The Church and Homosexuality:
WILLARD M. SWARTLEY*
Life Together: Family, Sexuality, and Community in the New Testament and Today. By Stephen C. Barton. New York: T. & T. Clark. 2001. Pp. 256. $33.95.
The Bible and Homosexual Practice. By Robert A. Gagnon. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 2001. Pp. 520. $49.
To Continue the Dialogue: Biblical Interpretation and Homosexuality. Edited by C. Norman Kraus. Telford, PA: Pandora Press. 2001. Pp. 334. $23.95.
Fractured Dance: Gadamer and a Mennonite Conflict over Homosexuality. By Michael A. King. Telford, PA: Pandora Press. 2001. Pp. 304. $22.95.
These four books complement each other in remarkable ways. The first two are by authors from the larger Christian context (one British, one American) and the second two arise from American Mennonite struggles with the issue of homosexuality in the church. The books by Gagnon and Kraus are oriented specifically to homosexuality and represent contrasting aims. Gagnon demonstrates that biblical moral instruction on sexuality and homosexuality is relevant and authoritative for today. Most, but not all, articles in the book edited by Kraus consider reasons why a direct application to today of the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality is inadequate. Barton provides foundational hermeneutical guidance in examining the larger context of issues in which discussions of homosexuality fit: family, sexuality and community. King’s work is a practical case study in applied philosophical hermeneutics, assessing specific conversations on homosexuality between a congregation and a regional conference.
Barton’s Life Together consists of essays he wrote over the last ten years and presented on various occasions. Some were previously published. Part I contains three fine essays on the family and two good essays on sexuality. Part II contains six essays on community in biblical studies, broadly conceived. Part III, with one essay on biblical interpretation, calls for current hermeneutical models to give way to a new metaphor and model, namely, the performance of texts in the community(ies) of those who seek to live by them. Barton is Professor of New Testament at Durham University and has published widely, including the fine book The Spirituality of the Gospels (Hendrickson, 1992).
The strength of Barton’s work is its perceptive analysis of writings on these topics, e.g., Adrian Thatcher’s Liberating Sex (1993) and Rodney Clapp’s Families at the Crossroads (1993), books that take different stances on family and sex. Barton summarizes the contributions of each and notes what they fail to consider. Though Thatcher utilizes the historical-critical method to discount subordinationist biblical texts as culturally bound, he is not critical enough, says Barton, in that he fails to value what those texts contribute within, despite and against their cultural setting. Thatcher’s cavalier judgment against those texts ends up cutting “Christian theology off from its scriptural roots altogether” (23). Thatcher fails to see how these texts begin a process of deconstruction of the hierarchical and patriarchal cultural norms in which they were written. Clapp’s otherwise good contribution, influenced by Hauerwas’ emphasis on narrative, ends up with a very general description of how scripture informs family values, hanging too much on the strength of the biblical “story” to sustain the family and not addressing specific issues that threaten family life in the world today. Chapter 3 presents Barton’s own perceptive understanding of the New Testament on the family, and argues well for a dialectic relationship between biological and ecclesial families. Each is important to and strengthens the other.
On both family and sexuality Barton urges believers to be guided not only by the study of specific texts, since on family issues and sexual conduct one text is often claimed by one side of the debate and another text by the other side. Barton calls for considering larger, more fundamental theological questions: What kind of people do we want to be? And, what can we learn from the doctrines of Creation, Incarnation and the Trinity to shape our understandings of relational qualities that make sexual relations and familial relations strong and genuinely Christian? Further, the doctrines of Creation and Incarnation are essential to grounding our understandings of the goodness of the body and body-relatedness. After noting dangers and inadequacies in much current talk about sexuality, he points to Paul’s counsel in Corinthians: strive to build each other up in the community by the choices we make and “glorify God in your body”-both our created bodies and the church body.
Part II is less cohesive thematically. In chapter 6, a substantial contribution, Barton summarizes and critically analyzes recent scholarship on the communal dimensions of early Christianity. Chapter 7 assesses sociological studies of the New Testament communities. Barton is especially critical of the easy designation of early Christian communities as sectarian (studies drawing on Troelstch) and, even worse, of classifying Christianity as a whole as sectarian, as Robin Scroggs’s early 1975 article did. Further, the church-sect typology too easily makes the New Testament captive to our own ideological interests (138). Chapter 8 is a fine study on “Women, Jesus, and the Gospels,” with analysis of each of the four gospels on this topic. Certainly women were important to and played key roles in the formation of the early Christian communities. Then follow two studies on Christian community in light of John’s gospel and 1 Corinthians. The section ends with a provocative essay on “Paul and the Limits of Tolerance.” Here Barton cautions against “harnessing Jesus or Paul or early Christianity to the bandwagon of post Enlightenment secular individualism and pluralism” (219). Not only do we thus cut ourselves off from the spiritual and ecclesial roots in the scripture that nourished the Christian ethic of neighborly love, but we also undermine the particularity and distinctiveness of the truth claims inherent to the Christian faith.
Barton’s final excellent essay on “New Testament Interpretation as Performance” develops a recent emphasis, indebted to Nicholas Lash, in biblical interpretation. Essentially, performance is a new metaphor or paradigm for interpretation in which performance of the text in the life of the church becomes authentic biblical interpretation. The concept is drawn from Alasdair MacIntyre and has been utilized by several writers (including Lash, Rowan Williams and Frances Young), whose contributions Barton summarizes. The metaphor is drawn from the worlds of music and theater, in which performance is essentially different from analysis of the musical score or expertise in music history. So also performance of scripture is diachronic in nature-expression through time-rather than synchronic, as are most analytic methods of biblical interpretation used by the New Testament guild. Further, performance is communally expressed, in worship, Eucharist and daily life. While this emphasis is akin to what Wayne Meeks called “the hermeneutic of social embodiment” and Richard Hays has called “scripture-shaped community,” it adds another rich dimension in that authentic interpretation expresses itself in the doing of textual meaning.
The book as a whole is a gem, rich with insight, providing an up-to-date overview of New Testament scholarship on the three themes of the sub-title. At times Barton’s emphasis on the core doctrines of Christian theology appear to substitute for the specific moral guidance expressed in scripture (e.g., in suggesting that the parable of the Good Samaritan might offer more guidance on homosexuality than explicit texts that speak of same-sex relations in scripture). This seems to be akin to what Barton critiqued in Thatcher and Clapp-substituting general moral principles or the general notion of “story” for careful examination of what these texts, given their cultural settings, contribute to present-day moral guidance. Granted, the central Christian doctrines of Creation, Incarnation and Trinity have much to teach us for life in family, sexuality and community, but there is no reason that these should be unhooked from or put in opposition to the more specific rules or principles. “Love of neighbor” is commanded originally amid specific rules for life in community (Lev. 19:18-in the Holiness Code, of all places!).
Gagnon, author of the second entry among these four books, is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Associate Editor of Horizons in Biblical Theology. His massive tome, written in non-polemical tone, is the first comprehensive exegetical treatment of the intractable issue of homosexuality. Martti Nissinen’s Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (1998), Bernadette Brooten’s Love Between Women (1996) and David Greenberg’s The Construction of Homosexuality (1988) were precursors, but each was more selective in coverage and, except for Nissinen, different in thematic focus. And though each challenges many popular explanations as inadequate, neither takes a personal stance against modern cultural trends to normalize homosexual practice, though Greenberg’s work strikingly exposes the empowerment of this trend as culturally constructed. Gagnon’s book contrasts with these by holding modern culture and its efforts to normalize homosexuality accountable to scripture that stands authoritatively against homosexual practice. The publications of Marion Soards (1995), Thomas Schmidt (1995) and Stanley Grenz (1998) are similar to Gagnon’s in position but are more modest in scope, though they address a bit more fully the matter of how the church deals with its present conflictive situation.
Gagnon’s book may also be the last of its kind, since it does so much, and further work likely will address only aspects of the issue, rather than seek so complete a treatment. It consists of five chapters, with chapters 1, 4 and 5 each exceeding 100 pages:
– The Witness of the Old Testament
– Same-Sex Intercourse as “Contrary to Nature” in Early Judaism
– The Witness of Jesus
– The Witness of Paul and Deutero-Paul
– The Hermeneutical Relevance of the Biblical Witness
Gagnon’s thorough work excels in (1) careful textual analysis and inter-textual considerations; (2) exacting detail in historical-critical investigations, taking into account cultural backgrounds and ideological contexts of relevant contemporary literature cited, whether Ancient Near East, Greco-Roman or early Judaism; and (3) extensive engagement with almost all scholarly contributions to date. The work is heavily footnoted (708 notes total). Many of these notes-mini-chapters in themselves-are thorough bibliographical resources on the given topic (e.g. n.5, pp. 38-9; n.1, pp. 159-60); many others are extended summaries of scholarly views with full evaluation of those views (e.g., nn.16-20, pp. 254-62; n.102, p. 314). Virtually no stone is left unturned on this topic.
Gagnon’s work is an act of both courage and faithfulness. Because he knows that such an undertaking risks being labeled as homophobic, intolerant and exclusivistic, Gagnon introduces his work by acknowledging personal regrets and personal reasons for speaking out on the topic: his own “coming out of the closet” (31-35). He then cites two objectives for the book: to present “clear, strong, and credible evidence that the Bible unequivocally defines same-sex intercourse as sin” and “there exist no valid hermeneutical arguments derived from either general principles of biblical interpretation or contemporary scientific knowledge and experience, for overriding the Bible’s authority on this matter” (37).
Gagnon’s exhaustive treatment of the Old Testament witness goes beyond the usual treatments of Genesis 19, Judges 19 and the two Levitical prohibitions (18:22; 20:13). After examining parallel Near Eastern background texts on homosexuality, he considers the creation stories (Gen. 1-3). Later, Gagnon thoroughly examines the practices of homosexual cult prostitution in Israel, but argues that the prohibitions in Leviticus derive basically from violating God’s design in the creation of distinct sexes for heterosexual pairing. This is evident in the male-female anatomical, sexual and procreative complementarity. Thus Gagnon argues against scholars who discount the normative value of the prohibitions against homosexuality, whether because it is associated with idolatry, constitutes a procreative dead end, involves contact of semen with excrement or represents status inversion in gender dis-complementarity (Nissinen and Brooten). While these factors may have more or less significance in the prohibitions, Gagnon shows that if these alone were the sole reasons, then other prohibitions logically should have been included (128-41). Here as elsewhere Gagnon’s careful analysis, including scrutiny of detail and logic of counter arguments, is persuasive. That Paul’s view depends upon the Levitical prohibitions is therefore not a discount, but a theological grounding in Israel’s Holiness Code and congruous with the normative understanding of first century Judaism, especially Philo and Josephus, whom Gagnon treats extensively.
Compared to others, Gagnon’s treatment of Jesus on the topic is most distinctive. He shows convincingly that the myth of a sexually tolerant Jesus does not stand up to careful textual examination. Jesus is strict against adultery and divorce, on the latter more than Paul, who makes some exceptions (1 Cor. 7). Jesus’ acceptance of sinners includes the call to repentance and to transformation, and his treatment of sexual sinners is no different from his treatment of other sinners. Generalizing from the parable of the Good Samaritan to seeing the homosexual as the “new Samaritan” in our midst may be appealing, but the parable in its Lukan context gives no warrant for such a notion. It calls rather to reconceptualize the “enemy” as a “neighbor” (226). Jesus’ zeal to save the “lost” and “sick” for us “includes those engaged in homosexual practice.” Gagnon’s concluding sentence reflects the hope-bestowing spirit of his work as a whole: “Concretely, this means visiting their homes, eating with them, speaking and acting out of love rather than hate, communicating the good news about God’s rule, throwing a party when they repent and return home, and then reintegrating them fully into communities of faith” (228).
Gagnon’s work on Paul and Deutero-Paul is most exacting in exegetical analysis and engagement with numerous scholars’ views (ten or more on Rom. 1:24-27) that seek to discount Paul’s teaching as relevant for our time. All these efforts to mute the moral authority of the text, Gagnon painstakingly shows, are flawed either by a too limited use of Greco-Roman sources on the topic (Scroggs, Furnish and Martin in different ways), misconstruing the plain meaning of the text (Boswell, Brooten and Frederickson in different ways), or employing restrictive logical fallacies (Martin, Haacker and Strecker in suggesting that idolatry is causative in the text but is not so today). Rather, Gagnon points out the parallel between idolatry and homosexual practice: both deny what should be evident from creation. God is not an idol carved by human hands; sexual intercourse is not natural when the obvious anatomical features of male and female and procreation potential are subverted by homosexual practice. The view that only exploitive homosexual intercourse, pederasty or cultic homosexual practices were intended in Paul’s prohibitions in 1 Corinthians 6:11 or 1 Timothy 1:10 are also shown to be flawed, both in the misreading of the texts or too restrictive use of extra-biblical sources. The range of arguments considered and his careful analysis set a benchmark for all further study of these texts. Gagnon’s extensive study of the word “nature” (physis) is most valuable.
Holding that arsenokoitai (and malakoi) in 1 Corinthians 6:9 are to be understood in relationship to what Paul has already said on why same-sex relationships are wrong in Romans 1:24-27, Gagnon sums up Paul’s view, which concurs with that of first-century Judaism, in Philo and Josephus:
What was wrong, first and foremost, for Paul in the case of same-sex intercourse was the fact that the participants were members of the same sex rather than the opposite sex. It was not a question of whether the sexual relationship was characterized by mutual affirmation or exploitation, parity in age or age disparity, procreative capacity or procreative incapacity, innate sexual urges or contrived sexual urges, or any other extrinsic set of antinomies. In order to determine the semantic spread of the term arsenokoitai, it is a mistake to focus exclusively on the one or two most common forms of same-sex intercourse in Paul’s day at the expense of ignoring Paul’s reason for opposing same-sex intercourse, which has little or nothing to do with factors that could distinguish unacceptable forms of same-sex intercourse from acceptable forms. (327)
Gagnon’s final chapter maps out numerous hermeneutical considerations to test whether the biblical witness is relevant for today. Here Gagnon borrows and modifies Richard Hays’ method in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, combining the descriptive and the synthetic and the hermeneutical and the pragmatic. This extensive chapter is a book in itself. He considers carefully the leading reasons that have been put forth to discount or mute the relevance of the homosexuality texts for today:
The Bible condemns only exploitative, pederastic forms of homosexuality.
The Bible primarily condemns homosexuality because of its threat to male dominance.
The Bible has no category for “homosexuals” with an exclusively same-sex orientation; same-sex passion was thought to originate in over-sexed individuals.
Homosexuality has a genetic component that the writers of the Bible did not realize.
There are only a few biblical texts that speak directly to homosexuality.
We do not follow all the injunctions of the Bible now, so why should those against homosexual conduct be binding?
Since we are all sinners anyway, why single out the sin of same-sex intercourse?
In his response to these decoys, a most important contribution is citation of evidence that disproves the notion that the ancient world had no notion of sexual orientation. Concurring with both Brooten and Schoedel, and drawing on earlier quoted Greco-Roman texts, he puts that view to rest. Also, in considering the claims for a genetic component (brain size, genes, etc.), Gagnon, while not eliminating genetic dispositional factors (as in other phenomena such as violence or alcoholism), holds that environmental influences are by far the more determinative (he cites numerous scientific studies with statistical data-and critiques of them-to support his discussion). Similarly, the evidence for the possibility of change in behavior, even desire, is overwhelming to those open to consider it, and he cites numerous professional studies and asks that we consider the testimonies of ex-homosexuals as well. In light of well-documented change in practices and even desire (including those in mid-life who shifted from heterosexual to homosexual practice), it needs to be acknowledged that sexual desire varies over the course of one’s life. His section on health risks and harmful effects on church and society is also relevant hermeneutically, for it counts against the easy dismissal of clear biblical teaching. His conclusion calls for the overflow of love, joy and peace in Christian bodies that will enable us to figure out those things that will make a difference in being pure and blameless in the day of Christ.
One big deficiency of the book is the lack of a bibliography for the thousands of sources cited (which I understand the author wanted to include but the publisher deemed necessary to exclude in view of the book’s current size). The Author Index is thorough, however, and one can always locate the full reference to a given author in the first citation. His brief discussion of “animal homosexuality” is oriented mostly to what ancient authors said about it, and does not take up the findings of most recent studies, published after he completed his manuscript (1999 and 2000 in the Keener article in Kraus below). Whether those would alter what he says in note 25 (180) and his study of “against nature” is uncertain. Another critique is his handling of the broader theological-moral considerations in his hermeneutical section. This section is shaped by the arguments that seek to distance the text from our situation. In the course of showing why these arguments are not valid he addresses the flawed use of wider theological-ethical principles (such as Jesus’ inclusiveness or the Acts 15 paradigm), but he has no section where all those principles are brought together to be assessed in relation to his treatment of specific texts. For this reason, I would value also a subject index, but that would be an undertaking of no mean proportion. To illustrate the need, however, his response to the common “Love-Tolerance-Unity” approach to the issue is located in its full expression at four different places (33-35, 210-17, 241-43, 382-84). Some indexing of this sort can be found in his essay in Theology Matters (Nov/Dec 2001, 1-12). A recent book that helpfully engages the hermeneutical task at length is William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (IVP, 2001).
Gagnon’s book is one I have long felt needed doing, and it must have taken years of intensive work. Whether we agree or disagree with Gagnon’s views, his arguments are clear, cogent and persuasive. Gagnon’s contribution is a gift to those who wish to engage in an in-depth scholarly analysis of the moral/immoral meaning of homosexual (gay and lesbian) practice.
To Continue the Dialogue, edited by C. Norman Kraus, consists of fifteen essays and eight responses written by Mennonites. It includes also two appendices, the “Listening Report” from the Listening Committee of the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church that served from July 1990 through July 1992, and a brief “Guide for Congregational Discussion” upon “Entering the Homosexuality Discussion.” The book was in preparation simultaneous with the heating up of controversy within the Mennonite denominations named above, leading to a final vote on integration into one denomination. The book was released, however, after the assembly vote on integration, which passed with percentages in the nineties. A key issue in that process was voting on membership guidelines (passed by a bit lower percentages) that prohibit same-sex relations for members and authorize loss of credentials for clergy officiating at services for gay and lesbian unions. In light of this, the tone of the book is a bit anachronistic, since it calls readers-indeed, the church-to reassess its historic position. Except for a few articles, those by Reimer and Nation, the fifteen essays tilt toward advocating a more accepting stance toward homosexuality practices. The church’s position for the last twenty years has been to accept persons with homosexual orientation.
The book begins with a foreword by Richard A. Kauffman, a series editor’s and editor’s prefaces, and an introduction by the editor, religion professor emeritus of Goshen College, but now residing in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Kraus’ own two essays begin and end the collection. In his opening essay, “The ‘H’ Words: Hermeneutics and Homosexuality,” Kraus contends that Mennonites have not done their hermeneutical homework amid the changes that have occurred in the church over the last three decades. Nor have they acknowledged the huge cultural changes that have beset American society during the last three or four decades. Mennonites have changed, but without adequate understanding of why. Underneath all, the practice of church discipline, or lack thereof, has also changed. This leads to his call to the church to wrestle with the homosexual issue and to come to terms with the cultural realities of our society. The comparisons he makes between homosexuality and other issues that the Mennonite church has wrestled with and changed (such as prohibiting life insurance, not attending movies and requiring women to wear the prayer veiling) risk trivializing the homosexuality issue (29), for as Gagnon observes, all proposed parallels, including even divorce and remarriage, are not really parallels upon close examination of their status in biblical thought.
Next is an article by Marcus Smucker, “Psychological Dynamics: Being Gay or Lesbian,” which seeks to present sympathetically the anguish of feelings and experiences of gays and lesbians seeking to comes to terms with their homosexual desires and emergent identity. His essay differs from the rest in the collection because it weaves into his writing the anguish he and his wife experienced as they came to terms with their own daughter’s disclosure of her lesbian orientation. But the focus of the article as a whole is on the psychological dynamics of “coming out,” the losses that the group of twelve he interviewed experienced and what it meant for them to reorient their lives and relationships. In this he cites literature on the subject of such “losses” as well. His article concludes with four implications for the church: to go beyond the leper syndrome; to go beyond simple myths and personal prejudice; to go beyond self-righteous posturing; and to go beyond safe and convenient distancing.
The third article, “Homosexuality: Biblical, Theological, and Polity Issues,” by David Schroeder, takes up briefly the biblical texts that speak of same-sex relations. Schroeder gives helpful insight on what the texts intended to communicate, without deploying the vast arsenal of interpretations that either discount or reify them. He then looks at the issue from the standpoint of biblical theology and systematic theology, in which he states, “Neither the church nor the Christian homosexual community has worked out a proper theology to support each group’s particular actions and expectations” (67). Schroeder then turns to polity issues, to attending to procedures for discussion in congregations and to the respective role of congregation, conference and wider church. Connected to this discussion is a section on “The Church as a Binding and Loosing Fellowship.” Schroeder concludes with optimism that the church is “now ready to deal with homosexuality in a way that avoids either-or solutions of inclusion or exclusion” (75), but he does not know what that solution will be.
The fourth essay by Paul M. Lederach is “A Pastoral Plea” for the church to “welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom. 15:7). Maintaining an appropriate sense of proportion, sharing personal faith and experience, affirming a New Testament understanding of holiness, and recognizing and honoring the work of the Holy Spirit among us shape Lederach’s call to the church.
Chapters 5 and 6 are oriented toward Mennonite history. Melanie Zuercher and Ed Stoltzfus tell the story of the Listening Committee and Lin Garber writes on “Mennonites and the ‘Homosexual’ Issue: A Recent History.” The “history” is quite selective, including what he denotes as bipolar reality: the Lancaster Conference Study Guide for the issue (which recommends for further study publications of four groups oriented toward ministry for ex-gays) as opposed to the work of the Brethren-Mennonite Council for Lesbian and Gay Concerns. Garber selectively cites several entries on homosexuality in the “Letters to the Editor” in the church-wide organ, the Gospel Herald, describes several consultations held on the subject and the fencing of the denomination against gay and lesbian advocacy at church-wide conventions. Garber notes that the assemblies of both denominations have called for a study of the issue and he cites the publication of A Working Document for Study and Dialogue: Human Sexuality in the Christian Life that the denominational administrators asked to be studied in the congregations-which, Garber says, did not happen (although it did in my congregation).
Michael King’s article, “Shifting Focus,” seeks to identify crucial turns in the church’s journey on this question. He cites in full the 1987 Purdue statement, which he regards as a defining moment. He also notes that, in the wake of a Gospel Herald report in 1995 of twelve Mennonite and Brethren congregations openly welcoming gays and lesbians, the MC Council on Faith, Life and Strategy took action that shifted the focus of “loving dialogue” from moral discernment-“the Scripture is clear on the issue”-to pastoral care for homosexuals and their families. Influenced much by the Germantown Mennonite Church experience (1995-97), King notes that the debate shifted to issues of expulsion of congregations, rather than promoting loving dialogue.
Chapters 8-16 constitute Part Two of the book, “Framing the Theological Questions.” Chapters 8, 11 and 12 by Don Blosser, Theodore Grimsrud and Reta Halteman Finger, are biblically oriented, with Blosser taking up study of relevant texts and Grimsrud presenting six scholars’ interpretations-three of which present “restrictive” perspectives in interpretation (Grenz, Schmidt, Hays) and three of which give “inclusive” perspectives (Helminiak, Nissinen, and Scanzoni and Mollenkot). Both chapters are helpful, though some overlap occurs between them, since Blosser cites Schmidt at length (134-35) as a foil to delve deeper into what these texts really say and mean. Nissinen is then cited to provide a cultural interpretation of why same-sex relations were opposed by biblical writers (i.e., gender transgression in a patriarchal context where femaleness was considered inferior to maleness). Hence, the question: Does the Bible condemn same-sex relations for reasons that are not part of our world today, thereby muting the texts for our situation? Nothing appears in these two essays that is not dealt with fully and carefully, including Nissinen’s work, in Gagnon’s exacting study above. Gagnon’s answer to this question is “no,” even though the explanatory views of why it was considered wrong are partly true. Blosser opens the door to a “yes” response, and Grimsrud tilts to the same, though he raises the key issue of the relevance of the creation account in Genesis 1-2 and its view of marriage as another decisive element in evaluation. To this Gagnon would add the decisive creation consideration of a clear anatomical complementarity between male and female that same-sex intercourse violates. Hence it is against nature in the most basic and universal sense of the term. Finger’s helpful study focuses on Romans 14-15, echoing Paul Lederach’s article above. She observes that while 1:24-27 is the magnet in Romans for the study of homosexuality, perhaps chapters 14-15 are really more applicable to the need in the church in that they show Paul’s main interest in writing Romans: to help Jews and Gentiles live together in the bond of Christ. This theme links with Blosser’s appeal to Peter and Paul in Acts 10-15 in their appeals for Jews to accept Gentiles. (But note that in these considerations the same Paul who gave his life for inclusion of Gentiles was quite clear that homosexual practices were contrary to God’s will for human morality.)
Chapter 9 considers “The Biological Basis of Homosexuality” by Carl S. Keener and Douglas E. Swartzentruber. It covers the field well, and raises also the delicate issue of how complicated causation is: the mix between biological-genetic and environmental influence, including psychological, social and cultural factors. Much of the literature cited here on scientific experiments is considered and critiqued also by Gagnon, though Gagnon does not cite the ram experiments (1999) and those on animal homosexuality (2000)-published likely after Gagnon completed his work. Reading both Gagnon (395-432) and this chapter in tandem is a must for anyone who seeks to know how decisively science should be considered. And yet, as I say in my “Response” in the Kraus volume, “is” does not determine “ought” (287-88). How one feels, for whatever causative reason, does not serve as the basis of moral obligation. In fact, most moral proscriptions and prescriptions originated to protect the morality of behavior from being based on impulsive desire arising from feeling. Ayn Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness saw the point clearly, when she advocated fulfillment of our innate selfishness as a basic virtue-a point at odds with Christian morality.
Chapters 10 and 13 by A. James Reimer and Mark Thiessen Nation are the core theological-ethical investigations of the book, and they excel in clarity and careful analysis of basic assumptions in the pro and con arguments. Reimer draws appropriately on historical theology, reminding us that we face this quandary not unaided by rich moral reflection in the history of the church. His contribution takes up the understanding of created, fallen and redeemed nature as essential insight to guiding theological reflection. He poses three options for the church’s response and calls for both compassion and moral rigor in addressing the issue. Nation’s essay is the most broadly engaging of any in the book. He begins with eight areas in which we can agree, but then calls for undoing the supercharging of rhetoric-so common in this debate-as well as for halting the easy writing off of the other’s arguments as being either homophobic or willfully perverse. He then comments on the earlier listed areas of agreement, fine-tuning perception toward grasping truth in key areas of debate: social and biological sciences, Bible, Christian theology and ethics, church history, love of neighbors, support for heterosexual married couples, and homoerotic relations and broader issues of sexuality. Citing the blistering critique by ex-Catholic Camille Paglia against the Presbyterian document seeking to normalize same-sex practices, he stresses Paglia’s call for Catholics and Protestants to value the majesty of their history and recognize that their “theology is impressive and coherent.” Nation ends his essay by citing two writers, Pannenberg and Eugene Rogers Jr., who from opposing stances regard the issue as fatal for the church: if it recognizes homosexual unions (Pannenberg) or if it fails to accept faithful monogamous gay and lesbian marriages (Rogers). Thiessen Nation’s title, “Fruit of the Spirit or Works of the Flesh,” similarly poses the seriousness of the church’s moral discernment on this issue.
Carolyn Schrock Shenk, writing from the perspective of her own conservative upbringing, learning to know a gay person in her second year of college, and working professionally in conflict mediation, queries why dialogue and engagement with each other over homosexuality is so difficult, frightening and threatening, and why resolving conflict seems impossible. She calls attention to our gut-level reactions, to fear that dialogue is a trick to get me “to change my mind,” to fear of manipulation, to the enormous pressure from both sides that prevents dialogue, to fear that important relationships will be lost or damaged, and to the backlog of judgment and silencing that has accrued on the issue. Nonetheless, she holds that we are “Commanded to Keep Wrestling and Wrestling and Wrestling.” We must recognize our finiteness and commit to stay connected, even for the long haul.
Editor Kraus concludes with the essay “Making Theological and Ethical Decisions: Contextualizing the Bible.” He believes that the cultural differences between Bible times and our modern western world in matters of sexual ethics are so great that we face a major challenge: how to contextualize biblical teaching for our present culture. By situating particular biblical statements in a specific cultural motivation that no longer governs our way of life (such as cultic taboos), he calls for fresh evaluation of what are indeed “sexual offenses.” This evaluation includes “Defining Holiness in the New Testament,” which in certain aspects (purity laws and association with cultic idolatrous practices) is already redefined in the New Testament and thus points the way for our task today. He then takes up an examination of Romans 1:18-29 [and 32?] as the “theological crux.” He examines selected exegetical matters and explores again whether the rationale behind that text and where we are today in our assessment of homosexuality is so different as to partially mute the text. He says:
Certainly Paul’s condemnation of all then-known same-sex behaviors would include those promiscuous, profligate, irresponsible, dissolute sexual behaviors which in the popular mind have been associated with a ‘homosexual lifestyle’. . . . But does that condemnation include homoerotic intimacy between consenting, covenanting, same-sex attracted adults functioning [responsibly] within the societal framework? (276)
To this question, Kraus seems to imply a “no.” But Gagnon, in light of the Greek sources on homosexuality, would answer “yes,” since the ancient world had its own way of understanding “orientation” and responsible loving relationships, even lifelong! What seems to be “new” in our society has striking precursors, even adult-with-adult consenting relationships.
The eight “responses” that conclude the book were apparently titled by the editors, for in the case of my essay the title does not connote the main point of my response: how to adjudicate among the competing sources of moral authority. The “responses” cover the spectrum from “Let’s Not Continue the Dialogue” (Showalter) to “It Could Be Even Better (Steelbergs), contending that the book did not give gays and lesbians their own voice and that the theologians appealed to (Barth and Tillich) are of a past generation not connected to the present issue. Schertz expresses concern about how the Bible is handled on this issue. Burkhalter welcomes the engagement and contribution. Swartzentruber zeroes in on who gets to decide-the issue of power, and its relation to love for one another that we much value in Mennonite belief. Lapp’s and my responses both call attention to the Mennonite world church, and ask what it means for us to hear their voice, as well as that of our Hispanic and African-American members. One anonymous response discloses how such an issue impacts a college administrator. Brunk’s concluding response affirms the contribution and reminds us that we will need to live with ambiguity and a tension between the biblical rejection of same-sex practices and how we regard those among us who show evidence of sincere faith and the fruit of the Spirit and yet see nothing wrong in entering same-sex, lifelong, faithful relationships.
I lament the book’s lack of critical analysis of our Western culture from an Anabaptist perspective of critique (some such basic critique occurs actually in Barton’s work, and some also in Gagnon’s). This, I suggest, is most necessary if we are to talk about contextualization. For, as Millard Lind has put it, the task of contextualization is a two-way street: to contextualize the gospel into the cultures of our contemporary world and to contextualize present-day culture(s) to the moral norms and values of the Bible. This assumes, of course, careful interpretation to determine just what those norms and values are, which is the burden of Gagnon’s book on this issue. Taking Gagnon’s book seriously, alongside the biblical, theological and ethical contributions of Kraus’ edited book, as well as Barton’s work on family and sexuality, will hopefully help us glorify God in our bodies, with our “heart-eyes enlightened.”
With King’s book Fractured Dance we enter another realm of discourse, the analysis of language, discourse and conversation. Using the Franconia Mennonite Conference and the Germantown Mennonite Church’s extended engagement over the latter’s acceptance of gay and lesbian partners as members, King seeks to test Gadamer’s theoretical hermeneutic of “language as seeking communal understanding” in the crucible of an actual sustained conversation, with both oral and written components. The book had its origins in King’s 1998 doctoral dissertation at Temple University in rhetoric and communication. J. Denny Weaver points out in his series foreword that the book consists of two conversations: the philosophy of rhetoric and the conversations from 1993-97 between the two parties noted above over homosexuality. But Herbert W. Simmons, Temple University Professor of Communication, points that a third conversation goes on also: one in Michael’s head by which he moves the plot of the book forward dialectically. Simmons is correct, and this makes the book a delightful-if disciplined-read in philosophical hermeneutics.
In the first two chapters King describes basic components of Gadamer’s thought and the Mennonite ethos, with its effective history in the Franconia Conference leading up to the “Conversations” on homosexuality. The next three chapters descriptively portray the “Dance,” with delight prominent at the beginning, then “fractured” and then “awkward.” The main analytic categories, derived from Gadamer, are: effective history producing commonality; goodwill highlighting of prejudices as yours and mine; awareness of finitude; openness; and risking prejudices in relationship. The “Third Way” statement is discussed (Appendix C) against this conceptual grid, with special attention to understanding “prejudice” as a given, necessary ingredient in any language dance. “Fractured” categories of failure are considered in light of the conversations: effective history producing commonality, antagonistic highlighting of prejudices yours and mine, certitude, severing prejudices and coercion.
By this time, in reading how Gadamer understands conversation/speech/ language and reality, in tandem with analysis of the “conversations,” I was calling out “Whoa!” Gadamer’s understanding of reality does not fit that of the conversational participants, at least the resisting component. In 1976 I heard Gadamer deliver a lecture at Waterloo on “The Meaning of a Thing (Ding).” Denying any “objective” reality apart from subjective perspective, his theory conceived truth as embedded in the effective history of language (discourse and conversation). But I knew that many in the conversations understood “Truth” quite differently-as an objective reality based in divine revelation (Scripture and Incarnation). Nursing my frustration regarding where King was taking me, I gladly welcomed his next chapter, “Awkward Dance,” which examined those and other critical questions. Does Gadamerian philosophical hermeneutic lend itself to analysis of just such practical conversations, especially when many conversation-voices held that to “risk one’s prejudices” in “open” conversation on this topic was forbidden by the revealed objective Truth? The “awkward” aspect of the dance pertains first and foremost to the complexities and ambiguities of using Gadamerian theory to analyze such conversations. As King notes, Gadamer gives no tools for analyzing the relation between micro- (this episode) and macro-phenomena (society trends). Nor is it clear that Gadamer is or is not relativistic-hard to tell when there is no objective point to be relative to!
The next chapter is meta-reflection on the project. Focusing on the issue of power elements in the conversation, which does not fit integrally into Gadamer’s theory of discourse and vision of communal truth, King begins to wonder whether such theorists as Derrida, Foucault or Burke would have been better fits for such an analysis, since power played a significant role in the later stages of the conversations. But King defends his use of Gadamer, employing mid-course correction techniques, such as valuing “openness to the closed” or regarding “presence as openness of the closed.” Thus there may be gains (success’) even in failed conversation in relation to attaining Gadamer’s vision of communal truth. Finally, King proposes that, having lost the “Brightened” through the “Closure,” although “Shadowed” there remains the “Dappled”-a form of “We” that becomes effective-history reality for now, presaging the unknown future.
In his concluding of the dance, King tells of James Lapp’s response to his work, whereby Lapp queries how the analysis would look if Edwin Friedmann’s systems theory had been utilized. Here the categories for analysis are quite different, and I note that the understanding of truth/Truth would not necessarily collide with assumed understandings of the conversationalists in question. Nonetheless, certain aspects of the Gadamerian “program” are a good fit with the Mennonite ethos. The Anabaptist-Mennonite goal to seek a communal vision of truth, however, is quite different in theological assumptions from Gadamer’s vision of communal truth. In any case, I applaud King for undertaking such a task, enabling us to see why in such a conversational dance people sometimes “kick” each other. The book is brilliant, a great treat in philosophical hermeneutics.
That said, however, I am surprised that the power King analyzed “at play in the dance” was only that of Franconia Conference rather than including the Germantown congregation, which was the causative force occasioning the lengthy process of discernment and conversation. This too represents power, and of no mean significance. In a systems analysis, that factor would be central. One issue that goes beyond the scope of the study, but opens up another chapter for Gadamerian analysis, is the health of both parties after the split (failed conversation). Reports I have heard testify to a vitality and health of both the congregation and the conference that is laudatory. Such “interruption” (caesura) followed by vitality seems to validate a key point raised by Gadamer’s critics (Habermas and Eagleton), that continuity in effective history-tradition through language is not a given after all. In fact, just what does the death-resurrection paradigm signify in all this, anyway? Gadamer would agree that “in the bulb there is a flower,” but is that really the Easter faith?
These four books, read in the order reviewed, present a rare treat, stretching the mind and heart in all directions of the Cross, rooted and grounded in love. The journey we walk on homosexuality may lack “shining moments,” but if our foremost commitment is “to keep the faith,” then there will be strength in the “shadowed” and light in the “dappled.”
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
The Church and Homosexuality: Review Essay
*Willard Swartley is Professor of New Testament at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana.