushee invites us to move beyond the shrill extremes and join him around the table of conversation. He wants us to consider a renewed emphasis on hermeneutics and theology as we reflect together on the important issue of homosexual couples and the church. I am thankful for the opportunity to join the conversation, for I could not agree more that we must raise the level of theological and hermeneutical reflection in Baptist life.
Therefore, let me begin by making sure I have heard those sitting across the table from me correctly. Those who wish to rewrite the church’s traditional teaching on the practice of homosexuality seem to build their arguments on at least three primary foundation stones: 1) Homosexuality is constitutional, intrinsic to who the homosexual is as a person and, therefore, compassion demands that we affirm the homosexual in his or her sexuality; 2) Scripture does not address a “covenanted monogamy” form of homosexuality and, therefore, does not condemn such homosexual relationships; and 3) homosexual couples who practice “covenanted monogamy” should be affirmed in their relationship and welcomed as members in good standing in the church.
Of course, there are other arguments offered, but let’s begin here and probe the hermeneutical underpinnings of these points.
First, constitutionality. Let’s begin by agreeing that many homosexuals experience their sexual desires for the same sex as “inherent” to who they are. Some certainly would say “I have always felt this way.” Yet, the science on the biological constitutionality of homosexuality (i.e. the “nature vs. nurture” question) is still in process. I am aware, of course, of the pertinent studies, such as the one by Dr. Simon LeVay, but prominent scientists disagree on how the data should be read (Indeed, LeVay himself is modest concerning the significance of his findings).
Yet, even if biology someday was shown clearly to be a primary factor in homosexuality, I want to suggest that constitutionality cannot serve as an appropriate basis for making a hermeneutical move to accepting homosexual practice. Why? Because there are other aspects of our existence that we experience “constitutionally” that nevertheless cannot be used as a basis to affirm behavior in line with that constitution. For instance, according to Scripture, we as human beings are sinners (e.g. Romans 7:18-21). Yet, of course, that cannot be used as a basis for affirming sin. In my experience of ministry, I have had womanizing men state, “This is just the way I am.” Indeed, do those of us who are heterosexuals not at times experience the sexual tug, that jibbering monkey in our loins, which attempts to draw us to sexual expression outside of our marriages? I experience the sex drive as inherent to who I am; it is constitutional. Yet, it cannot be used to excuse acting on that impulse.
I am also concerned that there exists a short step from affirming homosexuality on the basis of one’s constitution, to affirming other forms of sexual expression, such as pedophilia, on the same basis. Some of our homosexual friends would abhor the idea, but we are talking about constitutionality as a basis for making ethical decisions, and there are those in the global, heterosexual and homosexual communities who already put pedophilia forward on the basis of it being “natural.” My point is not that all homosexuals are pedophiles, but that constitutionality forms a terribly poor basis for promoting an ethical stance on homosexuality.
Second, what of the argument on the grounds of covenanted monogamy? I know of no hard data on the practices of homosexual couples who claim to be Christians (and am open to being informed on the matter). It seems clear (in works such as The Male Couple), however, that homosexual men in general experience an astronomically high rate of infidelity compared to heterosexuals, with strikingly low rates of monogamy or even semi-monogamy.
I am sure there are homosexual couples that are faithful to one another, but, again, even if covenant monogamy was widely practiced among homosexuals, is a commitment to monogamy an appropriate basis for affirming a homosexual relationship? If so, why would it not be appropriate to use the same principle of “covenant monogamy” to affirm incest, for instance? Most ancient references to incest, whether Greco-Roman or Egyptian, focus on relationships between consenting adults, whether brother and sister or parent and grown child. Again, my point is not that homosexuality leads to incest, but that a commitment to “covenant monogamy” makes a poor basis for a hermeneutical move to affirm homosexual practice.
This then brings us to the question of Scripture and its interpretation. If our discussion is to be considered “Christian,” it must come down to a consideration of what God has revealed as true in his Word. There is no true compassion apart from revelation. Thus, we need to embrace a rigorous “Berean” hermeneutic that is coherent in terms of the broad scope of biblical theology (e.g. God’s mercy, God’s wrath, the human condition, human sexuality, redemption) and compassionate in its application of truth to real-life contexts of homosexuals in the modern world.
That said, it seems to me the attempts to affirm homosexual relationships with Bible in hand fall primarily into two categories. Arguments in the first go something like this: “The Scripture does not condemn monogamous, covenanted, homosexual relationships but rather other forms of homosexuality,” and “Jesus never condemned homosexuality but welcomed the outcast.” Both are arguments from silence. Monogamous, covenanted, homosexual relationships are not condemned in Scripture, because they were unknown (indeed, unthinkable) in Jewish or Christian contexts of the ancient world. It is true that in the Gospels Jesus doesn’t say anything about homosexuality. (Remember, though, that he does strongly affirm marriage as a creation ordinance involving a man and woman — Matthew 19:4-6). But neither does Jesus address directly other forms of sexuality, such as incest, beastiality, pedophilia or sadomasochism. Arguments from silence weave a terribly thin hermeneutical thread from which to hang one’s theological behemoth.
The other approach to hermeneutics involves a reframing of what the Scripture does say about homosexuality. For instance, it is suggested, that Genesis 19 really concerns the lack of hospitality on the part of the men of Sodom. Or Romans 1:24-27 is about idolatry and participating in homosexual orgies, not the practice of responsible homosexual relationships. Yet, I would humbly suggest, the convergence of word meanings, background information, literary context and other factors stand against these interpretations. For instance, in Romans 1:26-27, Paul lays great stress on the “abandoning” of or “exchanging” natural sexuality (between a man and a woman) for sex with a person of one’s own gender. This is the central point in those verses. The creation ordinance of God has been abandoned.
As for context, two verses later in Romans 1:29, the apostle speaks of greed, murder, strife, deceit, gossip and disobedience to parents, among other vices. That catalogue plays a role in communicating the pervasive sinfulness of humanity, not merely the sinfulness of specifically idolatrous or orgiastic contexts. Homosexual practice, according to Romans 1, is part of a larger problem of human sinfulness, the rejection of God’s intentions for the world.
I am sure to be accused of lacking compassion for those embracing a homosexual lifestyle, and that grieves me. Yet, is it a rightly applied compassion that affirms a lifestyle that too often compromises the physical and emotional well being of fellow human beings? The data seems to indicate that homosexual practice for both couples and individuals leads to a greatly reduced life expectancy (as much as three decades, and not just due to AIDS). Among homosexual men, for instance, there exists a much higher risk of rectal cancer and rectal trauma (which causes a much higher risk of a wide range of diseases). Is it compassionate to affirm such a lifestyle?
In conclusion, I agree that churches too often have neglected important ministry to those struggling with homosexuality. Yet, what is needed is not to rethink the church’s stance on homosexuality, as Dr. Gushee suggests, but to rethink our response to homosexuals themselves. For some this will mean dropping a harsh posture, getting the facts on the challenges faced by those in the homosexual community, and opening our hearts of compassion. For others it will mean a renewed commitment to the whole counsel of God on human sexuality
George Guthrie is the Benjamin W. Perry Professor of Bible at Union University www.uu.edu/personal/gguthrie