Scripture and Homosexuality (Part 2)

Modern Arguments Don´t Undercut Biblical Teaching, Says Robert Gagnon

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PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania, MARCH 28, 2002 (Zenit.org).- This is the second of two parts of an interview with Robert A.J. Gagnon of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution, on what Scripture says about homosexual behavior.



Gagnon is the author of "The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics" (Abingdon, 2001). The first part of the interview was published March 21.

ZENIT: You have argued that Paul had the creation stories in Genesis 1-2 in view when he rejected all homosexual practice. How does his argument that homosexual practice is "against nature" fit into this?

Gagnon: Jews and Christians recognized that the scriptural understanding of human sexuality was not accessible only to those who had exposure to the Scriptures of the Jews.

Since the Creator had designed human sexual pairing for complementary "sexual others," it is not surprising that such a design was imbedded in compatible opposite-sex differences and still observable in the natural world set in motion by the Creator´s decree.

Hence, Paul could argue in Romans 1:24-27 that even Gentiles without access to Scripture had enough knowledge in creation/nature to know that same-sex unions represented a non-complementary sexual pairing, an "unnatural" union, a violation of Creator´s will for creation.

The naturalness of opposite-sex unions is readily visible in the areas of anatomy, physiology -- that is, the procreative capacity -- and in a host of interpersonal aspects that contribute in our own day to the popular slogan, "men are from Mars and women are from Venus." To tamper with that naturalness and to act as if male-female sexual differences are not vital components of sexual pairings is, in short, to reap the whirlwind. There is no disharmony between Scripture and nature on this score.

Q: What about those who argue that "we now know" today that people are born with homoerotic attraction and thus it is a "natural" phenomenon?

Gagnon: Four points can be made here.

First, Paul was not saying that every human impulse is "natural" and therefore God-approved. He went on to list in Romans 1:29-31 a series of impulses and behaviors that have some innate proclivity -- including covetousness and envy -- but which were not, for that reason, "natural" or morally acceptable. Paul distinguished between innate passions perverted by the fall of Adam and exacerbated by idol worship on the one hand, and material creation that was left relatively intact despite human sin on the other hand.

Second, some current theories of homosexual development are essentially compatible with Paul´s own view of sin. In Romans 5 and 7 Paul speaks of sin as an innate impulse operating in the human body, transmitted by an ancestor human, and never entirely within the control of human will. This is precisely how most homosexual-affirming advocates describe homosexual orientation today.

Third, theories about a congenital basis for homoerotic attraction were widespread in Paul´s day, as was the existence of men whose sexual desire was oriented exclusively toward other males. We may have refined the view of exclusive innate attraction to members of the same sex, but the basic elements of this theory were already in place in antiquity and still made little difference to critical assessments of homosexual behavior.

Why? Because it is obvious -- especially in a worldview that incorporates the notion of a human fall from an original sinless state -- that innate impulses are not necessarily moral simply because they are innate.

Fourth and finally, it is not quite true that science has now discovered that homosexual impulses are given at birth, whether through genes or hormones or special homosexual brains. In fact, studies to date -- including the most important identical twin study ever done, one that factored out sample bias -- indicate that homoerotic impulses are not congenital. Rather, whatever contribution is made through genes, hormones or brain-wiring is largely indirect and subordinate to macro- and micro-cultural factors.

For example, cross-cultural studies have been done showing a wide variance in the incidence of homosexual behavior and homosexual self-identification in different population groups, ancient and modern. And the most important identical twin study to date, recently conducted by J. Michael Bailey, "did not provide statistically significant support for the importance of genetic factors" in the development of homosexuality.

Q: Many people are willing to concede your point that both Paul and the authors of the Levitical prohibitions were unequivocally against all homosexual practice. But they would counter-argue that same-sex intercourse is not much of a concern to Scripture because it receives so little attention. What is your response?

Gagnon: There are two problems with this claim. The first is that there are a fair amount of texts that speak strongly against same-sex intercourse.

Despite allegations by some scholars that the stories of Sodom -- see Genesis 19:4-11 -- and of the Levite at Gibeah -- see Judges 19:22-25 -- only express opposition to homosexual intercourse in the context of rape, these stories do include male-male intercourse per se as an important factor in the evil behavior of the inhabitants. To them can be added the story of Ham´s sexual act on his father Noah -- see Genesis 9:20-27.

That these stories are relevant to an indictment of same-sex intercourse generally is apparent from: (a) the wider narratives of both the Yahwist and the Deuteronomistic historian which elsewhere indicate a restriction of appropriate sexual activity to heterosexual relations; (b) ancient Near Eastern texts that censure male-male intercourse for reasons other than coercion; (c) the assessment of Sodom´s sin by a number of later texts, including Ezekiel 16:50, Jude 7, and 2 Peter 2:7; and (d) the motifs common to the Ham and Sodom stories on the one hand and the denunciation of Canaanite sexual sins in Leviticus 18 and 20, including Canaanite participation in non-coercive male-male intercourse as a basis for expulsion from the land.

Also to be included among anti-homosex texts are a series of texts in the Deuteronomistic history -- Joshua through 2 Kings -- that speak disparagingly of cultic participants in homosexual activity -- see 1 Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7 -- grounded in the law of Deuteronomy -- see 23:17-18 -- and continued in the Book of Revelation -- see 21:8; 22:15. These texts show a special revulsion for males functioning as receptive partners in intercourse with other males, referring to them as "dogs." Parallel Mesopotamian texts indicate that the main issue is not cult association or fees but rather behaving sexually as though female rather than male.

Q: And what is the second problem with claiming that Scripture shows little concern for homosexual practice?

Gagnon: Texts that implicitly reject homosexual unions run the gamut of the entire Bible, including not only the creation stories in Genesis 1-3 and the apostolic decree in Acts 15:20, 29, and 21:25, along with other occurrences of the word "porneia" -- that is, sexual immorality -- in the New Testament, but also the whole range of narratives, laws, proverbs, exhortations, metaphors and poetry that in addressing sexual relationships presume the sole legitimacy of heterosexual unions.

Nowhere is there the slightest indication of openness anywhere in the Bible to homoerotic attachments, including the narrative about David and Jonathan.

The reason why not every author of Scripture explicitly comments on same-sex intercourse is that some views are treated as so obvious that very little needs to be said. The only form of consensual sexual behavior that was regarded by ancient Israel, early Judaism, and early Christianity as more egregious than same-sex intercourse was bestiality. It is no accident that bestiality receives even less attention in the Bible than same-sex intercourse -- it´s mentioned only in Leviticus 18:23 and 20:15-16. Incest receives only comparable attention. Yet unequivocal opposition to bestiality and incest by every biblical author and by Jesus can hardly be doubted.

The "big picture" of the Bible on the issue of homosexual practice is not some vague concept of love and tolerance of every form of consensual sex but rather the complementarity of male-female sexual bonds and the universal restriction of acceptable sexual activity to heterosexual marriage.

Q: Speaking of Jesus, some argue that because Jesus said nothing about the matter that it was not an important issue for him. What do you think?

Gagnon: There is no historical basis for arguing that Jesus might have been neutral or even favorable toward same-sex intercourse.

All the evidence we have points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that Jesus would have strongly opposed same-sex intercourse had such behavior been a serious problem among first-century Jews. It simply was not a problem in Israel.

First, Jesus´ "silence" has to be set against the backdrop of unequivocal and strong opposition to same-sex intercourse in the Hebrew Bible and throughout early Judaism. It is not historically likely that Jesus overturned any prohibition of the Mosaic law, let alone on a strongly held moral matter such as this. And Jesus was not shy about disagreeing with prevailing viewpoints. Had he wanted his disciples to take a different viewpoint he would have had to say so.

Second, the notion of Jesus´ "silence" has to be qualified. According to Mark, Jesus spoke out against porneia, "sexual immorality" -- see Mark 7:21-23 -- and accepted the Decalogue commandment against adultery -- see Mark 10:19. In Jesus´ day, and for many centuries thereafter, porneia was universally understood in Judaism to include same-sex intercourse. Moreover, the Decalogue commandment against adultery was treated as a broad rubric prohibiting all forms of sexual practice that deviated from the creation model in Genesis 1-2, including homoerotic intercourse.

Third, that Jesus lifted up the male-female model for sexual relationships in Genesis 1-2 as the basis for defining God´s will for sexuality is apparent from his back-to-back citation in Mark 10:6-7 of Genesis 1:27 -- "God made them male and female" -- and Genesis 2:24 -- "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh."

These are the same two texts that Paul cites or alludes to in his denunciation of same-sex intercourse in Romans 1:24-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9. For Jesus, marriage was ordained by the Creator to be an indissoluble union of a man and woman into one flesh. Authorization of homoerotic unions requires a different creation account.

Fourth, it is time to deconstruct the myth of a sexually tolerant Jesus. Three sets of Jesus sayings make clear that, far from loosening the law´s stance on sex, Jesus intensified the ethical demand in this area: (a) Jesus´ stance on divorce and remarriage [Gagnon later cites Mark 10:1-12; and Matthew 5:32 and the parallel in Luke 16:18; and Paul´s citation of Jesus´ position in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11]; (b) Jesus´ remark about adultery of the heart -- see Matthew 5:27-28; and (c) Jesus´ statement about removing body parts as preferable to being thrown into hell -- see Matthew 5:29-30 and Mark 9:43-48 -- which, based on the context in Matthew as well as rabbinic parallels primarily has to do with sexual immorality.

Simply put, sex mattered to Jesus. Jesus did not broaden the range of acceptable sexual expression; he narrowed it. And he thought that unrepentant, repetitive deviation from this norm could get a person thrown into hell.

Where then do we get the impression that Jesus was soft on sex? People think of his reaction to the woman caught in adultery -- see John 7:53-8:11 --the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50, and the Samaritan woman who had many husbands in John 4.

What the first story suggests is that Jesus did modify the law at one point: Sexual immorality should not incur a death penalty from the state. Why? Not because sex for him didn´t matter but rather because stoning was a terminal act that did not give opportunity for repentance and reform. Moreover, all three stories confirm what we know about Jesus elsewhere: that he aggressively sought the lost, ate with them, fraternized with them. But the same Jesus who could protect an adulterous woman from stoning also took a very strong stance on divorce-and-remarriage.

We see a parallel in Jesus´ stance toward tax collectors, who had a justly deserved reputation for exploiting their own people for personal gain. We do not conclude from Jesus´ well-known outreach to tax collectors that Jesus was soft on economic exploitation. To the contrary: All scholars agree that Jesus intensified God´s ethical demand with respect to treatment of the poor and generosity with material possessions. Why then do we conclude from Jesus´ outreach to sexual sinners that sexual sin was not so important to Jesus?

Q: Some would still argue that the teaching against homosexuality is related to cultural and social conditioning. Now that society is more accepting of homosexuality, why shouldn´t Christianity change its position? In other words, why is this teaching inalterable?

Gagnon: Ancient Israel, early Judaism and early Christianity never adopted the position that they should alter their ethical standards simply because the broader cultural milieu took a more accepting view of some practices.

They all lived in environments where male-male intercourse was as much, and often more, of an accepted practice as it is in our own contemporary culture. Yet, far from capitulating on their position regarding acceptable sexual expression, they maintained clear distinctions between their own practices and the practices of those outside the community of God.

This is what holiness refers to: being set apart for the exclusive use of God rather than conforming to the ways of the world. Jesus himself called on his followers to be "the light of the world" and "a city built on a hill," and not to act "like the Gentiles."

The view of Scripture against same-sex intercourse is pervasive, absolute and strong, and was all those things in relation to the broader cultural contexts from which Scripture emerged. It was then, and remains today, a core countercultural vision for human sexuality.

As studies indicate, cultural affirmation of homosexual practice will lead to higher numbers of self-identifying and practicing homosexuals and bisexuals in the population, which in lead will lead to an increase in the ancillary problems that affect the homosexual and bisexual population at a disproportionately high rate.

This includes health problems such as sexually transmitted diseases, mental illness, substance abuse, and a 10-year or more decrease in life expectancy; problems in relational dynamics, including a high incidence of non-monogamy -- especially among male homosexuals -- and short-term relationships -- especially among lesbians -- due to the distinctive natures of males as males and females as females; and higher incidence of adult-adolescent and adult-child sexual activity.

For the macro-culture generally, approval of homosexual behavior will all but annihilate societal gender norms of any sort, promoting the normalization of the most bizarre elements of the homosexual movement -- transsexualism, transvestism -- thereby increasing gender identity confusion among the young.

God has deemed that sexual intercourse be an experience between complementary sexual "others" that creates a "one-flesh" union, a celebration of sexual diversity and pluralism in the best sense of the terms.

Q: We live in an age of "tolerance." What does the Bible say about how we should treat homosexuals? And how can Christians oppose homosexuality in the public square without falling into extremism?

Gagnon: We should love all people, regardless of whether they engage in immoral activity or not. Love is a much better, and far more scriptural, concept than tolerance.

Jesus lifted up the command to "love one´s neighbor" in Leviticus 19:18 -- a command in the Holiness Code -- as the second great command. We often miss the intertextual echo to Leviticus 19:17, which not only says that we should not hate, take revenge, or hold a grudge against our neighbor but also says that we should "reprove" our neighbor "and so not incur guilt because of him."

If we really love somebody, we will not provide approval, let alone cultural incentives, for forms of behavior that are self-destructive and other-destructive. Jesus combined an intensification of God´s ethical demand in the areas of sex and money with an active and loving outreach to sexual sinners and economic exploiters. We should do the same: love the sinner, hate the sin.