Contentious subject treated with grace
Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church
by Preston Sprinkle (editor), Stanley N. Gundry (series editor), William Loader (contributor), Megan K. DeFranza (contributor), Wesley Hill (contributor), Stephen R. Holmes (contributor)
Review by James Toews
“Few topics have become as volatile, confusing and debated in contemporary religious and political discourse as homosexuality,” writes the book’s editor Preston Sprinkle. Canadian MBs will certainly resonate with this introduction. After two major study conferences attempting to find common ground, there is exhaustion, but likely less unity and clarity.
But, if you have not given up, this may well be the book for you. Among the vast array of books on the topic, this one stands out for putting Christian cases for and against gay marriage side by side. Sprinkle says, “I don’t think a book like this would have been possible ten or even five years ago. Until recently, there was only one view of homosexuality within evangelicalism: the so-called non-affirming view.”
And this the first challenge that anyone stepping into this conversation quickly discovers. It isn’t simple. In spite of the fact that the biblical injunctions against homosexual activity seem ironclad, once prohibitions against homosexuality are not taken for granted, the debate is multi-layered, complex and confusing. Bringing the various issues to the table in a comprehensible manner is the book’s goal.
Sprinkle assembles four writers: two affirming of gay marriage and two traditional. On each side is a biblical scholar and a theologian. Each writes an essay stating their position; following that, the other three respond from their specialties. The essay’s author then closes off with a rejoinder. The book therefore is made up of four (multi-voiced) chapters.
What follows is a very brief summary of each.
Chapter One: Homosexuality And The Bible
Loader is a biblical scholar and the recognized expert in sexuality in ancient Judaism, Christianity and the surrounding cultures, particularly Roman and Greek.
Loader has an affirming view of monogamous same-sex relationship, while stating that the Bible is clear that same-sex relationships are wrong. The main texts he looks at are Leviticus 18:22; 20:13 and Romans 1:26–27.
His conclusion is that, while the Bible is clear, the understanding of human sexuality today is different from that of the biblical writers and hence failing to allow for a ”responsible expression of their sexuality is to fail to follow the biblical principles of justice and compassion.”
Chapter Two: Journeying From The Bible To Christian Ethics In Search Of Common Ground
—Megan K. DeFranza
DeFranza is a specialist in the small, but physically distinguishable intersex population. She begins with her own journey of growing up and being educated in the Bible Belt and simply accepting “Same-sex sexual acts were condemned. Case closed.” It was during her study of intersex people, which she puts into the context of Jesus’ discussion of eunuchs in Matthew 19:12, that she changed to affirming gay marriage.
Unlike Loader, she reads the biblical texts that prohibit same sex relationships as speaking to abusive relationships, not on consensual monogamous relationships.
Chapter Three: Christ, Scripture, And Spiritual Friendship
Hill is the one author I have read previously. He is a self-identified celibate gay Christian who holds a traditional view of marriage. Like DeFranza, he begins with his own story, which starts when he is 13 and realizes he is gay.
Hill is one of several well-known gay evangelicals who unambiguously affirm the traditional view of sexuality. Like Loader, he sees the biblical texts as clearly prohibiting same-sex relationships, but surprisingly, to me, spends relatively little time on these texts and leans very heavily on Augustine in constructing a theology of Christian marriage.
Chapter Four: Listening To The Past And Reflecting On The Present
—Stephen R. Holmes
Holmes closes off with the theological case for exclusively heterosexual marriage as we know it today. He deliberately makes his case without the classic texts (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26–27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:9–10) that biblical theology usually stands against gay marriage. He does this by explaining the theological construct of Augustine, filling out what Hill refers to, but does not explain.
Though very traditional in his view of marriage, Holmes add a section on pastoral accommodation that I found very moving.
For me, the surprise in the book was how difficult it is to link our modern understanding of marriage to the biblical texts. If one merely looks for prohibitions against same-sex relationship, the task looks superficially simple. But marriage itself in the biblical context is missing some items modern Westerners take for granted:
- a relationship of equals,
- a relationship that does not presuppose procreation.
Realizing this made me appreciate why both Hill and Holmes leaned so heavily on Augustine.
In this regard, to his credit, Holmes gives a blunt summary: “I am fairly confident both that my account of the theology of marriage is accurate and that the claims I make on its basis are solid. That said, there is a weakness in my argument here as well. What if an Augustinian theology of marriage is just wrong? If it is, all my arguments here are irrelevant.”
Holmes is very confident that Augustine accurately articulated biblical theology, but for Anabaptists, who have an ambivalent view of Augustine at best, this adds another layer of engagement.
Holmes does however add a challenge that those who, like me, are not Augustinian must pick up. “To overthrow an Augustinian theology of marriage, though, will require a new theology, equally carefully developed and equally biblically plausible, to be offered in its place.”
That, I believe, is the challenge before us Anabaptists – not just with reference to same-sex marriage – but with regard to marriage in general.
In contrast to the vitriol that usually accompanies this topic, the gracious spirit of engagement is this book’s overwhelming strength. There is no way to do justice to the four positions laid out in a short review, but from my perspective, each of the authors made their cases both clearly and graciously.
With that in mind, Sprinkle closes off with this reminder: “Being a Christian goes beyond just holding on to Christian views, but to expressing those views in a Christian manner. Only then will people be able to see Christ not just in the content but also in the tone of our doctrine.”
[James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.