Refuting the evangelical rejection of same-sex relationsips: A response to James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality

Ted Grimsrud—July 5, 2016

Evangelical Christians in North America are evolving—gradually—to become more welcoming of LGBTQ Christians. One indication of this movement is the growth in the number of books that come from a relatively conservative theological perspective arguing on biblical grounds for such welcome. One of the best of these books is Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Eerdmans, 2013) by James V. Brownson.

Brownson is a long-time New Testament professor at Western Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. The RCA resembles Mennonite Church USA in the wide theological diversity among its congregations. As a whole, it appears to fit into an interesting space between the evangelical world and the “mainstream” Protestant world—active in ecumenical relationships on both sides.

However, as far as I know, Brownson represents a minority perspective in the RCA with his argument for the affirmation of same-sex marriage. His views as expressed in this book surely will evoke strong antipathy from many corners of the RCA world.

A parent’s response

One way to situate this book is to see it as a father’s response to his son coming out at gay. This event, which Brownson calls a “dramatic shock to my life,” challenged him “to re-imagine how Scripture speaks about homosexuality” (p.1). Most fathers in this situation (and I know quite a few who made a move somewhat like Brownson’s—becoming affirming of same-sex relationships as a consequence of one’s child coming out) don’t have the expertise to write a 300-page scholarly treatise that chronicles this “re-imagining.” We should be grateful that Brownson does.

Of course, Brownson’s transparency could lead a suspicious reader to dismiss his book as special pleading. Brownson’s bias of acceptance of his son could be seen as undermining his scholarly objectivity, perhaps fatally. On the other hand, for some of us this confession of personal interest actually helps validate Brownson’s work. It shows that he will understand the human issues involved, in particular the pain caused by restrictive arguments that all too often show a profound disregard for the emotional and relational costs of their agenda.

Regardless, while Brownson’s personal investment mainly helps us understand why he takes this topic on, his arguments ultimately stand or fall on the quality of his analysis and communication skills. I am happy to report that Brownson has done some solid thinking based on an impressive amount of research. He also writes clearly and with an irenic tone, making it much more difficult simply to dismiss his conclusions due to his personal stake.

Of the books I’ve read on the topic of LGBTQ inclusion, I think that Brownson’s offers the deepest and most well reasoned refutation of the core argument of those Christians who take a restrictive stance. He addresses in depth the core arguments of the restrictivists—he likely won’t persuade many solidly on that side to change their views (who could?), but he will surely win over some of those on the middle, especially ones who have been at least partly persuaded by arguments based on male/female complementarity and on the centrality of Romans one.

Taking on the “traditionalist” case

Brownson claims to be shaped in his approach by traditional Reformed emphases, including the commitment to the approach where the church is always reforming itself in relation to ever evolving understandings of scripture. The book is very biblically oriented. Brownson is not afraid to challenge received interpretations—he sees this as a calling of Reformed theology. But he does hold on to the centrality of scripture.

The principle of continuing reform “assumes that what Scripture seems to say is not always identical to how it truly should inform Christian faith and practice.” As a consequence of this awareness, Brownson has been willing “to reread texts that seemed clear, and those that have always seemed puzzling, in an attempt to find new patterns and configurations in which both the texts themselves and a range of human experience might cohere more fully” (p. 13).

I appreciate that Brownson is so scrupulous in his approach to the Bible. His keeping scripture so central leads to him going into great detail in his examination of the texts and, importantly, his consideration of what he calls the Bible’s “moral logic” concerning same-sex relationships. Brownson’s arguments are clear and accessible, but his expansive discussion that goes out of its way to address the restrictivist arguments might be more detail that many of those who agree with his conclusions feel they need. Happily, Brownson is very good at summarizing, so portions of the book might easily be skimmed without missing the main thread of his case for inclusion.

Brownson acknowledges that “traditionalists all point to gender complementarity as the central form of moral logic that undergirds what they believe to be the Bible’s universal rejection of same-sex erotic relationships. These relationships are ‘against nature’ and ‘nature’ is further explained as the complementarity of the genders” (p. 21). So his task will be to show that in fact these traditionalist assumptions are not warranted based on a more careful reading of the Bible.

He argues that, in fact, the few and scattered cases where the Bible actually speaks directly (and, admittedly with hostility) about same-sex erotic relationships, the concern is never “anatomical and procreative complementarity” (p. 23). We need to scrutinize those texts to understand why the negative assessment is given. Brownson will conclude that the moral logic that actually is behind the negative allusions to same-sex sexual intimacy is not complementarity but elements of the alluded to cases of same-sex practices that are also considered to be wrong among opposite-sex people: “These ancient texts speak against pagan practices, against pederasty and abuse, and against violations of commonly embraced standards of decency and “normality” that were part of the ancient world. As such, they cannot speak directly to committed, mutual, and loving same-sex unions in the contemporary church” (p. 44).

“Complementarity” and the heart of marriage

The restrictivist (my term) or traditionalist (Brownson’s term) arguments have evolved through the course of the debates of that past generation. A key theme that has increasingly become the focus for those arguments has been the notion of gender complementarity—that God created us male and female for a reason (procreation, certainly, but also the way the two sexes in their essence complement each other—something that is lost in same-sex relationships.

A central text for this argument is the creation account in Genesis 1:26–2:18. Part of what restrictivists see in that text is a sense of humanity as a sexual binary—male or female, with both being necessary for a valid marriage. It is the difference between male and female that is seen to be crucial in the relevance of the creation account.

Brownson challenges that assertion. He argues, to the contrary, that the core of the picture in Genesis is the similarity between Adam and Eve. He summarizes his argument in three points: “(1) The focus in Genesis 2 is not on the complementarity of male and female, but rather in the similarity of male and female. (2) The fact that male and female are both created in the divine image (Gen 1:27) is intended to convey the value, dominion, and relationality shared by both men and women, but not the idea that the complementarity of the genders is somehow necessary to fully express the divine image. (3) The ‘one-flesh’ union spoken of in Genesis 2:24 connotes not physical complementarity but kinship bond” (p. 26).

I found this section of the book quite helpful. The centrality of the “kinship bond” was a new idea for me, but it makes a lot of sense. Brownson asserts, “the focus of the Genesis 2 text is on the formation of the essential and foundational building blocks of human community—the ties of kinship.” He goes on to suggest that Jesus had the same idea. For Jesus, “that ‘the two shall become one flesh’ means that divorce—the negation of the essential mutual obligation of kinship—is unacceptable and contrary to the will of God…. The one-flesh union is centrally concerned about kinship obligations, which are established by God in marriage and thus cannot be set aside by human beings (Mk 10:9; Mt 19:5-6)” (p. 34).

Brownson points to three main elements of the Christian understanding of marriage: unitive, procreative, and sacramental (p. 86). Of these three, the unitive element has priority in the Bible. Because of the centrality of the element of marriage as a way of merging two lives as this building block of human community, Brownson ultimately sees no reason why Christian marriage should not be inclusive of same-sex couples, just as it is of infertile heterosexual couples.

In fact, in the various mentions of marriage as a “one-flesh” union in the Bible, procreation is never part of the picture. “The creation of the woman is not narrated, first of all, as a means for humankind’s achieving ‘fruitfulness,’ but rather as an antidote to the problem of aloneness…. Everything about the Genesis 2 text suggests [that] the procreative meaning of marriage should … be subordinated to its more essential unitive purpose” (p. 89).

“Natural” sexuality

Brownson goes into great detail in his interpretation of Romans 1, admittedly the most extensively discussed biblical text by restrictivists. His arguments are helpful and mostly persuasive. However, he does not take into account what I see to be one of the most important points in thinking about that text. That is simply that Paul does not write Romans 1:18-31 in order to give a position on how Christians should approach sexuality.

Paul’s main agenda here is to set up his readers for his critique of them that begins in chapter 2. He seems clearly to exaggerate the injustices of the “Gentiles” (i.e., the power elite of the Roman Empire) in order to lower the boom on his readers: “You do the same thing” (2:1). The “same thing” is not sexual debaucheries of a “homosexual” bent but arrogance and self-righteousness that leads to violent injustice (of the sort Paul himself had been guilty of, see Gal 1:13-14).

Hence, I think Brownson gives the tendency of the restrictivists to isolate Romans 1:18-31 from its context and to read it as constructive sexual ethics too much credence when he zeroes in on the details of Paul’s discussion as if Paul’s main point is to give normative directives for sexual behavior.

That said, Brownson’s discussion here too is clear and helpful. He meets the restrictivists on their own ground. If in fact Paul were writing normative sexual ethics here, Brownson’s construal of the content of such ethics is much better than the restrictivists’. Given that most writing on this passage from across the spectrum makes the same mistake, Brownson’s is an important contribution—though ultimately not necessarily of great importance.

Brownson argues that in Romans 1, Paul is most of all concerned with “excessive desire and a lack of self-restraint,” not the “unnaturalness” of the same-sex element of the condemned behavior (p. 195). He acknowledges that the debate about what Paul means by “opposed to nature” in this passage is at the crux of the differences between his view and the traditionalist view. The latter see Paul being offended that two men (and, perhaps two women [though Brownson does a nice job showing that the reference to “women” here almost certainly does not concern lesbian activities but women having sex in non-procreative (i.e., non-“missionary position”) ways, p. 244] are having sex. Brownson sees Paul being offended that the sexual practices were lustful, unrestrained, and oppressive (p. 245).

He concludes: “When Paul speaks of this behavior as unnatural, he focuses attention not on the violation of gender complementarity but on the ways in which this behavior violates assumptions taken for granted throughout the culture of that day regarding what is natural for men and women as individuals, as members of society, and as part of the physical world. For Paul, all of these dispositions are expressive of a fundamentally disordered state arising from humanity’s proclivity to idolatry and its failure to worship the one true God” (p. 261).

For today?

In the end, Brownson offers a thorough, sophisticated, pro-Bible version of the standard inclusivist argument concerning the Bible and same-sex relationships—an argument I happily affirm. The Bible’s big picture, what Brownson calls its “moral logic,” presents a picture of marriage and intimate relationships that focuses on mutual love. This picture implicitly affirms same-sex intimate relationships that manifest the same virtues as healthy heterosexual relationships.

And, when read carefully and contextually, the Bible does not offer directives applicable today that would overrule that implicitly affirmative stance. The texts that are usually cited by the restrictivists as forbidding same-sex marriage are being misread and misapplied, according to Brownson—and he shows in great detail why he makes that claim.

Though quite scholarly and detailed, this is a user-friendly book (at least for those with the motivation to go deeply into the biblical materials)—clearly written, carefully argued, irenic in tone. It is probably the best thorough refutation we have of the restrictivist position insofar as that position is based on a certain reading of the Bible.

Given its level of detail, Brownson’s treatment may not be particularly interesting for those who have already moved beyond the “biblical debates.” However, for inclusivists on the more theologically conservative side of the spectrum, for people in the middle, even for restrictivists who are interested in rigorous attempts to counter their views, and for anyone else interested in what the Bible actually does say about same-sex relationships, this book will be of great interest.

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9 thoughts on “Refuting the evangelical rejection of same-sex relationsips: A response to James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality

  1. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. Having RCA roots makes it of particular interest. I nearly attended Western Theological Seminary, but being a heretic, found my way out of Calvin-town (Holland, MI) to AMBS.

  2. You might also want to look at “Risking Grace” by Dave Jackson, another father’s story and his journey of faith with a lesbian daughter, probably a urbran sort of Mennonite kind of story. Dave and Neta Jackson have written many books often centered around Chicago, Evanston Il.

    1. Thanks for the heads-up, Al. I didn’t know about this book, but reading about it on Amazon just now brought tears to my eyes. The daughter was a student here and we walked with her a bit in her early experience with her folks. It’s great to see what looks like a happy outcome.

  3. You make it tempting to buy and read Brownson’s book, Ted, yet when I look at the arguments more closely, they strike me as makeweight: “This is how you take Genesis 2 out of the debate and get you the result you want.”

    What is kinship if not family? And how do children exist if not by a man and woman becoming one flesh?

    My take is that over time, Brownson’s arguments will be seen as transitional, serving for a brief period of years to facilitate the longer-term project of dismissing Genesis 2 and Jesus’ affirmation of Genesis 2 as “archaic” (apart from some vague notion that god wants us to avoid loneliness by loving each other). In my congregation, that point is already drawing close as Genesis 2 has been entirely ignored in our Bible studies and sermons related to sexuality. Hard to imagine, I grant you, but true.

    Longer-term, the question is simply this: do the creation accounts have authority among us in revealing YHWH’s intention for a gendered creation, one in which our physiological differences become the source of creativity, new life, reconciliation and peace rather than shame, rivalry and strife?

    Already, bolder advocates for change in the church’s teaching around sexuality (perhaps including the Central District Conference of MC USA) are answering that question with a resounding “no, these stories are heterosexist and the root of physical violence and discrimination against sexual minorities. They must be discarded at the unfortunate bigotry of patriarchal authors living in a narrow and provincial world.”

    So that is the question around which most of the church will divide, not whether or not gay and lesbian persons/couples are welcome in our fellowships.

    1. The Mennonite Church is currently facing a question not just of how you understand Genesis 2, but how you understand the direction, the force of teaching when you consider what Jesus said, and what was said in the New Testament elsewhere. To my understanding Jesus was addressing the question of divorce, not the question of LGBT. In general, the Mennonite church as I see it has accepted divorced persons, sometimes with a believe that that is the overall teaching of God’s spirit, sometimes just ignoring Jesus teaching and the teaching of the spirit. I believe it is important to test divorce and remarriage whether it lines up with the spirit or not. I have indeed been on such a committee that tested the ground of divorce and remarriage for a fellow christian. In general, the churches I’ve known accept a remarried couple coming to join their church, assuming if they care, that a previous church has tested the remarriage. The churches in general forebear about the basic issue to which Jesus spoke when asked about divorce. To me it is unlikely that Jesus was speaking at all to the question of homosexual marriage. I tend to think that the Pauline letters are probably teaching against homosexual committed relationships. However, I have been convinced from scriptures such as Romans 14 that I need to accept that fellow Christians will sincerely interpret the Bible differently that I do, and that I need to accept that they serve that same master that I do. Of course, if they do not believe that Jesus who died and was raised from the dead and has sent his spirit, so that they may serve him as Lord, than that is an issue of difference I cannot accept in church. God bless you as you listen to His Spirit.

      1. Yes, aljsteiner, divorce is an appropriate analogy. And we should follow that same path in regard to same-gender marriages.

        What is tearing our church apart is that advocates for radical change are seeking a blessing of gay/lesbian departure from the Scriptural model that divorced-and-remarried couples have never asked.

        So again, this is not a dispute about practice (whether the church should be welcoming of gay and lesbian individuals and couples), but about teaching (whether the church’s teaching in support of man-woman marriage should change).

  4. Hi Ted,

    You write that “Brownson does a nice job showing that the reference to ‘women’ here [in Rom 1:26] almost certainly does not concern lesbian activities.”

    I quoted that several weeks ago to some pastors, including Brian, and went on to show why the probability seems strong that Paul in v.26 indeed was referring to lesbian relations. It’s been on my to-do list to put my comments here on your blog to let you respond. So finally here it is! I welcome your response.

    Here’s the Brownson quote you are referring to:
    [F]or the first 300 years of the church’s life, Romans 1:26 (referring to women who “exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural”) was understood to refer, not to lesbian sexual activity, but to nonprocreative forms of heterosexual intercourse. This also suggests that the early church saw the common theme between the sexual misconduct of women in Romans 1:26 and that of men in verse 27 to center on the nonprocreative character of both forms of sexual misconduct (rather than the alleged commonality of same-sex eroticism). In short, any sexual activity of women that was not directed toward procreation was “unnatural”… [p.244]

    To me it seems almost certain that Brownson does not settle the matter. For a couple reasons.

    First of all, Bernadette J. Brooten, counters the idea that the early church fathers never viewed the female activity in v.26 as lesbianism. (Brooten is author of the award-winning Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism [University of Chicago Press, 1996], and a lesbian herself.) She describes Rom 1:26 as “the only passage in the entire Bible referring explicitly to lesbians,” and then writes that
    “Interpretations of Rom 1:26 occur only rarely in the patristic sources. When the verse is quoted at all, it is usually the first half, ‘God gave them up to dishonorable passions,’ which is quoted without comment (e.g., Origen often does this). The interpretations which do occur fall into two categories. According to the one, Paul is referring here…to unnatural heterosexual intercourse. According to the other, lesbians are indeed meant. Anastasius and Augustine are examples of the unnatural heterosexual intercourse interpretation, while John Chrysostom and Clement of Alexandria would be examples of the second category.” [“Patristic Interpretations of Romans 1:26,” people.brandeis.edu/~brooten/ Articles/Patrisitc_Interpretations_of_Romans _1_26.pdf]

    Robert Gagnon brings in other patristic writings, strengthening this case. He writes:
    The dominant history of interpretation of Rom 1:26 supports the assumption that lesbianism is in view. Augustine (ca. 410) is a notable exception… All the other Church Fathers from Augustine’s time or earlier who commented on what Paul meant by unnatural female intercourse in Rom 1:26 understood it as lesbian intercourse: probably Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200) and the Apocalypse of Peter (second century), certainly “Ambrosiaster” (ca. 370) and John Chrysostom (ca. 390). [robgagnon.net/ articles/homosexmarinloveisorientation.pdf]

    Second of all, the contention that Paul’s concern in v.26 centered on nonprocreative sex rather than lesbianism is only speculation, and rather weak:
    – The context in Rom. 1 never mentions procreation. It does mention same-sex intimacy.

    – In his many writings on marriage, Paul never mentions procreation as a purpose for marriage. How can we be sure it was central in his mind here?

    Third, there are some strong reasons why this verse is most often understood as a reference to lesbian relations:
    – v.27, which all agree is talking about homosexual acts, uses the same words for the sexual relations as v.26. Also, v.27 implies that it is continuing the same topic of v.26 because it begins “and in the same way also the men…”

    – The above Gagnon article also cites two patterns that further increase the odds that Paul was referring to lesbian relations: “[L]esbian intercourse is the form of female intercourse most commonly labeled ‘contrary to nature’ and most commonly paired with male homosexual practice in Greco-Roman sources.”

    That’s why it seems to me that, contrary to Brownson, the probability is strong that Paul in v.26 was referring to lesbian relations rather to some “unnatural” heterosexual sex. We don’t have total certainty, but surely do have strong probability.

    I personally would prefer that the Spirit of God would give us freedom to bless same-sex unions and credential those in them. I find nothing scary in two persons committing to love each other. Adopting the progressive stance would make life simpler—it’s always easier to move with society around us! I would like some young adults I love to no longer wonder if I’m closed-minded and not committed to justice.

    But when I come to Scripture I’m going to do all I can to let the Spirit of God speak rather than just hear what I prefer to hear. I, like Berry, want to church to acknowledge what the wisdom of God has to say.

    Harold

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