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I Understand
Volume 2.1 / New Trajectories and Old Patterns: Hermeneutics and Same-Sex Advocacy


New Trajectories and Old Patterns: Hermeneutics and Same-Sex Advocacy

Thomas R. Schreiner
Both Luke Johnson and James Brownson, two respected New Testament scholars, have argued in recent years in favor of same-sex marriage. Johnson argues that Christians should not base their ethic solely on the New Testament witness and thinks there are grounds to go beyond the biblical teaching for a variety of reasons. Brownson, on the other hand, maintains that a careful study of the scriptures shows that they don't actually speak against faithful and monogamous same-sex marriages. The arguments of both Johnson and Brownson are carefully reviewed and found to be unconvincing. Johnson doesn't rightly construe the role of salvation history and the definitive and final revelation given in Jesus Christ. Brownson's exegesis of key texts in Paul, especially Romans 1, misconstrues the argument of the text. Also, he wrongly presupposes in the article that Paul doesn't know about same-sex orientation.

1. Introduction

In a time long ago and in a place faraway I debated those who defended women’s ordination. My fundamental argument in the debate then (and I still make the same argument by the way) was the argument from creation. I would argue that women should not serve as pastors or elders or overseers since God, according to 1 Timothy 2:12–13, established at creation a different role for women.[1] I would regularly point out during these discussions that the same argument is used relative to homosexuality. In other words, Paul argues that same-sex erotic behavior is wrong because it violates the created order. When I would bring up this argument, my opponents would sometimes get upset, claiming that I had wrongly linked the two issues and that I was playing on people’s emotions to make my point. I would always say in reply… Of course, the prohibition against same-sex relationships is clearer than the prohibition regarding women serving as pastors.[2] Of course. Of course. But don’t you see that the principial argument is the same—in both cases we have arguments from creation?

If one argument from creation is jettisoned (as is the case with women serving as pastors), it won’t be long before the argument from creation relative to same-sex relationships is abandoned as well. I was told that it would never happen since the case against homosexuality is so clear. But, of course, it is happening more and more, and some who thought the issue was so clear 20 to 30 years ago are rethinking the whole matter. The new trajectories we are seeing today are in part the fruit of old hermeneutical patterns. We have sown the wind of rejecting the argument from creation when it comes to women’s roles, and now we are reaping the whirlwind of rejecting the argument from creation when it comes to same-sex relations.

No, I am not saying the arguments are equally clear, but I am saying that it is not surprising that old hermeneutical patterns have led to new trajectories. William Webb argued some years ago that a trajectory hermeneutic takes us beyond the Bible on the women’s issue.[3] He insisted that there are no grounds for such a trajectory on homosexuality, but when I reviewed his book I predicted that others would take up the same kind of argument and find a trajectory to justify same-sex relationships.[4] Indeed, some were moving in this direction even while Webb was writing.

Some might think that this issue is just a debate in the West, and it doesn’t relate to the rest of the world, and it certainly doesn’t relate to missions. Such a perspective would be radically mistaken. For one thing, virtually everything that is popular and endorsed in the West, for better or for worse, ends up spreading to the rest of the world. If we think that the issue of same-sex relations will be limited to the West, we are sadly mistaken. Second, the temptation to engage in same-sex relationships isn’t a western problem but a human problem. Some societies may clamp down on the expression of such desires, but they exist everywhere and hence God’s people need to be ready to give biblical and wise answers to the questions that people are asking today. And people will ask and are asking what God’s will is on same-sex relationships, and thus careful study of and responses to those who advocated same-sex marriage must be given.

For the rest of this paper I want to briefly consider the contributions of Luke Timothy Johnson and James Brownson. Luke Johnson is a famous Roman Catholic NT scholar, and his work as a NT scholar is generally quite conservative, and yet he has come out in favor of same-sex marriage. James Brownson is a professor of NT at Western Seminary in Holland, Michigan, a Reformed Church of America institution. Brownson has recently written a nuanced and sophisticated defense of same-sex marriage. Both Johnson and Brownson reject lust, promiscuity, and licentiousness in same-sex relationships. They defend, however, monogamous same-sex relationships characterized by fidelity, love, and commitment. My purpose today is to consider the arguments of both scholars and to see if some of their arguments pass muster.

2. The Case Presented by Luke Johnson

2.1 Arguing from Human Experience

Let’s consider Luke Johnson’s argument first. In one sense, Johnson is very clear. He freely admits that scripture condemns all same-sex relationships.[5] At the same, however, he protests we don’t follow scripture on everything in any case. He says we must “be liberal in the name of the gospel.”[6] He goes on to say, “we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality—namely, that it is a vice freely chosen, a symptom of human corruption, and disobedience to God’s created order.”[7] Well, one can’t be much clearer than that. There is no subterfuge here. Our experience and our moral sense trumps the scriptural word; this is nothing other than Protestant liberalism showing up in a Catholic guise. Johnson clearly goes beyond the Bible and cheerfully so.

Johnson notes that in the 19th century people appealed to the Bible to defend slavery and they were “deeply wrong,” even though scripture doesn’t condemn slavery.[8] Johnson compares defenders of gay and lesbian marriage to the abolitionists of a former day. He says, “We are fully aware of the weight of scriptural evidence pointing away from our position, yet place our trust in the power of the living God to reveal as powerfully through personal experience and testimony as through written texts. To justify this trust, we invoke the basic Pauline principle that the Spirit gives life but the letter kills (2 Corinthians 3:6).” Johnson admits that the experience of one of his daughters, who is a lesbian deeply influenced him, and we can understand the human concern that animates him. Still, his appeal to 2 Cor. 3:6 fails since Paul isn’t claiming here that moral norms can be contravened and reversed by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the background to Paul’s letter-Spirit contrast are the new covenant texts like Jer. 31:31–34 and Ezek. 36:26–27. And in those texts God writes the law upon the heart and gives his Spirit so that human beings are enabled to keep God’s law.

 2.2 Arguing from the Bible

Still, the matter isn’t so simple because Johnson also appeals to Paul’s refusal to be bound by the OT law to justify his reading. He brings in the Bible to defend the notion that we can go beyond the Bible. Johnson cites the stories in Acts 10 and 15 where Gentiles are accepted into the people of God apart from observance of the Mosaic law. The Jewish Christians who received the Gentiles listened to the Holy Spirit, and realized that God was doing a new thing, a thing that wasn’t obvious to God’s people before the coming of Jesus Christ and the inauguration of the last days.

We also see Johnson’s hermeneutic when he says, “I suggest, therefore, that the New Testament provides impressive support for our reliance on the experience of God in human lives—not in its commands, but in its narratives and in the very process by which it came into existence. In what way are we to take seriously the authority of Scripture? What I find most important of all is not the authority found in specific commands, which are fallible, conflicting, and often culturally conditioned, but rather the way Scripture creates the mind of Christ in its readers, authorizing them to reinterpret written texts in light of God’s Holy Spirit active in human lives. When read within the perspective of a Scripture that speaks everywhere of a God disclosing Godself through human experience, our stories become the medium of God’s very revelation.”[9] So, according to Johnson we take seriously scripture’s authority in going beyond scriptural commands. The commands, Johnson says, may be wrong, but apparently we can discern via the Holy Spirit and human experience what is normative for us today. Johnson says that “a blind adherence to Scripture when God is trying to show us the truth in human bodies is also a form of sin.”[10]

The appeal to experience is classic, imitating Protestant liberals of old. But Johnson is also like the liberals of old in that he can’t resist using the Bible to defend his view. Still, the criterion for what is authoritative, as Johnson admits, is human experience. Johnson attempts to defend such an interpretive move with scripture, but the arguments miscarry. First, he tries to defang scripture by claiming that the biblical writers were wrong on slavery. He fails to see, however, that the biblical writers never defend slavery as a social system. Slavery is never endorsed or commended but is regulated, delimited, and qualified. Slavery, unlike marriage, isn’t rooted or based on the created order, showing that it isn’t God’s good intention for human beings. After all, Paul says that people should gain freedom if possible (1 Cor. 7:21). We must realize that the biblical writers address society as it is on the matter of slavery, but male and female relationships are dramatically different since they are rooted in the created order.

Johnson’s appeal to the overturning of the Mosaic law in the case of Cornelius in Acts 10–11 and at the Apostolic Council in Acts 15 is unconvincing. Surprisingly, he doesn’t recognize the covenantal and salvation-historical character of NT revelation. With the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ the promises of the new covenant and the new creation have been realized. The old has passed away and new has come. The people of God is no longer confined to a Jewish theocracy, but now all people everywhere belong to Jesus Christ by faith. The law of the old covenant is no longer in force now that Christ has come and fulfilled old covenant promises. Believers are no longer under the law. Hence, circumcision, food laws, and other stipulations that mark out Jews from Gentiles have passed away with the dawn of the new age in Jesus Christ. The moral norms of the OT law, however, continue to be in force since they are part of the law of Christ.[11]

As Hebrews 1:2 says God has spoken to us in the last days in his Son, or as Jude 3 says we are to contend for the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints. Here is the point that Johnson misses: now that the Christ has come and the last days have arrived there is no new revelation until Christ returns and the new creation arrives in its fullness. There is no hermeneutical justification to use what happened at the turn of the ages in the NT as a paradigm for ethical renovation today. In doing so Johnson wrenches the scriptures from their covenantal and redemptive historical context.

I have taught students for years the importance of redemptive history in considering Acts 10–11 and Acts 15. Since covenant fulfillment is realized in Jesus Christ, I can’t legitimately say that I had a dream last night and God showed me that adultery or homosexuality or murder is okay, just as he showed Peter that it was legitimate to eat unclean foods. To do so fails to see the unique fulfillment of covenant promises which took place at the coming of Jesus Christ. There is no canonical warrant for further revision of God’s revelation. In other words, the canon of scripture is closed. What Johnson suggests hermeneutically means that he puts himself on the same level as the apostolic witnesses, as if we have the right and the ability to keep revising the faith once for all handed down to the saints. We can see, perhaps why a Roman Catholic would do so, though Johnson does so apart from the magisterium. For Protestants, however, who hold to sola scriptura and a closed canon, Johnson’s moves are highly irregular and they end up contravening biblical authority. Human experience becomes the measure and the standard instead of the apostolic word.

3. The Case of James Brownson

 Now let’s turn to James Brownson. Space is lacking to engage every dimension of his argument. The argument is learned, sophisticated, and at many points illuminating, and yet, the thesis propounded fails to convince. Since Brownson has written a full length book on the matter, I will concentrate on the arguments that are central to his affirmation of same-sex unions. Like Johnson, Brownson appeals to the leading of the Holy Spirit in Acts 15, to our experience today, to the conflict Galileo had with church authorities, to slavery in the nineteenth-century, and to the issue of women in leadership.[12] The revelation that one of his sons was gay provoked him to follow the Reformed notion of investigating afresh God’s word on the principle that the church is consistently refreshed and reformed by the word of God.[13]

3.1 Complementarity

Brownson investigates and considers the issue of complementarity.[14] His goal is to discover the moral logic informing same-sex relations. He rejects the notion that the complementarity of the sexes is fundamentally biological. In other words, he says it isn’t persuasive to argue against homosexuality from the fittedness of sexual organs. Do we really point to anatomy, he protests, to discover the moral logic in the scriptural word? Brownson argues instead that the one-flesh bond of Adam and Eve isn’t based on differences but similarity. Adam recognized that Eve was “bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Adam doesn’t focus on the differences between him and Eve but the similarities. One flesh denotes a kinship group and a kinship bond, not “physical gender complementarity.”[15] Hence, the notion that same-sex relations are contrary to nature is flawed since the scriptural “moral logic” isn’t grounded on anatomical complementarity.

Brownson is partially right; the text doesn’t specifically refer to anatomical complementarity. Still, it is significant that Adam marries someone who is both similar to him and different from him. The Lord says that he will make “a helper as” Adam’s “complement.” As Preston Sprinkle argues the word translated “complement”—in Hebrew—emphasizes that Eve is a female.[16] If Eve’s gender wasn’t significant all that would need to be said, as Sprinkle, points out is that Eve was made “like” Adam. But the text says more than that; it emphasizes Eve’s sexual distinctiveness.[17] Readers have been attuned to the complementary role of women throughout history. The Lord could have easily made another male for Adam. Still, does the female gender of Eve require marriage to a person from the opposite sex? Brownson says no, but his reading is sundered from the entire Jewish tradition. The OT, Second Temple Jewish literature, and the NT unanimously and without qualification reject all same-sex relations. Indeed, when Jesus reflects on marriage and one-flesh unions in Matthew 19 (vv. 3–12), he speaks in terms of the union of one man with one woman, as he reflects on the creationaccount in Genesis 2. Brownson tries to crack open the window to include same-sex relations, but there is no space for such an opening in the scriptural tradition or in the teaching of Jesus. Brownson ends up going beyond Genesis and beyond Paul and beyond Jesus, and he does so without any scriptural warrant.

 3.2 Patriarchy

Brownson also defends his thesis by reflecting on patriarchy.[18] He sees a tension in the OT between patriarchy and egalitarianism. The presence of Miriam, Deborah, and others demonstrate that patriarchy isn’t absolute, and thus he sees glimpses in the OT of an egalitarian vision. A similar pattern emerges in the NT so that the new creation is the fundamental reality per Gal. 3:28. Hence, the limitations on women are for “pragmatic” and cultural reasons. Brownson in his conclusion to this chapter sounds remarkably like William Webb. “The overall movement of the moral logic of Scripture with respect to patriarchy is thus away from roles defined by household responsibilities in the ancient world… and toward a vision of mutuality and equality in which the procreative enterprise of male and female no longer defines human identity at its core.”[19] Brownson concludes, then, that homosexual unions can’t be condemned because they violate hierarchy since scripture itself relativizes hierarchy.

Even if one concurs with Brownson’s egalitarian vision for women, we need to remember that there is not a single instance where same-sex relations are commended. Still, I also dissent from Brownson’s claim that role differences between men and women have been cancelled by the new creation. This is not the place or space to delve into these matters, but I would argue that Brownson skates too quickly over the texts that ground the differences between men and women in the created order.

3.3 One-Flesh Unions

Brownson reflects further on whether one flesh unions may include same-sex couples.[20] He argues that he is asking a question which biblical authors didn’t contemplate.[21] But then he goes on to say, “we must not allow the limitations of the experience of the biblical writers to be used to deny the truths that evidently lie before us.”[22] Here he brings up science and slavery. The scriptures never consider whether slavery should be abolished, and thus “What is normal in Scripture is not necessarily also normative.”[23] Brownson asks whether the moral logic of the Bible “requires” heterosexual unions.[24] Since one-flesh unions don’t, according to Brownson, suggest anatomical gender complementarity and since procreation isn’t of the essence of marriage (see his chapter 6), and since calling the husband the head in Ephesians 5 is pragmatic instead of theological, there is the possibility that same-sex unions are morally virtuous. Indeed, since kinship is the heart of one-flesh unions, then it seems that same-sex relationships can fulfill this criterion.[25] The texts in the NT that proscribe same-sex unions “were always marked by differences in social rank and status, and they were always described as episodic rather than permanent.”[26] There wasn’t any mutuality in NT times, but one partner always dominated the other. Hence, there is room for committed same-sex unions today, where there isn’t sexual promiscuity.[27]

In reading a book like this, we may easily lose the framework and architecture of the biblical story. We may forget the unified vision of biblical writers regarding same-sex relations. Brownson tries to knock down pillar after pillar in the biblical witness, as if there is actually a place for his view of same-sex relations. But virtually every dimension of his argument can be challenged. He says that biblical writers didn’t reflect on sexual orientation or on committed and faithful same-sex relationships. Preston Sprinkle has shown in a careful study of primary sources that these assertions are historically flawed. In fact, there is significant historical evidence indicating that ancient people were aware of sexual orientation.[28] Sprinkle demonstrates as well that there is evidence of consensual same-sex relationships in the ancient world.[29] There are even examples from the second century A.D. of females marrying one another. It seems likely that Paul was aware of such currents of thought. In any case, Brownson’s claim that Paul never conceived of sexual orientation or of committed same-sex relationships rests on a shaky foundation. The most natural way of reading the biblical text is to conclude that there is no warrant for same-sex erotic relationships. Everywhere we read that marriage is between men and women, and Jesus emphasizes that such was God’s created intention from the beginning (Matt. 19:3–12). Indeed, as Sprinkle keenly observes if Jesus desired only to say that marriage was a one-flesh union he could have cited Gen. 2:24, but he also appealed to Gen. 1:27 which states that God created man as “male and female,” demonstrating that “male-female pairing is part of what marriage is according to Jesus.”[30]

In addition, Paul never justifies marriage between a man and woman based on procreation, and thus Brownson’s attempt to see this as one aspect of Paul’s argument is flawed.[31] We have already seen that Brownson’s argument regarding kinship is reductionistic and one-sided; males and females are similar and different. Nor is it at all evident or warranted to say that the same-sex relations are proscribed due to differences in social rank and status. Romans 1:27 doesn’t breathe a word about differences in status: it speaks of men having sexual relations with men, and nothing is said about one man feminizing the other. As Sprinkle points out, other Greco-Roman and Jewish writers denigrate same-sex acts because it feminizes one partner, but Paul says nothing whatsoever about such a state of affairs.[32] There is no indication in the text at all that the sexual union is anything other than voluntary from both men.

 3.4 Celibacy

Brownson also addresses celibacy in supporting his argument.[33] He maintains that most of those who are gay can’t change their sexual orientation, but his fundamental argument is that the call for life-long celibacy puts an inordinate burden to repress natural sexual desires. In fact, Paul counsels against remaining single if sexual desire burns strongly in someone (1 Cor. 7:9). How can we expect gay people, indeed all gay people, to control their sexual desires for their entire lives? I sympathize with the struggle and the pain and the difficulty, and our churches need to grow in showing love and compassion to those struggling. Still, Brownson assumes what needs to be proven. What we don’t find in the canonical scriptures is justification for fulfilling sexual desires with the same sex. The life of discipleship is one where everything is given up for Jesus’s sake, and human sympathy can’t overturn the will of God revealed in the scriptures. The difficulties faced in discipleship are not the same; Peter was called to die by crucifixion and John had a different calling (John 21:18–23). We have no right to permit and justify what God has forbidden. We are called upon to help those struggling and to encourage them in every way possible in the path of discipleship.

3.5 Excessive Lust[34]

Brownson also turns to the matter of lust and desire to advance his case.[35] Lust in Romans 1 is indicted, he avers, because it is tied to idolatry. Indeed, according to Brownson Paul doesn’t indict same-sex orientation here. Instead, the focus is on “self-centered lust.”[36] He favors the notion that the Roman emperor Gaius Caligula might be in view here since he was a dramatic example of unrestrained lust. What Paul criticizes here, says Brownson, is not sexual desire but excessive desire, sexual desire out of control. Hence, since Paul may be criticizing the extreme passion and lust of Caligula, we can see that Paul speaks of extreme sexual excess. He doesn’t rule out faithful and monogamous same-sex relationships because “Paul, did not look at same-sex eroticism with the understanding of sexual orientation that is commonplace today.”[37] Hence, loving committed samesex relationships are dramatically different from what Paul indicts here. Brownson claims that Paul doesn’t teach here that same-sex relations are wrong objectively; here he speaks of subjective reality, of the lust that disfigures sexual relationships. On the other hand, loving and committed same-sex relations aren’t marked by such lust. The ancient world, in contrast to our time, had “almost no interest at all in the question of sexual orientation.”[38] Paul indicts same-sex behavior but doesn’t address the question of sexual orientation.

Brownson’s interpretation of lust is one of the fundamental building blocks of his argument, but it fails quite remarkably. First, seeing any reference to Caligula falls prey to an arbitrary and insupportable kind of mirror reading. We don’t have the slightest evidence that Paul has Caligula in view here.[39] Second, the real bedrock of his view is the claim that Paul didn’t understand sexual orientation as we do today. Everything else Brownson says flows from this presupposition. In other words, we know more and we know better than the scriptural writer. The authority of the person in the 21st century takes precedence of the authority of the biblical writer, and that authority is premised on our superior knowledge. Still, as noted earlier the claim that Paul wasn’t familiar with sexual orientation is disputable on historical grounds as Sprinkle has shown. In fact, he probably was aware of such. Third, there is no basis in the text for saying that the issue is excessive lust instead of the objective action of same-sex relations. For Paul the lustful desire and the action are inseparable. Brownson posits such a separation, but when we actually look at Rom. 1:27 the lusts and the actions that follow such desires are joined together. Certainly, this is no surprise: sinful desires, as James teaches us, give birth to sinful actions (Jas. 1:14–15). I would suggest that Brownson is trying to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, he says that Paul didn’t know about sexual orientation, and yet at the same time Paul only condemns excessive lust and not same-sex acts per se. But how likely is that scenario if Paul didn’t know about sexual orientation? It would never have occurred to Paul to segregate the desires from the actions if he never thought about sexual orientation. Brownson’s argument fails on its own terms.

3.6 Impurity

Brownson moves in the same orbit in his discussion of impurity.[40] He surveys purity issues in the canon, noting the greater emphasis on purity of heart in the NT. Impurity isn’t an objective disorder, according to Brownson, but a subjective matter, and this is supported by Rom. 14:14. Hence, impurity has to do with motives rather than actions. Thus, impurity can be defined as uncontrolled lust. Since impurity is a matter of the heart, it seems that same-sex unions aren’t clearly indicted by Paul. Brownson says, “if we are to face such an issue honestly and objectively, we must consider the actual experience and testimony of gay and lesbian Christians.”[41] Lesbian and gay Christians may have sanctified and holy and committed relationships that aren’t marked by impurity.

Once again, Brownson wrongly segregates the act from the motive. Actually, when Paul uses the word “impurity” (akatharsia), there is no indication that the focus is on motives rather than actions. The term is often used to designate sexual sin in Paul (2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 4:7), to sin that reveals itself in actions. That the sin is objective and not just confined to motives is clear in Eph. 4:19 where Paul says that people have given themselves over to aselgeia (lack of restraint), for the “working of all uncleanness” (eis ergasian akatharsias). The word “working” indicates that outward actions and not just motives are in view. In other instances, unclean actions are certainly in view (Rom. 6:19). Even in 1 Thess. 2:3 uncleanness is linked with deceit, showing that motives and actions are intended. Exegesis doesn’t support Brownson’s claim to restrict impurity to motives.

3.7 Honor and Shame

Brownson then turns to honor and shame and reads Rom. 1:26–27 through that lens.[42] He argues that Rom. 1:26 doesn’t indict female same-sex eroticism but sinful heterosexual behavior since the notion that same-sex relations are in view doesn’t appear in the first 300 years of church history. Brownson’s interpretation of Rom. 1:26 has gained some popularity lately, but it is unconvincing. The close parallels between vv. 26–27 indicate that same-sex relations are in view in both instances. For instance, Paul speaks in v. 26, when referring to women, of their exchanging “the natural use for that which is contrary to nature” (tÄ“n physikÄ“n chrÄ“sin eis tÄ“n para physin). This is quite close to what he says about men involved in same-sex practices in v. 27: they “have left the natural use of women” (aphentes tÄ“n physikÄ“n chrÄ“sin tÄ“s thÄ“leias). In both instances, we have exact same phrase “the natural use.” Furthermore, the phrase “contrary to nature” is always used of same-sex erotic behavior in the literature.[43]

According to Brownson, the shame described in v. 27 doesn’t refer to same-sex actions. Men were shamed in the ancient world if they were penetrated as if they were a woman. Social expectations were contravened if a man was treated as a woman. But, says Brownson, we don’t feel the same sense of cultural shame today; what is honorable and shameful is culturally located instead of representing God’s transcendent will. Shame comes from excessive lust, not same-sex relations themselves. Loving and committed same-sex relations aren’t shameful; what is shameful is excessive passion. Once again, Brownson strays from the text. Paul gives no hint that the shame has anything to do with being treated like a woman. There is no word about the oppression or shaming of the man who plays the role of the female. Instead, both partners are indicted for their sinful desires in v. 27. And both partners are equally indicted and viewed as willing accomplices in the act.

3.8 Nature

Finally, Brownson considers nature, which plays a major role in discussion.[44] Brownson defines nature as doing what comes naturally so that it refers to one’s individual and psychological nature. Hence, in Romans 1 Paul criticizes those who leave their own heterosexual nature and act contrary to their natural disposition. Brownson claims that there is no evidence in Jewish Christian sources, though there is some evidence in Greek sources, that there was any understanding that some were naturally disposed towards sexual relations with the same sex. He says, “We must reckon with the fact that what we are confronting here is a dimension of human experience that is unaddressed and unanticipated by the biblical writers—Jews or Christians—in the ancient world; we now know that there is a disparity between the deeply personal nature of gay and lesbian persons and the norms and assumptions of the wider human community—along with the apparent structures of the natural world.”[45]

Brownson goes on to say that nature is used in the sense of social convention, and this is apparent since Paul says we are taught by nature that women have long hair and men short hair (1 Cor.11:14–15). Nature for Brownson includes one’s personal dispositions, social convention, and also the notion that sexual relations are for the sake of procreation. But, says Brownson, we don’t share that conception of the world today. “The modern world no longer understands ‘natural’ gender roles in the way they were understood in the ancient world.”[46] And, “Psychologists now recognize a persistent, nonpathological pattern of same-sex orientation as a natural phenomenon.”[47] He says, “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.”[48] Some things that are natural like circumcision (Rom. 2:27) and wild olive branches (Rom. 11:14) aren’t determinative. We see in Gal. 3:28 that redemption goes beyond what is natural. Now we follow the Messiah who transforms nature. We look fundamentally to the new creation, which is breaking out in Paul’s churches with women in prominent leadership roles. What is natural looks different in light of the gospel of Christ. We have to remember that the NT “does not envision the kind of committed, mutual, lifelong, loving, moderated gay and lesbian unions that are emerging today.”[49]

Brownson insists that Paul wasn’t aware of committed same-sex relationships, but Sprinkle, as noted above, calls this assumption into question. Brownson also appeals to the experience of same-sex couples today in seeing a place for committed same-sex relationships. He claims that the new creation relativizes the old creation, but such a claim isn’t persuasive when the NT documents appeal to that very created order to set forth the will of God for believers. After all, NT writers and readers were living in the new creation. Apparently, they didn’t think that the new creation cancelled the norms on homosexuality. Brownson rightly observes that the word “nature” doesn’t always refer to the divine intention in Paul (cf. Rom. 2:14, 27; 11:21, 24 [3 times]; Gal. 2:15; 4:8; Eph. 2:3). Words, however, have their meaning in context, and we have clear evidence that Paul argues from creation and the divine intention in Rom. 1:26–27. First, Paul chooses the unusual words “female” (thÄ“lys) and “male” (arsÄ“n) rather than “woman” (gynÄ“) and “man” (anÄ“r). In doing so he drew on the creation account of Genesis, which uses the same words (Gen. 1:27 LXX; cf. Matt. 19:4; Mark 10:6).These words point to the sexual differentiation of males and females. Hence, sexual relations with the same sex violate the distinctions God intended in creating man and woman.

Nor is it convincing to say that “nature” refers here to what comes naturally psychologically or personally. In the Jewish tradition, the word “nature,” when same-sex relations are in view, designates what God intended for males and females. For instance, Josephus (Ag. Ap. 2.24 §199) declares that the marriage of a man and woman is “according to nature” (kata physin), and proceeds to say that the OT law demands the death penalty for intercourse between males. Both Philo (Spec. Laws 3.7 §38; cf. Abr. 26 §§133–36) and Josephus (Ag. Ap. 2.37 §273) specifically criticize homosexual relations as “contrary to nature” (para physin). The author of the Testament of Naphtali (3.3–4) sees homosexuality as a departure “from the order of nature,” and his appeal to creation in verse 3 reveals that he understands this in term of God’s created intention. We read in Psuedo-Phocylides, “Do not transgress with unlawful sex the limits set by nature. For even animals are not pleased by intercourse of male with male. And let women not imitate the sexual role of men” (Psuedo-Phocylides 190–92; cf. 3, 210–14). Nature in Paul and in the Jewish tradition designates God’s intention in creation regarding homosexuality. The phrase “contrary to nature,” as Sprinkle argues, is always used to designate same-sex erotic behavior.[50]

By way of contrast, Brownson says that “the Bible neither assumes or teaches a normative understanding of gender complementarity.”[51] He goes on to say about the hierarchical relationship of the genders that “the larger trajectory of the Bible as a whole moves away from that assumption.”[52] But there is no trajectory or pattern as Brownson claims. There is a unified and consistent witness against any same-sex relations.

 3.9 Other Texts

What about other texts in scripture that condemn same-sex relations?[53] Brownson says that the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 is clearly an example of abusive same-sex desires. The prohibitions in Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 need be mapped onto the discussion of purity noted earlier. Plus, these prohibitions are tightly linked with idolatry. The omission of females supports the notion that cultic prostitution and idolatry are in view. There is also perhaps the issue of male honor in that a man would feel degraded as if he were a woman, but such feelings aren’t present in committed same-sex relationships. Plus, we need to remember that we can’t base an ethic on the Levitical law, according to Brownson, since we live in the age of fulfillment inaugurated in Jesus Christ. The prohibitions in 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10 relate to pederasty where a young boy is taken advantage of sexually by an older man. Brownson concludes, “I am convinced that the church needs to come to move away from an interpretation of Scripture that assumes that the Bible teaches a normative form of biological or anatomical gender complementarity.”[54]

Certainly the Sodom story in and of itself can’t prove the case against same-sex relations, but when plotted into the framework of the creation ethic articulated in Genesis 1–2, one which is also strengthened and endorsed by both Jesus and Paul, then the desire for same-sex intercourse highlights the depth of depravity in Sodom. Despite Brownson’s claims, there is no evidence that the prohibitions in Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 can be limited to idolatry or to men feeling degraded. The admonitions are general proscriptions. Both men are clearly equally responsible since they are both to be put to death, so we have no evidence of abuse or rape here or of cultic prostitution.[55] Indeed, it quite telling that both 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10 depend upon the wording of Lev. 18:22 and 20:13, showing that Paul believed that the Levitical prohibitions still applied in his day.[56] Yes, oppressive same-sex relations are indicted, but evidence is lacking that Paul is only speaking of such. Brownson tries to chip away at the unified biblical witness on same-sex actions and relationships, but he doesn’t make a chip in the marble.

4. Conclusion

I noted in the introduction that same-sex marriage and same-sex relations are an issue for every person and every culture. No culture is exempt from the temptation to act contrary to the will of God. And what is promoted and endorsed in the West will have a world-wide impact. Those who are pastoring outside of the western world or are engaging in missions must be ready to answer the questions people are asking or they will be asking.

We have seen that both Johnson and Brownson privilege human experience and narratives over the scriptural word. They both attempt to ground their view of same-sex relations on scripture as well, but it is quite clear that the experience and notions popular in western culture today govern their reading. Brownson claims that biblical writers didn’t have any notion of sexual orientation, but Sprinkle has demonstrated that in saying so he ignores a significant amount of historical evidence. Brownson tries to dismantle the prohibitions regarding same-sex marriage piece by piece, but his exegesis is artificial and contrived. The argument from creation is a rock that can’t be dislodged by revisionist interpreters. God’s commands are for our good and for our holiness. Of course, there are many pastoral dimensions that we need to address, but that is not the purpose of this article, for that is a subject for another time and another place.


[1] See the third edition of Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9–15, ed. Andreas Kostenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016).

[2] By relationships I mean erotic relationships for the purpose of this paper.

[3] William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis  (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2001).

[4] Thomas R. Schreiner, “William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women & Homosexuals:  A Review Article,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 6 (2002): 46–64.

 [5] Luke Timothy Johnson, “Homosexuality and the Church: Scripture and Experience,” Accessed at https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-1 on September 25, 2015. For a fuller explanation of Johnson’s view, see Luke Timothy Johnson, Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church  (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996). See especially his discussion on Cornelius and the Apostolic Council (pp. 89–108) and homosexuality (pp. 144–48).

[6] Johnson, “Homosexuality and the Church: Scripture and Experience,” Accessed at https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-1.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

 [11] For a fuller explanation of this matter, see Thomas R. Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993); idem, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010).

 [12] James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 10.

[13] Ibid., 13.

[14] Ibid., 16–38.

[15] Ibid., 35.

[16] Preston M. Sprinkle, “Romans 1 and Homosexuality: A Critical Review of James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, and Sexuality,” BBR  24 (2014): 522–26; cf. idem, People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is not Just an Issue (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 58–61.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Brownson, Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, 57–84.

[19] Ibid., 81.

[20] Brownson, Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, 85–109.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 105.

[23] Ibid., 105.

[24] Ibid., 106.

[25] Ibid., 107.

[26] Ibid., 107.

[27] Ibid.,108.

[28] Sprinkle, People to Be Loved, 32.

[29] Sprinkle, “Romans 1 and Homosexuality, ” 526–27; idem, Sprinkle, People to Be Loved, 61–64.

[30] Sprinkle, People to Be Loved, 35–36. The quotation is on p. 36.

[31] Brownson, Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, 246. Sprinkle shows that Brownson actually contradicts himself here since he had earlier argued that Paul didn’t think procreation played a role in Paul’s view of marriage (“Romans 1 and Homosexuality,” 519).

[32] Sprinkle, “Romans 1 and Homosexuality, ” 519–22.

[33] Brownson, Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships,  127–46.

[34] See also the arguments of Sprinkle, People to Be Loved,  98–100.

[35] Brownson, Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, 149–78. Remarkably, he argues that those condemned for judging in Romans 2 are self-righteous Christians (p. 152). Actually, it is quite clear that Paul speaks about unbelievers who haven’t repented and trusted in Christ, and thus Brownson missteps quite dramatically here.

[36] Ibid., 155–56.

[37] Ibid., 166.

[38] Ibid., 170.

[39] On the matter of mirror reading, see the wise observations of John M. G. Barclay, “Mirror-Reading a Polemical Letter: Galatians as a Test-Case,” JSNT  31 (1987): 73–93.

[40] Brownson, Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, 179–203.

[41] Ibid., 198–99.

[42] Ibid., 204–222.

[43] See Sprinkle, People to Be Loved,  211–12, n. 29.

[44] Brownson, Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, 223–55.

[45] Ibid., 232. See also p. 266.

[46] Ibid., 246.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid., 247.

[49] Ibid., 251.

[50] Sprinkle, People to Be Loved, 93–98.

[51] Brownson, Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, 265.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid., 268–79.

[54] Ibid., 278.

[55] See again Sprinkle, People to Be Loved, 45–52.

[56] This is a common observation. See Sprinkle, People to Be Loved, 108–15.








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