Bible, Gender & Sexuality

Blair Smith
James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church's Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013. 312pp. $24.99/£15.99

Revolutions don't happen overnight. They build. What we witnessed in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26 of this year - the full legal recognition of same-sex marriage in all fifty states - was decades in the making, wrought through an interplay of cultural and legal moves emerging out of the sexual revolution. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), Justice Anthony Kennedy infamously introduced an untamable definition of liberty when he announced: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." In last month's Obergefell opinion, Justice Kennedy let loose that same revolutionary spirit, deepening the purple of his prose as he declared: "The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation." Based on Kennedy's wildly broad conception of liberty, so-called same-sex marriage (henceforth SSM) has now been declared a constitutional right by the narrowest conceivable majority of the Supreme Court (5-4).

And this is now the world in which we, as Americans, live--one in which SSM has legal sanction by the highest court of our land. But for Christians the deeper question remains standing: is there biblical sanction for this new definition of marriage?

In the court of biblical interpretation, James Brownson plays the role of Justice Kennedy in his Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church's Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. Seeking to give biblical sanction to such arrangements, Brownson aims to revolutionize how the Church treats the matter of same-sex relations. For Brownson, as long as same-sex sexual activity takes place within a committed life-long relationship it should be viewed on equal moral footing as opposite-sex sexual activity. Accordingly, Brownson contends that the Church must accept both forms of marriage and teach that they are vehicles through which we can deepen our union with Christ. 

While I will be arguing that Brownson is woefully wrong in his arguments and conclusions, let me acknowledge on the front end that in a gush of recent books attempting to fit SSM with biblical teaching, his presents the best case. It is a model of clarity and rhetorical finesse, on account of which it has been a central source for those advocating the cause of SSM. Working downstream of Brownson, Matthew Vines, who is the most public and well-funded evangelist for LGBT inclusion within churches, relies heavily upon Brownson's work, which he has deemed "simply the best high-level treatment of the Bible and same-sex relationships currently available, especially for those who are more theologically conservative." Therefore, if you can read only one book that attempts to make a biblical case for the inclusion of same-sex relationships within the Church, let it be this one. Our own thoughts and apologetic will be sharper for having engaged the most compelling arguments available. 

Brownson's book breaks down into four sections. In the first (chapters 1-3) he goes over the present state of the conversation from both traditionalist and revisionist perspectives. The second section (chapters 4-7) presents the heart of his argument where he seeks to find the underlying 'moral logic' of the Bible's teaching on sexuality through chapters on patriarchy, the 'one flesh' union of marriage, procreation, and celibacy. In section three (chapters 8-11) Brownson takes on the highly contested text of Romans 1:24-27 before in his conclusion, section four (chapter 12), recapping how his arguments affect our reading of the rest of the key 'seven passages' (as they are commonly referred to in this literature) touching on same-sex relations (Gen 19; Judges 19; Lev 18:22; 20:13; 1Cor 6:9; 1Tim 1:10). 

To fully review and rebut Brownson would require me to match his near 300 pages with 300 of my own--an impossibility given the constraints of this space! Suffice it to say, he raises enough issues and produces enough provocative judgments that a robust critical engagement is needed in the near future by a faithful scholar. For now, I would like to address two aspects of his overall argument that touch on matters central to biblical authority and a faithful hermeneutic. Perhaps in addressing just these two the reader can gain an orientation to Brownson's work and discern its most fundamental problems. In conclusion, I will briefly reflect upon the Church's present need to enrich her confessions on what it means to be human.

The Weight of Experience & Biblical Authority

No self-aware Christian can deny that experience plays a role in shaping one's reading of the biblical text. The question is: where does this experience ultimately stand in relation to the text? Does the reader bring his or her experience before Scripture seeking Scripture's evaluation, or seeking Scripture's validation?

I commend Brownson for his honesty at the forefront of the book, where he reveals that, five years before sitting down to write, his then eighteen-year-old son revealed to him and his wife that he believed he was gay. Prior to this profound disclosure of a son to his father, Brownson drew a sharp distinction between homosexual orientation and behavior. Believing that the existence of a homosexual orientation might be a reality in a fallen world, Brownson previously maintained the indulgence of that orientation is always contrary to God's moral law. But his abiding respect for his son - and determination that he was "normal and healthy" - "forced" him to re-visit the Bible and "reimagine how Scripture speaks about homosexuality" (pp. 12-13). 

In such a statement one might already perceive a tension with biblical authority. Brownson goes on to make some rather tepid statements about his commitment to the "centrality of Scripture" (note: qualitatively different than the "authority of Scripture") as an interpreter within the Reformed tradition, while also saying that tradition compels him to 'always be reforming' according to the Word of God. The way he conceives the application of the 'always reforming' principle, however, is to "find new patterns and configurations in which the texts themselves, and a range of human experience, might cohere more fully" (p. 13, emphasis mine). As far as authority goes, Brownson shows a willingness to position human experience and Scripture in a rather (shall we say?) egalitarian relationship. This not only strips the Reformation principle of semper reformanda of its critical force ('always reforming according to Scripture'), it also puts Brownson's approach in a dubious relationship with his denomination's confession. The Reformed Church in America subscribes to the Belgic Confession: "We receive all [sixty-six] books and these only as holy and canonical, for the regulating, founding, and establishing of our faith" (Article 5).

With the structure of authority calibrated at the outset to find coherence between "a range of human experience" and the biblical text, the conclusions Brownson reaches on same-sex relationships are of no surprise (at least to this reviewer). The weight of modern experience requires, in Brownson's estimation, that certain passages be "retranslated". For example, Brownson considers it "obvious that in a modern context, where husbands are no longer the sole source of provision and care, this framework [of husbands being heads of their wives] needs to be reconsidered and 'retranslated'" (pp. 98-99). As a consequence, the distinct signification given to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:21-33 is de-gendered so that either husband or wife can signify Christ or the Church. One can see how this newfound interchangeability, opened up by the weight of modern experience, clears the space needed for same-sex couples to plug into the same flexible signification and, therefore, occupy sanctifying marriage relationships. Indeed, Brownson says the Church must consider "the actual experience and testimony of gay and lesbian Christians" that long-term committed unions are being used by God to draw them more deeply into divine love (pp. 198-199). When Scripture is being retranslated in light of human experience, it becomes clear that the latter has been accorded functional (if not formal) canonicity.

At this point the Bible-believing reader might be asking what Brownson does with the variety of biblical texts that clearly censure homosexual behavior. Don't these stand over and condemn such claims that would make holy what Scripture teaches is sinful? In his navigation of these he adopts a 'trajectory hermeneutic'--a rather recent approach to Scripture sharpened by exegetes of the last decade or two who have been seeking to establish egalitarianism among the sexes in both Church and home.[1]

Trajectories, Moral Logic, and a Faithful Hermeneutic 
Fundamental to the trajectory hermeneutic is an understanding that Scripture contains 'countervailing streams' on a given subject. We might call the one the 'cultural stream' and the other the 'gospel stream'. Looking to the whole sweep of Scripture, purveyors of the trajectory hermeneutic point to the gospel stream as more central, flowing ultimately from God's original and good purposes in creation, finding its energy in the incarnation, and promised to appear in even greater splendor at the fulfillment of the eschaton. The cultural stream, by contrast, is murky as a result of its headwaters residing in the variety of fallen cultural forms and attitudes in which Scripture was written. In the Old Testament, according to this hermeneutic, the cultural stream had a strong current and frequently overwhelmed the gospel stream. But with the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the gospel stream gathered momentum, helping to filter out the sediment deposited by the cultural stream. Still, in this 'not yet' time before Christ returns, these two streams remain in tension with one another, so that even in the New Testament we find some confusing undercurrents. In one place Galatians 3:28 displays the pure waters of the gospel and, in another, the muck of the cultural stream impedes the progress of the gospel stream. 

Rather than seeing Scripture as a coherent and final 'deposit' of God's revelation (Jude 1:3) - in need of neither addition nor subtraction - advocates of the trajectory hermeneutic call the church to discern the Bible's dominant gospel trajectory, expressed in such passages as Galatians 3:28, and to carry that trajectory forward into the present day. Brownson fully adopts this hermeneutic in order to deconstruct any notion that gender complementarity aligns with will of God--indeed, its presence in the Scriptures stems from the residual stream of culture. The Church's job is to distribute the fresh waters of the gospel and cleanse out such clouds of cultural sediment in our midst.

Exhibit A of the cultural muck of the New Testament for Brownson is found in Romans 1:18-32. He uses over 100 pages to filter through it, finally discovering the headwaters for Paul's teaching on what is against "nature" (Rom 1:26) in a comprehensive Stoicism instead of a violation of structures built into the creation of man and woman.[2] Here we see Brownson adopting and translating the trajectory hermeneutic through something he calls "moral logic" for the purposes of his sexual ethic: "[Every particular passage of Scripture must be read against a] deeper and more comprehensive moral logic that undergirds the specific commands, prohibitions, and examples of the biblical text" (p. 9). Brownson contends Paul's dependence upon Stoic thought in Romans 1 means he introduces into the predominantly gospel stream of Romans a 'borrowed' moral logic from the culture of his day. What is more, those things that accompany unnatural behavior in Romans 1 - idolatry, degradation, lust, shame, and error - have their own conflicting moral logics. In the end, Paul's overall message is 'saved' by the deeper and more abiding moral logic of the gospel which underlies and subverts the moral logics he adopts from his day: "Appeals to nature entailed appeals to the most common forms of experience and observation that would seem self-evident to all rational people of good will. Yet Paul's characterization of his gospel as 'foolishness' to Gentiles (1Cor 1:23) suggests that redemption in Christ stands in some tension with 'the ordinary perception of good and bad'" (p. 248). 

For a spell one might think Paul is teaching a baptized Stoicism that finds solutions in nature, but when reading him more fully and deeply Brownson thinks we are able to discern the isolated passages where his moral vision is limited by the horizons of his day and cast light on them through the moral logic of the gospel. According to Brownson, The moral logic of the gospel is less concerned with what we are doing with our bodies than it is with the attitudes and disposition with which the behavior is carried out (p. 193). Paul only knew homosexual activity that was wanton. He did not have our 'modern experience' of knowing committed same-sex couples who engage in sexual activity devoid of excessive passion and dishonor and full of mutual care and concern. Thus, Brownson argues that the experiential gap[3] between what Paul knew and what we now know opens our spiritual imaginations and creates room for SSM: "if there are various forms of moral logic at work [in the Bible], some of them culturally specific and rooted in the ancient world, then the exploration of this gap between the ancient and modern worlds is necessary and urgent" (p. 278). Bringing 'the light' of the gospel's moral logic into the modern world means, for Brownson, finding the biblical purposes for marriage fulfilled in SSM. 

* * *

It was inevitable the revolution would come to the biblical text. This revolution takes no prisoners. Rather, it seeks to enlist all - including the Bible - to meet its ends. Brownson's work serves these ends by skillfully moving forward previous work altering how people view biblical authority and interpretation. First, questions are raised about the integrity of the biblical text and its relevance to modern experience. Then, the internal tensions found there can only be released by discerning its most soaring trajectories and, now, its deepest moral logic. 

When does the revolution end?

Within our American constitutional framework, the sexual revolution continues to find legal legitimacy through the "penumbras and emanations" of the Fourteenth Amendment. First, it was a right to privacy in matters of contraception (Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965). Then, the trajectory of privacy reached a mother's womb, creating the right to abortion (Roe v. Wade, 1973). Now, the moral logic of the amendment demands a right to SSM. It appears that a simple majority of the court can catch new trajectories and fabricate even deeper moral logics whenever the day calls for it. 

The analogy of the Supreme Court and the Constitution is instructive for the revolution's reach into biblical interpretation. The only apparent controls on discerning the trajectories and moral logics found in Scripture are those exegetes such as Brownson develop themselves, with the trajectories and moral logics functioning as a fluid 'canon-within-a-canon' open to new discoveries by willing exegetes.[4] Are there no proper boundaries to check attempts to find coherence between amorphous 'modern experience' and Scriptural teaching?

Brownson confidently claims his conclusions do not transgress the confessional boundaries of the Church, because, in his opinion, neither the ancient creeds (Apostles' and Nicene) nor the confessions of the Reformation have any bearing on SSM (p. 266). This assertion, and the general confusion within the Church on such matters, raises the question of whether it's time to undertake the confessional task of unfolding a robust biblical anthropology. Creeds and confessions have typically emerged in response to heresies, and the heretics have typically built their teachings on select biblical texts that, in their inventive hands, were reconstructed to challenge the Church's beliefs and practices. Just as much as Creeds and confessions assert certain biblical truths, they create boundaries within which the Church faithfully reads Scripture. Those within the Church of the 4th and 5th centuries were raising questions about the Trinity and Christology. In the 16th century it was the nature of revelation and how one receives the grace of God. As my mentor and professor, Harold O. J. Brown, used to often tell us: the 21st century Church must contend for a biblical anthropology in the face of false humanisms. 

Indeed, the Church today faces a bewildering array of questions on the nature of what it means to be human. With no sign of abatement in sight, and with self-professed Christians calling all to join the revolution, an opportunity is before the Church to sharpen her confession--first by mining the riches of Scripture, next reading them with the great tradition, then crystalizing our teaching on a biblical anthropology and fixing clear boundary markers that free our interpretation from even more trajectories and moral logics.

Rev. D. Blair Smith is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and a doctoral student in patristics at Durham University. He's currently a research visitor at the University of Notre Dame. Follow him on twitter @dblairsmith 


[1] Though Brownson fails to recognize him, John Stackhouse's Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender (Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005) was one of the most influential works in establishing a trajectory hermeneutic producing egalitarian ministry models in the Church.

[2] Brownson sidelines the relevance of the creation account with regard to SSM through a theory that a 'one flesh union' (Gen 2:24) does not necessarily entail a male and female. He virtually ignores the Genesis 1:28 instruction to "be fruitful and multiply" (only mentioning it on pp. 115 & 117), which would seem to have some bearing on how we understand the potentialities of those God calls into marriage.

[3] In one sense Brownson's whole argument hangs upon this assumption that notions of sexual identity and same-sex relationships are radically different today than in the Roman Empire of Paul's day. This premise needs to be queried and critiqued. Perhaps Bible, Gender, Sexuality was already at the presses, but I noticed he failed to interact at all with classicist Kyle Harper's From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013). Brownson's historical and sociological case would not be helped by such findings as these from the high empire period (ca. AD 0-200):
"It scarcely needs saying that same-sex marriages between women, or men, had no standing or consequence in public law, but that fact hardly diminishes the extraordinary testimony we do have for durable forms of same-sex companionship. In a peaceful and prosperous society, amid a highly urbanized and remarkable interconnected empire where marriage was valorized as an institution of the greatest moral and emotional fulfillment, same-sex pairs openly claimed, and ritually enacted, their own conjugal rights.
It is beyond our ken to say how people truly behaved in any period of history. But at the very least it is time to lay to rest the bizarre notion, which is still sometimes expressed, that same-sex eros was, materially and ideologically, on the wane by the second century. This was the age when an emperor's favorite could become an object of worldwide veneration. When a novelist could claim that male-love was 'becoming the current fashion'. When a satirist could claim that marriage between men would soon be officially recognized. The question posed in the debates between marriage and pederasty, which figure so prominently in the literature of the era, was not an idle one. Indeed, same-sex eros was of greater interest to the Latin writers of either side of AD 100 than ever before; and as the Greek sources come to preponderance in the second century, there is no sign of abatement" (p 36). 

[4] "[T]he diversity of the canonical witness...alerts us to the presence of cultural particularity; it is also, more specifically, the movement of scriptural revelation that discloses the most important and powerful underlying forms of moral logic that transcend culture and place, but are instead rooted in the gospel, the deepest embodiment of the heart of God's self-revelation" (p. 51).