Preston Sprinkle (ed.), Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church (Zondervan, 2016)
Before Christmas I was part of a small group of British Baptists who issued a statement called 'The Courage to be Baptist: A Statement on Baptist Ecclesiology and Human Sexuality.' (It has subsequently be printed in the January editions of both the Baptist Quarterly and the Baptist Minister's Journal.) The statement was designed to offer some help to those who are Baptists, particularly Baptists in Britain, on how we might live with the different views that held across our Unions (Baptist Union of Great Britain, Baptist Union of Scotland, Baptist Union of Wales) and within our churches. I lead with this, because the statement ends with a call to a better conversation than that which has already taken place, and this new book is perhaps an example of what that conversation might look like. I should note at this point that Stephen Holmes, who writes a chapter in the book been discussed, is also one of the group who co-authored the statement.
Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church brings together both those who argue for a Christian affirmation of same sex relationships and those who who argue against. The result though is not a hostile conversation, but a serious, respectful and generous one, in which the four authors seek to listen and question one another, without being dismissive. Those who argue for are William Loader and Megan DeFranza and those who argue against are Wesley Hill and Stephen Holmes. The editor Preston Sprinkle has brought together a strong line-up of thinkers. As is common to this Zondervan series, each author makes their case and the others then respond, before a rejoinder.
Loader's chapter is interesting because he says that the biblical texts are 'relatively clear' in being against homosexuality, this is because the biblical writers assumed 'that all people were heterosexual.' Loader offer three responses to what he says scripture says. One, that those who are homosexual should repent and seek to have their orientated reversed. Two, that contrary to scripture, from real life, we recognise there are homosexual persons and we should accept that, but they should refrain from acting on their sexual desires. A third response, is to accept there are homosexual persons and that they should be treated the same as heterosexual people. Loader finds the third response most satisfactory. Loader accepts what scripture says, but says that the likes of Paul were limited in their understanding of homosexuality and so 'biblical commands need to be revisited.' Loaders argues that we have that done elsewhere with other issues.
DeFranza's chapter opens up again the discussion on what is actually been said in the texts that reference same sex relationships (Lev 18, 20; 1 Tim 1; 1 Cor 6; and Rom 1). She then reminds us that our understanding of marriage is not the same as a biblical understanding of marriage, which was patriarchal, so we need to be careful where we assume otherwise. Her arguments are as follows: Gen 1 and 2 tell a majority story rather than an exclusive one; certain kinds of same sex sexual acts are quite probably in view in 1 Cor 6 and 1 Tim 1 and this does not mean all same-sex acts; Leviticus prohibition is not universal, not all Levitical laws are seen as binding; and Romans 1 is 'part of a rhetorical "sting operation"' and not offering a universal natural law. DeFranza then argues for a Spirit-led engagement with scripture for Christian sexual ethic. This section follows some what the arguments of Eugene Rogers - humanity made for communion, marriage as a discipline to avoid sin, marriage as sacramental, and so the possibility of offering marriage to those in same sex relationships. She recognises the objections as being procreation and sex/gender complementarity. Here she argues that in the case of the former objection, we marry infertile couples and those past child-bearing age, and in the latter, she says this is an argument from nature and we should be careful in making this exclusive. DeFranza concludes that Christians will not come to complete agreement on the matter of same-sex relationships, but there is space for recognising common ground and tending to fences, as we have done on many other issues where there remains disagreement like war, woman's ordination, and baptism.
Hill's chapter starts with his explanation of his realisation that he was gay and Christian. He then states that he wants to read scripture with Christ as its centre and then moves to set out Augustine's view of marriage, which he sees as an example of reading scripture 'centered on fundamental Christological convictions.' Augustine viewed marriage as centred on the goods of procreation, faithfulness and sacrament. A canonical biblical theology of marriage will put Genesis 1 and 2 in 'pride of place.' In Gen 1 we see the creation of male and female tied to the divine blessing of procreation. The emphasis is on the male-female difference, which is carried through in Gen 2. Hill says this is supported by Jesus's words in the gospels (Matt 19), which again join male-female difference with faithfulness. When we include Eph 5, we also see an argument for marriage as a sacrament - a sign of God's love in Christ. Having described this theology of marriage, he turns to the texts prohibiting 'same-sex sexual coupling.' Hill argues that the Leviticus references are rooted in creation (based on the similar language between Lev. and Gen.) and universal, that is, not case law, and applicable to all, not just Israel. In the case of Romans, Hill sees Genesis and Adam present in Romans 1.18-32 and so the condemnation of same-sex intercourse is a species of a wider problem that is humanity's fall from God's original design. A similar argument is made in a short discussion of 1 Timothy 1 and 1 Cor. 6. Hill has no truck with the view that only some kinds of same sex sexual coupling is in view. Hill's chapter then moves on set out a Christian theology of homosexuality. He begins by engaging with the work of Robert Song, who he argues 'offers a theologically robust rationale for a revision to the traditional Augustinian view of marriage.' Song wants to remove the requirement for procreation on the basis of eschatology - the need to procreate in the Kingdom is no longer necessary - which makes space for the affirmation of faithful, permanent, stable same sex relationships. Hill's problem with Song's thesis is he loses the connection between Augustine's three goods, that is, he can explain 1 Cor. 7, but not Eph 5. Hill goes on questions whether arguments like Song gives any encouragement to gay Christians to see what it means to live in Christ, as those 'whose identities need purification and transformation, not just "affirmation" and "expression".' Hill concludes his essay with a call to spiritual friendship, that is, the word to gay Christians is to something positively to do - cultivate spiritual friendships.
In comparison to Loader, DeFranza and Hill, Holmes writes first and foremost as a theologian, rather than a biblical scholar (although I think the gap is made too wide by those in either discipline). Holmes' introduction sets out that that Western Christians are currently reexamining the question of same sex relationships. This is not easy says Holmes, but it cannot be avoided. He says upfront that he doesn't think historic Christian position needs changing. Holmes begins his outline of a Christian sexual ethic which will focus on marriage, by saying that according to at least some of the New Testament witness, that marriage is now second best. Holmes suggests we need to wrestle with this view more seriously that while marriage remained a good, celibacy was better. Holmes turns to Augustine for an answer. Augustine says marriage is a response to human sin, our inability to control our sexual desires - this is true says Holmes for all humans whether straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual. This first response is pastoral accommodation, following Paul, instead of burning with desire and falling into sin, get married. Augustine also argued that marriage is a good thing and so his 3 goods, already mentioned above. The good of procreation is a fulfilment of Gen 1.18 command to fill the earth, and has not been removed. Procreation requires that marriage is between a man and a woman. Holmes goes on to say that marriage is a miracle - it is dependent upon God (sacrament) and we shouldn't suggest otherwise. Marriage is also a school of desire in which they are re-ordered. Holmes sees the Augustine account of marriage as normative and continues to remain normative for the church, despite two accommodations by many Protestants in the acceptance of the use of contraception and the pastoral accommodation of marriage after divorce. With this in mind Holmes says that to include those in same sex relationships there are only 3 options: 1. change the understanding of Christian marriage; 2. create a wholly new way of life alongside marriage and celibacy; accept some kind of pastoral accommodation. Before considering these in turn, Holmes sets out the history of Christian marriage and why the question of same sex marriage is a pressing one for today. Holmes response to the three options is as follows. In terms of extending marriage to include gay and lesbian relationships, Holmes considers Eugene Roger's as the best argument for this case. The question becomes is procreation the primary good, if yes, why marry older people where procreation is not possible. Holmes doesn't see this as an argument for same sex marriage, at best, an argument for not marrying older people (which he does not believe). Another argument made around overpopulation, Holmes says is an argument for celibacy not same sex marriage. Holmes sees there is potentially a better (or more interesting) argument in terms of same-sex marriages which include some form of surrogate procreation. Holmes turns to the second option and here engages with Robert Song's argument for a third calling alongside marriage and celibacy. Holmes finds Song unconvincing because it is largely an argument from silence and it depends on being able to separate sexual activity from marriage and procreation. Holmes finds the third option, pastoral accommodation the most promising response. He says pastoral accommodation is not the same as being genuinely affirming. There is yet to be a convincing argument for the same sex marriage and yet our context requires us to seek appropriate means of accommodation. Holmes' claim is here is partly made on the imperfect of opposite-sex marriage and and the way we approach these relationships. In this final section, Holmes tentatively explores what this pastoral accommodation might look like, in evangelistic and pastoral contexts - how's the gospel heard to those who are gay and not Christian and to those who gay and Christian? Holmes' entire argument, which he accepts, is based on an acceptance of an Augustinian theology of marriage, it could be wrong, but he is yet to see an alternative.
Each of these four chapters are excellent examples of the arguments made for and against. Personally, at this time, I find those of Hill and Holmes the more convincing, although I think DeFranza shows us that in the case of Paul's letter their meaning and interpretation is still contested. Those who affirm same sex relationships need to listen carefully to the witness of gay Christians like Hill, but equally I would hope Hill might agree with Holmes for the need of some kind of pastoral accommodation. I find DeFranza's and Holmes' move at the end of their essays for a means of recognising that Christians are not going to easily agree and so the need for mutual respect of how Christians, churches, denominations will respond is sorely needed. I refer back here to the statement mentioned above that I and others have made to our Baptist brothers and sisters. Alongside that is the need for ongoing conversation of the kind that this book is an example of. Having read this book, I would hope others would go on to read the work of Christopher C. Roberts, Eugene Rogers, Robert Song, Richard Hays as well as that of Loader, DeFranza, Hill and Holmes. In this kind of deep thoughtful theological and biblical work we might find a way beyond the simple slogans. The four authors are to be congratulated for what they have achieved in this book and I know that their participation has not only led to respect but to a friendship, surely a mark of the Holy Spirit at work.