Last year, I read an extraordinary book by James Brownson called Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. I found it personally cathartic in my own journey as a gay Christian, as it helped me sort through some major theological questions I had at the time, but I also found it to be one of the most lucid, comprehensive, and brilliant discussions of scripture and homosexuality I have ever read. Dr. Brownson manages to combine academic and scholarly brilliance with a patience and gentleness that is much needed in the church surrounding debates about homosexuality.
I’m thrilled to have him on the blog this week, answering some questions about his book. I hope everyone who reads this – even those who ultimately disagree with Dr. Brownson’s conclusion – will also read his book and engage with his insights and challenges.
James Brownson is the James and Jean Cook Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary (Holland, MI.) He’s also the author of The Promise of Baptism: An Introduction to Baptism in Scripture and the Reformed Tradition. He blogs atwww.jimbrownson.wordpress.com on topics related to the Greek text of the lectionary, his most recent book, as well as on theological education, the life of the church, and a few other topics that may catch his interest.
What was your goal in writing Bible, Gender, Sexuality?
I had lots of different goals, but one way of describing my overall goal was that I wanted to hold together and integrate three of the deepest loves of my life: my love for my son, my love for the Scriptures, and my love for the church.
You mention in the first chapter that you used to hold a view of homosexuality that is very different from what it is now. Can you share what your views on gay marriage were before you started to reexamine the issue?
Here’s a link to an article that I published shortly before my son came out to us. It probably is the best example of where my mind was at that time. I took a moderate conservative position that didn’t give full approval to same-sex relationships, but also recognized the question of pastoral accommodation as one option needing further exploration in the church.
At the beginning of the book, you tell the story of how your son came out as gay. In what way did that experience lead you to reconsider your beliefs on homosexuality?
I think that the core issue was a simple one. My own denomination, in its official positions, made a strong distinction between a same-sex orientation (potentially problematic, but morally OK in itself), and same-sex behavior (which was not considered morally acceptable under any circumstances). When my son came out to us, he wasn’t in a relationship; he was just trying to figure out how he operated emotionally and relationally. I may not be the world’s greatest parent, but I knew enough to realize that if I said to him, “It’s OK for you to have a gay sexual orientation, but it’s not OK for you to act on it,” I was really saying to him, “It’s not OK for you to be gay.” So the core distinction that my whole perspective was based on just didn’t work when I had to deal with someone in real life, as opposed to a merely theoretical position. That was probably the first thing that sent me back to study again.
But not much later, I began to realize that this orientation/behavior distinction just didn’t mesh with the teaching of Jesus, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. There, Jesus says that lust is equivalent to adultery (Matthew 5:27-28), and that anger is equivalent to murder (Matthew 5:21-22). In other words, Jesus teaches that the inclination to a sinful action (like adultery or murder) is just as culpable as the sinful action itself in the eyes of God, who knows our hearts as well as our actions. Correspondingly, if same-sex behavior is always wrong in the eyes of God, then the inclination to that behavior must also be always morally wrong in the eyes of God. I recognize that the orientation/behavior distinction attempts (albeit unsuccessfully) to be pastorally sensitive to the struggles of gay and lesbian people Moreover, this distinction matters in terms of social legislation on all sorts of issues. From a legal perspective, the inclination to steal is not punishable, until you actually steal something. However, Jesus teaches that this inclination/behavior distinction is ultimately unworkable when it comes to of our relationship to God, who cares both about disposition and action. Either the whole thing (sexual orientation and behavior) is capable of being sanctified, and brought into the realm of divine grace, (which I have come to believe), or the whole thing necessarily alienates someone from the life of God, and needs to be changed (but the church increasingly recognizes that reparative therapy doesn’t work in the vast majority of cases).
Why do you believe the Church has precedent to reconsider her views on same sex relationships?
I think that the most relevant precedent lies in the fact that the church has reconsidered its position on a variety of issues, when it has realized that it is confronting issues that have not fully been addressed before. For example, as the role of women in relationship to men in our society changed (for example, when the U.S. granted voting rights to women), the church reconsidered its position on the relationship between men and women as well. The same was true on the question of slavery in the 19th century, as the commercialization and expansion of the slave trade exposed more fundamental problems. Similar dynamics have shaped changes in our society (and in the church) on attitudes toward inter-racial marriage. I think that there are a number of dimensions of same-sex relationships today that the church confronts that it has not faced directly before, and which call for a reassessment of its position: We know much more now than at any point earlier in the church’s life about sexual orientation and how it operates. Specifically, we now know three things for the first time in history about sexual orientation: (1) the vast majority of gay and lesbian people do not choose their orientation, and (2) in the vast majority of cases, sexual orientation is highly resistant to even well-meaning efforts to try to change it, and (3) that gay and lesbian persons simply aren’t, by and large, sexually attracted to people of the opposite gender. Up until fairly recent history, none of this was widely recognized or acknowledged. It is now. Also, up until very recently, the possibility of gay or lesbian couples living together in committed relationships with the support of society as a whole did not exist in any meaningful way. Each of these could be expanded in much more detail, but these are the core issues that suggest that we have to look at all this again.
Central to the book is the concept of “moral logic.” Can you explain what moral logic is, and why it is a useful tool for understanding Scripture, particularly as it pertains to sexuality?
I coined this term to get at issues which, I think, almost all Christians recognize and assume, though not always explicitly. That is, if we are to wisely apply the commands and prohibitions of the Bible, we need to know not only what the Bible says, but why it says what it does. I use the example in my book of “Thou shalt not kill.” Everyone agrees on what the text says, but we have disagreements on exactly what it means, particularly when it comes to just-war theory or the “power of the sword” in the hands of a lawful government. So if we want to apply the text wisely, we need to explore the underlying motives in the text.
I further argue that we can’t simply posit these underlying reasons as self-evident; we need to find exegetical support for them within the Bible itself. And when we turn to the negative portrayal of same-sex eroticism in the Bible, I suggest that a big part of the disagreement in the way folks read these texts is that we disagree about why the Bible says what it does. Consequently, we disagree on how this negative portrayal does or doesn’t apply to committed same-sex unions today. So we have to go back to the texts to determine their “moral logic” more clearly.
One of the most compelling ideas you present is that gender complementarianism between male and female is not exclusive and not a sound theological model for excluding same sex relationships. What brings you to this conclusion?
The problem with “gender complementarianism” is that it is a category under which a variety of different notions co-exist. For some, “gender complementarity” means that men lead, and women submit. Others reject that idea, but claim that it’s all about procreation. For still others, it’s more centrally about the fittedness of sexual organs. These are very different sorts of rationales. So I insist that if you want to use the category, you have to be more specific about what it actually means, and you must find exegetical support for your more particular interpretation. Otherwise, people will simply assume that whatever they mean by “gender complementarity” has divine blessing, without any exegetical support. When I examine the relevant texts, I believe that while a variety of patterns of similarity and difference between men and women are part of the creative diversity intended by God, and are to be celebrated, Scripture does not teach a particular, normative form of gender complementarity that is binding on both genders in all times and places. I’m an egalitarian, and I don’t believe Scripture teaches that that men always must lead; I don’t think that procreation defines the essence of marriage in Scripture (and thus I accept the legitimacy of contraception, and of marrying couples who are beyond child-bearing years); and I don’t think that the Bible says anything anywhere about the fittedness of sexual organs, so you can’t base a theory of gender complementarity on this assumption. Since I haven’t found a specific form of “gender complementarity” that is normatively taught in Scripture, I don’t think that the category is relevant to the discussion of same-sex relationships.