Scripture, Ethics & The Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships | Reflections & Notes

Karen R. Keen. Scripture, Ethics & The Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. Eerdmans, 2018. (147 pages)


This is an incredible resource. Keen has clearly articulated the debate, accurately represented the “sides,” and advanced several considerations that are sound and cannot be ignored, all in less than 150 pages. If you’re brand new to the conversation around “homosexuality” (I’m using quotation marks to acknowledge the popularly used terminology and also recognizing the word’s inadequacy and offense) and Christianity, please start with Torn. For the next step, a guide that will advance your understanding of the debate around biblical interpretation, Keen is a fantastic read (which advances further the work that Matthew Vines did in God and the Gay Christian.) Then if you’re ready to jump in the “deep end,” you can pick up Bible, Gender, and Sexuality.

Given the recent trajectory of LGBTQ+ rights–in America specifically–I have heard it suggested that in a few more years, gay rights struggles will be a thing of the past–much like slavery–that in a few more years this will be a “non-issue.” I think not. We should neither fool ourselves or become complacent. While it may be true civically that LGBTQ+ acceptance and affirmation is codified in our legislation, it will not be true emotionally or religiously. My estimation is that the discussion and debate around “homosexuality” will persist because it is too intertwined with deeper structures of our mental framework such as how we read the Bible, how we feel about sex and sexuality, and how we create standards of right and wrong. In other words, these discussions are far more about moral epistemology than they are about sexual ethics and theology.

I was going to write up a lengthy response to two reviews, one by Sean McDowell, a prominent Christian apologist, and the other by Preston Sprinkle, a scholar and theologian who has a prominent teaching and publishing ministry, but Karen Keen has already done so in the following exchanges:

  1. Sean McDowell Book Review (November 1, 2018)
  2. Karen Keen’s response (November 2, 2018) [cf. “Association of Religiosity With Sexual Minority Suicide Ideation and Attempt.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Vol. 54, Issue 5. March 14, 2018]
  3. Sean McDowell Responds (November 8, 2018)
  4. Karen Keen’s Response (November 10, 2018)
  5. Preston Sprinkle’s Review (December 14, 2018)
  6. Karen Keen’s Reply (December 16, 2018)
  7. Preston Sprinkle’s Response (December 28, 2018)
  8. Karen Keen’s Response (December 30, 2018)

[full disclosure: I ran an event with Preston Sprinkle and Justin Lee in 2019 (part 1, part 2), and have respect for him personally, and his work.]

If you’ve got the mental and emotional bandwidth, reading through the back and forth exchanges is actually quite helpful in seeing just how complicated the discussion can get. It’s not as simple as “so, what does the Bible actually say?” There are several assumptions upon which the arguments are being built, and very few are astute enough to state or discern those assumptions up front. Read carefully and you’ll see “canonism” and “literalism,” and “inspiration” in various forms working as assumed “truths.” You’ll see one interpretive methodology used and acknowledged, but then dismissed when applied to counter arguments. Frequently, there’s a pivot to various other lines of argument not necessarily related, but buttressing. It can feel disorienting, perplexing, affirming, and baffling, all at the same time.

And it is all of that that makes Karen Keen’s argument for a “deliberative process,” as close to a bedrock principle of hermeneutics as one can get. In fact, the mere existence of the debate in many ways proves the thesis, that we are all engaged in the deliberative process whether we accept it or not.

And, because of that, reading this book will not just enlighten you to the debate and discussion around human sexuality and the Bible, it will inform how you even think, how you reason, and challenge you to do both within the full context of our humanity. You may not agree with the final conclusions (hence, the continuation of the debate). But you will be forced to deal with the assumptions that we all bring to the table.



1. The Church’s Response to the Gay and Lesbian Community: A Brief History

No one can say that it was by being prevented from legitimate intercourse that they came to this pass or that it was from having no means to fulfill their desire that they were driven to this monstrous insanity. – John Chrysostom, Homily 4 on Romans

He [Chrysostom] believed same-sex attraction resulted from a person turning away from God, allowing the devil to exert pressure that “extinguishes the fire of natural desire and stirs up another, which is contrary to nature.” (2)

Five Stages in the Conservative Church’s Response to Gay and Lesbian People

1. “Gay people should stay in the closet.”

Prior to the 1960s,… (4)

2. “Gay people are perverts and criminals.”

After the Stonewall riots in 1969,… (4)

Notably, imprisonment of gay people was legal in the United States as recently as 2003. (5)

3. “Gay people are hapless victims who need healing.”

While the criminal/pervert caricature endured into the early 2000s, a new paradigm simultaneously developed in the 1990s: the gay person as a broken struggler in need of compassion. (6)

cf. Frank Worthen; Michael Bussee; Jim Kasper; Jeff Konrad; Elizabeth Moberly; Benjamin Kaufman; Charles Socarides; Dr. Joseph Nicolosi

4. “Gay people are admirable saints called to a celibate life.”

cf. Andy Comiskey; John Paulk and John Smid; Alan Chambers; Randy Thomas; Wesley Hill; Ron Belgau; Eve Tushnet; Melinda Selmys; Nathan Collins

5. “Gay people are __.”

  • Celibate gay Christians tend to be young, ecumenical, and highly educated (albeit still predominantly white and male, as with the ex-gay movement). They are more apt to support innate explanations for causation rather than explanations pointing to social environment. Change in sexual orientation is generally not pursued (since it is believed to be hardwired). However, members are open to mixed-orientation marriages. The group emphasizes strong friendships and community. The master’s- and doctoral-level training of its leaders has led to significant theological contributions on the subject. Their (11) writings appear on the website Spiritual Friendship ( And several of them have written notable books, which include Wesley Hill’s Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian and Eve Tushnet’s Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.
  • Ex-gays still have an active presence. Even though the movement died with the closing of Exodus International, two small groups developed that have kept this approach on the table. Restored Hope Network (RHN) represents the more conservative and reactionary of the two. It formed in 2012 as a break-away group from Exodus International after Chambers’s views began to shift. Early on, the leadership required member ministries to sign a document stating singular loyalty. (Involvement with any other ex-gay group was prohibited.) RHN retains affinity with Religious Right politics. Anne Paulk, a prominent figure in the ex-gay movement, was elected the first president. The second group, Hope for Wholeness (HFW), resembles the ex-gay movement prior to its politicization and better represents what Exodus International was like before the late 1990s. Originally an Exodus affiliate ministry, HFW, under the guidance of president McKrae Game, created its own network in response to Chambers’s new direction. Both organizations emphasize the signature traits of ex-gay philosophy: social environmental causation and healing of same-sex attraction. (12)
  • Gospel Coalition same-sex-attracted evangelicals are difficult to define with one term or phrase. Representatives of this group include Rosaria Butterfield, Sam Allberry, and Christopher Yuan. While not a product of the Gospel Coalition, they all have a close relationship with that organization, as well as with Southern Baptists like Russell Moore. What distinguishes them from ex-gays is their rejection of reparative therapy. While they consider change in sexual orientation possible through the sanctification process, they do not believe (12) change occurs for everyone. Thus, they are more likely to esteem lifelong celibacy. (Both Allberry and Yuan are single and acknowledge continued same-sex attraction.) However, they are distinct from celibate gay Christians in their rejection of the term “gay” for self-reference, preferring “same-sex attracted.” They view gay identity as a social construct. They also tend to argue for a spiritual etiology of same-sex attraction (the fall) over biological or environmental causation. (13)
  • Gay-affirming evangelicals believe that same-sex partnerships can be blessed by God. Prominent leaders in this group include Justin Lee and Matthew Vines. Lee started the Gay Christian Network in 2001, but evangelical support for same-sex relationships has only recently picked up steam. In 2017, the organization changed leadership and now goes by the name Q Christian Fellowship. Over the years GCN/QCF has become increasingly ecumenical, creating space for Progressive Christian theology alongside its original evangelical emphasis. In 2013 Vines founded the Reformation Project, “a Bible-based, Christian grassroots organization” that advocates LGBTQ inclusino in the church. Both Lee and Vines have published popular-level gooks: Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate (Lee, 2012) and God and the Gay Christian (Vines, 2014). (13)

cf. James Brownson (Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, 2013) and Robert Song (Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships, 2014). (13)

Summing It Up

If historical trends continue, whatever paradigm shifts occur in the future will likely flow from gay and lesbian Christians truthfully testifying about their lived reality. (14)

2. Same-Sex Relations in Ancient Jewish and Christian Thought

What did they think about same-sex relations? (16)

Same-Sex Relations in Ancient Jewish and Christian Thought

Middle Assyrian Laws (16) (c. 1076 BCE) condemn same-sex rape and punish false accusations of same-sex intercourse (MALA 19-20). However, several ancient Near Eastern law codes are silent on the matter. Little evidence is available to determine whether same-sex activity was generally rejected or accepted at least until the Greek period, when pederasty was tolerated. Notably, almost all references pertain to males. Perhaps the earliest undisputed reference to females is from Plato’s Symposium in the fourth century BCE. (17)

…the existence of religious prostitution in the ancient Near East and Israel has been debated in recent scholarship. (17) [There is no evidence for widespread fertility cults or temple prostitution in the ancient Near East or Israel. This notion was popularized, in part, by the debunked work of myth-ritual theorist Sir James Frazer, as found in his book The Golden Bough. Various scholars have addressed the lack of evidence. For a start, check out S. M. Baugh, “Cult Prostitution in New Testament Ephesus: A Reappraisal,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42 (1999): 443-60; Stephanie L. Budin, “Sacred Prostitution in the First Person,” in Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World, ed. Christopher A. Faraone and Laura K. McClure (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 77-92; Martha Roth, “Marriage, Divorce, and the Prostitute in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Faraone and McClure, Prostitutes and Courtesans, 21-39; Joan Goodnick Westenholz, “Tama, Qêdēšā, Qadištu, and Sacred Prostitutes in Mesopotamia,” Harvard Theological Review 82 (1989): 245-65. For a rebuttal, see John Day, “Does the Old Testament Refer to Sacred Prostitution and Did It Actually Exist in Ancient Israel?,” in Biblical and Near Eastern Essays, ed. Carmel McCarthy and JOhn F. Healey, JSOT Supp 375 (New York: T. & T. Clark, 2004), 2-21).]

…our earliest evidence is from Crete in the eighth century BCE. (17)

Homoeroticism during the Greco-Roman period consisted primarily of pederasty. (17)

Consensual relationships between adult men were considered offensive because a grown man who took the passive role lost his masculinity in the eyes of Greco-Roman culture. Boys, on the other hand, were not yet men. When they did reach adulthood, they were no longer considered appropriate objects of sexual gratification. The exception to age limits was made with men of lower status (e.g., slaves, prostitutes) or, in the case of the Romans, noncitizens. Such adult slaves, prostitutes, and noncitizens no doubt carried the sigma of being “feminized.” (18)

| Some Greco-Roman writers condemned same-sex activity for violating gender norms (taking a female role) or showing a perceive excess passion. Some also objected to the lack of procreative potential. The Pythagoreans, Plato, and Musonius Rufus were among those who believed sexual desire should be ordered toward procreation. (18)

Why Did the Biblical Authors Condemn Same-Sex Relations?

In the Old Testament, the concern centered on these matters:

  • violation of gender norms (i.e., a man acting [or lying with a male] like a woman; Lev. 18:22; 20:13)
  • lack of procreative potential (more on this below)
  • participation in an alleged pagan practice (e.g., Lev. 18:3, 24, 30; 20:23)
  • participation in common or religious male prostitution (but evidence for this is questionable; arguments for the existence of religious male prostitution are often based on Deut. 23:17-18, yet the Hebrew terminology in these verses is not entirely clear) (19)

In the New Testament, the concern centered on these matters:

  • violation of gender norms (e.e., a man acting like a woman; Paul’s use of “unnatural” in Rom.1:26-27; more on this in the next chapter)
  • lack of procreative potential (see below)
  • participation in a pagan practice (Jewish writings at the time of Paul indicate the belief that homoeroticism was a foreign problem)
  • unrestrained or excessive lust (this concern was commonly expressed in ancient writings; so also Paul refers to male sesxual partners being “inflamed” with passion in Rom. 1:27)
  • participation in common male prostitution and possibly religious male prostitution 9but evidence is scant for the latter; New Testament vice lists probably refer to sex with common prostitutes, slaves, or boys; see 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:9-10) (19)

…the biblical authors don’t write about the morality of consensual same-sex relationships as we know them today. To put it simply, to say that the biblical authors object to prostitution or pederasty is not to say that the authors object to monogamous, covenanted relationships. That would be comparing apples and oranges. (20)

The biblical authors appear to be concerned not only with exploitation, excessive lust, and patriarchal customs but also with physical complementarity. Thus, the current debate on same-sex relationships centers on anatomical (or bodily) complementarity, including the role of procreation. (20)

Procreation and Same-Sex Relations

Scholars agree that the Old Testament authors highly valued procreation. … This is likely why Israelite men are prohibited from same-sex relations, but women are not. Procreative potential was thought to reside in male ejaculation. (21)

The New Testament authors continue to esteem progeny (e.g., John 16:21; Eph. 6:1-4; Col. 3:20; 1 Tim. 2:15), but the emphasis is not as strong. In fact, Jesus and Paul downplay marriage (and therefore procreation) while elevating celibacy. However, what is minimized is marriage itself. (21)

Not only in their mad lust for women did they violate the marriages of their neighbors, 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. … Certainly, had Greeks and barbarians joined together in affecting such unions, city after city would have become a desert, as though depopulated by a pestilential sickness. But God…gave increase in the greatest possible degree to the unions which men and women naturally make for begetting children, but abominated and extinguished this unnatural and forbidden intercourse. – Philo, On the Life of Abraham, 135-37

cf. Josephus, Against Apion 2:1992

Concern for procreation could explain, in part, why virtually all references to same-sex relations in the Bible pertain to men. (22)

[footnote: I will not be discussing the debate on whether Romans 1 refers to female same-sex relations. The evidence is ambiguous. For that discussion, see Bernadette Brooten, who argues for homoeroticism (Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996], 246-53), and James Brownson, who argues for heteroeroticism (Bible, Gender, Sexuality, 207-9). Since the crux of the debate is complementarity, the inclusion of women is assumed for traditionalists. This book engages the conversation with that in mind. However, it’s important to realize that early on Romans 1  was not always understood and interpreted as referring to female same-sex relations. This underscores the importance of entering the world of the biblical authors rather than superimposing our modern assumptions on them.]

Male same-sex relations were far more troublesome to both the biblical authors and the later rabbis than female same-sex relations. (23)

Summing It Up

3. Key Arguments in Today’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships

Key Traditionalist Arguments on Same-Sex Relationships

1. Heterosexual marriage is a creation ordinance and, therefore, not culturally relative. (26)

2. Marriage is ordered toward procreation, but procreation is not required to validate a marriage. (27)

3. Same-sex desire is the result of the fall. (28)

4. Heterosexual marriage is a living icon or symbol of the union between Christ and the church. (29)

Key Progressive Arguments on Same-Sex Relationships

1. Covenant fidelity, not sexual differentiation, is the foundation of biblical marriage. (30)

The crux of the argument is about keeping two people together. Jesus is expounding a case for the permanence of marriage not for male-female marriage, which the Pharisees would not have questioned. (32)

The word “two” does not appear in the Masoretic (Hebrew) Text of Genesis 2:24. Jesus is quoting the Greek version (or the author of Mark puts the Greek version in Jesus’s mouth). Given that manuscripts without the word “two” were in circulation, Jesus’s use of the Greek version appears to be intentional. Some scholars believe “two” is a later gloss added to the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) because the Jewish translators wanted to reject polygamy. Thus, Jesus implies that divorce is a problem because it leads to having more than one spouse (Mark 10:11-12). In essence, Jesus reinforces that, from the beginning of creation, God intended marriage to be a unity of two. That oneness should never be ruptured or shared with other spouses through remarriage after divorce. Marriage is defined by fidelity. (32)

[via: So, most/all of the OT passages quoted in the NT are from the LXX, are they not? (See When God Spoke Greek) And for reference, here’s the Masoretic Text and LXX:

על כן יעזב-איש את אביו ואת אמו ודבק באשתו והיו לבשר אחד

ενεκεν τουτου καταλειψει ανθρωπος τον πατερα αυτου και την μητερα αυτου και προσκολληθησεται προς την γυναικα αυτου και εσονται οι δυο εις σαρκα μιαν]

Polygamy was not rejected by the biblical authors until the Greco-Roman period after the Greeks introduced monogamy to the ancient Near East. (33)

…the biblical authors don’t define marriage by procreation. Lack of children does not annul the bond. … One can have a marriage without children, but one cannot have marriage without fidelity. Faithfulness is the cornerstone of biblical marriage and is exemplified by the nuptial metaphor in the Bible: God’s marriage to Israel is used expressly to illustrate covenant loyalty or lack of it. (33)

2. Procreation is minimized in the New Testament.

The reason for no marriage at the end of the age is that people will not die. In other words, marriage, which currently perpetuates life through procreation, will not be necessary. Immortality will perpetuate life. Jesus’s death and resurrection make eternal life possible. That is why, from Christianity’s earliest stages, celibacy has been a prominent way to live into this eschatological reality. (34)

Procreative potential is often cited as a reason to exclude same-sex relationships, but the exception for infertile couples reveals that anatomical complementarity–the fittedness of the penis and the vagina–is the primary issue. … Thus, the fixation on anatomical complementarity for marriage causes unnecessary suffering not only for gay and lesbian people but also for straight people who have injuries or other conditions affecting penis-vagina intercourse. (35)

3. Paul’s use of “unnatural” (para physin) in Romans 1 must be understood in his historical context.

Paul’s use of para physin is best understood in light of first-century Stoicism,… Behavior contrary to nature was understood to be anything that “places humans out of sync with both the cosmos as a whole and with the deepest and truest aspects of themselves as persons.” (36)

4. Romans 1 does not describe most gay and lesbian people.

Romans 1:19-20: “[W]hat may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

Wisdom 13:7-9 RSV: “For as they live among [God’s] works they keep searching, and they trust in what they see, because the things that are seen are beautiful. Yet again, not even they are to be excused; for if they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world, how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things?”

Romans 1:21-22: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.”

Wisdom 13:1 RSV: “For all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know him who exists, nor did they recognize the craftsman while paying heed to his works.”

Romans 1:23: “[They] exchanged the glory of the immortal GOd for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.”

Wisdom 13:10 RSV: “But miserable…are the men who give the name ‘gods’ to the works of men’s hands, gold and silver fashioned with skill, and likenesses of animals.”

The similarities between Romans and WIsdom are more extensive than what I have listed here, including a vice list of immorality that cites sexual sin (compare Rom. 1:24-32 with Wis. 14:23-27). (38)

The point of Romans 1 and 2 is that God shows no partiality (2:11). (38)

In essence, Paul does not address the question of gay people who love God and want to share their life with someone in a caring, monogamous relationship. (39)

5. Same-sex relationships can symbolize the union between Christ and the church.

Christ and the church are metaphorically imaged as one person, not differentiated beings. (40)

As with the marriage metaphor in the Old Testament, the Ephesians metaphor is about faithful love.  … This unity of two is what symbolizes Christ and the church. As a pair, same-sex couples can also exhibit and witness to divine realities through self-sacrificial love. (40)

Summing It Up

Traditionalists believe heterosexual marriage is a permanent ordinance per God’s creation of male and female (Gen. 1-3). (40)

In response, progressives argue that Genesis and Jesus’s interpretation of Genesis portray loyal, covenanted love, not seuxal differentiation, as the primary foundation of marriage. Moreover, procreation–the reason for sexual differentiation–is minimized in the New Testament because of the hope of eternal life. (41)

4. Fifty Shekels for Rape? Making Sense of Old Testament Laws

I focus the rest of this book on additional arguments that are currently being overlooked. (43)

The first confusion to clear up is that the culture of the ancient Near East (or the Greco-Roman world) is distinct from biblical inspiration itself. Ancient Near Eastern culture was not divine, even though the biblical message that was articulated from within that culture is divinely (44) inspired. The biblical authors wrote with an accent, so to speak. (45)

In essence, discerning the divine meaning of Scripture requires distinguishing the inspired message from the temporal, cultural mode of delivery. (45)

Old Testament Laws in Their Ancient Near Eastern Context

The most significant law collections of the ancient Near East date from approximately 2100 to 700 BCE. They include Ur-Nammu (ca. 211, Ur), Lipit-Eshtar (ca. 1930, Isin), Eshnunnu (ca. 1770, Eshnunnu), Hammurabi (ca. 1750, Babylon), Hittite (ca. 1650-1500, Anatolia), Middle Assyrian (ca. 1076, Assur), and Neo-Babylonian (ca. 700, Sippar). (45)

In any case, most of the ancient Near Eastern law collections are older than those found in the Old Testament, and the biblical authors were influenced by these pre-existing laws. (46)

| The Old Testament law collections include the Covenant Collection (Exod. 21-23), the Holiness Collection (Lev. 17-26), the Deuteronomic Collection (Deut. 12-26), the Decalogue (Exod. 20:2-17; Deut. 5:6-21), and the Ritual Decalogue (Exod. 34:10-26). There are additional sacrificial and purity laws, especially in Leviticus. The law collections were written in two legal genres: casuistic and apodictic. Casuistic law is case law that is not intended to address every possible legal situation. Instead, a conditional formula is presented and used for drawing conclusions based on association or inference (“If a man rents an ox…”). Apodictic law is a direct command or prohibition (“You shall not…”). Casuistic law was common in other ancient Near Eastern laws collections, but the apodictic form less so than in the biblical text. (46)

Similarities and Differences

…the biblical collections are embedded in a broader narrative; the other ancient Near Eastern collections are not. (49)

A second difference is the source of the laws. The biblical text describes God as giving the statutes through a prophet. … This is important for understanding the significance of Mount Sinai: God, not a human king, is the source and enforcer of justice. Thus, what might have been considered a civil matter is now categorized explicitly as sin against the Creator of the universe. (49)

| Although the prologues and epilogues of other ancient Near Eastern law collections show reverence for the gods, the actual laws do not have the religious connotation that the biblical laws have. (49)

The Enduring Meaning of Old Testament Laws

One common cause of misinterpretation of Old Testament laws is that we focus more on what the laws are than on why they are included in Scripture. Inspiration resides not necessarily in the particularities but in the overarching reason for the laws–namely, a good and just society. (50)

Thus, whether and how we apply a particularity from scriptural mandates depends on the underlying intent of the law and its relationship to fostering a good and just world. For example, the reason that Israelite law might require a young woman to marry her rapist, was, surprisingly enough, to hold the rapist accountable. Loss of virginity made a woman unmarriageable. In a culture where a woman’s identity was rooted in marriage and motherhood, the law was meant to protect her form a desolate future. (See Tamar’s response to rape in 2 Sam. 13.) It also protected her father from financial loss. He could lose a dowry and incur costs of supporting his daughter for life–economic circumstances he might not have the resources to sustain. Today, we still strive to hold rapists accountable and protect women’s well-being. But we do so in alternative ways that actually enhance that intent. We have imagined possibilities for better supporting women in that situation. (51)

| The Old Testament laws are not irrelevant, as progressives tend to argue. Neither are the laws impervious proof texts for ethical behavior, as traditionalists sometimes claim. (51)

5. What Is Ethical? Interpreting the Bible like Jesus

One of the challenges of using the Bible for ethics is determining when a value is culturally bound and when it’s enduring. (54)

…four examples illustrating how a person might determine ethics from Scripture: (55)

1. Commands/rules.

2. Exemplar.

3. Symbolic worlds. Traditionalist Richard Hays points out that the key passage in the debate on same-sex relationships, Romans 1, doesn’t list any commands. (56)

4. Virtues. Virtues are about who a person is, whereas rules address what a person does. (56)

Are Same-Sex Relationships Virtuous?

…ethics based on virtues is especially helpful for the conversation, for two reasons. First, virtue is not culturally relative in a way that a lw might be. The fruit of the Spirit transcends all time and culture. Second, virtue includes the other approaches (i.e., command, exemplar, and symbolic worlds). (57)

I would like to present an argument that speaks to the continued concerns that traditionalists have–one that does not put law and virtue at odds. The biblical authors themselves show us how to do this. The way they interpreted divine revelation to apply ethics provides a model for us as we contemplate the ethical question of same-sex relationships–namely, biblical mandates, including creation ordinances, require a deliberative process. (58)

How Did the Biblical Authors Apply Ethics from Scripture?

One thing I was never taught in Sunday school is that the biblical authors interpreted earlier divine revelation in fresh ways. (58)

Biblical scribes felt comfortable not only editing and adding commentary to scriptural texts passed down to them, but also offering fresh interpretations. … The italicized phrases highlight the differences between the two texts. (59)

Exodus 21:2-11:
If you buy a [male] Hebrew [slave], he is to serve you for six years. but in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free. But if the [slave] declares, “I love my master and my wife and children an do not want to go free,” then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door (59) or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his [slave] for life.
If a man sells his daughter as a [slave], she is not to go free as male [slaves] do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing, and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.

Deuteronomy 25:12-18:
If any of your people–Hebrew men or women–sell themselves to you and serve you for six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor, and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today. But if you [slave] says to you, “I do not want to leave you,” because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your [slave] for life.
Do the same for your female [slave]. Do not consider it a hardship to set your [slave] free, because their service to you these six years has been worth twice as much as that of a hired hand. And the LORD your God will bless you in everything you do.

…we discover that the author of Deuteronomy provided a fresh interpretation of the law on slavery. (60)

The updated law in Deuteronomy applies freedom equally to female slaves. This new provision also improves the circumstances for slaves. A male slave is not forced to leave behind a wife, since both male and female slaves are freed after six years. A female slave is not subject to the whims of the owner. She gets to decide if she wants to stay or not. If she does stay, she is to be treated with the same regard as a male slave. The reinterpretation also requires the owner to give an abundance of provisions to help slaves reestablish themselves. Moreover, the author of Deuteronomy is concerned about attitude, adesireing the owner to empathize with his slaves (“Remember that you were slaves”), appreciate what the slaves provided over six years of service, and release them without any resentment. (61)

The biblical authors understood the nature and function of revelation in a way that is different from what many of us have been taught in our churches. They did not view it as inflexible and impervious. Rather, they understood that laws need to be interpreted with discernment, not blindly applied without regard for context. The intent of the original statute was to provide certain protections for slaves; the adapted law enhances that objective by expressing greater care fo the people involved. (61)

Author of Mark (10:11-12):
He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

Author of Matthew (19:9):
I tell you taht anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality [porneia], and marries another woman commits adultery.

Paul (1 Cor. 7:12-15):
To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord)…if the [unbelieving spouse] leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not b oudn in such circumstances.

The original teaching did not specify any exceptions for divorce. However, Matthew and Paul both add exceptions. Matthew allows divorce in cases of unchastity, and Paul allows divorce if a spouse is abandoned. Like the author of Deuteronomy, they did not blindly apply law without discernment. (62)

Key Interpretive Principle: Discernment of Human Need

…how can we be sure we are applying Scripture correctly and not just interpreting the Bible according to our own whims? …the interpretive key is attention to human need. Preexisting divine revelation was applied with a pastoral eye for the suffering of those involved. (63)

[via: I’m curious how this line, “attention to human need,” will make Keen’s argument vulnerable similar to the Euthyphro Dilemma?]

What about a Creation Ordinance?

The biblical authors used discernment even for laws based on a creation ordinance, namely, the permanency of marriage. So also Sabbath law is grounded in creation. (64)

In other words, God’s ordinances are always on behalf of people and not for the arbitrary appeasement of God’s sensibilities. (65)

Summing It Up

…according to the biblical authors, a creation ordinance in and of itself does not mean we can neglect the deliberative process in applying biblical mandates today. in fact, blindly applying law without discernment violates the very purpose of God’s law, which Jesus states is given on behalf of humankind. (66)

[via: “deliberative” is naturally a “subjective” process of ethics.]

6. The Question of Celibacy for Gay and Lesbian People

In addition to humanitarian grounds, the morality of same-sex relationships can be assessed through casuistry (the development of case law). This refers to the process of extrapolating ethics from existing principles in Scripture to resolve an ethical dilemma that is not directly addressed in the Bible. (69)

In the rest of this chapter, I provide evidence to support the assertion that same-sex relationships can be considered morally acceptable based on case law (Paul’s instructions on celibacy and marriage), as well as on the basis of the humanitarian exception to the rule. (70)

The Truth about Sexual Orientation Change

Single People Today

…the reality is that human beings are biologically made for sexual relationships, not lifelong celibacy. Pretending taht this is not true will only enhance the disorder evident since the sexual revolution. People will have sex either within marriage or outside of it. Once we appreciate (not deny or fear) the way we are wired as sexual creatures, we can have reasonable conversations about what it means to live in this world as it is. For a church that cares about sexual holiness, that means inspiring loyal, covenanted love. (74)

Christian Tradition on Celibacy

Lifelong celibacy is possible for some people. Many religious traditions around the world honor the practice, especially among their leaders. But the claim that anyone can achieve a lifetime of celibacy is not representative of Christian tradition. (75)

Christian tradition from the time of Jesus and Paul has acknowledged that not everyone can be celibate. (79)

Deliberating on the Morality of Same-Sex Relationships

I invite traditionalists to take into consideration the infeasibility of celibacy (for everyone) in the same way conservatives have considered extenuating circumstances in the deliberative process for divorce and remarriage. (80)

Summing It Up

…biblically based casuistry is needed to resolve the ethical dilemma of a gay person unable to achieve celibacy. By extrapolating from Paul’s instruction that people with strong passions should marry, a case can be made for the moral acceptability of same-sex covenanted relationships. (82)

7. Is It Adam’s Fault? Why the Origin of Same-Sex Attraction Matters

In Christian tradition, the consequences of the fall are twofold: moral fallenness, referring to our struggle with sin, and natural fallenness as displayed in the fragility of our bodies (e.g., cancer, birth (83) defects, and death). In this chapter, I investigate whether moral fallenness is the best way to describe the same-sex attraction, or whether we might consider it natural fallenness or just human variation. (84)

Human Origins, the Fall, and Biblical Interpretation

In addition to problems with Adam as a physical or representative source of all our struggles, we also have to consider the origin of death, which many have interpreted Paul to say didn’t exist until the fall. (87)

Sin does exist, and all human beings are universally afflicted by it. We observe that truth every day. But scientific evidence adds nuance to how we understand our bodies and some of their struggles.

cf. Rom. 5:14

As a literary device, typology conveys truth in a symbolic way. The type is like the antitype and foreshadows it, but the antitype surpasses or improves on the type. (87)

Evidence indicates that our bodies have always possessed a certain fragility and mortality inherent to original creation. Thus, wisdom invites us to be cautious about automatically assuming that a person’s physical realities, including atypical sexual development, are fallen. (88)

Evil Desire, Medical Condition, or Human Variation?

…to live in a world with people who have Tourette’s, we have to change our posture toward them to accommodate the inevitable tics. (90)

| The scenario is similar for someone who experiences unchosen same-sex attraction. (90)

The Science of Same-Sex Attraction

Social Environmental Factors

  • Disruption in parent-child relationships.
  • Childhood sexual abuse.
  • Natural sexual flexibility.
  • Genetics.
  • Fraternal-birth-order effect. … A recent study (2018) found that mothers with gay sons had significantly higher levels of NLGN4Y (protein) antibodies than mothers with heterosexual sons. The fraternal-birth-order effect may account for up to 15-28 percent of all gay men. (93)
  • Prenatal hormones. … The hypothesis states that the level of exposure or response to androgens (e.g., testosterone) in utero can result in masculinization in females and demasculinization in males. The hypothesis has been confirmed in animals. In human beings, women with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), which results from high levels of androgens in utero, are more likely to be bisexual or lesbian. (93)
  • Brain structure.

While no factor can be pinpointed as the singular cause, much of the research indicates that prenatal influences affect development of same-sex attraction. Whether such attraction should be scientifically categorized as a medical condition and therefore natural fallenness or simply human variation is rooted in our paradigms about atypical bodies. But even if one argues for the less supported psychological etiologies, the environmental impact on a child from dysfunctional parent-child relationships or sexual abuse would still (94) be categorized as natural fallenness–a calamity that has befallen a person rather than evidence of a morally corrupt heart. Moreover, socially induced psychological conditions can prove just as immutable as congenital conditions. (95)

Responding to Same-Sex Attraction as Natural Fallennness

Human Variation: The Gift of Difference

…we might also consider that being gay is simply part of human variation. … Left-handers, who comprise around 10 percent of the global population, have long been stigmatized. (97)

Summing It Up

[via: I concur with the rationale, but not the categories. “Human fallenness” is not categorically the same as “human variation.”]

8. Imagining a New Response to the Gay and Lesbian Community

I have offered four main arguments related to Scripture and ethics, the feasibility of celibacy, and how we conceptualize the fall in light of scientific evidence. These areas need greater attention in the current debate:

  1. Proper interpretation of Scripture requires recognizing the overarching intent of biblical mandates, namely, a good and just world.
  2. Scripture itself teaches us that biblical mandates, including creation ordinances, cannot be applied without a deliberative process.
  3. Evidence indicates that lifelong celibacy is not achievable for every person.
  4. Evidence shows same-sex attraction is not moral fallenness; it could be understood as natural fallenness or human variation.

In essence, accepting same-sex relationships does not require compromising Scripture. To the contrary, taking Scripture more seriously teaches us to apply these texts in a way the biblical authors themselves model. Scripture also helps us navigate the physical world. Bringing the Bible and science into conversation with each other enriches our understanding of both. Together they enable us to discern truth about our bodies and the best way to fulfill God’s intentions for humanity. (103)

How Might a Traditionalist Respond Now?

Many traditionalists worry that accepting gay couples would demand giving up God’s design of male and female. But supporting covenanted same-sex relationships in no way discounts the beauty of male-female complementarity. (104)

Promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, sex-trafficking, and divorce all primarily result from disregard for covenant. Rather than fighting against marriage for gay people, traditionalists can affirm family values and enhance respect for covenant by including same-sex couples. (104)

[via: The only problem with naming “sexually transmitted diseases” in this list is that that too could be considered “natural variation,” all part of the evolutionary struggle.]

| Theologically, acceptance of same-sex relationships can be understood in different ways. Three possible options…

  • The traditionalist exception view ordinarily considers same-sex relationships morally wrong but applies a humanitarian exception to the rule for those unable to achieve celibacy. (104)
  • The traditionalist case-law view considers male-female complementarity God’s design for marriage but acknowledges that Paul never addresses the ethical dilemma of gay and lesbian people who are unable to achieve life-long celibacy. (105)
  • The affirming view acknowledges the goodness of male and female complementarity but doesn’t consider it a mandate for marriage. (106)
    The affirming view is based on two proposals. First, the biblical prohibitions are deemed prescientific in the same way biblical cosmology is prescientific.
    Second, the affirming view can be based on the overarching intent of the sexual laws in Scripture. (106)

What Does Acceptance Mean for Gay and Lesbian People?

Just as there are theological options in accepting same-sex relationships, there is flexibility in people’s decisions for their lives. Coming to an affirming position does not mean treating marriage as superior to celibacy. (107)

Ultimately, coercion is not effective. The only way gay and lesbian people can live healthy spiritual lives is to come to peace with their own decisions. The best thing that traditionalists and progressives can do is to walk alongside each person with reassurances of God’s unconditional love. Paradoxically, it is freedom taht allows us to hear and surrender to the will of God. (107)

Tying the Threads Together:
My Personal Journey to Acceptance

These chapters represent my spiritual and intellectual journey through Scripture, Christian tradition, theology, and science to find answers on same-sex relationships. Unlike most arguments that make a case for same-sex relationships, I do not seek to overturn much of the truth of traditionalist theology. When I consider the views that I held as a traditionalist, I can still say “Amen!” I still affirm God’s good creation of male and female complementarity. My response to traditionalists is not “No, you are wrong” or even “Yes, but.” My reply is “Yes, and.” (112)

Summing It Up

I firmly believe it is possible to imagine a new response to the gay community–and to do so with faithfulness to God’s Word. In fact, this journey has proven to me the depth of Scripture and its ability to speak into our greatest life challenges. I offer my conclusions as possibilities to ponder, and I welcome you to dialogue with me. As we continue the conversation, may God grant us wisdom, grace, and charity. (114)

About VIA


  1. Alison Victoria

    Thanks Kevin for this great reflection. For me, the most important note was right at the end: “The best thing that traditionalists and progressives can do is to walk alongside each person with reassurances of God’s unconditional love.” Welcoming people identifying as LGBTQ+ into the church and loving them as Jesus loves us is where our focus should lie.

  2. Pingback: Another Gospel? | Reflections, Notes, & Critical Review | vialogue

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