07 January 2015

LGBT & the Church: An Interaction with David Gushee

In his new book, Changing Our Mind, my former ethics professor has challenged me to make a paradigm shift in which I now receive as full participants in the church those in the LGBT community who are professing Christians and who live in loving and covenantal relationships.  His thesis is simply this: the traditional view of the church that teaches that homosexual behavior is sin is one of "those cases in 2,000 years of Christian history where we have gotten some things wrong"(17). 

I wanted to read this book as soon as I heard about it because I sat in his classroom at Southern Seminary in the mid-90s.  I devoured his book, The Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, and thoroughly enjoyed his ethics classes.  He was just beginning his teaching profession at that time, but anyone could clearly see he had a keen intellect and a compassionate personality.  He was a great ethics professor, and I was sad to see him leave the school.  My life went on, and I did not follow his career.  However, the publication of this book caught my attention.  Here was one of the professors who I had greatly admired and was truly thankful to God for his instruction.  I had to know how he had now come to shift his view on this issue.  I wanted to know because I have always respected his scholarship, thoughtfulness, and gracious spirit.  Furthermore, I do agree and have been saying that the current cultural shift toward LGBT acceptance and inclusion is THE greatest challenge facing the church today.  I agree that we must pray, think, study, converse and come to some thoughtful conclusions about this issue.  Every church will deal with it sooner or later and I think it's good to be thinking about it now.  I knew this book would make me think about it more deeply than I have up to this point.   

The book was a quick read, only 126 pages.  Here are some of my thoughts and reflections on its contents.

1. I appreciate the overall tone of the book.

From beginning to end the tone is classic Gushee. He is mostly evenhanded and does not try to demonize those of us he calls "traditionalists," although by the end of the book it is clear that those who hold to the traditional biblical interpretation on the issue and will not make the "paradigm leap" are less enlightened and less in step with the ethic of Jesus.  This is stated gently, but clearly. 

He encouraged his "progressive friends" not to belittle the traditionalist and his or her views.  He encourages them not to assume we are using the Bible as a club when we cite it on the issue.  He says not simply to dismiss parts of Scripture (like the OT and Paul) as if they have little or nothing to say to our now "enlightened world." Of course, I think he does a fair amount of this himself in the rest of the book.  He says to avoid derogatory language, like "fundamentalist" or any kind of unhelpful name calling.  He further instructs his LGBT friends not to assume traditionalists are simply anti-sex, or failing to keep up with the times.  He encourages the LGBT community to take the traditionalists convictions seriously, and for this I am much appreciative.

Overall, this is the kind of debate/conversation we need to be having - one that is gracious. Only one time did I feel that he slipped into the fallacy of ad hominem (attacking the man rather than debating the issue).  On page 124 he appears to lump "traditionalists" together as "bullies."  He may have had only one kind of traditionalist in mind, but he doesn't make that distinction.  Reflecting on his intellectual journey over the past ten years, he writes, "It became clear to me that however complex the exegetical and theological issues are...I needed to wrestle with these questions in the community of the bullied [LGBT] rather than the community of the bullies [traditionalists]. Better is one day in the company of those bullied by Christians but loved by Jesus than thousands in the company of those wielding scripture to harm the weak and defenseless.  I can understand and respect the traditionalist position.  But I cannot understand heartless and loveless Christianity"(124).  I thought this was a cheap shot at the end that tarnished what is otherwise and overall a gracious read.

2. I appreciate the honesty in the book.

Gushee does not hide the fact that the primary motivation for changing his mind was personal.  He did not suddenly come to a realization though careful Bible study that the church had got this wrong for the past 2,000 years.  He revised (or simply clouded) his biblical lens in response to his encounters with folks in the LGBT community, particularly those whom he considers faithful and committed followers of Jesus.  It would seem that the coming out of his own sister in 2008 was extremely important to his change of mind.  He calls this "the first major development"(119).  He identifies what primarily led to his change of mind with what he calls, "transformative encounters."  He writes, "Some of us believe that in our time an older, destructive paradigm based on a particular way of connecting the biblical dots has not survived the transformative encounters we are having with LGBT fellow Christians, encounters in which we experience regular and astonishing reminders of God's presence"(111-112).  This statement and others in the book lead me to infer that personal experience is primary and the relevant biblical texts are secondary and a nuisance (in the fact that you have to spend a lot of energy arguing that the biblical witness isn't clear on the issue).  He certainly doesn't state this, but by the time you finish the book, connecting the dots of his argument, I think it is evident.  

3. I appreciate the constructive advice given to those whom he knows will not agree with him.

In chapter eight, Gushee pauses in his work in a chapter entitled, "If This is Where You Get Off the Bus" and makes some helpful suggestions to those who will not be making the "paradigm leap."  I wholeheartedly agree with his statement, "Whether rightly or not, the LGBT issue has become the hottest of hot-button issues in our generation, so ultimately avoidism proves insufficient.  Everyone will have to figure out what they will think and do about this"(43).  I believe responsible pastors and churches will be proactively leaning forward into this issue in a faithful, thoughtful, and gracious manner.  His seven suggestions are helpful in this regard.  1. Read narratives of LGBT people and reputable work in contemporary psychology. 2. Be aware that in a room of 20 or more people it is possible in most settings that at least 1 has an LGBT orientation and/or identity. 3. Be committed never to accept derogatory speech or any form of mistreatment of LGBT people. 4. Help parents to respond in constructive ways when their children express questions about sexuality or come out as gay.  5. Get to know those who identify themselves as gay Christians.  6. Welcome LGBT people into the church at the maximum point of theological conviction and end avoidism.  7.  Consider positions you can support, even if you oppose same-sex marriage, such as anti-bullying campaigns. 

4. I find the biblical argument unconvincing

What I find most sad about this book is the biblical backpedaling.  Like I said, it's clear that his personal experience drove him to re-examine the relevant biblical texts that have always informed the church that God created humanity for heterosexual relationship and rejects homosexuality as a perversion and therefore sinful.  Gushee has added nothing new to the biblical debate, he has now simply adopted the positions of others that he previously rejected.  Based on his experience he now accepts the presupposition that some self-identified gay people cannot be anything other.  Because of this presupposition he now can set aside through convolution the biblical content that traditionalists still hold up as relevant. Here are his own words: "The purported biblical reasons for the ban on the only kind of helper-partner-romantic relationships that gay and lesbian people could ever pursue mainly come down to a single core theological claim based on creation texts and a handful of possible echoes and allusions in the New Testament"(emphasis mine 102).  In other words, the biblical content isn't sufficient and can now no longer trump the evidence of his personal experience.  I would like briefly to comment on how he handled each relevant text.  To Gushee's credit, he at least did interact with the texts that traditionalists will reference in defending the incongruity of homosexuality with biblical Christianity.  I'll take them in the same order he did.

Genesis 19 & Judges 19

These texts tell two horrible stories of attempted rape.  In Genesis 19 we have handed down to us the story of the men of Sodom who desired to rape Lot's guests (who were angels).  In Judges 19 a similar story of attempted homosexual rape in the town of Gibeah is told. Gushee confidently asserts, "The cultural impact of both the story and the term [sodomy] have been enormous.  But now few serious biblical interpreters think this story is about homosexuality at all"(61).  The argument (that he now adopts) is that the offense here is only about violations related to hospitality and the evil desire to dominate and humiliate through rape.  The fact that it was men desiring to rape other men, according to Gushee, has "nothing to do with the morality of loving, covenantal same-sex relationships"(63). 

To say that the issue of homosexual behavior may be incidental (i.e. not the main focus) to these stories is reasonable; but to conclude that such the sexual depravity on display in the stories is irrelevant to the overall posture of the Bible toward homosexuality seems irresponsible to me.  Certainly, such displays of depravity is what the Apostle Paul was getting at in Romans 1.      

Leviticus 18:22; 20:13

These two verses single out homosexual behavior as "detestable" (HCSB) or "abomination" (NASV).  The second commands the death penalty for such behavior.  Many behaviors and/or violations of law were labeled toevah - "detestable."  Gushee argues that only in Leviticus do we find same-sex acts addressed in this most direct manner in the Old Testament.  Gushee quickly runs through various speculations from biblical commentators that only muddies the water rather than suggest how a Christian might apply these verses.  He creates further confusion by bringing in the question of capital punishment prescribed for this offense and so many others in the Old Testament Law.  He acknowledges the basic idea held throughout Christian tradition that the Old Testament law has gone through "a considerable sifting process in the hands of Jesus and his followers"(71-72).  Of course, this is true and overwhelmingly accepted.  The vast majority of Christians believe that the embedded morality and principles of the law is a reflection of God's own holiness and are important, even if the execution of the ceremonial, nationalistic, civil, and Temple aspects became obsolete.  Gushee now will not accept this understanding of Old Testament law.  He now sees such ancient Jewish commands as elusive and not to be taken in such a straight forward manner.  Therefore, he will not allow these specific condemnations of homosexual behavior to be a condemnation of all homosexual behavior.  He asserts that even if we believe that the law reveals the character of God we still don't know from Leviticus if God is opposed to all homosexual behavior.  These verses do "not resolve the question of whether all same-sex relationships violate the character of God"(71).

Gushee's approach to these verses from the Old Testament law is to move them into the sphere of the irrelevant.  They are too isolated, too obscure, too harsh, and too far removed from Jesus to confidently use as biblical witness concerning homosexual behavior.    

1 Corinthians 6:9 & 1 Timothy 1:10

If you have ever discussed this issue with a Christian who believes that the biblical content does not condemn homosexual behavior, then these verses from the pen of the Apostle Paul always come up.  Gushee, like many others, attempts to cast doubt on the meaning and application of words Paul used here.  Again, the argument is that Paul may have had something else in mind, not simply homosexual behavior in general. 

The Greek word that is debated is arsenokoitai. The word is a compound word arseno ("male") + koitai ("to lie with").  Although this word is used only in the New Testament in this way by Paul in these two verses, most biblical scholars agree that Paul is employing the Greek term used in the commonly used Greek Old Testament of the time, the Septuagint.  In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 the term used in the Septuagint contain the roots arsenos and koiten.  Although Gushee admits that most scholars find a "linguistic parallel or connection" here, he rejects it based on the obscurity of the use of the term in the New Testament and contemporary literature of the time.  Again, the argument becomes that Paul coined this word and may have only been condemning a certain kind of abusive and humiliating practice of homosexuality that does not apply to consensual, covenantal homosexuality.  This argument is based on what we know historically about some rather horrible practices within the Roman world that involved abusive and exploitive homosexual behavior.

The other word that appears in 1 Corinthians 6:9 is malakoi, which literally means "soft" - often used to describe the feel of fine fabrics worn by the rich.  Here, it is being used in reference to men (i.e. "soft ones").  Again, the majority of translators over the centuries have understood this a specific reference to homosexual behavior, likely male prostitution.  This term might be somewhat obscure as to what Paul specifically had in mind, but it is certainly clear that it involved homosexual behavior.

These two words are found within lists of vices that God condemns (e.g. idolaters, adulterers, thieves, greedy, drunkards, etc.). In Corinthians Paul mentions these as kinds of people who will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But Paul's main point to those to whom he was writing was that some of them used to be these things, but now they are not!  They have been transformed from these things and justified by the Lord Jesus Christ.  In 1 Timothy, Paul is talking about the law.  He argues that the law's purpose is to sear the moral conscience in regards to such behaviors. In other words, the law that condemns such behavior serves to show us where we transgress and move us toward repentance and regeneration in Christ. 

In the end, I believe all Gushee has done (which is not new) is attempt to cast doubt that these words mean homosexual behavior categorically.  He desires to parse out different kinds of homosexual behavior.  Like the references on Leviticus, he dismisses these Pauline passages as too obscure and uncertain to be useful.  He does little to construct a convincing interpretation of what Paul did mean; he only tells his readers that they can't trust all the translators of the past four centuries, who happen to be in overwhelming agreement. 

Genesis 1-2

The creation account is certainly often used positively to demonstrate how God designed human sexuality; therefore, indirectly demonstrating the illegitimacy of same-sex relationships.  In short, God made them male and female for companionship, sex, and reproduction.  Gushee admits freely, "This is clearly the single most important biblical-theological-ethical issue faced by any Christian wrestling with the LGBT issue...It deserves careful consideration"(82).

It's clear that Gushee no longer views Genesis 1-11 as history.  He seems to me to have moved the narratives into the category of myth.  He refers to Genesis 1-2 gently as "two ancient, truly lovely accounts of God's creation of humanity and of the first couple"(83).  He rightly observes that the creation account has played a huge role in shaping the church's understanding of family and sexuality.  He truly can't undo this understanding exegetically.  Instead, he essentially just posits that the times have changed.  Here is where he leaves the discussion about creation: "Christian tradition has taken these texts as prescriptive for all times and all peoples pertaining to the design and purpose of sex, marriage and family life.  That has excluded those who are unable to fulfill that prescription due to their sexual orientation.  But increasingly today it is noted [by whom, I would ask] that core practices referred to in Genesis 1-2, including mutual care for children, helper-partner companionship (Genesis 2:18) and total self-giving, can and do occur among covenanted gay and lesbian couples"(83).

All he has really asserted is that times have changed and the creation account, as lovely as it is, cannot be confidently applied to divine human sexual design or ethics.  Again, the primary impetus for his change (experience) has eclipsed what Christian tradition teaches and what he himself used to clearly understand. 
Matthew 19:1-12 & Mark 10:2-12

Gushee is correct in pointing out that Jesus' teaching in these texts is about the importance of marriage.  I agree the focus is a rebuke on the liberal view among some Jewish men of the day who understood they could divorce their wives for any reason.  Jesus made it clear that his was not the design, and He refers back to Genesis 1-2 to make the case from Scripture.  Marriage was intended by God to be a permanent relationship. From the traditionalist interpretation, Jesus' incidental citation of the creation account as the model again seems to reaffirm heterosexual design, if only implied.  Gushee questions these texts relevance to the LGBT issue at all. 

I find it too convenient simply to dismiss Jesus' words as irrelevant to the LGBT issue.  Even though secondary to the main point of his rebuke, the fact that Jesus clearly affirms the creation account and that God made sexual/romantic/marital relationship male and female is hardly irrelevant to the discussion.  The fact that Jesus affirms that God did created male and female for marital companionship is critically important to the discussion and not so easily tossed to the side as Gushee would want you to believe now.

Romans 1:26-27

Gushee leaves the most widely used passage for last because this is without a doubt the hardest one to explain away in regards to the LGBT issue.  He takes us on a quick tour of different opinions and speculations from various scholars about what contextually Paul might have been referring to other than simply homosexual behavior.  In the end, the straightforward, natural reading of Paul's words is handled like a hot potato!  Whatever, it means it can't be that homosexual behavior categorically is an example of the depravity of man.  Although Paul lists many other vices as example of this depravity, it cannot be ignored that he gave homosexuality an extended treatment.

With this text, like the others, Gushee goes to the same play book.  In his experience now, he simply cannot apply this text to gay Christians who desire to live in covenanted, marital relationships.  That's just wrong and mean.  Here is how he ultimately deals with Romans 1:  He writes, "A gently revisionist conclusion would be to suggest that Paul's theological purpose in Romans 1, and the religious and cultural context that he swam in when he wrote it, precluded him from speaking sympathetically about any kind of same-sex relationships.  The 'subject' may seem to be the same, but many have argued that the context is so different that Paul's words are of little relevance to the question of covenanted same-sex relations among devoted Christians"(90).  Hear the driving presuppositions?

He concludes his treatment of this text with an emotional, anecdotal, personal plea rather than a solid argument for why Romans 1 doesn't condemn homosexual behavior.  He writes, "...it is appropriate to wonder whether what Paul is so harshly condemning in Romans 1 has much if anything to do with the devout, loving lesbian couple who have been together 20 years and sit on the third row at church.  Their lives do not at all look like the overall picture of depravity offered in Romans 1:18-32.  You certainly wonder about this when you know that couple - or when you are that couple"(90).

All Gushee does again is cast doubt and attempt to move us to a hermeneutic of skepticism.  He want's us to think that the places in which homosexual behavior is mentioned here and in all the Bible certainly doesn't apply to today's move for LGBT equality.  He would have us believe that the witness of Scripture only gives us references to abuse, rape, and exploitation in culture that just happens to be homosexually expressed. 

Stepping back and looking at how he treats these often cited texts in the discussion a few things to seem clear to me.  First, experience trumps Scripture, although it is certain he would not admit this.  I am not accusing him of forsaking the Gospel.  However, I am suggesting that he appears to me to be subordinating and desperately attempting to explain away texts that he can no longer integrate with his experience among the LGBT community.  The truth is we all tend to do this at some level on various issues.  We have to be self-conscience of this tendency and work hard not to do it.  I believe this kind of biblical accommodation driven by personal experience has happened with my former ethics professor on this subject over the last ten years.      

5.  I find some the argumentation perplexing

Just because a person is gay and calls himself or herself Christian, has received baptism, states a personal commitment to Jesus, holds church membership and attends faithfully does not necessarily make his or her homosexual orientation/identity/behavior commensurate with biblical moral standards.  Gushee accepts an LGBT person's statement of identity as Christian as ipso facto (by that fact itself) proof that gay Christians exist because he has found so many of these folks to possess "true" Christian ethics (e.g. humility, graciousness, kindness, love for God, etc.) Although we all understand that God ultimately knows and judges and individual's heart, I would think he would agree that anyone simply professing to be a Christian could possibly possess certain ideas or behaviors ultimately incompatible with biblical Christian morality. Certainly, it is possible to be sincerely wrong about the congruency of Christian faith and certain ideas and behaviors.  I would suggest we all do this to some level.  It would seem to me that Christian history is full on such examples.  Sometimes the culture pushes ideas or behaviors that self-identified Christians might accommodate, rationalizing them to be compatible with Christian living while ignoring, perverting, or dismissing challenging principles and teachings from the Bible (e.g. crusades, Nazism, North Atlantic slave trade, racism, etc.).   Whether a person is truly in Christ and possessing some incompatible ideas and behavior or truly outside Christ is certainly only known confidently by God.    

I find it distracting to include a comparison of differing English translations over 425 years as evidence of the difficulty of knowing the meaning of a word.  Gushee does this is regards to arsenokoitai.  It seems a slight of hand to say, "look over here" at the differing English renderings of this word as evidence of it's inherently confusing and unknowable nature.  The fact that different English translators have used different English words is not argument against what the word means.   We don't use the older English word buggerers anymore; we use the word homosexuals.  However, both in their English historical contexts mean the same thing - men who lay with other men.  In fact, every English translation regardless of what words used in translation understood this to be the meaning.

To me, the most disturbing logic is found in chapter 17, "Transformative Encounters and Paradigm Leaps."  In short he argues that the cultural shift to LBGT acceptance and equality is analogous to other religious/ethical paradigm shifts, such as from Jewish concept of  a regal Messiah to a crucified Messiah, from Jewish exclusivism to Gentile inclusivism, and from biblically condoned North Atlantic slave trade to racial equality.  He uses a reworded Hegelian equation to describe this process: "Old paradigm + transformative encounter = paradigm leap to a new reading of Scripture"(109).  Then he admits that a new reading of Scripture is now needed to shift properly away from the old paradigm (that homosexual behavior is sin) and embrace a new paradigm (that homosexual behavior is not sin).  He writes, "Some of us believe that in our time an older, destructive paradigm based on a particular way [traditionalist view] of connecting the biblical dots has not survived the transformative encounters [his own experience] we are having with LGBT fellow Christians [presupposition], encounters in which we experience regular and astonishing reminders of God's presence"(111-112). 

This analogy seems strange to me.  How can progressive revelation (e.g. concepts of Law, Messiah, etc.) and simply wrong biblical interpretations and applications in history (e.g. racism) be analogous?  Really?  The bottom line is either Scripture teaches homosexual behavior is incompatible with Christian morality or that it does not.  I don't see how it's credible to lump this issue in the same category with the process of promise and fulfillment of salvation history!  In the end, the only truly meaningful and decisive discussion is about the meaning of Scripture and its total witness in regards to homosexual behavior, unless a Christian simply wants to ignore or subordinate those so-called "clobber" passages.  This is the approach I'm discovering among many.  I'm also finding significant confusion and ignorance among Christians concerning the biblical content.  Some are just choosing to believe what they want to believe, jumping into the current of the culture on this issue and dismissing, ignoring, or rationalizing away any biblical discomfort as they float down the stream.  Finally, this discussion may truly be about the authority of Scripture.  Will we handle the Scripture honestly and reverently, or will we allow the changing culture to cause us to ignore and/or pervert its teachings on the issue?       


In the final evaluation I am not persuaded to change my mind on the issue.  It would seem to me that the biblical evidence is sufficient to side with the traditional Christian view of human creation and sexual ethics that posits covenantal heterosexual relationship as the ideal and moral good, which conforms to God's design and categorically assigns homosexual behavior as out of bounds. 

Primarily, the interpretive treatments of the relevant biblical passages was unconvincing. Gushee, who formerly believed these passages to support the traditionalist view, now considers them as "not so indisputable after all"(102).  I do believe that in a lifetime of study of the Bible that some of our views will change on some interpretations and our understandings will become more complex.  However, a biblical/ethical/theological flip flop of this nature is something altogether different.  He has simply rehashed old arguments in such a way to heap up enough doubt to persuade the traditionalist that he or she should consider that the Bible does not conclusively categorized homosexual behavior as sin and a conspicuous example of a fallen humanity.  He wants you to do your ethics/theology primarily with your personal experience (transformative encounters) and with your feelings.  In the end it would seem he subtly falls into the false dichotomy fallacy.  One cannot be loving of an LGBT person and not accept their orientation/identity/practice as congruent with the teaching of Scripture.  Gushee seems to imply that either one loves an LGBT professing Christian into the community of faith or sticks with an unloving, unenlightened, traditional view toward a marginalized group and be counted with the haters.

I do believe the church must engage the LGBT issue and stop avoiding it.  However, I believe also that the church must maintain its convictions regardless of the social pressure and even the capitulation of notable Christian voices.  I want to propose a way for my church in the days ahead that I'm already referring to as gracious conviction.  I believe with all my heart that "traditionalists" like myself in the church can find a way to navigate with LGBT people that is both strong on graciousness and biblical conviction.     

1 comment:

  1. A quality and balanced review. Interesting to see the point of view of one of his former students.


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