Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church
Preston Sprinkle, ed. Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016. 226 pp. $16.99, paperback.
Two Views on Homosexuality is Zondervan’s new entry in its Counterpoints series. William Loader and Megan DeFarnza present an affirming perspective and Stephen Holmes and Wesley Hill represent traditional (non-affirming) views. The book is based on the premise that affirming and traditional views on homosexual practice are equally legitimate options for Christians. In the introduction, the editor, Preston Sprinkle asserts, “No longer is this a Christian vs. non-Christian debate.” Sprinkle claims the book will be unique in that it will give attention to “our rich history of received tradition” and will have a different tone that is “respectful and humanizing” in discussing diverse views among evangelicals. The book fails on all three counts – it does not demonstrate that the affirming view can be Christian, it does not sufficiently engage the Christian tradition, and it is confused about what it means to be evangelical.
The proposal that an affirming position towards homoerotic behavior can be consistent with traditional Christian orthodoxy falters at the starting line. Nothing could be further from the truth according to official documents of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches around the globe. A study of the Christian tradition from Biblical times to the present offers an unchanging witness to the view that homosexual relationships are one of the sins for which Jesus died and from which believers need to repent and convert. Just because a handful of contemporary scholars in the west who claim to have “a high view of Scripture” have abandoned historic Christianity does not mean that we now have to accept two possible views of the Church on homosexuality. The book includes some treatment of Augustine on marriage (Hill and Holmes), and a handful of other patristic references, but the multitude of texts from the Fathers and medieval saints that consistently and firmly condemned any form of homoerotic behavior is absent. The Protestant Reformers’ views of homosexuality show up nowhere in the entire book! It is telling, that Sprinkle’s concluding essay states that since the Fathers were misogynists and can’t be trusted on women, they are likely unreliable guides on homosexuality too. So much for the “rich history of the received tradition” for evangelicals.
Two Views is a peculiar book. The four authors actually represent at least three different views: (1) the Old and New Testament texts uniformly oppose homosexuality, but that does not count today as we now understand that this is an orientation (Loader); (2) all the Biblical texts are speaking about something else, not homosexuality (DeFranza); and (3) Augustinian Christianity has been opposed to homosexual practice, and yet there are people with this orientation who should remain celibate (Hill) and/or accepted in community (Holmes). Yet the larger question is, “Two views for which community?” The editor, and probably the publisher, expect us to answer this at least in part by saying, “for Evangelicals”, but this truly begs the question, “What is definitive for Evangelicals?” Indeed, we find one author, William Loader, arguing that Scripture is quite clear and unified on the point that same-sex acts are sinful, but then he argues that we should not follow Scripture on this point. One will be hard-pressed to defend this as either orthodox or evangelical.
As it happens, however, Loader is the most “evangelical” in his methodology in the book: he actually engages Scripture seriously in the pursuit of theological answers. Stephen Holmes, on the other hand, explicitly says that the relevant Biblical passages on homosexuality are of little value inasmuch as the discussion needs to proceed in terms of defining Christian marriage. He thereupon builds a view of Christian marriage largely on Augustinian terms—for which he is criticized by Loader and another of the authors, Megan DeFranza, and applauded by Wesley Hill, who makes a similar argument. If “evangelical” means anything, it means affirming Scripture’s primary authority for faith and practice, whether as a Bible scholar or theologian.
The most troubling essay is that by DeFranza. It is diametrically opposed to Loader, whose work with the primary texts in interpreting the Biblical texts is clear and commendable. DeFranza gives little evidence of familiarity with primary texts, typically opting to cite contemporary, revisionist authors instead (and not engaging those with whom she disagrees). She claims that no Biblical texts address homosexuality in a way that would be relevant for homosexual marriage. She adopts general ethical principles that undercut the specificity of Scripture—a classic liberal move. She chooses a feminist hermeneutic of reading against “patriarchal” assumptions in Scripture. Neither she nor Loader engage Jude 7 or 2 Peter 2.6-13, both of which identify Sodom’s sin (Gen. 19) as sexual. De Franza claims that Gen. 19 and Judges 19 are only about violent, gang rape. She dismisses Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13, claiming they represent the practice of dishonoring a man by treating him as a woman. If so, why put the dishonored man (passive partner) to death as well? She finds her way out of the clear teaching of Romans 1.26-27 by following views similarly expressed by Robert Jewett in his commentary on Romans, but Jewett at least acknowledges that Paul was condemning same-sex relations. DeFranza assumes that the passage is about the Roman aristocracy and imperial court’s sexual abuse of slaves. She is unaware of the fact that “against nature” was used in ancient literature to refer to homosexual acts.
Texts are handled—if engaged at all—as independent witnesses. In fact, there is considerable intertextuality on this topic within Scripture. Romans 1.18-28, 32 refer back to Genesis 1.26-28 and, probably, Leviticus 20.13 (see Romans 1.32). ‘Arsenokoitai’ in 1 Corinthians 6.9 and 1 Timothy 1.10 is surely a reference to Leviticus 18.22; 20.13. Jude 7 and 2 Peter 2.6-13 read Genesis 19 as a warning about sexual immorality. Moreover, condemnation of homosexuality fits within a Biblical ethic on sex and marriage. Thus, intertextuality is largely omitted in this book (Loader, to some degree, an exception); yet Sprinkle purports the authors “exhibit a high view of Scripture” (p. 14).
All the authors accept that there is such a thing as homosexual “orientation,” but this needs to be argued and, at least, defined clearly. Antiquity had a robust discussion about orientation (contrary to claims it knew nothing of orientation), although the more helpful understanding of sexual identity in both antiquity and today is found in writings focused more on aspects of “desire.” Loader’s acceptance of “homosexual orientation” leads him to dismiss the Biblical texts as outdated or irrelevant. Holmes, on the other hand, takes a wildly postmodern turn, saying that homosexual orientation is “locally” true for the west.
Loader rightly points out that Paul believes that sinful desires, not just acts, are condemned. Yet no author engages the Evangel in “evangelical,” the Gospel, which is not just about defining sin and extending forgiving grace for sins but also about the power of God’s transforming grace for sinners. The problem of Romans 1.28 is resolved by Romans 12.1-2. Evangelicals have always accentuated the necessity of “conversion” (life change) as an essential element of following Christ. Ex-gay testimonies to God’s powerful deliverance from the deception and destruction in the gay script are ignored (Rosaria Butterfield, Christopher Yuan, David Kyle Foster, et.al.). It seems the authors are in some sense embarrassed by the Gospel, or don’t believe it. Life transformation is Christianity 101 – sinners powerfully transformed by the Spirit towards Christlikeness. It is no wonder that the Anglican bishops of the Global South have called the affirming position on homosexuality a “false gospel.” Affirming any incidence of homoerotic behavior as compatible with Christian profession is a modern, Western, sectarian innovation.
Liberal Protestant churches for decades have tried to persuade evangelicals in their denominations to affirm homosexual practice. Zondervan’s Two Views on Homosexuality attempts to argue the same point through its advocacy of inclusion. The most important value appears to be, “unity is better than orthodoxy.” In this new scheme, biblical teaching on human sexuality and sexual ethics practiced by the church for two millennia count for little; what matters most is that one is tolerant of others.
Hill and Holmes represent the evangelical/orthodox view reasonably well. Hill self-identifies as a celibate gay Christian, but acknowledges his Christian identity as primary. He exegetically walks through OT and NT texts on marriage and homosexuality faithfully, focusing his attention on Rom. 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10. Hill’s encouragement of non-sexual “spiritual friendship” in the monastic tradition is helpful. Holmes unique contribution is the extended explanation of Augustine’s teaching on the goodness of marriage. He critiques traditionalists for their departure from the Augustinian heritage by their acceptance of contraception and remarriage after divorce – an argument worthy of reflection.
There is an attempt through this work to spread the evangelical tent widely enough to include contradictory views on homosexual practice. Hill and Holmes reject this but, by their inclusion in the work, are co-opted by Zondervan and Sprinkle into their advocacy of a “two views” perspective. It is not clear that every author in the book would consider himself or herself an evangelical. Zondervan Press has now published three books by Sprinkle, along with Alan Chambers’ My Exodus: Leaving the Slavery of Religion, Loving the Image of God in Everyone (2015). A similar effort to revise evangelicalism has been mounted in the United Kingdom, finding expression last year as well with Journeys in Grace and Truth, ed. Jayne Ozanne. The real development we are witnessing, however, is not toward two evangelical views on homosexuality but the attempt to undermine a historically orthodox movement.
Agreeing to disagree in a “respectful and humanizing” tone sounds pious, but it is misguided and unloving. It is never loving to confirm people in their sin – this is pastoral malpractice. It’s time for the Church to rebuke professing Christians who have embraced this false teaching about homosexuality. We should pray for them to repent and return to the catholic, orthodox faith. This is not a matter over which Christ’s followers may differ – it will incur the wrath of God. Jude wrote to early Christians urging them to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” and warning them about those who “pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (vv. 4-5). And what historic example did Jude use? He wrote, “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of fire” (Jude 3-7, ESV). Following the commands of Holy Scripture, the ancient catholic church and the Protestant Reformers did not tolerate homoerotic behavior among those who profess faith in Christ. With this orthodox faith, all true evangelicals will say, “Here we stand.”
S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams
Dr. Fortson (professor of Church History at RTS-Charlotte) and Dr. Grams (associate professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) are co-authors of Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016).