As I sit here in my local inner-city library writing this blog I am very aware of the people around me. I surreptitiously hold the book that I am reviewing and hope that no too curious person next to me reads the title.
I have just read Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church edited by Preston Sprinkle which has four brilliant Christian scholars presenting their views on homosexuality and dialoguing with one another. I read it not out of theoretical interest in the topic but because I live in a neighbourhood of Sydney which has the highest concentration of LGBTQI people in my city. Many of the people that I have become friends with in my neighbourhood are gay and much of this community has a deep suspicion of the Church and Christianity. So I wanted to read a fresh perspective on the topic that would apply to my context now, having already read quite a bit around this issue.
Maybe you can understand now, why I was being so careful in the library.
What I liked most about this book is how scholarly, civil and pastoral the discussion around homosexuality was. I don’t think I have ever encountered that all in one book on this topic.
The two views of homosexuality presented are the affirming and traditional.
William Loader is an expert on sexuality in ancient Judaism and Christianity. His view is that the Bible is clearly against same-sex orientation and practice in every way. However, his conclusion is that modern day science and psychology has discovered so much about homosexuality that we can’t possibly be expected to apply what the Bible said back then, to today’s concerns. So he is affirming. Megan K. DeFranza has done significant theological study on sex, gender and sexuality. She argues that the prohibition passages (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:9-10) relate to excesses, abuses, pederasty in the context of sexual trafficking, slavery and exploitation of the time. So she says that the prohibitions are not to be applied to every case of same-sex expression today because the Bible is forbidding abuse rather than overall practice. In fact, she says, there was no equivalent in ancient times to the context we find ourselves in today where many homosexual people want to express their love in committed lifelong marriage relationships. She is also affirming. Wesley Hill is a biblical scholar and theologian who is Christian and gay but not practicing. He holds to the traditional Augustinian view of marriage. This view is what the Church has held for centuries. He sees that the prohibition passages are for all time and reject all forms of same-sex practice. Lastly, Stephen Holmes is a theologian who also holds to the Augustinian view of marriage however, he is willing to make “pastoral accommodations” to those in our community who are homosexual. The last two scholars reflect the traditional view.
Here is a summary of my thoughts in brief point form for further discussion.
Good exegesis but more theology and ethics needed.
I realise that it is important to carefully study the prohibition passages. I am grateful for the way that most of the scholars dissected them in light of the knowledge they have. However, I think we need to also look at this issue more from a theological and Christian ethical perspective. What often happens when we focus excessively on several verses in scripture to prove a point, is that we obsess over language, social context and the minutiae to the point where we can lose a sense of the bigger picture. What does a theology of sexuality look like today in the light of all the scientific and other knowledge that we have?
What does a re-imagining of the Augustinian theology of marriage look like?
One thing that stood out for me in this book is that the church has already practiced challenging a traditionally Augustinian view of marriage. This view is that marriage is for procreation, faithfulness (an ordering of our desires) and a sacrament, that is, a witness to the love of God in Christ. Holmes brings the challenge that Christians should return to a strictly Augustinian view, for example, that marriage is primarily for procreation not pleasure. But if this is the case, do we allow infertile or older people marry? So we have already made adjustments to our traditional view of marriage since no one seems to have a problem with allowing older couples past the age of procreation to marry. Nor do we bar infertile couples from marrying. Holmes however, would argue that Christians still hold to the view that marriage is for procreation but have made “accommodations” for the infertile or elderly for example. But that seems to me to be a little disingenuous since many Christians today would take the “accommodations” as in fact a revisioning of Christian marriage. The point is that since we have already altered Augustinians view of marriage, then could we also make exceptions for same-sex attracted people? Holmes, even though he is traditional in his view on homosexuality, courageously, is willing to entertain the possibility that the Augustinian view of marriage could be wrong. What would a revisioning look like then? Should we be bolder in thinking this through a little more creatively without fearing being unfaithful to the scriptures?
We need more opportunities to dialogue in a civil manner
I loved the way these scholars were able to engage with each other in such a respectful, relational and civil way. I don’t see that very often but it is sorely needed in times such as these when the issue has become a “hot topic” and often divorced from relationship. Where can we created spaces that are safe for dialogue today?
You can be a Christian and hold to different views
Each of these scholars are committed and faithful Christians! I cannot doubt that. Yet they hold such different views. After reading each view in this book I was not only impressed by the scholarly tone and the civility but I was also impressed by the love for God that each person held. We could learn from this greatly. Why should this matter cause division in the church? Why can’t we understand that even though we all love God, we might come to different conclusions on this matter? I think we need to be more serious about this especially today as we are in danger of being completely marginalised by the homosexual community.
What does “pastoral accommodation” look like?
This point was the most interesting for me. Holmes, even though he is traditional is his view of Christian marriage, allows for some sort of “pastoral accommodation” to gay couples in the church. In the same way that we have made accommodations for divorced people we can also do this for gay couples. I have often thought about this. An example would be a gay couple with children in your church (assuming you allow them in) and then they become Christians. Would we ask that they break up? Would we not let them into membership? Holmes argues that in the same way that missionaries made accommodations for people in polygamous relationships in their missionary work in other nations, we could also consider doing do the same. The key here is missiological adaptation without being unfaithful to the gospel. If we are missionaries to our secular culture today could we not do the same? What does pastoral accommodation look like today?
How can we encourage the Church to take singleness and celibacy more seriously?
Wesley Hill’s challenge here was brilliant. He is known for highlighting the importance of spiritual friendship and calling the church to greater community in order to support same sex attracted Christians. My view is that the church has placed too much emphasis on marriage when the early Christians did not. The vow of marriage is important of course, but so is singleness and celibacy. If we are open to gay people in our church, and I think we should be, how do we help them to be faithful if they decide to be celibate as Wesley Hill and others have? Hill makes the point that often the church focuses on prohibition but has no clue on how to support, understand and bless those who are same sex attracted. I think it is to our shame that many Christians stand so firmly in opposition to same sex couples and yet do very little to think about ways that the church can be more inclusive, supportive and counter the culture in care of these brothers and sisters.
Do we care?
What is to be our response? Do we care? Some Christians brush this issue to the side seeing it as irrelevant or “black and white”. I have already shared why it is very relevant to my context. Even though I have not fundamentally shifted in my position on this issue, this book has made me realise how complex the topic is, that there is room for difference of opinion and also that we need much more space dedicated to a relational approach. Do we know gay people and have we listened to them? Are they friends of ours who can give us an insight into their joys and struggles?
Holmes concludes brilliantly;
“We are called to go beyond our imaginations, to be led by God’s Spirit into church practices that are welcoming of outcasts as Jesus was during his earthly ministry and as implacable in the face of sin as Jesus was then. Conservative or affirming, this is the challenge we must always put before ourselves.”