Theology Book Review

Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church's Debate on Same-Sex Relationships

by James V. Brownson
Reviewed date: 2023 Apr 26
316 pages
cover art

This is the book I'm looking for
This is the scholarly, detailed book that responds to Robert A. J. Gagnon, and it offers a gay-affirming counterpoint to Gagnon's defense of the historic Christian teachings on marriage and sexuality. I did not take detailed notes on Gagnon's book because (in part) I presumed my time would be better spent in making a detailed study of Brownson's rebuttal. Because Brownson spends so much time responding to Gagnon, I can judge between the two views. Brownson's book is divided into four main sections, so I'll comment on them below.

I. Why Another Book on Same-Sex Relationships?

1. Introduction and Overview
Brownson starts with an introduction that explains why this book is necessary. He also defines the terms he will use for the two sides of the debate: traditionalist and revisionist. Those terms seem acceptable; they are accurate and not inflammatory or prejudicial. That's about the only good thing I can say about his introduction. The rest is filled with rhetorical tricks. For example:

And where do gay and lesbian people, gender identities, and marriage fit within that vision in the context of post-Christian North American society, where divorce rates are high, sexual promiscuity is common, AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections are a powerful threat, and where too many pregnancies end in abortion, and too many babies will never have two parents?

That's some top-level rhetoric right there. Brownson links the traditional view of marriage with a worldview that results in divorce, promiscuity, AIDS, abortion, and children growing up in single-parent homes.

Then there's this, where Brownson paints a picture of the goals of the revisionists that is not remotely realistic:

How, they ask, will the church find the strength to bear witness in word and deed to all of Scripture’s other teachings regarding sexuality in a context where the larger culture increasingly ignores the biblical vision for sexuality and marriage and experiences deep brokenness as a result? In this context, then, the question of the ethics of homosexuality becomes for many traditionalists a “line in the sand” that will determine whether the church as a whole will lose its capacity to speak a clear word from God to its surrounding culture.

For revisionist Christians, however, this attempt to draw a “line in the sand” is fundamentally misguided. They see deliberations over the ethics of homosexuality as an opportunity for the church to consecrate same-sex unions, drawing gay and lesbian persons into a biblical and traditional vision of faithful, committed unions that can stand as a witness against the prevailing patterns of promiscuity, divorce, and brokenness that characterize so much sexual experience in the wider North American culture.

Brownson is a fool if he thinks that the pro-gay-affirming advocates will stop at advocating "faithful, committed unions" for gay Christians. That certainly didn't happen in secular American culture, and if we let the Christian church go down the same road as the wider culture went just a few years ago, the church will end up in the same place. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Compromising on the definition of marriage will inevitably result in jettisoning all Christian sexual ethics. But I'm on my own soapbox here, and I should be analyzing the book and not preaching. I'm just upset that we're barely two pages into the content of the book and Brownson is already using shady rhetorical tricks and concealing the plain reality of what will actually happen if the church embraces a revisionist sexual ethic.

And then there's the part where Brownson just lies about the research.

In light of some recent research indicating that the overall divorce rate among Christians differs little from the prevailing divorce rate in North America, revisionists wonder whether gay and lesbian people are being forced to pay the price for a church that has lost its way and its voice in addressing our current context effectively.

It's not true that Christians divorce at the same rate as the culture. It's a pernicious lie, and I'm tired of it. It's an untruth spread by Barna and parroted unthinkingly by Christians for nearly two decades now, and it's time to grow up and recognize that it's not true and it never was true. This lie has been used to shock and shame Christians for years, and we shouldn't stand for it.

Brownson even admits in a footnote that this divorce rate fact isn't true, or at least that the truth is a lot more nuanced, so, what? At best Brownson is saying that revisionists are basing their beliefs on an untruth?

...they are not so much disagreements about what the biblical text says … but primarily disagreements about what the biblical text means for Christians today.

Don't believe that for a second. We will see that Brownson does not merely disagree on the text's application to Christians today, but also on what the text says. That is, he will disagree fundamentally on what the first century audience would have understood the words to mean.

Page 11. Ah, here we get to the crux of it. Brownson's son came out as gay. Then Brownson examined the Scriptures again and found out that, hey, it turns out the Bible is compatible with homosexual practice.

The texts had not changed, but my assumptions about what they were self-evidently saying was put to the test. My core Reformed commitment to the centrality of Scripture had not changed; but I needed to confront the equally Reformed conviction that the church must always be reforming itself according to the Word of God. This principle assumes that what Scripture seems to say is not always identical to how it truly should inform Christian faith and practice.

This is…suspicious. The church must "always be reforming itself according to the Word of God" is fine, and I'll take his word for it that this is a Reformed conviction. But then he ties that directly into "what Scripture seems to say is not always identical to how it truly should inform Christian faith and practice" which suggests that it is also a Reformed conviction to be continually re-interpreting the Scriptures and throwing out old doctrines. That is not what the Reformed tradition teaches. John Calvin and the reformers tried to reform the church by identifying where the contemporary church had gone astray, and then recovering older, biblically accurate teachings from church history; they were not advocating the invention of novel doctrines.

This is just sad so far. But despite the fact that Brownson's rhetoric in the introduction is unfair, this should not dissuade one from accepting his subsequent arguments if they are sound. So, onward.

2. The Traditionalist Case and Its Problems
Brownson identifies a key component of the traditionalist case: gender complementarity. First he points out that different traditionalists have differing ideas about what gender complementarity means. Some think this means hierarchy, and thus their traditionalist marriage ethic goes hand in hand with male-only leadership roles in the church and in marriage. Others, like Gagnon, view this as primarily referring to biological or anatomical complementarity. Brownson quotes Gagnon a lot about this anatomical complementarity, and he is not convinced:

The biological differences between the sexes seem a rather slender basis on which to build an entire marriage ethic.

Those biological differences are not slender, nor are they the only basis on which the traditionalist Christian marriage ethic is built. This is more rhetoric. But it gets worse:

Moreover, such an approach leads us directly into the difficult contemporary debate about essentialism (gender differences are primarily biologically based) or versus constructivism (gender differences are primarily socially constructed) in gender identity. Sorting out what is "biological" and what is "cultural" in the meaning of maleness and femaleness is an enormously complicated task.

No it's not. This essentialism vs. constructivism debate is daft. The differences between the sexes arise out of nature, out of God's created order. The idea that sex and gender are socially constructed is a postmodern fiction invented only recently by third-wave (or is it fourth-wave) feminism. Now I'm getting angry. Brownson is deliberately trying to confuse and bamboozle us.

But Brownson lands the philosophy plane. Theories of gender are not the point, the point is whether the biblical writers had biological complementarity in mind.

There are not many passages in Scripture that speak of a connection between biology and gender; in fact, some would argue that there are none that speak to this issue.

And he's off again. Gender—that is, sex—is biological. Anyone who claims otherwise is lying. If this is Brownson's response to Gagnon, Brownson is out of his league.

Anyway. Brownson summarizes Gagnon's exposition of Genesis 2, pointing out that according to Gagnon "the one-flesh union of marriage thus necessarily and exclusively requires the union of the "flesh" of one male and one female. Therefore it is the bodily differences of male and female that are centrally in view in Genesis 2." (page 26) Brownson offers four points responding to this view.

(1) The original 'adam of Genesis 1:26—2:18 is not a binary, or sexually undifferentiated, being that is divided into male and female in Genesis 2:21
Brownson objects to Gagnon's characterization of marriage as a union that "reconstitutes the original, binary, or androgynous 'adam." (page 28, Brownson's paraphrase.) Brownson is correct that the idea of man as a single being and then subsequently split into two sexual halves is not represented in Genesis or elsewhere in Scripture. Gagnon is wrong to advance this idea. The Bible clearly says God made woman from man, not man and woman from the original human. If some ancient rabbis thought otherwise, that means they were inventing novel doctrines.

(2) The focus in Genesis 2 is not on complementarity of male and female, but on the similarity of male and female.
Brownson believes the complementarity in Genesis 2 is not based on the differences between male and female, but the similarities. It is not the biological differences that are central in Genesis 2, but rather the similarity—that both male and female are created in the image of God.

Uh. OK. Brownson is not wrong to say that Genesis 2 highlights the similarities between male and female. It surely does. But…you know, the fact that God created a woman and not another man is instructive. Unless we have already jettisoned the concept of the gender binary (that is, the sex binary) then even if Genesis 2 is about the similarities between male and female it is still, also about the differences.

I mean, at the end of Genesis 2 we know two things about the man and the woman. First, they are the same: they are both made in the image of God. Second, they are different: the man is a man, and the woman is a woman. Brownson would have us believe that only the former has meaning when we are considering marriage and sexuality. Gagnon's view takes both facts into account. If Gagnon neglects to mention the first, it's because nobody disagrees about it.

(3) The fact that male and female are both created in the divine image (Gen. 1:27) is intended to convey the value, dominion, and relationality shared by both men and women, but not the idea that complementarity of the genders is somehow necessary to fully express or embody completeness
Even if every word of that is true, that isn't an argument against the traditional view of marriage and sexuality. It does explain why celibacy is acceptable; single people are not less-than or inferior or incomplete in God's eyes. So this may, in some small way, push back on Gagnon's characterization of marriage as a "reconstitution of the sexual unity of the original adam" but it doesn't take you a single step closer to affirming gay marriage.

In any case, I think Brownson's takeaway here is that when the Bible says "in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" that is two separate clauses. That is, God created them in two ways: 1) in his image, and 2) male and female. What it does not mean, according to Brownson, is that "male and female" is a description or restatement of "in his image." So gender (that is, sex) complementarity is not the essential part of being made in God's image.

And I think I agree with that. Each individual human being is made in God's image. If there is some essential quality of God's image that is represented by the sex differences—and there may be—we can't get that doctrine from the Genesis passage alone.

(4) The "one-flesh" union spoken of in Genesis 2:24 connotes, not physical complementarity, but a kinship bond
Here Brownson concedes that traditionalists may well agree with his three previous points. (And he's right.) Traditionalists, he says, will point to Genesis 2:24, "That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh." Traditionalists will say this speaks of man reuniting with woman who was created from the flesh of man. I don't know why Brownson even brings this up. This is dumb. Brownson says this passage doesn't refer to physical flesh, but to kinship: the man is leaving his family and creating a new family. Of course it does. His primary allegiance is no longer to his parents and his family of origin, but to his wife and his new family. Traditionalists should have no trouble accepting this and still holding fast to the idea that Genesis 1 and 2 support the idea of marriage as between a man and a woman. That Genesis 2:24 refers to kinship does not mean it does not also refer to the physical, biological complementarity of men and women. The "flesh" language here echoes the words that Adam spoke just prior, "bone from my bone and flesh from my flesh," and though it signals kinship, the choice of words also signals that this kinship is between man and woman by the very nature of their created order. Brownson is right that this means kinship, but he's wrong to conclude that because it means kinship it does not also mean physical, biological, anatomical complementarity.

In the conclusion to this chapter, Brownson says that because of what he's just demonstrated about Genesis 2, the reference in Romans 1:26-27 to "against nature" cannot mean physical complementarity. He's wrong. Brownson has spent a whole lot of words and many pages knocking down some rather odd, unimportant misunderstandings of Genesis 2. If you didn't pay attention, you may have thought this undermined the traditionalist case. It doesn't. Traditionalists can agree with everything Brownson said and still affirm, based on solid Scriptural support even from Genesis 2, the traditional church teachings on marriage and sexuality.

Physical, biological, anatomical complementarity is still present in the Genesis account even if we read and interpret it as Brownson demands. As I mentioned above, Brownson neglects to even address whether the differences between male and female might have any significance. The fact that Genesis 1 and 2 bring out a lot about the similarities between the man and the woman don't mean that the differences are not also highlighted. Brownson seems to think that because the similarities are important, the differences cannot be. This is an elementary error in logic.

Brownson is either a fool or he thinks his reader is.

Interestingly, Brownson's entire case (so far) against the traditionalist view is to make a few points about Genesis 2. Those points don't even conflict with a traditionalist view. And Brownson hasn't even attempted to address any of the other passages. Brownson hasn't addressed the majority of what Gagnon says. Gagnon's section on Genesis 2 is less than seven pages out of a book that is over 500. Brownson hasn't even addressed, in any meaningful way, anything Gagnon has written about.

3. Revisionist Readings

As I have argued in the preceding chapter, however, such a reading of physical complementarity of the genders is nowhere else directly affirmed (or even addressed) in Scripture, and thus cannot be sustained as a comprehensive reading of the creation narratives themselves.

And as I pointed out repeatedly, Brownson has not made that case at all.

Anyway. Brownson says that revisionists often appeal to the idea that when the Bible speaks of homosexual practice, what is being discussed is so different, so far removed in the past, that it has no bearing on what is meant today by committed, same-sex marriage relationships. But Brownson points out that this same reasoning can lead to discarding all Christian sexual ethics, for similar reasons of being old and outmoded.

To answer this objection to the revisionist hermeneutic, Brownson first takes us on a quick tour of the revisionist interpretations of the "seven passages."

  • Sodom and Gomorrah is about inhospitality, or about rape, but says nothing about consensual homosexual relations
  • The same goes for the story in Judges 19.
  • The two Leviticus texts are about ritual impurity, not morality.
  • In 1 Corinthians 6:9, revisionists say the proper translations should condemn male prostitution, pederasty, and sexual abuse or exploitation
  • 1 Timothy 1:10 should be properly translated to prohibit kidnapping of young boys for sex slavery.
  • Interpretations of Romans 1:26-27 tend to focus on the meaning of the word "nature", suggesting either that Paul is referring to heterosexuals who are engaging in homosexual acts against their nature, or that Paul is talking about violating cultural norms, not universal norms established by God.

The common thread here, Brownson points out, is that according to revisionist interpretations, none of these seven passages prohibits or even refers to the present-day committed same-sex relationships. The Bible has nothing to say about the issues that the church faces today.

And my response is, I guess, that seems like a relatively fair assessment of the revisionist position. I've heard all those arguments before. None of those arguments are convincing, particularly now that I've read Gagnon, but let's see if Brownson can respond to Gagnon and convince me. Surely Gagnon can't be right about everything.

If the Bible does not speak directly and explicitly to contemporary committed and loving same-sex unions, how are we to construct a distinctively Christian approach to such unions? Here is where we detect the second common thread winding its way through a range of revisionist positions. If the first step is to emphasize the historical distance between the world of the text and our contemporary experience and culture, the second step is to appeal to very broad ethical principles that can be established in a wide range of biblical passages.

Which, essentially, boils down to redefining sin: "any acts that proceed from a loving heart and do not harm the other person cannot be considered sinful."

Brownson points out that building an entire sexual ethic on the broad principles of love and justice is difficult, and that many traditionalists point out the problems with such a view. Gagnon, for example, says committed, loving incest would be allowed by such an ethical framework. Brownson says that the Bible has a lot to say about marriage and sexuality, and wonders whether the teachings on divorce and celibacy can be adequately addressed by a sexual ethic built entirely from general principles. But even beyond that, Brownson says that even if we presume a sexual relationship is loving and just because it is consensual, the specific meaning of consent is sometimes hard to determine, particularly given the fallen world we live in and the confused, "devious" condition of the human heart.

The point of all this, Brownson says, is to recognize that most revisionists build a case for a Christian view of sexuality not from the biblical texts that speak about sex—those are all discarded as old and culturally irrelevant—but from biblical texts the speak of love and justice.

As a result, revisionists draw an ethical framework for treating loving and committed same-sex relationships, not from the texts that seem to speak more directly to this issue, but rather from broader biblical themes, such as justice and love. Critics, however, wonder whether this move to broader principles represents an abandonment of the specificity of the biblical witness on sexual issues and identity in particular, and whether it renders Christian sexual ethics too vulnerable to vagary, self-deception, and manipulation.

That seems like a fair explanation of the state of affairs.

Brownson wants to offer something new. Instead of appealing to broad principles, Brownson wants to re-examine the biblical texts that speak directly about sexuality and, using what is known about the historical context (particularly the sexuality of the Ancient Near East), "discern in a fresh way the underlying forms of moral logic that shape and focus biblical teaching on sexuality." This means understanding the cultures—not just one, but diverse cultures in many places over many generations—and the progressive nature of revelation. The key words here are: diversity (many cultures), movement (progressive revelation), normal (that is, descriptive, or culturally-based) and normative (prescriptive).

Basically, I think what Brownson is saying is that he likes what the traditionalists do by taking all the Bible verses seriously, but he doesn't like their conclusions. He's going to see if he can look at the totality of Scripture, and, taking all the verses into account within the sweep of God's revelation, see if he can construct a moral framework that is both gay-affirming and true to the biblical authors' intent.

Well, let's see if he can do it. I find it interesting that, in the section on the traditionalist framework, Brownson felt he had to keep knocking it down and prove there was something wrong with it, but that he failed to do so. Whereas here, when presenting the revisionists' side, he is able to highlight a lot more problems with the revisionists case, to the point that this entire book is an attempt to rectify the failings with the revisionist case.

Still, I want to see if he can do it. I am really trying to give him the benefit of the doubt here. I know he has an agenda, but that doesn't mean he can't offer good, convincing arguments. I'm waiting to hear them.

II. Recovering a Broad, Cross-Cultural Vision for the Center of Christian Sexual Ethics

4. Patriarchy
Are the examples of patriarchy in the Bible normative? Are the examples of egalitarianism exceptions or should we take them as normative? I don't know what this has to do with homosexuality, but I'm sure Brownson will find some way to tie it all together.

Brownson mentions 1 Timothy 2:13 and 1 Corinthians 11:8 as examples where the Bible presumes that because men were created before women, they are to be dominant. "Priority in creation is assumed in that text to be equivalent to dominance." Brownson just asserts this. He doesn't attempt to actually engage with the text. I'm not impressed.

But despite these attempts of the New Testament writers to find a basis for certain forms of patriarchy in the creation narratives, we must also note the remarkable egalitarian motifs that appear in the creation stories themselves.

I'm sorry. "Despite these attempts of the New Testaments writers to find a basis for certain forms of patriarchy in the creation narratives?" Does this sound like a scholar treating the Bible as God's inspired word? This is Brownson trying to undercut our respect for the Bible.

I like the second part of his statement, though: yes, we can and should note the egalitarian motifs in the creation stories. We just don't need to call into question the reliability and trustworthiness of the New Testament in order to do so.

It is not until after the Fall, in Genesis 3:16, that we find explicit discussion about patriarchy.

That's the egalitarian-complementarian debate right there. One thinks male headship is part of the created order, the other thinks it's a product of the Fall.

Brownson lists examples of patriarchy and of egalitarianism in the Old Testament. He concludes that we cannot know whether the patriarchal patterns we see in the Old Testament are normative without looking at the New Testament.

Brownson sets up the two camps like this: complementarians think the New Testament is straightforward in the way it reinforces male headship and female submission. Egalitarians think patriarchy and male headship is another cultural norm we have outgrown. I find this characterization absurd and offensive. As someone who leans cautiously egalitarian, I am not happy to be painted as someone who believes "the church has grown past such ancient assumptions and … must focus instead on broader biblical principles such as love and justice." Uh, no. Egalitarian views are rooted in specific biblical texts. I'm not sure why Brownson is being so dismissive of egalitarian views. I mean, a few sentences later Brownson offers numerous examples from the New Testament of reasons why some people are egalitarian. Surely Brownson is not presuming he's the first to notice this? What did he think egalitarianism was based on in the first place? Wishful thinking? No, it was—and always has been—taken directly from examples given to us in the early church as recorded in the New Testament. Good gracious.

Those who want to insist that the Bible requires women never to exercise authority publicly over men are forced into some striking exegetical gymnastics to account for this direct evidence of women in leadership in the New Testament texts.

Exactly. I'm still not sure how he intends to tie this into a revisionist view of same-sex relationships. Women in leadership is something the New Testament gives numerous positive examples of. Same-sex relationships are not. They're not comparable.

The reason we have egalitarian-complementarian debates within Christianity is that the New Testament on the one hand gives some instructions that seem to indicate that men and women have different roles in marriage and in the church, but on the other hand gives positive examples of women in leadership roles. A tension exists. There is no such tension on the subject of same-sex relationships. I am still wondering how Brownson is going to land this plane.

Jesus clearly placed loyalty to family below loyalty to himself and to God, thereby calling into question the basic structures of society that were built around the order of patriarchal households. He declared that anyone who loved father or mother more than him was not worthy of him (Matt. 10:37).

Wait wait wait. Brownson makes it sound like Jesus was trying to strike a blow against patriarchy. That….that's just not what is going on in that passage. *sigh* Brownson, even when you're on my side your arguments from Scripture are embarrassing.

Galatians 3:27-28. Ah, here we go. Brownson says this is the key passage. This is the "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" passage. To understand what this means, Brownson says we must look at Aristotle's Politics, where he explains the basic building blocks of human society: "the union of male and female for the continuation of the species" and "the union of natural ruler and natural subject for the sake of security." Add to those two categories the distinctly Jewish category of Jew vs. Gentile and there you have Paul's "Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female."

I'm skeptical whenever anybody says we need to import ideas from the Greek philosophers to understand the Bible, but sure, whatever. I don't think it even makes a difference here. The basic gist of what Paul is getting at doesn't depend on Aristotle, and frankly I don't think the Galatians 3:27-28 is a very good passage for egalitarians to hang their hats on. It doesn't mean as much as they want it to mean. I'm not impressed with Brownson's decision to make this a big, important passage.

Brownson seems really eager to knock down male headship and complementarianism. I guess egalitarianism is a requirement for those who want a gay-affirming version of Christianity. Unfortunately, egalitarianism is not sufficient. In fact, I'd say that anyone who is just trying to let the Bible be his guide must be both egalitarian, and hold to traditional Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality.

So here, finally, is where Brownson begins to tie it all together:

There are two countervailing streams with respect to patriarchy in Scripture. One of these streams assumes a patriarchal framework.... The other stream flows from ... the words of Jesus.... One of these streams assumes life in this world, shaped by the structures of creation; the other assumes life in the age to come, shaped by the structures of the gospel, lived out in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The overall movement of the moral logic of Scripture with respect to patriarchy is thus away from the roles defined by household responsibilities in the ancient world—including the divisions of honor, status, and worth defined along gender lines—and toward a vision of mutuality and equality in which the procreative enterprise of male and female no longer defines the human identity at its core. Instead, humans draw their core identity from their union with Christ and their participation in the age to come.

So there it is. The "movement of the moral logic of Scripture" is toward a future where "male and female" have no meaning. Ergo, same-sex romantic relationships are fine. That is remarkably thin logic. Particularly when we see specific prohibitions on same-sex relations in the New Testament. Is this is the best Brownson can come up with?

hierarchy or patriarchy cannot be construed to be the essence of normative "gender complementarity" that is allegedly violated by same-sex unions

I don't concede that Brownson has disproved complementarianism. Pointing out that the Bible pushes back against the patriarchy of the day is not the same as proving that complementarianism is unbiblical or that male headship is not supported in Scriptures. I still come down on the egalitarian side of things, but I don't want to let Brownson skate on this point: he has not proved that hierarchy cannot be a part of normative gender complementarity.

And let's also not forget that there are other aspects of gender (that is, sex) complementarity that might be in view, such as biological and anatomical. Gagnon talks a lot about that, and Brownson hasn't addressed it yet.

Almost all studies of homoeroticism in the ancient world recognize that the nearly universal pattern of same-sex erotic relationships in the ancient world (particularly among men) involved status differences between the active and passive partners.

This canard again? People in the ancient world were not stupid. It strains credulity to think they were unaware of people with strictly homosexual desires who formed (relatively) equal partnerships. In fact, Gagnon offers ample evidence of this from the ancient literature. It may be true that many or even most homosexuality was between men of different power and status, but that doesn't mean it was exclusively so, or that people were unaware of what we, today, would consider committed, consensual, same-sex relationships.

For a man, to be penetrated is to be inherently degraded—that is, to be forced to act like a woman instead of a man. ... treating a man as if he were a woman is the core problem. Such an activity would have been viewed, given patriarchal assumptions, as inherently degrading.

The presumption here, left unstated, is that because the movement of moral logic in Scripture is away from patriarchy, that this is an entirely patriarchal assumption that should be discarded. But notice: it is not patriarchal to presume that it is degrading for a man to be treated as a woman. What is patriarchal is to presume that the reason it is degrading is because a woman is inferior to a man. If we discard patriarchy, that doesn't mean it's acceptable or uplifting for a man to be treated as a woman (or conversely, a woman as a man.) Because men and women are, in fact, different, there may be reasons unrelated to patriarchy that make it wrong for a man to be treated sexually as a woman (or a woman to be treated sexually as a man.) Gagnon is pretty clear about saying that, contrary to the assumptions of patriarchy, the biblical reason it is degrading for a man to be treated sexually as a woman is because man is by nature different than a woman—different, not inferior—and being treated contrary to his nature is degrading.

I will argue in chapter 11 that this "lesbian" interpretation of Romans 1:16 is unlikely, and that a stronger case can be made for understanding Romans 1:26 as referring to noncoital heterosexual intercourse, making this a moot point as far as patriarchy is concerned.

Of course he must find a way to make this about something other than lesbians, or his whole case falls apart. I'll be interested to see his arguments, because Gagnon has addressed this idea and pretty thoroughly dismantled it. I await chapter 11.

5. One Flesh
Brownson opens the chapter by recapping the misconceptions he has already swept away (but he hasn't) and says he is now ready to make a positive case for a biblical moral framework of marriage and sexuality.

In my exploration of the meaning of sexuality and gender in Scripture in this book, it has been necessary to clear away some misconceptions before we can move ahead more constructively. Thus chapter 2 was concerned, in large part, with clearing away unhelpful attempts either to use "gender complementarity" in undefined ways or to define such complementarity in terms of the biological differences between male and female. In that chapter I argued that, despite the obvious and subtle biological differences between male and female, Scripture does not use these biological differences as the explicit basis for differentiating roles or identities for male and female.

I deny that Brownson has made his case for that.

In the next chapter I explored whether the biblical themes of justice and love were sufficient to develop an entire sexual ethic, and I argued that they were necessary but not sufficient in themselves to develop a comprehensive and canonical ethic.

No kidding. We have to also look at the Bible verses that specifically speak about sex. But Brownson neglects to mention that he's already committed to dismissing those as products of a patriarchal norm that is not normative.

In the preceding chapter, I explored whether hierarchy was an appropriate way to characterize a canonical understanding of the relationship between the sexes.

I guess he did. But he didn't make his case for that, either, and even if he did, as I pointed out above, hierarchy (that is, patriarchy) is not necessary to a historic Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality.

Next, Brownson speaks of marriage and the one-flesh language in the words of Jesus as an analogy to God's covenantal faithfulness to Israel. Then he moves on to the one-flesh language in Ephesians 5:21-33 as an analogy to Christ and the church. (So, marriage is a picture of God's covenant with Israel, and with Christ's relationship to the church.) That raises the question: what are the qualities or senses that the analogy of marriage is highlighting?

Brownson looks at the "head" language and quickly dismisses it as a cultural norm about providership:

But in the ancient world, husbands were "saviors" of their wives in a more general meaning of that word: providers and source of security for the households that were dependent on them. It is probably in this sense that the text speaks of husbands as "heads": the emphasis is on connectedness, care, and provision. Therefore, throughout this section we see the reciprocal relationship between provision and care of the head, on the one hand, and submission of the body, on the other hand. It is obvious that in a modern context, where husbands are no longer the sole source of provision and care, this framework needs to be reconsidered and "retranslated."

And this, then, is the meaning, the essential element that the analogy of marriage highlights:

Just as we saw in Jesus' words on divorce, the paradigmatic faithfulness of God to Israel (or in this case, the faithfulness of Christ to the church) becomes the purpose to which human marriage must aspire—the norm that must shape the way human marriages seek to find their meaning and identity.

That interpretation seems weak to me. Marriage is an analogy of Christ's relationship to the church in the sense that marriages should model themselves after Christ's faithfulness to the church? That's…that's not an analogy. That's not how an analogy works.

the faithfulness of marriage was intended as a pointer to the greater faithfulness of God to Israel. Now, in the faithfulness of Christ to the church we see a deepening and widening vision of the way in which marital faithfulness, love, and care point beyond themselves to the newly revealed secret of Christ's redemptive relationship to the people of God—now including not only Jews, but Gentiles as well (Eph. 1:10).

What does that even mean? Marriage is an analogy of God's faithfulness to Israel, and also to Christ's faithfulness to the church. So the difference here is that the former was just Jews, but now it's Gentiles as well? It's a mystery! I mean, it really is—Paul says exactly that—but I don't see how this gets Brownson any closer to a gay-affirming sexual ethic.

The fact that the Bible uses the language of "one flesh" to refer to male-female unions normally does not inherently, and of itself, indicate that it views such linkages normatively.

No, it's all those other passages that explicitly condemn same-sex relationships that tips the scale.

When we encounter questions and issues not contemplated by the biblical writers, 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.

Once again, presuming (incorrectly) that the ancient writers had no concept of committed same-sex relationships as we know them today. Gagnon has already thoroughly demonstrated that they did.

Brownson goes through, once again, all the things he's claimed to have dismantled (but hasn't actually dismantled at all), highlighting biological complementarity and hierarchy (complementarianism.) I'm not impressed. He hasn't made his case for these, and now he's calling back to them as if he's dismissed them. If the rest of his book is built on this foundation, it's built on sinking sand.

Moreover, there are some arguments that might suggest that same-sex unions could be understood as one-flesh unions. The first and most important of these focuses on the link between kinship and one-flesh unions.

Once again, Brownson has only pointed out that the one-flesh language in Genesis carries a kinship meaning. He has not made a case that it excludes the meaning of biological, anatomical complementarity. He's made a very basic error in logic, presuming that because the Genesis passage is about kinship that it therefore cannot also be about physical, biological, anatomical complementarity. It's about both. This is not hard to understand.

Next, Brownson speaks about mutuality and permanence in the one-flesh union, and says that same-sex relationships in the ancient world were always characterized by a power imbalance and by the impermanence of the arrangement. Thus, today's committed same-sex unions between equals would meet the qualifications of a one-flesh marriage. But once again, Gagnon has already put to rest the lie that the ancients had no concept of committed, same-sex partnerships between equals. Gagnon has already, thoroughly, convincingly, and at length, shown the evidence from many ancient sources that this is untrue. When the Scriptural authors condemned same-sex relations, they did so from a point of view that understood the full range of human sexual behavior. The biblical writers were not ignorant of these things.

6. Procreation
Brownson begins by explaining the various church traditions: some early church fathers (Augustine, Ambrose) viewed procreation as the only moral reason for having sex. The Catholic Church teaches that each act of sex within a marriage must be open to procreation, but allows that sex during infertile windows is acceptable. Protestants—whose views started to differ from the Roman Catholic position only around the 12th century—tend to view procreation as good but not the central purpose of marriage and sexual relations. The Reformed view of marriage is covenantal. Lutheran and Anglican view marriage as part of the commonwealth, a basic social building block. But whatever the specific view, nearly all Protestants do not consider procreation the chief aim or reason for marriage and sexuality.

I don't know enough about the history of theology and doctrine to say whether Brownson is accurately describing the state of affairs. At best, I can say that what he says is not inconsistent with what I've read elsewhere. The point is not the specific doctrines, though. The point is, some traditionalists argue that same-sex marriage is invalid because it is by nature non-procreative. If marriage must, by nature, be procreative, that would indeed make same-sex marriage invalid, so Brownson says we must examine the Scriptures to see what the Bible says about marriage and procreation.

As an aside, I've not found the Roman Catholic position convincing. I read Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae where he laid out the case against contraception. I found it superficial and poorly thought-out. I also don't find procreation-based arguments against same-sex marriage convincing. Usually it's because those, too, are poorly thought-out. So even if Brownson can demonstrate that procreation is not a necessary part of marriage, I don't think it gets him any further toward making a revisionist case.

This seems to be a theme in this book. To make a revisionist case, Brownson has to do a whole lot of things. He has to deny that biological complementarity has any meaning in the one-flesh union, he has to deny patriarchy, male headship, and complementarianism, and now (it seems) he must deny that procreation is an inherent part of marriage. But the converse is not true: the traditionalists don't have to prove any of those things. None of those things are necessary for the traditionalist case to be true. We could grant Brownson's arguments on every one of those points, and the overwhelming evidence from Scripture still supports the traditionalist interpretation.

Everywhere in Scripture, marriage is presumed as the context in which children are to be brought into the world; … when we … ask why this is so, the picture becomes more complicated. In our modern context we immediately tend to think of the rights of children.

The rights of children is the first thing that comes to Brownson's modern mind when he ponders why marriage is the Scriptural context for having children? *sigh* I think Brownson is a very special person.

[One] of the central purposes of children was to carry on their father's name. Therefore, children had to be born into a household whose name they could carry on. Closely related to this concern was the need for the orderly transmission of inheritance, particularly the land, which was normally passed on to sons… Keeping procreation within married households ensured the orderly transmission of the land given by God through the coming generations.

Brownson seems to be suggesting that it is patriarchal and old-fashioned to presume that heterosexual marriage is the only proper context for having children.

Hence we come to an important basic form of scriptural moral logic that applies across many cultures, times, and places: procreation belongs in the context of marriage.


But the inverse question is neither that explicit nor that clear: Does marriage always assume and require the purpose of procreation in order for the marriage itself to be valid or fulfill its purpose?

Childless marriages are just as valid. This is a silly question. But wait wait wait. If Brownson is building to what I think he is—that we cannot dismiss same-sex unions as valid marriages simply because they are of necessity childless—then I think, by extension, he is saying that same-sex unions must always be childless. Right? But come on, we're not fools. We know that the revisionists will never accept that. They'll want children too.

the words "be fruitful and multiply" are more properly understood as a blessing rather than as a command.

Yes. I've made this same observation more than once. I don't see how this reasonably gets us anywhere closer to gay marriage, but whatever.

Genesis 2, which explores the one-flesh marital bond in detail, does not mention procreation at all.

I might quibble with "in detail" but I agree in principle.

Song of Songs makes no mention of issues related to procreation at all

A good point. Marriage is not intrinsically about procreation.

Jesus' prohibition of divorce … [forbids] husbands to divorce barren wives. … Yes the "exception clauses" in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 recognize that adultery—the violation of the unitive, or one-flesh, meaning of marriage—is sufficient grounds for divorce. With adultery, we are talking about something more essential about marriage than procreation.

Again, spot on.

The moral logic of the Bible is thus fairly clear on this subject; procreation is an important purpose of marriage, and marriage is the sole context where procreation should happen, but marriage has something more than procreation as its essential reason for being.


In Roman Catholic thought, opposition to homosexuality and gay or lesbian marriages flows directly from Catholic teaching that procreation is the essence of marriage.

I'm no Catholic scholar, but I suspect they've got a lot more reasons for why same-sex unions are out of bounds. I disagree with the Catholics about their doctrine on procreation and contraception, but I believe Brownson is selling them short.

Basically, Brownson is arguing that procreation is not the essence of marriage. The "unitive meaning of sexuality" is the essence, and "if this is true for heterosexual couples, it raises the question of whether it should also be true for same-sex unions." And then Brownson uses this to call into question whether the differences between the sexes actually matters within a marriage. That is, he's suggesting that the only reason the male/female differences matter is procreation. And if procreation is not the essence of marriage, then the male/female difference doesn't matter in marriage at all. So why not same-sex marriage? But Brownson has not actually offered any evidence that procreation is the only reason or meaning to the difference between male and female persons.

The scriptural texts we have explored make it clear that the identities of husband and wife, male and female, are not based essentially or ultimately on their capacity to procreate.

Yes. And that's why, although procreation is not the essence of marriage, the male/female differences are meaningful and necessary within marriage. Brownson is taking the wrong message here. raises the question about whether it is right for gay or lesbian marriagelike unions to be rejected simply because they are incapable of procreation

It raises the question, and let me answer it: the incapacity of procreation is not the reason why Scripture rejects same-sex unions. This is a straw-man argument, and a poor one. Brownson isn't making any headway here. I'm not Catholic, and even if the Catholic arguments about procreation aren't correct, the defense of traditionalist arguments don't rest on that.

7. Celibacy
I hope this chapter is good, because Matthew Vines sure makes a big deal about celibacy in his book.

But celibacy—in the sense of a lifelong commitment to singleness—does not appear in the Old Testament.

As for the New Testament, Brownson starts by giving a brief overview of the Hellenistic schools of thought about marriage. The Stoics viewed marriage as the foundational unit of society, and assumed marriage was a social good that nearly everyone was obligated to participate in. The Cynics figured the best things in life—philosophy, knowledge, etc.—would be crowded out by the demands of marriage. I don't know whether this Stoic-Cynic framework is correct or how much it influenced the biblical writers.

Next, Brownson suggests that in Matthew 19 when Jesus speaks about marriage, his disciples would have heard this in the context of the Stoic-Cynic debate. Thus we should interpret Jesus' words as addressing the argument between Stoics and Cynics, and favoring the Stoics. But more importantly, given that the disagreements between the Stoics and Cynics were entirely about the pragmatic demands of marriage and not at all about sexual desires or passion, we should read Jesus' statements as reflecting only on the pragmatic concerns about marriage. In other words, Jesus is not making any statements about sexual asceticism, but only about celibacy.

Where Brownson is going with this I do not know.

Brownson says that Paul's instructions to the Corinthians about not abstaining from sex is a response to the Corinthian Christians' Cynic philosophy: they wanted more individual freedom to explore more important, spiritual things, and foregoing sex was their way of achieving that—but at the expense of the marriage.

Here's what Brownson does: he takes Paul's admonition that "it is better to marry than to be aflame in passion" and infers that this means that whether or not a person has the "gift" or "calling" of celibacy is dependent on that person's sexual self-control. That is, a person who is "aflame in passion" is ipso facto not called to celibacy.

Celibacy in this context represents a third way, beyond either marriage or "burning" with passion. It involves not merely sufficient willpower to restrain sexual impulses but also the capacity to live in a focused and undistracted way apart from marriage.

If we take Brownson's view, there are three options: marriage, celibacy, or burning with passion. Those who are called to celibacy do not burn with passion. Those who burn with passion should marry. Therefore, as this pertains to gay and lesbian Christians, if they "burn" with sexual passion then they are not called to celibacy, which means that marriage must be an option for them. And because the majority of gay and lesbian Christians cannot find sexual fulfillment in a heterosexual marriage, they must be left to burn with passion—a state the Paul says is unacceptable—or they must be permitted to satisfy their passions in a same-sex marriage.

I am skeptical. Brownson is taking Paul's words to the Corinthians about one matter—husbands and wives ceasing to have sex—and using it to draw conclusions about a completely different matter: same-sex unions. Brownson is also relying heavily on this idea of three and only three possible callings for every individual: to marry, to be celibate, or to burn with passion. But the text doesn't support the idea that Paul is making a profound statement that these and only these three possibilities exist for everyone in all situations. Paul is not even addressing same-sex unions, and trying to shoehorn them into this passage is asinine and outrageous.

The traditionalist position requires us to assume that all gay and lesbian Christians who cannot change their sexual orientation are called and gifted for a life a celibacy—an assumption that stands in some tension with Paul's view articulated here.

Again, this presumes far too much. Paul is making a statement about one thing. He's not intending to advance an ethic about same-sex unions. It's not even in view in this passage. I don't see any problem at all with presuming that, if questioned, Paul (and Jesus, for that matter) would say that yes, gay and lesbian Christians who cannot change their desires do not have the gift or calling of celibacy, so to speak, but must nevertheless abstain from sexual relations because their sexual desires are disordered and the sort of sex they seek is sinful. These three options: marriage, celibacy, or an intolerable "burning with passion" are not intended to be the totality for all situations.

And furthermore: I think Brownson is making a mistake when he presumes that a person who is celibate (that is, remains single and never marries and never has sexual relations) is the same thing as someone who has the gift or calling of celibacy. I know Paul says it is not good to burn with passion, but Paul is saying that with the presumption that there is an option to alleviate that burning: marriage. If the burning is same-sex desires, that option is not open, and Paul would not suggest marriage as a solution. The point is, Paul simply isn't talking about same-sex desires in this passage.

Maybe an illustration will help. What if a young man desires to get married, is burning with passion, but nobody will have him? Would Paul then tell that man to marry? Or what if a town has many young men burning with passion, but (due to some bizarre circumstance like, say, the Communist Party's one-child policy paired with the cultural devaluation of girls meant that hundreds of millions of girls were murdered in the womb) there are literally not enough women to go around? Would we then be obliged to woodenly take Paul at his word, and conclude "Well Paul said these men should marry, and the only way to make this work is for each woman to take two husbands, so we can and should redefine marriage to make it acceptable—even obligatory—for a woman to take two husbands." No. This is outrageous. In these situations, and in the case of same-sex desire, the remedy for "burning with passion" is simply not available. Paul didn't explain what to do when the remedy isn't available because that was not the situation he was speaking to. Paul told the Corinthians to get married because marriage was the obvious, available solution right in front of them. It was good for them to do this. If this solution wasn't available he would have given different advice. Marriage isn't available for those burning with same-sex desire. If Paul was speaking to them he would have given different advice. What, precisely, he would have said we don't know. But we know what Paul said in Romans—and in a couple other passages—about same-sex desires, and we know with certainty Paul would not have affirmed a same-sex marriage.

III. Exploring the "Boundary Language" of Romans 1:24-27
The four chapters in this section explore the Romans 1:24-27 passage along four axes: lust, honor/shame, purity, and natural law.

8. Lust and Desire
Brownson points out that what Paul is doing in Romans 1 and 2 is laying a trap. Paul lists all the sins of the wicked, so that his readers will "join him in his outrage against such wickedness." Then in 2:1 Paul springs the trap: "Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself because you, the judge, are doing the very same things."

Here's what Brownson says about that:

"Passing judgment on another" is the sin that is equated with the licentiousness, greed, and lust portrayed in 1:18-32.

No. Just, no. There is no sin in passing judgment. What Paul is doing here is comparing the Jews to the Gentiles, and trying to get the Jews to understand that the law doesn't save them. Paul is not saying that "passing judgment" is a sin, he's saying that the same law that condemns the Gentile also condemns the Jew. But Brownson continues and double down:

The posture of judgmentalism entails essentially the same sin described in the previous chapter. But this only raises the further question: What does out-of-control lust have in common with judgmentalism?

Still no! This passage is not about judgmentalism. It is about everyone, Jew as well as Gentile, being condemned under the law. Paul drives that message home before he explains the necessity of Jesus' sacrifice.

But Brownson is still not done mangling Scripture:

In both cases, what Paul seems to have in mind is the attempt to advance one's own honor, status, and will at the expense of others. This interpretation is confirmed by a second piece of evidence found a bit later in the passage, in Romans 2:8, where Paul characterized those who are subject to divine judgment as "those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness." … what lustful pagans have in common with self-righteous judgmental Christians is that both are driven by the thirst for their own agency—their own way, their own status, their own honor—while ignoring the concerns of everyone around them, particularly those of the living God.

First of all, still no! This is not about judgmentalism. Second, Paul is not contrasting pagans and Christians in order to demonstrate that judgmentalism is equivalent to lustfulness, he is showing that the law condemns everyone. Third, what pagans and Christians (or Greeks and Jews) have in common is not that both are "driven by the thirst for their own agency," it is that both have broken God's law and stand condemned. The Jews are not saved by the Law. Later Paul will explain that both Jews and Gentiles are saved through Jesus.

Brownson is butchering Scripture. This makes me angry. God has given us, through Paul, a beautiful and incisive explanation of sin, the law, Jesus, the atonement, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation—and Brownson makes a mockery of it.

Then Brownson claims that the underlying moral logic behind this passage is all about idolatry. The lust is an expression of idolatry. Further, the same-sex passion is an outpouring of that lust, which is at its heart idolatry. (The implication, which Brownson will pick up later, is that if we can find a form of same-sex passion that is not idolatrous, this would be acceptable to Paul and hence to Jesus and God.)

The flow of the rhetoric makes it clear that the whole range of behaviors … including same-sex eroticism, is … [a] manifestation of lust. We see a similar connection between idolatry and excessive lust and perversion in the Wisdom of Solomon…

But once again, Brownson has been beaten to the punch by Gagnon, whose book soundly refuted the claim that Romans 1:24-27 refers to homosexual activity only within the context of idolatry. That's simply not true, and Gagnon has given ample evidence to show that.

Brownson also brings in the claim that Paul and those in his day had no concept of homosexual orientation, and viewed homosexual acts as existing purely as a lustful overflowing of unregulated and uncontrolled sexual passion. Gagnon has already amply demonstrated that the concept of committed same-sex unions between relative social equals was known. Brownson tries to dismiss Gagnon in a footnote—a long footnote, to be fair—but is not convincing. Brownson's claims still fail.

To dismiss the clause about lesbians, Brownson suggests that the whole litany of sins which Paul recites are actually an allusion to the Emperor Gaius Caligula, well known for his debauchery. Caligula apparently had incestual relations with his sisters. Thus, the passage refers not to women having sex with women, but women (specifically, Caligula's sisters) having incestual sex. This allusion to Caligula seems to be a fabrication, as Brownson offers no evidence for it. (Brownson cites a 1994 book by Neil Elliott. A novel and fantastic theory offered by one man nearly 2000 years after the fact doesn't impress me. If this were about Caligula it would be mentioned prior.)

For Paul, marriage exists not to extinguish desire, but rather—among other things—as the divinely ordained means for satisfying sexual desire that would otherwise be out of control and lead to sin.

I guess. I don't see how this gets Brownson any closer to a revisionist position. He hints later that, because today's gays and lesbians who form loving, committed same-sex unions do so for good reasons rather than from a place of out-of-control lust and passion, that therefore these unions are acceptable—or at least not addressed by Paul's words in Romans.

The point of this whole chapter, for Brownson, is to get us to this understanding: that the reason the sexual activity in Romans 1:24-27 is sinful is because it is rooted in idolatry and lust, not because it is same-sex, and that the reason Paul referred to same-sex activity is because the common understanding at the time was that same-sex activity was exclusively an outpouring of unrestrained lust. Brownson is wrong, and Gagnon has already put this argument to rest, but this is what Brownson is promulgating.

9. Purity and Impurity
Brownson does the thing that all the revisionists do, equating same-sex activity with the dietary regulations. It's tiresome. Gagnon already addressed it.

Brownson says there are "three basic movements that mark the New Testament's reinterpretation of purity and impurity in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus."

First, New Testament purity is not external, but internal (from the "heart and will.") Second, it is "a movement away from defensiveness and separateness toward confidence and engagement." (So, not about marking Israel as separate and distinct from the surrounding nations. Jesus "reversed" this "flow of contagion." Instead of the pagan nations making Israel impure, Jesus makes everyone pure.) Third, it looks forward to the new creation instead of backward to the old creation in Genesis.

Brownson makes some decent points there, although I would quibble with his characterization of purity being an external thing in the Old Testament. There is ample evidence that purity is a heart issue even in the Old Testament.

Brownson applies this to same-sex unions by suggesting that the root issue here is orderliness and discipline. Same-sex activity (as understood by Paul and the culture of the early church) was a product of licentiousness and unrestrained sexual excess, so clearly it was impure. Today's committed same-sex unions are different, and do not therefore fall under Paul's admonitions against same-sex activity. But this isn't actually any different than what Brownson has claimed earlier when he was talking about lust and desire, and repetition does not make it any more convincing.

[When] Paul uses the language of impurity with respect to sexual misbehavior in Romans 1, does he also intend to say that impurity represents an "objective" disorder and not simply the "subjective" excesses of lust and licentiousness?


Brownson also mentions Caligula again, presumably hoping we will have forgotten the fact that he never proved any connection but merely offered it up as an unsupported and unsubstantiated theory.

But the question remains: Can same-sex intimate relationships be a context in which desires can be disciplined and sanctified, where the restraints of selfish impulses can be learned, and where the interplay of sacrifice and self-giving with the surprising reception of unmerited love may create a dance of the Spirit, drawing couples into the triune life of love? … Or our such relationships inherently "impure," incapable of reflecting divine life and love?

And to figure out which of these options is true, Brownson doesn't point us back to Scripture, he tells us to "consider the actual experience and testimony of gay and lesbian Christians." That isn't helpful. Many people have rich, rewarding, and fulfilled lives (in this life at least) apart from God. It doesn't take much imagination to realize that even if the traditionalist view is correct, people can be content, happy, and fulfilled while living contrary to God's design.

Brownson spends the rest of the chapter going over some of Gagnon's work, and trying to explain why Gagnon is wrong to point to the prohibition on incest (which nobody disputes) to support the idea that the prohibition on homosexuality should also be undisputed. Brownson's explanation is unsatisfactory. He says that, because Paul talks about lust and licentiousness when he condemns same-sex activity, but Paul doesn't talk about those things when he's condemning incest, that this is evidence that Paul was presuming that incest is inherently wrong (and thus needs no explanation) but same-sex activity is not inherently wrong (and thus needs an explanation explaining the connection to lust and licentiousness.) This is bizarre and a real stretch. Gagnon's view makes so much more sense than Brownson's attempt to draw a distinction.

Finally, Brownson addresses another argument from Gagnon, the one where Gagnon looks at modern research to point out the negative effects of same-sex activity. This is where I have a little more agreement with Brownson and I am perhaps a bit critical of Gagnon. I don't like basing doctrine on the results of modern research and statistics. I suggest that this entire line of argument from Gagnon should be discarded. It's not necessary, and it confuses the issue: we should be looking at Scripture, not arguing about research papers and clinical studies.

10. Honor and Shame

This is the chapter where Brownson lays out his best evidence that Romans 1:26 refers to "dishonorable heterosexual intercourse" rather than lesbian activity. He says the entire passage needs to be read in the framework of an honor-shame culture, and that the word "likewise" (or "in the same way") is not making a parallel between male homosexual acts and female homosexual acts, but actually ties the male homosexual acts together with the "dishonoring" in verse 24 and the "degrading passions" in verse 26, and that what these all have in common is that they "violate ancient Mediterranean understanding of honor and shame."

Brownson also mentions that the earliest church fathers interpreted Romans 1:26 as a reference to heterosexual "oral or anal intercourse," and that the lesbian interpretation doesn't show up until the 4th century. In particular, Brownson says Augustine and Clement of Alexandria offer the heterosexual interpretation of Romans 1:26.

Gagnon, on the other hand, spends more time looking at the actual text of Romans 1, and I tend to agree with him. Just structurally, the parallel in Romans 1:26-27 is clearly between lesbian sex and gay sex, not disordered heterosexual intercourse and homosexual activity. Also, Gagnon mentions that the early church fathers do support his interpretation, and he points to an article by Brooten.

Well I looked up Brooten, and she mentions Clement of Alexandria as someone whose writings support the lesbian interpretation of Romans 1:26. That's the opposite of what Brownson said. So this led me on an hours-long quest to find an English translation of Clement of Alexandria's work (Paedagogus Book 2 Chapter 10). What I found is that Clement of Alexandria quotes Romans 1:26-27 in the context of a discussion of anal intercourse. However, it's not clear that he is drawing attention to Romans 1:26 at all; his focus seems to be entirely on 1:27, and he quotes verse 26 in order to include the bit about "For this reason God gave them over." Clement does not actually comment on verse 26; he is rather more concerned (almost exclusively concerned) with male sexual behavior.

While I was at it I looked up Augustine's work (On Marriage and Concupiscence, Book 2, Part 35 [XX]). He is not giving a straightforward interpretation or commentary on Romans 1:26, but rather he uses both verses 26 and 27 to make a point that the "natural" use is not the same as the "lawful" use. That is, sexual intercourse between a man and a prostitute can be "natural" although it is not lawful, and it's possible for a husband to have "unnatural" relations with his wife. Augustine is not totally clear, but he seems to be using verse 26 as a reference to unnatural heterosexual relations. So Augustine at least is a vote in favor of Romans 1:26 as referring to heterosexual activity.

The rest of the chapter is a long complaint about how gay and lesbian Christians feel unloved when the church tells them "We welcome you, but we abhor the way you operate emotionally." And if churches are being actually unloving and unkind, that should be addressed, but Brownson is a long way from demonstrating that the revisionist position has any merit. We can't change our theology and doctrine because of some emotional blackmail.

11. Nature
Brownson speaks at length about what, precisely, Paul means when he refers to nature. He relies a lot on John Boswell, who says nature means a person's own inclinations. So when Paul refers to men having sex with other men as being "against nature" he means it is against their heterosexual nature, because Paul never conceived of homosexual men. Thus, for homosexual men, Paul's admonition means nothing because homosexual activity is in accordance with their nature.

And that's what passes for scholarship I guess.

Gagnon is more convincing when he says nature refers to "the boundaries for sexuality both established by God and transparent in nature even to gentiles." Nothing about a person's personal inclinations. Brownson, relying on Boswell, is setting up the sinful desires of the human heart as the moral guide. It's a form of self-worship.

Brownson mentions two other ways that the ancients viewed "nature": social convention, and biology. Gagnon is big on the biology part—but where the ancients viewed procreation as the most important part of the biological "nature", Gagnon talks more about anatomical complementarity. Brownson takes Gagnon to task for quoting a lot of ancient sources to support his views on anatomical complementarity, saying that the sources he quotes aren't talking about anatomy at all, but about the degradation of men by treating them as women. That is, it's about transgressing gender roles. Brownson misunderstands Gagnon's reasoning. I believe I mentioned this earlier, but the point Gagnon is making is that the reason the same-sex activity is degrading is because it is "anatomical gender transgression." Not a transgression of man-made customary gender roles, but God-designed differences in male and female. Men are degraded when they are treated sexually as females, not because females are inferior, but because men and women are different. The source Gagnon quotes do illustrate this fact, particularly because some of the sources (particularly Philo) criticize both the passive and active partners in same-sex activity. If this were merely about transgressing gender roles, or honor-shame, or whatever, the criticism would be on the passive (receiving, penetrated) partner only.

I am not particularly impressed with this chapter.

IV. Conclusions

12. Conclusions
Brownson wraps up with a recap of what he has presented in the book. Is it convincing? No.

I find that I can disagree with Gagnon a lot and still hold to the traditionalist view. The traditionalist case is robust, comprehensive, and has many independent lines of moral logic to support it. I don't agree with Gagnon on everything, but I agree with his conclusions. There may be weak spots in Gagnon's work, but the overall case is strong.

The revisionist case is a house of cards. Brownson builds it piece by piece, but pull out a single piece and the whole logic falls to pieces. The revisionist case only works if you accept every piece. It's only as strong as the weakest link—and there are a lot of weak links. That's to be expected. The Bible speaks unfailingly negatively about homosexual activity, the human authors of the Bible were uniformed opposed to homosexual activity, the New Testament church condemned homosexual activity, early church fathers wrote against homosexual activity, and for two thousand years the church has been consistently opposed to homosexual activity. Brownson, like most honest revisionists, would admit all this. (I trust I am not going out on a limb saying this.) It's hard, then, to make a case that what the Bible and the church have universally condemned is actually a moral good.

Archive | Search