Bible, Gender, Sexuality | Notes, Review, & Reflections

Posted on February 14, 2015


James V. Brownson. Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. Eerdmans, 2013. (300 pages)

Bible, Gender, Sexuality

Jim Brownson’s blog.

Reviews: Paul Chalpin, Englewood; Andrew Goddard, Kirby Liang Institute; Matt Rogers; An Uncommon Grace; Nate Claiborne; Robin Parry; Greg Carey, Huffington Post; think Christian; CanyonWalker; Sacred Tension interview pt.1, pt. 2; Wesley Hill, The Living Church; John Byron; Tricia Dykers Koenig, Covenant Network of Presbyterians; Joshua Rodriguez, Anglicans Online; Kenetha Stanton, Christian Feminism Today; Wes Granberg-Michaelson, Sojourners; Stasis Online; Andrew Goddard, Fulcrum; Heath Bradley, The Sunday Drive Home; Wesley Hill, First Things; P.OST; Andrew Goddard, Psephizo; Themelios;

Presentation by David Brauer-Rieke, Oregon Synod;

James White and Michael Brown discuss Matthew Vines and James Brownson:

Jim Brownson on his book at Eerdmans:

Jim Brownson on Romans 1, part 1:

Jim Brownson on Romans 1, part 2:

Jim Brownson on Gender Complementarity:

 I. Why Another Book on Same-Sex Relationships?

1. Introduction and Overview

What is the moral vision regarding gender and sexuality that Scripture commends? How flexible and adaptable is that vision in different cultures and contexts? And where do gay and lesbian people, gender identities, and marriage fit within that vision in the context of post-Christian North American society, where divorce rates are high, sexual promiscuity is common, AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections are a powerful threat, and where too many pregnancies end in abortion, and too many babies will never have two parents? (3)

The Necessity of Interpretation

These deeper differences are the focus of this book: they are not so much disagreements about what the biblical text says (though such disagreements do occur at a few points, and I will explore them when they occur), but primarily disagreements about what the biblical text means for Christians today. They are disagreements over how Scripture is to be interpreted. (5)

…the meaning of Scripture for Christians today must be not be [sic] drawn from just one passage but from the way any particular passage of Scripture is located within the larger themes and movements of Scripture as a whole. We must discern the deeper and more comprehensive moral logic that undergirds the specific commands, prohibitions, and examples of the biblical text. We do not interpret rightly any single passage of Scripture until we locate the text within this larger fabric of meaning in Scripture as a whole. This is necessary for two reasons: first, this kind of exposition, building on underlying values, allows the extension of core principles of biblical commands or prohibitions into new terrain not directly addressed by the literal commandment. Second, this exploration of underlying values can assist us in addressing exceptions and unusual circumstances that are not easily addressed by the literal commandment (such as why, and under what circumstances, if at all, lethal force might be justified in attempting to preserve the lives of persons). (9)

Imagination and Biblical Interpretation

…the changes happening in society and across cultures caused people to go back to the biblical texts and read them with fresh eyes–looking more deeply and searching for different underlying values and forms of moral logic that they had not seen so clearly before. | I believe that something akin to this pattern is happening in the present debate concerning homosexuality. (10)

I decided, from the beginning, that I wanted to discern, as deeply as I could, what the most central and truest message of Scripture was for my son. If my study brought me to the conclusion that my son should remain celibate, I was prepared to make that my prayer. But if my study led me to different conclusions, I was also prepared to follow those lines of inquiry as clearly and as consistently as I could. The goal was not to justify a certain conclusion; rather, it was to discern, as best I could, the truth. This book is one of the results of that effort. (12)

…[this rereading] is an invitation to the whole church to enter into a deeper conversation about sexual ethics in the hope that the collective imagination of the church may be deepened and widened to see the Bible in new ways, and to embrace its message more deeply in a new context. (13)

The Methodology of This Book

In all of this, my hope is to reinvigorate the imagination of the church in the midst of this controversy, not to leave the witness of Scripture behind, but to see and embrace it more deeply and freshly, so that we may discover its wisdom in the presence of new questions and information that the church has not considered before. (15)

Summing Up

  • In the midst of polarized and polarizing debates, it is important to ask, not only what a text says, but what it means. This entails determining the moral logic that shapes biblical prohibitions or commands–discerning why a text says what it does and clarifying its underlying values and assumptions.
  • Determining this underlying moral logic is particularly important when interpreting Scripture in cross-cultural contexts.
  • At numerous points in the history of Christian interpretation of Scripture, the church has needed to exercise its imagination to discern a wider and more encompassing form of moral logic underlying biblical commands and prohibitions.
  • This book seeks to accomplish such an exercise with a renewed and widened imagination regarding the moral logic underlying Scripture’s discussion of same-sex intimate relationships.

2. The Traditionalist Case and Its Problems

Analyzing “Gender Complementarity”

…gender complementarity is not really a form of moral logic in its own right. Instead it is really simply a category that represents a variety of different values or forms of moral logic, which may be related to each other in complex ways. … When we move across time, and across different cultural settings, the specific ways in which the genders may be understood as similar and different often shift dramatically. … when we probe further, we discover that different interpreters–all of whom use the term “gender complementarity”–have quite different understandings of exactly what this phrase actually means when they interpret the biblical texts. (19)

Biological Understandings of Gender Complementarity

The biological differences between the sexes seem a rather slender basis on which to build an entire marriage ethic. Moreover, such an approach leads us directly into the difficult contemporary debate about essentialism (gender differences are primarily biologically based) versus constructivism (gender differences are primarily socially constructed) in gender identity. Sorting out what is “biological” and what is “cultural” in the meaning of maleness and femaleness is an enormously complicated task. (22-23)

The more basic question is this: Is “anatomical and procreative complementarity” really the basic form of moral logic that the biblical writers have in mind or assume when they condemn same-sex erotic relations? If so, we should certainly expect to find biblical passages that treat this subject of the biological complementarity of the genders directly and explicitly. The issue is not, first of all, whether this way of understanding “gender complementarity” makes sense to us. The first question is whether this is what the biblical writers have in mind and what Scripture as a whole teaches. … If biological gender differences really are what the Bible has in mind when it rejects same-sex erotic relations, we ought to expect to find other passages of Scripture that make this connection between gender and biology clear. But if we do not find other texts that draw a clear connection between gender and biological differences, then we may be guilty of imposing an alien set of assumptions onto the texts that forbid same-sex erotic relations. We may be misreading the basic forms of moral logic that shape the biblical writers’ minds when they speak as they do against same-sex erotic relations. In other words, we still may not have determined why the biblical writers speak negatively about these relationships. (23)

Critiquing Biological Understandings of Gender Complementarity

I will argue the following counter-theses: (1) The original ‘adam of Genesis 1:26-2:18 is not a binary, or sexually undifferentiated, being that is divided into male and female in Genesis 2:21. (2) The focus in Genesis 2 is not on the complementarity of male and female, but rather on the similarity of male and female. (3) 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 or embody the divine image. (4) The “one-flesh” union spoken of in Genesis 2:24 connotes not physical complementarity but a kinship bond. (26)


In support of the notion that the original ‘adam was a binary, or sexually undifferentiated, being, Gagnon points to the ambiguity of translating the Hebrew word commonly rendered “rib” (sela’) in Genesis 2:21, noting that its normal use refers to the side of an object, and that nowhere else in Scripture is it used as a part of the human body. He goes on to cite a third-century CE rabbi, Samuel bar Nahman, who thought of Adam as an androgynous being who was sliced in half–down the side. It might be observed, in passing, that the rabbinical reading may be more influenced by Plato’s Symposium, which portrays a similar creation of gendered beings by the splitting of originally androgynous or binary creatures. Yet this interpretation of the Genesis text is deeply problematic. There are no other places in Scripture that interpret the creation account in this way. Moreover, the details of the language in the text contradict this reading. (27)

[via: Brownson seems to miss that the Genesis account does quite a bit of “splitting,” (“separating”) between light and dark, waters above and waters below, land and seas…]

Genesis 2:23 assumes that the first human (‘adam) is already male (ish) before the woman is taken from his side. (28)

The Genesis text portrays marriage as a solution, not for “incompleteness,” but for aloneness (Gen. 2:18). … constructing a form of shared life … rather than merely recovering a preexisting and divinely established, “hard-wired” form of complementarity Viewed more holistically, marriage does not look backward to the recovery of a primordial unity; rather, it looks forward, like all forms of human community, to what may creatively emerge in the common space between two persons who share kinship and a common destiny. (29)


The focus is not so much on complementarity but on shared identity, nature, and experience between the man and the woman, over against the rest of the creation. (30)



If the “leaving” of the first half of the verse connotes the dissolution of one primary kinship tie, the “one-flesh” language at the end of the verse connotes the establishment of a new one, between husband and wife. (33)

Rather, the focus is on the formation of the essential and foundational building blocks of human community–the ties of kinship. (34)


…the argument is simple: appeals to a doctrine of physical or biological gender complementarity grounded in the creation narratives do not illuminate the moral logic by which Pauline and other biblical texts condemn same-sex erotic relations. (35)

Summing Up

  • An analysis of the form of moral logic underlying most traditionalist positions show that what traditionalists find most fundamentally wrong with same-sex intimate relationships is that they violate divinely intended gender complementarity.
  • But “gender complementarity” is really more like a category under which a variety of forms of moral logic may appear. some of these more specific forms, such as hierarchy, are not universally embraced among traditionalists as the deep meaning of gender complementarity.
  • The most widely embraced form of gender complementarity among traditionalists focuses on the anatomical or biological complementarity of male and female. The physical union of male and female in this view represents the overcoming of the incompleteness of the male on his own or the female on her own.
  • But this hypothesis raises a deeper questions: Is anatomical or biological gender complementarity what Scripture assumes and teaches? The central issue here is the interpretation of the creation of woman in Genesis 2.
  • In response to a variety of traditionalist readings of Genesis 2, this chapter has argued the following countertheses:
    • The original ‘adam of Genesis 1:26-2:18 is not a binary or sexually undifferentiated being that is divided into male and female in Genesis 2:21
    • The focus in Genesis 2 is not on the complementarity of male and female but on the similarity of male and female.
    • 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 that is shared by both men and women, but not the idea that the complementarity of the genders is somehow necessary to fully express or embody the divine image.
    • The one-flesh union spoken of in Genesis 2:24 connotes not physical complementarity but a kinship bond.
  • These countertheses demonstrate that Genesis 2 does not teach a normative form of gender complementarity, based on the biological differences between male and female. Therefore, this form of moral logic cannot be assumed as the basis for the negative treatment of same-sex relationships in biblical texts. Hence we need to look further to discern why Scripture says what it does about same-sex intimate relationships.

3. Revisionist Readings

Understanding Revisionist Positions

The overall thrust of most revisionist positions has been to emphasize the historical distance between the world of the biblical text and our own contemporary world. (40)

If the Bible’s approach to sexual ethics in this particular case is so removed from our world, what would prevent us from constructing the same kind of argument to apply to other areas of sexual ethics? (41)

The common thread in the revisionist argument is this: Whatever specific behaviors and relationships the Bible is condemning in the “seven passages” cannot be used to condemn committed same-sex unions today. These ancient texts are speaking 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. (44)

Difficulties in Revisionist Positions

If the Bible does not speak directly and explicitly to contemporary committed and loving same-sex unions, how are we to construct a distinctively Christian approach to such unions? (45)

Justice, Love, and Sexual Ethics

The question is not whether justice and love are necessary conditions of a Christian sexual ethic, but whether they are a sufficient basis on which to build an entire sexual ethic. Justice and love must necessarily be part of any Christian ethical framework, since they represent some of the broadest themes of the entire biblical witness. But to speak only of justice and love when constructing a sexual ethic seems to imply that the Bible has nothing more to say about sex than that sexual behavior should be just and loving. (46)

A New Chapter in the Debate over Same-Sex Relationships

A canonical approach that seeks to identify shared themes, values, images, and concerns across the biblical witness assists the cross-cultural reading of the Bible in three specific ways. (50)

First, the Bible itself is a multicultural document whose writing spans many centuries and cultures. (50)

…one must also consider the progressive and unfolding nature of the canon when sorting through questions of cultural rootedness and transcendence. (51)

Third, a canonical approach can help distinguish those patterns in Scripture that are normal, or descriptive, from those patterns that are normative, or prescriptive. (51)

But here is the paradox that drives the methodology of this book: we cannot discern a comprehensive and culture-transcending biblical vision for sexuality unless we look broadly across the entire canonical witness for the underlying forms of moral logic that shape and unfold in the canon as a whole. And we will not be able to establish a wider, transcultural vision for human sexuality into which committed gay and lesbian unions might fit unless we establish that wider biblical framework. Hence I seek in this book to pursue a somewhat complicated juggling exercise that tries to do four things at the same time: (1) look across the canon of Scripture for those underlying forms of moral logic that shape Scripture’s discussion of issues involving sexuality and marriage, broadly considered; (2) explore how each of those forms of moral logic may have elements that are particular and unique to specific cultural settings, and how other elements of that particular form of moral logic may transcend cultural boundaries and speak more broadly to God’s purposes for, and gracious redemption of, human life; (3) reflect on how these broader themes impact our understanding of the “seven passages” that seem to speak more directly about same-sex erotic relationships in the ancient world; and finally, (4) explore the implications of this analysis for the contemporary debates regarding the church, homosexuality, and committed gay or lesbian unions. (52)

Summing Up

  • Most revisionist positions argue that whatever the Bible says about same-sex eroticism in the ancient world does not directly apply to contemporary committed gay or lesbian relationships.
  • Therefore, many revisionist positions resort to broad biblical categories like justice and love for evaluating same-sex relationships.
  • However, though justice and love are necessary elements of any sexual ethic, they are not sufficient in themselves to develop a full sexual ethic from Scripture.
  • What is required is a wider canonical exploration of biblical discussions of sexuality in order to develop a cross-cultural sexual ethic that may have relevance for gay and lesbian relationships today. That kind of exploration is the goal of this book.

II. Recovering a Broad, Cross-Cultural Vision for the Center of Christian Sexual Ethics

4. Patriarchy

Patriarchy and Egalitarianism: Contrasting Streams in the Creation Narratives

Genesis 3:16 portrays patriarchy not as grounded in creation, but in the conflicted relationship between men and women resulting from the Fall. (58)

Contrasting Streams in the Old Testament

The fact that these stories are remembered and included at all within the canonical witness suggests that, already in ancient Israel, patriarchy is not conceived in absolute terms, and more importantly, that there is an implicit recognition in Scripture that God raises up both men and women as leaders for the covenant people, often in contrast to traditional societal expectations. (59)

Contrasting Streams in the New Testament

Resolving the Tensions

The Place of Galatians 3:27-28

…in the ancient world the divisions of humanity into slave and free and the coupling of male and female were considered the essential and primal building blocks of every form of human society. (66)

In both statements [+ Colossians 3:10], life in Christ is presented as a foretaste of the new age, when old structures have disappeared and society is centered only on Christ as the source of the whole creation’s life and being. (66)

Revisiting the New Testament Patriarchal Texts

It appears that much of the New Testament’s patriarchal language arose in instances where women were claiming a radical new sort of freedom based on their understanding of their participation in the new creation in Christ. But those claims to freedom were sometimes disrupting the life of the Christian community in noteworthy ways — and damaging the church’s witness to the wider community. In other words, the New Testament’s seemingly patriarchal injunctions can be understood as various attempts to rein in imbalances in the “already/not yet” tension of New Testament eschatology. (71)

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

…for Paul, the family structures that are part of this world are indeed patriarchal; other forms of social organization within families were inconceivable in his day. (72)

For Paul, the tension seems clear, though manageable: insofar as Christians still participate in family life, they are not yet, in this aspect of their lives, part of the new creation… (73)

Yet even here, the new creation seeps in around the edges: women are praying and prophesying in public… (73)

1 Corinthians 7:3-5

Here we see a striking “merger” of the structures of this age and the coming one, in which the traditional patriarchal rights of husbands over the bodies of wives are severely curtailed, and yet the bodily intimacy of life in “this age” is deeply affirmed. (73)

1 Corinthians 14:33b-35

In the culture of the biblical world, the asking of questions can be construed in many contexts as a contest for dominance. (74)

…it is disgraceful for a woman to get up in church and challenge the authority of others publicly. Again, what we see in context, is a refusal to allow the eschatological vision of Galatians 3:27-28 to be used in ways that disrupt the life of the community or shame others. (75)

1 Timothy 2:8-15

…this text warns against the ostentatious display of wealth, which was a common way for wealthy women in the Greco-Roman world to establish their public status—but was inappropriate for the Christian community. (75)

Therefore, in all three of the above texts, which appear to subjugate women to men in patriarchal terms, we see the predominance of pragmatic rather than fundamental concerns. In each case, the text addresses some kind of culturally inappropriate behavior by women–involving hair styles or coverings, expensive clothing, and aggressive confrontations between men and women. Wherever this aggressive and disruptive behavior occurs, the New Testament writers call for restraint, and they base that call on the creation narratives. The church must not assume that it has passed completely from this world into the age to come. It must not dissolve the “already/not yet” tension and assume that the structures of this world are completely done away with. Yet at the same time, where the life of the age to come can be experienced with peaceableness and harmony, it is to be embraced: women lead, teach, pray, prophesy, host churches, and model a new form of equality that stood markedly apart from the prevailing Greco-Roman culture. (77)

The “Household Codes”

This proportion of interest in husbands is unprecedented in other household codes outside the New Testament, and it represents a distinctive approach to the life of households: it seeks to introduce into traditional structures something of the new eschatological life ushered in by the gospel. (79)

God shows no partiality, and is no respecter of persons, regardless of this-worldly social structures. (79)

It is probably the case that, in the history of Christianity, this internal, deconstructive approach has had the most influence in finally bringing many cultures influenced by Christian faith closer to a fully egalitarian vision for the relationship between men and women. There is something about the call to sacrificial love that finally removes any claim to superiority, any claim to priority in decision-making, any claim to special honor. (79)

Throughout the history of Christianity the eschatological vision of Galatians 3:27-28 has slowly but surely undermined patriarchal structures and relationships, as well as those between masters and slaves, so that more and more, the church has begun to experience in its daily life its destiny as the new creation, where there is “no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (79)

Implications for “Gender Complentarity”

Implications for the Homosexuality Debate

When viewed in a comprehensive canonical context, therefore, hierarchy or patriarchy cannot be construed to be the essence of a normative “gender complementarity” that is allegedly violated by same-sex unions. … The Bible, taken as a whole, does not support such a hierarchical vision of gender complementarity as expressive of core Christian identity. (81)

However, my survey of patriarchy in Scripture does suggest that at least some of the biblical prohibitions and negative portrayal of same-sex eroticism were clearly linked to assumptions regarding patriarchy: what made such an act wrong, at least in large part in these texts, was that it was regarded as inherently degrading to treat a (higher-status) man as if he were a (lower-status) woman. To the extent that these concerns shape biblical discussions of homosexual activity, they must be subjected to a wider critique, based on the larger biblical movement we have chronicled, away from patriarchy toward a more egalitarian vision. Looked at in its wider context, Scripture does not see women as inherently of lower status than men, and thus it is not inherently degrading to treat a man as if he were a woman. (83)

Summing Up

  • We see the presence throughout Scripture of contrasting patriarchal and egalitarian streams.
  • These tensions are best resolved by the eschatological vision of the New Testament, which holds in tension the ways in which we “already” have entered into the new life of the world to come (and thus have left patriarchy behind) and the ways in which we still live in this world, and have “not yet” fully entered into the life of the world to come (and thus are still bound, in some ways, by the structures of society, including–in the ancient world–patriarchal structures).
  • But the canonical witness as a whole portrays the egalitarian vision as the eschatological destiny of human life, and invites people to live into that destiny, as long as such life does not disrupt the everyday functioning of the Christian community.
  • This means that the hierarchy of the genders cannot be used today as a form of gender complementarity, which is allegedly violated by same-sex intimate relationships.
  • However, to the extent that hierarchical assumptions shape the Bible’s negative portrayal of same-sex eroticism (and such assumptions are evident in multiple places), these texts may be limited in their ability to speak directly to same-sex relationships today–in a context where such hierarchical assumptions no longer apply.

5. One Flesh

The entire Christian tradition has tended to speak of marriage under three broad rubrics: the unitive, procreative, and sacramental. (86)

“One Flesh” in Genesis 2:18-25

…the language of “one flesh” is not simply a euphemistic way of speaking about sexual intercourse; it is a way of speaking about the kinship ties that are related to the union of man and woman in marriage, a union that includes sexual intercourse. It is important not to overgenitalize or oversexualize this passage. (87)

Sexual union is conceived in the Bible as profoundly metaphorical–it points beyond the physical act to the relational connections and intimacy that undergird and surround it. (89)

It is also worth noting, at least in passing, that this entire discussion of one flesh in Genesis (and indeed throughout the Bible) takes place without even a hint of concern with procreation. (89)

Already here, humans are summoned out of isolation, out of familiarity, into a deeper and more mysterious reality that transcends their life as individuals and participates in the divine purpose. Already here, life is called out of itself into something deeper and richer. Procreation is, of course, the natural extension of this movement, but it is not the beginning of this movement beyond the self to the other. That movement already begins in the “one-flesh” union spoken of in Genesis 2, quite apart from any interest in procreation. Before marriage can do anything about bringing a coming generation into existence, it must first form the essential kinship bond that makes shared life possible in any generation. This explains, in essence, why the unitive meaning of marriage is more central than the procreative meaning. (90)

“One Flesh” and Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce

It is better to understand “what God has joined together” as a more general decree, rather than as a discrete act directed toward a specific couple. (94)

“One Flesh” in Ephesians 5:21-33

…wherever one partner takes the lead in providing for the family unit, the other partner needs to be graciously receptive to such provision, recognizing the deep interconnectedness of the one-flesh union. In this sense, there are moments when both husbands and wives represent Christ–in varying circumstances–to each other. (99)

Sex and One Flesh: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

We cannot say with our bodies what we will not say with the rest of our lives. (102)

Any genuine experience of desire leaves me in this position: I cannot of myself satisfy my wants without distorting or trivializing them. But in this experience we have a particularly intense case of the helplessness of the ego alone. For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, must be perceived, accepted, nurtured. And that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable. To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body. As Blake put it, sexual partners “admire” in each other “the lineaments of gratified desire.” We are pleased because we are pleasing. – Rowan Williams

Our bodies know, sometimes more deeply than our minds can acknowledge, what Genesis 2:18 declares: It is not good for us to be alone. (104)

…Christian faithfulness has only begun when it recognizes that full sexual intimacy belongs in one-flesh kinship unions. (104)

Implications for the Debate over Gay and Lesbian Relationships

The fact that the Bible uses the language of “one flesh” to refer to male-female unions normally does not inherently, and of itself, indicate that it views such linkages normatively. (105)

But the silence of the Bible on issues never envisioned by the Bible (such as the abolition of slavery) is, in and of itself, not a compelling argument. What is normal in Scripture is not necessarily also normative. (105)

…it remains an open question whether the consistent reference to male and female in discussion of the one-flesh union in Scripture should be interpreted in exclusive terms. (105)

…the commands and prohibitions of Scripture must be understood in light of their underlying forms of moral logic. So the question must be put in a more focused way: Is there anything inherent in the moral logic that shapes the Bible’s discussion of one-flesh unions that not only assumes but also requires that such unions take place only between a male and a female? (106)

In the ancient world, such ongoing permanent relationships between persons of the same sex are never documented in the extant literature of the period. When the texts that actually describe same-sex erotic relationships are evaluated, these relationships in the period during which the New Testament was being written were always marked by differences in social rank and status, and they were always described as episodic rather than permanent. [See the extended discussion in Martti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective]. (107)

But what about loving, committed, long-term mutual same-sex unions today? Are they inherently incapable of being considered under this rubric? What if such relationships are marked by the recognition of deep kinship obligations, the presence of mutual love, the cultivation of a deep bodily form of communion and self-giving, and the desire for a life of fruitfulness, hospitality, and service to the wider community? Does the fact that Scripture never countenances such relationships mean that they can never exist? Or is it the case that the sexual ethics of Scripture may have a wider applicability than their original scope and focus? Our exploration in this chapter…suggests that same-sex committed unions might have a strong analogical similarity to heterosexual one-flesh unions, particularly when the underlying forms of moral logic are clearly considered. (108)

Summing Up

  • The context and overall language of Scripture suggests that the one-flesh bond spoken of in Genesis 2:24 is essentially a lifelong kinship bond.
  • The prophetic tradition in the Old Testament deepens the Bible’s understanding of this bond by speaking of God’s faithfulness to Israel as a marriage bond, emphasizing grace and lifelong faithfulness.
  • This emphasis on kinship and bonding is reflected in each New Testament text that refers back to Genesis 2:24.
  • The biblical usage suggests that this emphasis on bonding (“one flesh”) constitutes the essence of marriage, even where the procreative meaning of marriage cannot be fulfilled.
  • This focus on the bonding implicit in becoming one flesh is the basis for the Bible’s categorical rejection of all forms of sexual promiscuity. People are not to say with their bodies what they cannot or will not say with the whole of their lives.
  • It is clear that Scripture assumes that this one-flesh bond only takes place between a man and a woman. Yet there is nothing inherent in the biblical usage that would necessarily exclude committed gay or lesbian unions from consideration as one-flesh unions, when the essential characteristics of one-flesh unions as kinship bonds are held clearly in view.
  • Therefore, what is normal in the biblical witness may not necessarily be normative in different cultural settings that are not envisioned by the biblical writers.

6. Procreation

The Procreation/Marriage Link

Everywhere in Scripture, marriage is presumed as the context in which children are to be brought into the world; conversely, the birth of children outside of married households is viewed negatively everywhere in Scripture. (112)

Although a concern for the welfare of children is present in Scripture in many places, this concern for the rights of children is not the primary reason Scripture itself uses to explain why children should be born into married households. Instead, the emphasis in the Old Testament falls on the father’s name: one of the central purposes of children was to carry on their father’s name. (112)

…the orderly transmission of inheritance… (113)

Is Procreation the Essence of Marriage?

…procreation belongs in the context of marriage. | But the inverse question is neither that explicit nor that clear: Does marriage always assume and require the purpose of procreation in order for marriage itself to be valid or to fulfill its purpose? (115)

First, the command to “be fruitful and multiply” is not given merely to the man and the woman. It is also given to the animals (Gen. 1:22), and is thus not a directive given uniquely to human marriage. (115)

…the words “be fruitful and multiply” are more properly understood as a blessing rather than as a command. (115)

If procreation is the essential purpose of sex and marriage, one is hard-pressed to explain its absence from this entire book of the Bible [Song of Songs] that is devoted to sex and marriage. (116)

…the purpose of procreation plays no role in Paul’s discussion of marriage. Rather, Paul focuses on mutual care and fellowship (as we saw in Gen. 2 and the Song of Songs)–as well as the need to control lust. (117)

The moral logic of the Bible is thus fairly clear on this subject; procreation is an important purpose of marriage, and marriage is the sole context where procreation should happen, but marriage has something more than procreation as its essential reason for being. When we consider some of the most extensive discussions of marriage in Scripture, including Genesis 2, Song of Songs, Ephesians 5:21-33, and 1 Corinthians 7, procreation is entirely absent from the discussion, and the focus falls on kinship, sharing, mutual support, self-control, and intimacy. And nowhere in Scripture is the absence of children a justification for dissolving the marriage bond itself. (118)

In this clear sense, the unitive purpose of marriage is primary, and the procreative purpose is secondary. The unitive purpose is essential, because, without it, marriage cannot exist; the procreative purpose is important, but not essential, because marriage can exist without fulfilling it. (119)

Implications for the Debate over Gay and Lesbian Relationships and Marriage

Procreation and Gender Complementarity

If my argument holds–that procreation is important but not essential to marriage and gender identity–then “gender complementarity,” understood as procreative complementarity, may well be a normal part of one-flesh unions in Scripture, but the witness of Scripture as a whole suggests that it cannot be a defining, or essential, aspect of such unions. What is “normal” cannot simply be assumed to be “normative.” (122)

The Social Argument

Summing Up

  • In contrast to the Roman Catholic Church, whose official teaching states that procreation defines the essential purpose of marriage, most Protestant churches emphasize instead that the unitive meaning of marriage defines its essence.
  • Therefore, though procreation always assumes and requires the context of marriage in Christian ethics, marriage does not require procreation in order to be valid, and the inability to bear children is never a sufficient reason to dissolve a marriage.
  • Society’s interest in supporting marriage is based in part on its desire to provide for the care of children, but this does not by any means make up the only reason why marriage receives legal benefits in modern societies. Society benefits in a wide variety of ways when people live together in long-term committed unions.
  • If this is true, then the lack of procreative capacity cannot of itself be a sufficient reason to deny the legitimacy of stable gay or lesbian marriages or marriagelike relationships.


7. Celibacy

…nowhere in the Old Testament is the avoidance of marriage altogether envisioned as a possible religious duty or vocation. Sex within marriage is avoided for brief periods, at most when one is to encounter holiness most directly. But celibacy–in the sense of a lifelong commitment to singleness-does not appear in the Old Testament. (128)

The New Testament and Celibacy

Stoic-Cynic Debates on Marriage

In this context, the primary concern in the debate surrounding marriage focused not so much on sexual activity but on the responsibilities involved in marriage, child-rearing, and household management. (130)

“Eunuchs for the Sake of the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 19:12)

The background of the Stoic-Cynic debates concerning marriage, as well as the specific unfolding of this story in Matthew 19, both suggest that Jesus’ commendation of “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” arose not because of any negative view of sex itself, but rather out of pragmatic concerns related to Jesus’ call to missionary proclamation. (132)

In other words, what we see here is not a form of sexual asceticism, in which the center of concern is the avoidance of sex; instead, we see a form of celibacy, where the focus falls on the avoidance of the responsibilities of marriage for pragmatic reasons. (132)

Celibacy and Marriage in 1 Corinthians 7

Paul Addresses the Corinthians’ Motivations for Avoiding Sex and Marriage

Paul seems to be concerned about..the desire for greater freedom. (134)

It may well be that members of the community sought to disentangle themselves from  marriages that they had entered before they became Christians. (134)

[Paul] understands the Corinthians’ desire to avoid sex and marriage to be motivated by three distinct but interrelated concerns: (1) the desire for greater freedom; (2) the longing to enter more deeply into holiness and prayer; and (3) a concern about avoiding the perceived pollution of a marriage to an unbeliever. (136)

Paul’s Response to the Corinthians’ Concerns

Celibacy as Gift and Calling

Implications for the Debate about Gay or Lesbian Committed Unions

Celibacy means more than simply going without sexual relations for a period of time. It entails constructing one’s whole life apart from sexual intimacy. (141)

Traditionalists insist that, for those gay and lesbians who cannot change their orientation, chastity in celibacy is the only alternative. But this counsel sounds remarkably akin to the slogan of the Corinthians: advising or demanding complete abstinence from sex. Paul rejects that counsel, encouraging even single persons to get married if they are not able to exercise self-control. But can we assume that all gays and lesbians who cannot change their sexual orientation are gifted by God to exercise such self-control, and thus are called to a life of celibacy? If not, wouldn’t it be consistent with Paul’s moral logic in this chapter of Corinthians to encourage these gay and lesbian persons not called to celibacy to live lives of faithful commitment in gay or lesbian marriages or marriagelike relationships? (143)

Paul realizes that asking Christians not called to celibacy to remain unmarried is opening the door to sexual immorality: the use of prostitutes, sex outside of marriage, and other even more distorted expressions of sexuality. (144)


Summing Up

  • While the Old Testament envisions occasional short-term avoidance of sex for the purposes of holiness, it does not envision celibacy as a life-long calling.
  • The ancient world generally tended to view the question of whether to marry or remain single as a pragmatic matter. Marriage was considered primarily in terms of the responsibilities and duties required to sustain a household. Cynics and Stoics differed on the relative importance of marriage for the fulfilled life.
  • Jesus, in his commendation of those who have “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:12), recognized that God calls some, but not all, to a single life.
  • Paul addresses this question extensively in 1 Corinthians 7 in a carefully balanced way, recognizing some circumstances under which married people might avoid sex for brief periods of time, but discouraging married people from avoiding sex altogether. Paul invites single people to remain unmarried, but clearly recognizes that not all people are gifted with lifelong celibacy.
  • The modern awareness of the persistence of sexual orientation thus raises an important question: Are all gay and lesbian Christians whose sexual orientation is not subject to change necessarily called to a celibate life? If so, then this stands in some tension with the affirmation–of both Jesus and Paul–that lifelong celibacy is a gift for some but not for all.

III. Exploring the “Boundary Language” of Romans 1:24-27

8. Lust and Desire

The Larger Context of Paul’s Letter to the Romans

…the overall goal of this larger section is to demonstrate the universal sinfulness of humanity and the universal need of humanity for the salvation that is found in Paul’s gospel (1:16) (150)

The core Gentile problem is idolatry… (150)

Paul engages here in a “homiletical sting operation.” (150)

Paul’s argument assumes that his readers will agree with him entirely in Romans 1, and will applaud and join him in his outrage against such wickedness. This rhetorical ploy helps Paul expose the more subtle but no less deadly sins of judgmentalism and selfish ambition in the second chapter of Romans. (151)

Passion and Lust in Romans 1–and in the Larger Historical Context

Rather, the central problem with lust in Romans 1 is that it is an expression of idolatry in a specific sense: lust involves serving one’s own self-seeking desires rather than worshiping the one true God. (153)

It was commonplace of Jewish rhetoric to link idolatry with excessive perversion and corruption, a “raging riot” of every form of evil. But we also find more specific references to same-sex eroticism as an expression of insatiable lust in Greco-Roman sources. (154)

The man whose appetite is insatiate in such things, when he finds there is no scarcity, no resistance, in this field, will have contempt for the easy conquest and scorn for a woman’s love, as a thing too readily given–in fact, too utterly feminine–and will turn his assault against the male quarters, eager to befoul the youth who will very soon be magistrates and judges and generals, believing that in them he will find a kind of pleasure difficult and hard to procure. His state is like that of men who are addicted to drinking and wine-bibbing, who after long and steady drinking of unmixed wine, often lose their taste for it and create an artificial thirst by the stimulus of sweating, salted foods, and condiments. – Dio Chrysostom

The land of the Sodomites, a part of the land of Canaan afterwards called Palestinian Syria, was brimful of innumberable iniquities, particularly such as arise from gluttony and lewdness, and multiplied and enlarged every other possible pleasure with so formidable a menace that it had at last been condemned by the Judge of All. The inhabitants owed this extreme license to the never-failing lavishness of their sources of wealth, for, deep-soiled and well-watered as it was, the land had every year a prolific harvest of all manner of fruits, and the chief beginning of evils, as one has aptly said, is goods in excess. Incapable of bearing such satiety, plunging like cattle, they threw off from their necks the law of nature and applied themselves to deep drinking of strong liquor and dainty feeding and forbidden forms of intercourse. Not only in their mad lust for women did they violate the marriages of their neighbours, but also men mounted males without respect for the sex nature which the active partner shares with the passive; and so when they tried to beget children they were discovered to be incapable of any but a sterile seed. – Philo

What Paul has in mind here is not the modern concept of homosexual orientation, that is, the notion that some people are not sexually attracted to those of the opposite sex at all, but instead are inclined to love those of the same sex. Such a perspective is found nowhere in the literature of Paul’s day. Instead, in that literature, whenever same-sex eroticism is viewed negatively, particularly in sources contemporaneous with Paul, it is regarded as a particular manifestation of self-centered lust, one that is not content with women alone but is driven to ever more exotic and unnatural forms of stimulation it he pursuit of pleasure. (155-156)

A Possible Allusion to the Roman Imperial House?

Gaius Caligula graphically illustrates the reality of which Paul speaks in Romans 1: the movement from idolatry to insatiable lust to every form of depravity, and the violent murderous reprisal that such behavior engenders. (157)

Paul is speaking of sinfulness in its extreme and most obvious forms here. His goal is to clearly delineate the essence of the human problem and to secure the unambiguous agreement of the Roman Christians in condemning such outrageousness. (158)

If Elliot is correct [Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle], Paul’s allusion to the emperor can be understood as an indictment of the Gentile world through the behavior of its leaders, who embody and typify the people as a whole. (159)

(As is also true today, same-sex eroticism was not nearly common enough in the ancient world to be considered “typical” of all Gentiles.) (159)

While we may not be able to know definitively what Paul had in mind here, it is clear that it is intended to be part of an overall picture of over-the-top lust, self-centeredness, and greed. (160)

Lust in Romans 7

Why is it that lust is exposed quite apart from the law in Romans 1, simply by its self-evident excesses, but “covetousness” is only exposed by the law in Romans 7? (161)

Is Sexual Desire Itself Evil?

It is not desire itself that Paul opposes, but excessive desire, which directs itself toward what is not rightly ours, overcoming self-control and obedience to God. Pauls’ thinking is probably shaped by the Tenth Commandment, which does not forbid desire itself but only desire that is directed toward what belongs to the neighbor. (164)

Desire itself is not the problem; it is desire that is out of control. The opposite of lust for Paul is not the absence of passion (apatheia) but the presence of self-control (enkrateia) (164)

…from a wider, canonical perspective, it is impossible to claim that the Bible as a whole views sexual desire itself negatively, particularly in light of the extended celebration of desire that we find in the Song of Songs. (165)

Implications for the Homosexuality Debate

The first point to observe is one that I have already noted earlier in this chapter. Writers in the first century, including Paul, did not look at same-sex eroticism with the understanding of sexual orientation that is common place today. Rather,…same-sex eroticism was consistently portrayed by those who opposed this behavior as a manifestation of a form of insatiable lust that, not content with heterosexual relations, was driven to increasingly exotic and perverse forms of sexual behavior that were intended to satiate sexual appetites that had become grotesque through ever-expanding self-indulgence. (166)

Where Does the Focus Lie when Paul Speaks of “Lust”?

The root meanings of the Greek words epithumia and epithumeo focus on the intensity of desire. Most translators render the Greek word only as “lust” when the context is clearly a negative one. (167)

We may agree with Paul that whenever same-sex (or heterosexual) eroticism is driven by excessive lustful passion and manifests itself in self-centered and destructive behavior, we see the manifestation of divine judgment. At the same time, we may also recognize that some gay or lesbian Christians seek to form loving same-sex bonds that are not characterized by excessive, self-centered, and destructive behavior. It is simply out of keeping with the biblical meaning of words to characterize such behaviors as “lustful” and “consumed with passion.” To the extent that this is true, it may call into question whether a text like Romans 1:26-27 is speaking directly to the contemporary experience of gay Christians who long to sanctify their relationships in the bonds of marriage or marriagelike covenants, at least insofar as these verses see same-sex eroticism through the lens of lustful desire. (169)

On Distinguishing “Orientation” and “Behavior”

In the ancient world we see almost no interest at all in the question of sexual orientation… (170)

…the attempt by some traditionalists to bracket sexual orientation and to focus only on sexual behavior is ultimately untenable, even if it may seem necessary or benevolent from a pastoral point of view. (175)

Summing Up

  • Paul clearly expects his readers to join him in outrage over the sexual behavior he describes in Romans 1:24-27 as an expression of excessive, self-centered desire. He describes this behavior as an expression of “lusts” (1:24), as driven by “passions” (1:26), and as “consumed,” or “burning,” “with passion” (1:27)
  • This is in keeping with the general perception of same-sex relations in the ancient world: that they were driven by insatiable desire, not content with more normal sexual relationships. Jews and Christians opposed to same-sex eroticism show no awareness of the modern notion of sexual orientation.
  • In Romans 1:24-27, Paul may be alluding to the notorious excesses of a former Roman emperor, Gaius Caligula, whose idolatrous patterns and sexual excesses–including same-sex eroticism–were well known, and whose murder by being stabbed in the genitals markedly echoes Paul’s words in Romans 1:27: “receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”
  • Paul does not regard sexual desire itself as evil; it is only when desire gets out of control that it becomes lust and leads to sin.
  • Many traditionalist interpreters of this passage focus on the “objective” disorder of same-sex relationships, but when Paul speaks of these behaviors as “lustful,” the focus falls on their excessive nature: out-of-control, self-seeking desire.
  • Modern attempts to differentiate between same-sex orientation and same-sex behavior tend to minimize Paul’s concern with out-of-control lust in this text, focusing instead on the “objective” disorder of same-sex intimacy. Yet this move leaves gay and lesbian Christians with little help in wrestling with their “subjective” sexual orientation, which is in most cases highly resistant to change.
  • Ultimately, Scripture does not sanction a sharp split between sinful acts and the inclination toward sinful acts. If an act is sinful, the inclination to that act is also a manifestation of one’s sinful nature. This calls into question whether the orientation/behavior dichotomy in many traditionalist approaches to homosexuality is theologically and ethically viable.
  • But if we keep Paul’s focus in Romans 1:24-27 on out-of-control desire firmly in focus, we will recognize that these concerns may not be reflected in committed gay or lesbian relationships, opening up the possibility that these relationships may not be “lustful” and thus not directly addressed by Paul’s polemic in Romans 1.

9. Purity and Impurity

Larger Canonical Treatment of Purity and Impurity

Distinguishing “Ceremonial” from “Moral” Law?

…this distinction between moral and ceremonial law is never explicitly made within Scripture itself. (182)

…the entire distinction between the ceremonial (bad and irrelevant) and moral (good and binding) probably gains more of its energy today from low-church Protestantism than it does from anything in the New Testament itself. (183)

Setting the Context: Purity and Impurity in the New Testament

What is the moral logic underlying the purity laws, and why does the New Testament set that form of moral logic aside in guiding the moral responsibility of Gentile Christians?

The Meaning of Purity in the Old Testament

Purity thus represents a different way of socializing communities into shared communities, values, and behaviors. It involves an appeal to the emotions as much as to the mind and will. (185)

Purity is thus essentially concerned with the orderliness of the world, and whether everything is in its proper place. (185)

Wholeness, completeness, and distinctness are the marks of purity; ambiguities and mixtures are unclean. (186)

Purity in the Second Temple Judaism and Christianity

It is this last aspect of purity–the importance of keeping Israel separate from the surrounding nations–that begins to dominate Jewish thinking after Israel’s return from exile. (187)

Three Basic Movements in Redefining Purity in the New Testament

First, we see a movement away from defining purity externally toward defining purity in terms of the motives and dispositions of the heart and will. (189)

Second, we see in the New Testament a movement away from defensiveness and separateness toward confidence and engagement in matters of purity and impurity. (190)

But in the ministry of Jesus, this “flow of contagion” is reversed. (190)

Third, we see a shift in defining purity, away form a backward look to the old creation to a forward look toward the new creation. (191)

We see a movement away form a preoccupation with externals to a concern for the inner origins of behavior, focusing on the heart and the will. We see a movement away from defensiveness and separation toward confidence and mission, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Finally, we see a movement away from the attempt to replicate the original creation to a forward-looking expectation of a new creation, which fulfills–but also transforms–the old creation in surprising ways. (193)

Why, Then, Does Paul Still Speak So Negatively about Sexual Misbehavior as “Impurity”?

The purity of the life to which the New Testament directs us is not primarily measured by the externals of our behavior but by the disposition of our hearts. It is interesting to note, in this regard, that most New Testament writers, including Paul, spend fairly little time giving detailed descriptions of permitted and forbidden behaviors. (194)

…we never find in Paul a detailed definition of exactly what “sexual immorality” (porneia) means. (194)

The fact that Paul regularly associates “impurity” with “licentiousness” and “lust” makes it clear that “impurity” in sexual matters is primarily the result of excessive desire and a lack of self-restraint. The wrongness of the behavior is linked primarily to the attitude or disposition with which the behavior is carried out. (195)

I conclude that it is entirely fair and judicious to declare that, in the New Testament, without exception, the language of “impurity” and “uncleanness” is reframed–away from an “objective” approach that regards impurity simply as a “dirty” action or bodily state. The call to purity drives deeper in the New Testament, toward a “subjective” approach that sees purity and impurity as qualities of one’s attitudes or dispositions. Purity of heart has replaced bodily and external forms of purity, and it is the central and operative meaning of “purity” throughout the New Testament. … Impurity is thus marked in Romans 1:24, as it is everywhere else in Paul, by excessive lust and lack of self-restraint, which in turn leads to sexual immorality. (197)

Implications for the Debate over Gay and Lesbian Unions

Summing Up

  • Because Paul speaks of same-sex eroticism as “impurity” in Romans 1:24-27, an exploration of the moral logic underpinning these verses must grapple with the notions of purity and impurity.
  • The Old Testament defines purity in three broad ways: conforming to the structures of the original created order; safeguarding the processes by which life is stewarded; and emphasizing Israel’s distinctness from the surrounding nations.
  • In the New Testament we see three movements with respect to the Old Testament purity laws:
    • away from defining purity externally toward defining purity in terms of the motives and dispositions of the heart and will;
    • away from defensiveness and separation toward confidence and mission, empowered by the Holy Spirit;
    • away from the attempt to replicate the original creation, to a forward-looking expectation of a new creation that fulfills but also transforms the old creation in surprising ways.
  • These movement clarify that, for Paul, the core form of moral logic underlying his characterization of sexual misconduct as “impurity” focuses on internal attitudes and dispositions, particularly lust (excessive desire) and licentiousness (lack of restraint).
  • Because Paul characterizes the same-sex eroticism of Romans 1:24-27 as “impurity,” and therefore understands it as characterized by excessive passion and a lack of restraint, it raises the question concerning whether committed gay and lesbian unions, which seek to discipline passion and desire by means of lifelong commitment, should still be characterized as “impurity.” (203)

10. Honor and Shame

In these contexts, “honor” represents a claim to worth or value, along with the social acknowledgment of that worth or value. (205)

However, there is also acquired honor, which one gains by excelling in social interactions with others: these interactions are called challenge and riposte, in which a conflict and competition for honor results in one person’s gaining honor and the other person’s losing it. (205)

Honor and shame are not absolute realities; instead, honor and shame are defined by how others treat and regard you. In every public interchange where honor and shame are in play, it is the observers who determine who receives honor and who is shamed. Anthropologists speak of these observers as the Public Court of Reputation (often abbreviated as PCR). (205)

Finally, it is important to note that the honor of females is bound up with the honor of the males who are responsible for them, usually the patriarchal heads of the households in which wives and daughters reside. (206)

Interpreting Romans 1 in an Honor-Shame Cultural Context

What we can see here is not simply the shaming of women, but also the shaming of the men in whose households these women reside. (207)

In other words, the “lesbian” reading of Romans 1:26 is completely unattested in the early church in the first 300 years of its life, despite fairly common discussion of this text among the patristic commentators. (207)

Romans 1:27 makes no distinction between the active partner and the passive partner in its negative portrayal of male-male sex. (209)

The sexual misbehavior described here, in addition to being characterized as “lustful” and “impure,” is considered “degrading” or “shameless” for a particular reason: such behavior violated established social expectations of the time regarding gender–and regarding behaviors that are appropriate to males and females. (211)

Evaluating Honor-Shame as a Form of Moral Logic in Cross-Cultural Settings

…what seems relevant across all cultures, from a biblical and theological perspective, is that people have an inherent worth that should be recognized in social interactions. 9212-213)

What is vitally important to recognize here is the simple fact that, even in the ancient world, honor and shame were culturally define and socially governed realities rather than absolute and transcendent concepts. …rarely are exhortations using the language of honor and shame justified by an appeal to God’s will in the Bible. Such appeals are unnecessary because we learn honor and shame from our youngest years, and we internalize them in ways that seem completely self-evident to us. Honor-shame conventions find their content, meaning, and justification in the concrete fabric of specific social interactions and relationships. (213-214)

…wherever the honor-shame codes in the ancient world were felt to contradict core values of the gospel, they were readily and quickly challenged or set aside. (214)

Implications for the Homosexuality Debate in the Churches: The Meaning of Shame

A healthy sense of shame is vital to our humanity. But precisely because our sense of shame is socially constructed, it can also be the place where we internalize the prejudices, fears, anxieties, distortions, and hatred of those around us, particularly those closest to us. (215)

Shame always becomes toxic when it is constructed out of double messages (e.g., “We love you, but we abhor the way you operate emotionally”). (216)

In a traditional context, homosexual acts may incur guilt, but a homosexual orientation causes shame. (216)

As James Fowler notes, release from shame involves not only the acknowledgement and exposure of the defect or lack to a trusted other or others, but also the undertaking of substantial change in one’s way of being a self. Guilt can be healed through forgiveness, but the healing of shame cannot happen apart from a dramatic alteration in the basic way we understand and relate to our very selves. …attempts to replicate this strategy [twelve-step programs] with gays have been much less fruitful. Since sexual orientation is so deeply embedded in the fabric of our experience of the world, such attempts to dramatically alter one’s self-understanding and self-definition most commonly end in failure — only deepening the sense of shame. (216-217)

Pastoral Responses to Shame

…greater precision is important. (217)

What Exactly is Shameful in Romans 1:24-27?

What is degrading and shameless about the behavior described in Romans 1:24-27 is that it is driven by excessive, self-seeking lust, that it knows no boundaries or restraints, and that it violates established gender roles of that time and culture, understood in terms of masculine rationality and honor. (218)

You cannot love someone at the same time that you are dominated by self-centered passion, and are in the process violating his or her honor or the honor of the household in which that person resides. (218)

If shame cannot be clearly named, and its destructive elements cannot be clearly identified, it is toxic shame, and the deeper call of the gospel is not to reinforce such shame but to expose its deceptiveness by the light of Christ. (220)

What is clear in [Thomas Schmidt’s] discussion, is that almost all the health problems he describes are associated with sexual promiscuity and the use of multiple sex partners. (220)

Christians should not say with their bodies what they are unable to say with the rest of their lives. (220)

What is honorable is what contributes to a form of life and dignity that is permeated by the gospel of Christ. What is shameful is any impulse or behavior that diminishes life and dignity, as that life and dignity is portrayed in the gospel of Christ. (221)

Summing Up

  • Paul’s characterization of the sexual misbehavior in Romans 1:24-27 as “degrading” and “shameless” requires that we understand this form of moral logic.
  • This language must be understood in the context of an honor-shame culture in which public esteem is valued very highly, and where male and female roles are clearly and sharply delineated.
  • In this context, the reference to “their women” in Romans 1:26 probably does not refer to same-sex activity but to dishonorable forms of heterosexual intercourse. The reference to degrading acts between men probably refers both to the ancient assumption that same-sex eroticism is driven by excessive passion, not content with heterosexual gratification, and also to the general assumption in the ancient world that a man was inherently degraded by being penetrated as a woman would be.
  • Although the need to honor others is a universal moral mandate, the specific behaviors that are considered honorable and shameful vary dramatically from one culture to another.
  • In the past, the church has often contributed to the toxic shame of gay and lesbian persons by the ambivalent response, “We welcome you, but we abhor the way you operate emotionally.”
  • What is shameful about the sexual behavior described in Romans 1:24-27 is the presence of lust, licentiousness, self-centeredness, abuse, and the violation of gender roles that were widely accepted in the ancient world.
  • The church must wrestle with whether all contemporary gay and lesbian committed relationships are accurately described by Paul’s language. If not, then perhaps this form of moral logic does not apply to contemporary committed gay and lesbian relationships.

11. Nature

Paul links departure from the worship of God to a departure from what is “natural.” (223)

1:23 They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or animals.
1:25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie.
2:26 Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural.
1:27 In the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.

The Greek word that Paul uses here for “nature” (phusis) never occurs in the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. (225)

“Nature” as “What Comes Naturally”: The Place of One’s Individual Natur in the Wider World

The focus is thus not on conformity with some external nature in the visible world, but on living in conformity with their own nature–what is already “written on their hearts.” (227)

Galatians 4:8: “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods.”

Ephesians 2:3: “All of us once lived among them int he passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature [phusei] children of wrath, like everyone else.” Here “nature” cannot mean “the will of God revealed in creation as a whole.” Instead, the clear reference is to the individual nature of those who, simply by doing what came naturally to them, were “children of wrath.” (227)

Nature as Individual Disposition in Romans 1

A possessive is always understood with ‘nature’ in Pauline writings: it is not ‘nature’ in the abstract, but someone’s ‘nature,’ the Jews’ ‘nature’ or the Gentiles’ ‘nature’ or even the pagan gods’ ‘nature.’ (228)

It cannot be inferred from this [i.e., Rom. 1:26-27] that Paul considered mere homoerotic attraction or practice morally reprehensible, since the passage strongly implies that he was not discussing persons who were by inclination gay and since he carefully observed, in regard to both the women and the men, that they changed or abandoned the “natural use” to engage in homosexual activities. – John Boswell

Boswell claims that when Paul describes men as acting “against nature” by engaging in sex with other men in Roman 1:27, Paul is envisioning heterosexual men who act against their own nature and disposition. Boswell thus concludes that this passage says nothing about homosexual men, because their same-sex behavior is in accordance with–and does not violate–their own nature or inclination. (229)

In this sense, it is clear that Paul is not operating with the modern sense of sexual orientation here. Rather, he speaks of those who “leave behind” what he regards as their own true nature, which should direct them to relationships with those of the opposite sex. It would probably be inscrutable to him to speak of people who were “naturally” attracted to others of the same sex. This understanding of nature with respect to a same-sex sexual orientation is unattested in early Jewish and Christian discussions of same-sex behavior. (229)

For early Jews and Christians, the true meaning of “nature” could only be discerned in the ways that “nature” converged with the will of God revealed in the Torah. If this analysis is correct, however, it also suggests that the whole modern concept of sexual orientation and the contemporary evidence of its deeply rooted persistence, both in some humans and in some animals, represent an important range of empirical data about the natural world that was not considered by the ancient Jewish or Christian writers. (230)

Paul clearly intends to convey that when sinful humans act unnaturally they deny not only the “objective” nature evident in the wider human community and the visible world; they also deny their own “subjective” nature. They “leave behind” their own deepest and most natural inclinations and dispositions. For Paul, sinful behavior thus places humans out of sync with both the cosmos as a whole and with the deepest and truest aspects of themselves as persons. To act “unnaturally” is to fail, in the deepest sense, both to be yourself and to find your rightful place in the wider world. (231)

Nature as Communal Well-Being: The Social Dimensions of What Is Natural

“Nature,” in this sense, refers to those normal social conventions that we simply take for granted as self-evidently true. Such conventions may have echoes in the biological realm, but they are essentially socially constructed perspectives. (235)

…for now it is sufficient to note that, when Romans 1 speaks of acts that are “unnatural,” it is speaking not only of individual natures; it is also speaking of what we would call “social” realities, including widely held social understandings of the meaning of gender, with fairly clear assumptions about the nature of men and women and their respective roles in society. To put it simply, men having sex with other men was considered unnatural, at least in part, because it violated established gender roles, forcing men to play the role of women, upsetting the normal hierarchy of the genders that went unquestioned int he ancient world. If we find it difficult to day to directly appropriate a worldview with such assumptions, it suggests that we must grapple with some larger hermeneutical questions in our use of the concept of nature as it is found in this passage. (237)

Nature, Biology, and Anatomy

It was a commonplace in the ancient world that what was “natural” about sex was its purpose of procreation. Moreover, understanding the “nature” of sex in a way that was linked to procreation fit in perfectly with the overall tendency, in Stoicism and more generally in ethical deliberations in the ancient world, to evaluate the morality of behaviors in terms of the “ends” or goals toward which they were directed. (239)

In this framework, sex was good when practiced within marriage (so that the children conceived in sexual relationships could be properly cared for) and when it was directed toward the generation of children. Sexual behavior was bad when it was not directed toward these goals, but was instead driven only by passion (the desire for self-gratification). (239)

…what these early Jewish texts have in mind i snot anatomical complementarity but the violation of socially normed gender roles, in which the male was expected to be active, rational, shorthaired, and in control, and the woman was expected to be passive, emotional, longhaired, and subservient. (242)

…even though Gagnon wishes to interpret nature in Romans 1 as referring to “anatomical complementarity,” the texts that he cites to support this claim fail to do so. … Nowhere does Gagnon cite a single ancient text that speaks specifically of the fittedness of penis and vagina. (243)

It appears that the notion of “anatomical gender complementarity” is really a modern concept rather than a category that actually shaped ethical thought about sex in the ancient world. To the extent that ancient references to “nature” in sexual ethics envisioned anatomy and biology, they clearly had procreation in mind. (243)

Summarizing the Nature Debate in Romans 1:26-28: Three Streams

Paul envisions the sexual misbehavior he describes in Romans 1:26-27 as a violation of one’s individual nature or identity, as a violation of deeply established social norms regarding gender, and as a violation of the “biological imperative” to bear children. (246)

What contemporary Christians must realize, however, is that this “natural” convergence of the personal, the communal, and the biological worlds does not take place for us today in the same way that it took place in the ancient world, quite apart from the question of same-sex relationships. (246)

This does not mean that contemporary Christians reject the will of God as it is revealed in creation. But it does mean that our understanding of exactly how the will of God is revealed in the natural order is subject to change, deepening, and growth over time. (247)

When people in the ancient world thought about nature, they thought comprehensively about a synthetic vision encompassing the personal, the social, and the natural world. (247)

Nature and Redeemed Life in Christ

Paul’s characterization of his gospel as “foolishness” to Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:23) suggests that redemption in Christ stands in some tension with “the ordinary perception of good and bad.” For Paul, Christian life entailed a powerful and important movement from the old creation to the new creation. (248)

Aristotle considered the slave/master polarity one of the fundamental bases on which all of society is built. (249)

Already in the New Testament, the “new creation” does not merely restore the old natural order but transforms it. (251)

If nature is simply determined by anatomy, then this can never happen; but if nature is simply determined by anatomy, neither could  places be found that are created in the New Testament for the leadership of Phoebe and Junia, or by the inclusion of the Ethiopian eunuch. … If committed gay unions are to find a place in a nature renewed by the Spirit of God, we should expect to find a similar convergence of a sanctified individual disposition, social order, and physical environment. (251)

Sex must not be driven by self-serving lust and passion. The intimacy of sexual expression must be a place where people can be most authentically their true selves. Sex must not degrade or shame its participants. The procreative purpose of sex remains an important–though not all-defining–aspect of sexual existence for most men and women. But even where procreation is not a possible goal to pursue, whether the couples be gay, lesbian, or heterosexual, sex must still serve deeper purposes than mere self-gratification or a will to power. Instead, it must move toward establishing enduring social relationships that can contribute to the well-being of society as a whole. The sexual brokenness Paul describes in Romans 1 graphically illustrates the failure to fulfill all these “natural” purposes of sex. (254)

Summing Up

  • Central to the debates about the applicability of Romans 1:24-27 to contemporary committed gay and lesbian relationships is Paul’s claim that the sexual misbehavior he describes in these verses is “unnatural,” or “contrary to nature.” We must understand the moral logic underlying this claim in order to discern how to apply these verses to contemporary life.
  • The Greek word that Paul uses for “nature” here (phusis) does not occur in the Septuagint, the early translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Rather, it arises in Jewish discourse after 200 BCE, when Jewish writers make use of it as a Stoic category in order to interpret Jewish ethics to Gentiles.
  • In the ancient world there were three dimensions to the understanding of nature, and we find each of these reflected in Paul’s use of the word:
    • Nature was understood as one’s individual nature or disposition. Paul’s language in Romans 1 thus reflects the ancient notion that same-sex eroticism was driven by an insatiable thirst for the exotic by those who were not content with “natural” desires for the same sex. The ancient world had no notion of sexual orientation.
    • Nature was also understood as what contributed to the good order of society as a whole. In this sense, it looks very much like social convention, and many ancient understandings of what is natural, particularly those concerning gender roles, seem quaint at best to us today.
    • Nature was also understood in the ancient world in relationship to biological processes, particularly procreation. Paul’s references to sexual misbehavior in Romans 1:24-27 as “unnatural” spring in part from their nonprocreative character. Yet there is no evidence that people in the ancient world linked natural gender roles more specifically to the complementary sexual organs of male and female, apart form a general concern with the “naturalness” of procreation.
  • While we as modern persons should still seek a convergence of the personal, social, and physical worlds, just as the ancients did under the category of nature, we must recognize, even apart from the question of same-sex relationships, that this convergence will look different to us than it looked in the ancient world.
  • The biblical vision of a new creation invites us to imagine what living into a deeper vision of “nature” as the convergence of individual disposition, social order, and the physical world might look like, under the guidance and power of the Spirit of God. This might also entail the cultivation of a vision for how consecrated and committed gay and lesbian relationships might fit into such a new order.

IV. Conclusions

12. Conclusions

When interpreting scriptural commands or prohibitions, we must ask not only what is commanded or prohibited but why. (259)

Finally, 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. I argue that, at the same time, we cannot assume that all committed same-sex relationships are necessarily prone to the errors and problems that Paul narrates in Romans 1. (261)

Neither side of the debate denies the authority and truthfulness of Scripture. The point of difference centers on the underlying moral logic that shapes the text, and thus its applicability to contemporary life. (262)

…two important cautionary points must be raised here. The first has to do with changes that have taken place over the centuries in the institution of marriage itself. (263) The biblical writers were far more pragmatic about marriage than we are. (264)

A second qualifier on the contemporary experience of complementarity is even more important. We cannot clearly distinguish, even in modern experiences of intimate complementarity, between those patterns of similarity and difference that are inherent to gender (understood biologically) and those patters that are simply a function of the otherness of one’s life partner. (264)

Perhaps what heterosexuals are experiencing in marriage is not essentially a complementarity of gender understood biologically, but simply a form of otherness that usually takes shape along gendered lines, even if those gendered lines may shift significantly form one context to the next. (265)

Scripture doe snot absolutize that honor-shame framework. (265)

…we find nothing of gender complementarity in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, or any other of the ancient ecumenical creeds. We also find no mention of gender complementarity in the great confessional documents of the Reformation: the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Second Helvetic Confession, or the Belgic Confession. (266)

Reviewing the Rest of the “Seven Passages”

Sodom and Gomorrah and the Levite’s Concubine

The failure to distinguish between consensual, committed, and loving sexual relationships and violent, coercive relationships represents a serious case of moral myopia. (268)

The Levitical Prohibitions of “Lying with a Male as with a Woman” (Lev. 18:22; 20:13)

Leviticus’s concerns about idolatry, violations of male honor, and the like seem distinctly out of place. (273)

References to Same-Sex Erotic Behavior in the New Testament Vice Lists (1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10)

…the most important thing to recognize is that there are two words, not just one. … The malakoi (“softies”) are the younger, passive eromenoi, and the arsenokoitai (“man-bedders”) are the older, active erastai. (274)

The Application of the “Seven Passages” to Committed Same-Sex Relationships Today

In light of the fresh experience of the church in the nineteenth century, Christians grew in their ability to discern deeper and more abiding forms of moral logic that shape the biblical narrative at its deepest levels. | Might committed same-sex relationships present a similar kind of challenge to the church today? … The evidence suggests that there are no forms of moral logic underpinning these passages that clearly and unequivocally forbid all contemporary forms of committed same-sex intimate relationships. (277)

My focus in this book has been more specifically on the interpretation of Scripture in relationship to these questions. I am convinced that the church needs to move away from an interpretation of Scripture that assumes that the Bible teaches a normative form of biological or anatomical gender complementarity. In its place I have offered a more complex moral vision, one that looks at sexuality through the central category of the exclusive one-flesh kinship bond and sees the core meaning of sexuality expressed in

  • a delight in the other;
  • a deep desire for gratification and union;
  • the attendant call to honor and serve the other in committed bonds of loving mutuality;
  • and a fruitful vision of committed love that overflows in many ways–in procreation, adoption, service to the community, and hospitality to others.

Summing Up

  • One must read biblical commands and prohibitions in terms of their underlying forms of moral logic. The moral logic underpinning the negative portrayal of same-sex eroticism in Scripture does not directly address committed, loving, consecrated same-sex relationships today.
  • Although Scripture does not teach a normative form of gender complementarity, the experience of complementarity itself may be helpful and important in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships, even if complementarity is not construed along hard-wired gender lines.
  • The stories of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19) and the Levite’s concubine (Judg. 19) focus on the horror of rape and the ancient abhorrence of the violation of male honor in rape. As such, they help to explain Scriptures’ negative stance toward the types of same-sex eroticism the Bible addresses, but they do not directly address the case of committed and loving same-sex relationships.
  • The prohibitions in Leviticus against “lying with a male as with a woman” (18:22; 20:13) make sense in an ancient context, where there were concerns about purity, pagan cults, the distinctiveness of Israel as a nation, violations of male honor, and anxieties concerning pro-creative processes. However, these prohibitions do not speak directly to committed and consecrated same-sex relationships. Nor are they based on a form of moral logic grounded in biology-based gender complementarity.
  • The references to same-sex eroticism found in two New Testament vice lists (1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10) focus attention on the ancient practice of pederasty–the use of boy prostitutes in male-male sex. As such, they also do not address committed and mutual same-sex relationships today.
  • There are many more questions to be explored, but this book has attempted to focus on core issues involving the interpretation of Scripture, as the church continues to wrestle with a multitude of questions that arise outside the heterosexual mainstream.


Let me first start with a few problematic critiques I found.

On page 60, Brownson makes a reference to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as an argument for the patriarchal backdrop of the text. Several scholars, however, have suggested that this passage is an interpolation, meaning, it was added in later, and not original to primary source. This may have implications, both for the egalitarian argument, and/or the same-sex relationship argument.

On page 82, Brownson states,

In the ancient world, deeply shaped by patriarchy, the rape of a woman, as horrible as it might be, cannot be compared to the horror of raping, and thereby degrading, another man.

This illustrates to me one of the primary problems with this line of argumentation, and texts that simply “won’t go away.” Regardless of how this may substantiate Brownson’s argument, passages like these do not bolster the overall moral thrust of the Bible. The critique is frequently made as to why, if God-inspired/-breathed, the Biblical text does not outright condemn any violation of human rights and dignity. And, this challenge must be squared with regardless of your hermeneutical conclusions.

Last, on page 252, Brownson says that the New Testament “does not envision the elimination of the institution of slavery, or birth control, or women as leaders in society.” Birth control, yes. But, we do have the letter to Philemon, which poses its own moral logic, and several passages supporting and substantiating women as leaders in society (cf. Man and Woman: One in Christ).

Other than those minor observations, this is perhaps one of the most compelling treatments for same-sex marriage, from a Biblical perspective, that I have read. First, Brownson is himself a Reformed theologian, which gives him the “street cred” to speak to the Reformed Evangelical community. This is critically important (very similar to Payne), for persuasion is most effective coming from the “inside.” Second, there is virtually no stone left unturned in this treatment. I have read other arguments which are merely assumptive conclusions that are buffered with rhetorical commentary, a strategy that leaves far too many cracks in the logic and thinking. Brownson, however, is thorough. Opponents will have their work cut out for them. Lastly, because of the two reasons mentioned above, this book is persuasive, at least to those with an open mind and willing heart to push further, wrestle more sincerely, and engage more critically.

Posted in: Bible, Sexuality, Theology