Study conferences provide opportunity for the Mennonite Brethren people in Canada to explore, discuss, interpret, and discern God’s word together. In preparation for 2013’s Oct. 16–18 event, Honouring God with the Body, the board of faith and life (BFL) invites the MB family to engage in advance study on the topic. This is the first of several book recommendations from the BFL.
The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics
Robert A. J. Gagnon
Having recently heard Robert Gagnon speak at a theological conference, what surprised me about his book was not the position he took (for I knew the direction of his argument), but the size and scope of his book. It is both impressive and daunting.
At 520 pages (including apparatus, i.e. technical information, list of abbreviations, indexes, etc.), The Bible and Homosexual Practice is no lightweight piece of work. Nor are Gagnon’s credentials: he has served since 1994 as a faculty member in New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the list of praises on the frontspiece includes commendations even from his theological opponents.
The objective of the book is twofold: first, to demonstrate “that the Bible unequivocally defines same-sex intercourse as sin. Second, there exist no valid hermeneutical arguments…for overriding the Bible’s authority on this matter.”
Gagnon’s unstated goal seems to have been to refute every kind of argumentation used to defend homosexual practice in his quest to set forth a case for Christian sexuality. His work is meticulous and relentless in pursuit of that end.
The outline of the book unfolds in five chapters. After addressing Old Testament texts on sexuality against an Ancient Near Eastern backdrop, Gagnon moves on to treat Early (i.e., intertestamental) Judaism, the teaching of Jesus, that of Paul, and finally modern critiques of biblical teaching.
Measured, respectful tone
Throughout the book, his tone is measured and respectful. Gagnon’s careful research and thoroughness are difficult to fault. He seemingly leaves no argument untouched, devoting space to every variant reading of every biblical text, with attention given to cultural, linguistic, and other factors involved in interpretation of the Scriptures.
Not surprisingly, this is not an easy book to read. But given the subject matter, one will not likely approach it with that expectation in mind. There’s a lot of technical language in this book, and it’s a tough slog at many points. At times, Gagnon’s commitment to encyclopaedic treatment of the topic meant that I learned things about sexual practices that I did not want to know, and at greater length than I wanted to discover. But diligent readers will be rewarded by persevering through what is overall a masterful contribution to the conversation on human sexuality in Christian perspective.
No better resource
For those involved in conversations with individuals advocating Christian acceptance of same-sex practice, I can think of no better resource. His discussion of homosexuality is virtually exhaustive, encompassing not only practice but also orientation. He convincingly shows that biblical authors wrote against a classical backdrop in which both sexual practice and orientation were in view, and at the other end of the chronological spectrum addresses the claims of modern psychology, neurology, and genetics in an even-handed fashion.
Although Gagnon has in mind to contribute to a healthy understanding of Christian ministry to members of the gay community, his book is largely a resounding condemnation of homosexual practice. Some Christians may find this an imbalanced approach; however, one must recognize that in Gagnon’s denomination, as in others that are fragmenting over same-sex practice, the emphasis is experiential – on relating to and including the LGBTQ community – far more than it is about what the Bible teaches about human sexuality.
Oriented around primacy of Scripture
Gagnon’s work implicitly affirms a need reverse this trend, to orient Christian theological work on sexual practice around the primacy of Scripture rather than relational experience. Mennonite Brethren readers of this work will doubtless agree. Further, the discordant nature of Gagnon’s stated combination of priorities – hating the sin but loving the sinner – is consistent with the ongoing difficulty that churches face in simultaneously confronting the sin of homosexual practice and loving homosexual individuals who are increasingly prominent in our midst.
Taking a stance on human sexuality (such as Gagnon’s) comes with risk. He acknowledges the risk at the outset – being labeled homophobic, intolerant, and uncritical, among other things. But the risk of a failure to adequately confront such a major ideology is far greater. Notwithstanding accusations that Christians like Robert Gagnon are unloving in their vigorous opposition to homosexual practice, I came away agreeing with Gagnon that it is unloving for Christians not to call attention to this sin.
Christians are called to help people view human sexuality in light of the God’s design for it, and to demonstrate in word and deed a higher standard as part of our mission in the world. This book will doubtless aid that mission.
Brian Cooper is associate dean, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary-ACTS, assistant professor of theology, MBBS Canada, and chair of the CCMBC board of faith and life (BFL).
Find the complete list of recommended reading, and more reviews here.
Updated May 24, 2013 with URL to study conference website.
I can’t help wondering: when something is so airtight, is there room for the wind of the Spirit to move in our deliberations? I respectfully suggest readers also google critiques of this work.
Just a couple of additional comments/questions re. the review. Do we have to pit relational experience and Scripture against one another? Jesus beautifully united them in his life and teaching, as did the early church in working through challenges to their traditional ways of thinking. Experience drives us to Scripture in new searches and in these searches, this listening, with the help of the Spirit of Jesus, we hear the heart of God in God’s Word beyond prooftexting, for real people.
May I also suggest – plead, actually, as an LGBT “ally” – that we agree to stop using “love the sinner, hate the sin,” a phrase (cliché by now) so often hauled out for this matter. It sounds wise on the surface but speaks as a knife, based as it is on judgement (which Jesus condemned), and it’s not really biblical. The command is: Love your neighbour as yourself.
Thank you kindly for the opportunity to respond.
I’ve not yet read the book. I do, however, agree with Dora on not using the “Love the sinner, hate the sin” cliche. I’d like to recommend reading “Loving Homosexuals as Jesus Would” by Chad Thompson. He is an ex-gay person who advocates loving in a way we haven’t. It is not as theologically oriented as the one recommended, but he comes out in the same place, with a plea to loving homosexual people non-judgmentally.
Also, I hope this topic isn’t the only one at the study conference. The issue of homosexuality is one part of our many sexual temptations. I’m convinced that if we don’t have a decent theology of the human body, it will distort how we view our sexuality. I would recommend some reading on the “Theology of the Body” by Catholic Pope, John Paul II. It is a very heavy work so I’d recommend that a good starting place would be “Theology of the Body for beginners”, by Christopher West. Even check some YouTube clips on “Theology of the Body” by Christopher West.
Reading this review the phrase “The objective of the book is to . . . first, to demonstrate ‘that the Bible unequivocally defines same-sex intercourse as sin . . .'” strikes me as problematic.
I echo Dora’s concern that the relational side of this discussion cannot simply be overridden. I would suggest that Biblically, as Dora demonstrates, the relational question actually does come first. I believe that the premise that theology trumps relationships is as invalid as the claim that that relationships trump theology.
I know we have had differences in the past, but I want to applaud your efforts to try to bring some sort of biblical sanity to the current MB efforts at self-lobotomization. The Bible is not unclear on the issue of homosexuality. The minute the MB conference abandons the scripture, they abandon God and as the testimony of history has shown us so many innumerable times, only marches to their own grave in the annals of western culture. The absolute tsunami of empty churches in Europe bear univocal testimony to this fact.
Dora – If the Biblical argument is airtight, then why in the world would the Spirit move Christians to disobey God? Secondly, we don’t pit relational experience against the scripture; the scripture interprets our relationships and all experiences. Scripture and experience aren’t 2 equal authorities on questions of truth. (2 Peter 1:16-21 directly address this specific issue).
The “heart of God” is only revealed by the text from his mouth.
And you know what cliche I really hate? “Judge not lest ye be judged”. Everyone reads Matt 7:1 and completely ignores 7:2-5. Jesus did not condemn judgment; he actually commanded Christians to cast judgment against a whole lot of things. He condemned hypocritical judgment.
Bill – All Christians are commanded to condemn sexual sin as actually being sinful (i.e. morally wrong). 1 Corinthians 5 (cf. 5:13) applies on this issue, as well as a whole horde of other sexual sin issues. All sinners need to be warned of the coming judgment of God against their sin and called to turn from their sin and call on Christ to save them from the coming wrath they so justly deserve. I don’t hate homosexuals; I love them by giving them the gospel and treating them with respect (not mocking, being kind, etc.). I don’t tell them that their sin is “ok” or pretend that God overlooks it. That’s lying to them.
James – The fact that you find problems with the claim of Gagnon regarding a clear biblical judgment strikes me as problematic. Theology doesn’t trump relationship and relationship doesn’t trump theology; theology informs relationship. God tells us what to think and how to act, and we obey. The fact that many people have got the “right answer” on the question regarding the sinfulness of homosexuality and the “wrong answer” on the question regarding God’s command on how believers should treat unbelievers doesn’t call the first answer into question; it only means that the people needed further instruction from the word of God to get the second answer right and repent from their sinful application of right theology.
Given the mix up in websites around this discussion I don’t know if what I write will be lost in cyberspace- but nonetheless this is an important discussion to get right and in that spirit I want to follow up on your comment that you find my position problematic. I’m wondering what the problem is.
I do not want to engage in a back-and-forth on this, for I stand by my comments, but I must clarify my opening sentence using “airtight,” which Mr. Unger has misunderstood. I should have stated more explicitly that I was referring to the sense of Mr. Gagnon’s book conveyed by the review, that it settles the matter exhaustively and well. Come to think of it, I would not use the word “airtight” for Scripture in any case, not for the wonderfully living Word, but it was not the biblical argument I had in mind by it and to further imply I mean the Spirit would encourage disobedience is completely wrong. The point it, the Word stands and the rest is hermeneutics; surely this is why we have study conferences. And so I would reiterate, since he’s been invited to “guide” us at the study conference, Mr. Gagnon’s approach/content needs to be carefully discerned, and challenged. May the Spirit guide us in this important process.