Response to a Review: Sexual Orientation

The last couple of weeks have been hectic, and I haven’t gotten to posting here as much as I would like to.  But here’s another piece of response to Ron Citlau’s review.  Ron complains about my treatment of the issue of sexual orientation.  He begins this way:  “Another problem I have is Brownson’s conviction that sexual orientation, as discussed in popular culture today, is something unknown to the biblical writers.”  What I actually say on this topic is found on p. 156 of my book:  “Such a perspective [i.e., that people might be sexually inclined only to people of their own gender] is found nowhere in the literature of Paul’s day.”  My focus is not on what is known generally, but what is acknowledged by Jewish and Christian writers.  Later in the book, I spell all this out even more clearly.  Here’s a more extended discussion of the issue on p. 229:

Such an awareness of a “natural” orientation toward same-sex relations is attested in some Greek and Roman sources. The myth of human origins presented in Plato’s Symposium (189C-193D) assumes such a view: Aristophanes recounts how some humans long to be reunited with their “other half ” of the same sex, from whom they were divided by the gods in the beginning. However, the absence of such perspectives in early Jewish and Christian sources suggests that these Jews and Christians did not recognize even the possibility that persons might be naturally inclined (in terms of their own true nature) toward desiring others of the same sex. To concede such a possibility would allow a construal of nature that violated their understanding of divine law, and thus it would be understood as unacceptable a priori.

My point is a simple one.  Even if such theories about same-sex orientation were known, they were certainly not embraced by Jewish or Christian writers. We find absolutely no references to a natural or innate same-sex orientation in any Jewish or Christian sources (that’s my central point).  As a result, therefore, Jewish and Christian writers opted instead for a different theory about same-sex desire—that it was driven by excessive lust, by an insatiable appetite for increasingly exotic forms of stimulation (see my chapter on lust in the book).

So my question is a simple one:  does the early Jewish and Christian explanation of same-sex desire—that it is driven by excessive lust unsatisfied with heterosexual gratification and driven to increasingly exotic forms of stimulation—do justice to the actual experience of gay and lesbian persons today?  (Take a look at pp. 154ff. of my book for direct quotes from ancient Jewish authors taking this view.)  If it does not, then we have to reckon with the fact that what the biblical writers took for granted or simply assumed may not reflect the actual experience of gay and lesbian Christians today who seek to temper and refine their desires in long-term committed relationships.

Ron complains that my argument is simply “that psychological insights can change/modify the biblical vision of human sexuality and sin.”  But that’s not really my argument at all.  I’m merely suggesting that when Paul in Romans 1 speaks of same-sex reationships that are driven by excessive lust, impure, degrading, and contrary to nature, these characteristics don’t always seem to fit very well, when applied to committed, long-term same sex relationships in the church’s contemporary experience.  This gap between Paul’s assumptions about the relationships he addresses, and what gay Christians are experiencing today, raises the question about whether his indictment should be considered categorical of all same-sex relationships.  Perhaps instead it should be read as a qualitative condemnation of relationships that are marked by sinful excesses of all sorts.  And this therefore raises the question of whether all same-sex relationships should be tarred with the same brush.  I still think that’s a question worth asking.

Ron goes on to assert that “the jury is still out on what sexual orientation is and whether it’s immutable or changeable.”  He goes on to cite Jones & Yarhouse’s 2007 book entitled Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation.  Yet if you actually read Jones’ and Yarhouse’s book, some interesting conclusions emerge.  Even with the support of the Exodus International board (a board which has since renounced any form of reparative therapy for gay Christians), they were only able to find 15 people in the whole country who testified to a complete change in sexual orientation.  At least one of these people later admitted that he had not completely changed.  Other research, relying solely on self-report, for religiously motivated persons who wanted to change from gay to straight sexual orientation, also suggests that, even under the most optimistic read of the data, only a small percentage of persons who are gay–especially men–successfully change fully to a heterosexual orientation.

The reality is that the conservative response to homosexuality has morphed through a range of positions.  At first gay behavior was regarded as just a bad choice.  Then, when that approach failed to match the experience of gay Christians, neo-Freudian theories emerged about absent fathers and dominant mothers, and strategies for reparative therapy were attempted.  When those theories were disproven, and attempts at reparative therapy proved unsuccessful, many conservatives (including Exodus International) abandoned this approach.  The consensus now is simply that gay Christians need to learn how to be celibate and live with their desires, finding more constructive and holy ways to form their identities and to express themselves than in erotic relationships.

So I respectfully disagree with Ron on this one.  I don’t think the jury is still out.  The data is pretty clear, that a small minority of gay folks can live successful heterosexual lives (I don’t deny this), but that for the majority of gay people, it’s unhelpful and counter-productive for them to try to change their sexual orientation.  It’s not only liberals who are saying such things.  Even the conservative umbrella organization for groups trying to help gay people live celibate or heterosexual lives—Exodus International—says this.  For most gay Christians, it is simply unhelpful to hold before them the hope of a change in their sexual orientation.  That’s the concrete experience of the vast majority of gay folks.  It remains a lively issue of debate whether they should therefore remain celibate, or whether they should be permitted to enter into long-term committed unions.  But for most gay Christians, the jury is in, and change in sexual orientation is at the margins, not at the center, of their experience.


19 thoughts on “Response to a Review: Sexual Orientation

  1. The views of Paul in the NT and others in the OT is like that of most Africans today, that gay sex is an unnatural choice. They see all men as men made by God to love women but a few choose to have unnatural sex with men. The people who choose to do this (in prison, in war) are doing something sinful (and we have to affirm that). What they don’t and can’t seem to understand is men who have never loved a woman and have always loved other men. Until that possibility is understood as inborn/innate, they will never accept homosexuals (nor should they). It will take a long time for science and the testimony of friends/relatives brave enough to come out and explain it for them to understand it and maybe eventually even accept it. If we force them to accept it now (with their present understanding) it would be wrong because it is wrong to exchange your natural passion for an unnatural one (as some people do). We need to understand their perspective and then take the time (as you are valiantly trying to do) to explain what homosexuality is and is not, biologically before we can explain what the OT and NT are condemning which is totally different! I wholeheartedly agree with you that the biblical authors had no such understanding since we are only now barely starting to understand it today (biologically). Brain science will eventually confirm these things but for now we really see through a glass darkly into our neighbors sexuality.

  2. Jim,

    It is manifestly evident that Paul was educated on Greek prose and, therefore, would have surely been familiar with Plato’s works, the closest thing the Greeks had to a Bible at that time. The Symposium is generally regarded as Plato’s best dialogue (excepting, according to some, The Republic), and the views therein would not have been lost on Paul. Paul wrote that same-sex relationships were a distortion of God’s creative purpose, and if he had thought it necessary for the clear instruction of the Assembly to confront the view represented by Aristophanes in the Symposium, he certainly would have. To assume we know best and thus rule out Biblical wisdom seems quite hasty. I’m more concerned about being welcomed by the King of Kings with, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” than about being liked by my age-mates. Though I don’t think the issue has been handled well by the “conservative” side, neither has it been handled well by the “liberals.” Love does not mean affirmation. Consider the “woman at the well.”

    With Respect,


    • Whether it is “manifestly evident” that Paul had access to Plato’s Symposium I’ll leave for another debate. But Paul, along with all other Jews and Christians, would never have have even considered the approach of the Symposium approach as valid, given that it posits an entirely different creation narrative than the one in Scripture. I agree with Paul on this judgment. People are not gay because they seek to re-unite with some primordial “other half.” (I also do not think that straight people are seeking to re-unite with their primordial “other half” either!) But this is only to say that the modern experience of sexual orientation may present a different set of problems than the ones that Paul is considering, as I try to argue in this post. If so, and if we take Paul’s argument seriously, we might not so quickly assume that everything Paul is speaking of in Romans 1 is exactly the same phenomenon we see in loving, committed long-term same-sex relationships today. There are other ways that we have today to construe the origin and mutability of same-sex desire, beyond the myth found in Plato’s Symposium. To reject Plato’s option, as Paul rightly does, does not mean that the issue is settled for all time. I agree that love does not mean that we simply affirm whatever people are doing. But love also entails a kind of curiosity to understand people’s experience more deeply, including the experience of gay and lesbian Christians. That’s what I’m trying to do in this post.

      • Like I said in my comment, the section of the Symposium in question was not ever taken as a “scientific” explanation. It was a mythical explanation of an observable reality–that some people are naturally attracted to the same sex, others are not. The bit about being cut in half is just a fun story and is not meant to convey historical reality. So Paul, if he rejected it, was rejecting that some individuals have natural tendencies toward those of the same sex.

        You do a lot with the word ἐπιθυμία, which certainly conveys desire, but does not preclude the idea of innate. In Luke Jesus uses the word to talk about his desire to eat the Passover meal with his disciples. When Paul talks about his desire to depart and be with Christ, before saying “To live is Christ, to die is gain,” the word for desire is ἐπιθυμία. Not only this, but the word does not in any way signify that it is not the result of a natural longing. To say that God gave them over to their passions does not mean that those passions were not already in existence. Curiosity is one thing, but hasty rejection of 2,000 years of interpretation for comfort is another thing entirely.

  3. Jim,

    I’ve really appreciated your book and your blog posts on this subject of the Bible, gender, and sexuality. I found your critique of the gender complementarity approach of traditionalists very helpful. Thank you so much for your work you are doing to reframe the Church’s debate on this issue.

    I’ve noticed that a repeated traditionalist strategy (i.e. Robert Gagnon) is to appeal to Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Mark 10 to demonstrate that Jesus endorsed a gender complimentarian position. I find your critique of traditionalists’ interpretation of the Genesis account compelling and you marshal a lot of arguments for a kinship reading of Mark 10 in your “One Flesh” chapter (p. 90-97). However, you didn’t really engage directly with Mark 10:6 when Jesus says, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.'” How would you respond to traditionalists who would argue that Jesus’ quoting of ‘God made them male and female’ demonstrates that gender, and not just kinship, was essential to Jesus’ view of marriage?

    As I said, I find your overall critique of gender complimentarity persuasive, but I was hoping you could engage this specific passage in more detail in a future blog post. Is Mark 10:6 evidence that Jesus assumes that marriage between a man and a woman is God’s normative design?

    I’d really like to hear more of your thoughts on this subject when you have a chance…


  4. James,

    I saw a mention of your book in our denominational periodical. And that led me to your blog. I’m drawn to anyone who deeply interacts with the Bible as you do.

    I would value your response to this concern. The real world seems to call your biblical conclusions into question. You write:
    “I’m merely suggesting that when Paul in Romans 1 speaks of same-sex relationships that are driven by excessive lust, impure, degrading, and contrary to nature, these characteristics don’t always seem to fit very well, when applied to committed, long-term same sex relationships in the church’s contemporary experience.”

    However, the idea that most long-term same-sex relationships are monogamous is largely a construct in the minds of straight supporters. The gay community does not assume monogamy. Gays in long-term committed partnerships often agree to a sexually “open” relationship. See, for instance, “Many Successful Gay Marriages Share an Open Secret,” NY Times, January 28, 2010. That is the most favorable stat available. Other surveys give a much higher incidence of open relationships. For instance, browse “The Couples Study” which lists studies on the incidence of agreed-upon non-monogamy among “male couples who have been together for five years or more.” (This is not practice falling short of an ideal — all of us fall and need grace — but the ideal itself being dropped.)

    Unfortunately, that seems true even of the gay community in my denomination — at least I am unaware that any of their leaders encourage their community toward reserving genital sexual intimacy for within a monogamous, life-long covenanted relationship and insist that a sexually open relationship is contrary to the integrity of that relationship. And I am aware of leaders who make comments that keep space for non-monogamy. For heterosexuals, the stats for U.S. evangelicals are dismayingly similar to the general population, and it seems that our gay brothers and sisters join us in this.

    So in spite of all the arguments why Romans 1 (“consumed with passion for one another,” NRSV) need not be applying to committed long-term gay partnerships, it actually does seem like it fits. Until a significant strand of Christian gay writing and witness resists the tendency of the larger gay world around them and lifts up sexual exclusivity as a moral obligation in same-sex partnerships, I will worry that even this community’s practice in this area is described by the traditional understanding of Romans 1 uncomfortably well.

    a brother,
    Harold Miller

    • I agree with you that the only form of long-term committed relationship among gay or lesbian Christians that can be in any way sanctioned within the context of any sort of Christian framework that is built on core biblical principles is one that is exclusively monogamous. The fact that many gay relationships (like many straight ones) in our culture do not live by, or sometimes even aspire to this standard is certainly cause to say that, for Christians, this remains an issue in need of much sanctification. The question, of course, is whether such relationships are redeemable and sanctifiable. To answer that, we don’t look to statistics, but to the dynamics of grace.

      • Hi Jim,

        An active weekend on your blog.

        You are right, there are many things we can’t use stats to determine.

        But we can use them to get a sense of how healthy or risky a lifestyle is. If we believe that Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6 are ambiguous — if we are uncertain whether Paul is against all forms of same-sex sex or only forms that are promiscuous, idolatrous, or abusive — then can’t stats tip us toward one interpretation rather than the other? The stats (eg. committed gay couples seeking outside sexual partners at a rate three times higher than straight couples) can suggest that gay partnerships are not what our Creator had in mind when designing our sexuality, and can raise the odds that the Spirit of God would in compassion steer persons away from such a risky relationship. This does not prove anything — many good things are very difficult to pull off — but doesn’t it up the odds?

        For me the fact that so many long-term gay couples struggle with being sexually exclusive makes me worry about my young friends who are opening themselves to that lifestyle. Indeed these couples struggle so much that most eventually make peace with it. According to studies using nationally representative samples, 20–25% of heterosexual men in the U.S. at some point in their marriage engage in extramarital sex; but according to studies cited by “The Couples Study,” three times that many “male couples who have been together for five years or more” agree to a sexually open relationship.

        Harold Miller

      • Two quick responses. First, without clear references, it’s hard to know what to make of alleged “statistics” that get cited on the web. But even more importantly, I suspect that statistical studies of heterosexual sex in the ancient world of Paul’s day were rather discouraging too, but that didn’t keep Paul from calling people to holiness. The question is what holiness looks like for gay and lesbian people. I think we can agree that it doesn’t look like promiscuity of any sort, including an “open marriage.” I happen to know a number of gay couples myself who would agree that such “marriages” need to be entirely rejected as non-Christian.

      • You are right that the “statistical studies of heterosexual sex” are “rather discouraging too” but that we should nonetheless keep “calling people to holiness.”

        You are also right in being cautious of “alleged ‘statistics’ that get cited on the web.” Sorry I hadn’t taken time to elaborate in my last comments. I’m drawing stats from professional journals, The NY Times, etc.

        For instance, there was a study described in the journal Family Process (September 2011) which drew its large sample from couples who trekked to Vermont in 2000 when it became the first state to offer them a civil union. It reports that 49.5% of gay men said that they as a couple agree to be “open” rather than sexually exclusive or monogamous. Their heterosexual male siblings showed starkly differing stats: 6.0% said their marriage was “open” and 10.1% said they cheated on their wives.

        The New York Times wrote about the “open secret” of many gay marriages (Jan. 28, 2010), reporting a study of male couples which found that “about 50 percent of those surveyed have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners.” It added, “None of this is news in the gay community, but few will speak publicly about it.”

        By the way, those two surveys give the absolute highest stats for gay monogamy (“monogamy” meaning sexual exclusivity rather than some kind of social monogamy). Every other study shows gay monogamy much lower.

        If you want to read more, google “The Couples Study” or the other phrase I had in quotes in my last comment: “male couples who have been together for five years or more” and you’ll see careful research by gay men.

        And I can give you much more, if you want.

        May God’s blessing and grace rest upon you and others as we seek to discern what the Spirit is saying to the church on this issue.

        Harold Miller

  5. Jim, to borrow your language I have one simple question. Truly, it can be answered with a yes or no. Not even an explanation is required.

    You wrote: “So my question is a simple one: does the early Jewish and Christian explanation of same-sex desire—that it is driven by excessive lust unsatisfied with heterosexual gratification and driven to increasingly exotic forms of stimulation—do justice to the actual experience of gay and lesbian persons today? (Take a look at pp. 154ff. of my book for direct quotes from ancient Jewish authors taking this view.) If it does not, then we have to reckon with the fact that what the biblical writers took for granted or simply assumed may not reflect the actual experience of gay and lesbian Christians today who seek to temper and refine their desires in long-term committed relationships.”

    Now my simple question: does personal experience supersede the authority of Scripture, yes or no?

    • You say it’s simple, but almost every question for which the asker desires a “yes or no” answer (when not in regards to a question of record/evidence/fact) is either a poor question or intended as a trap (much like the pharisees attempted on Jesus).

      I suspect the answer you will receive will be along the lines of: personal experience of course does not supersede the authority of experience but it might, and probably should, enlighten our understanding of the deeper meaning/teaching of scripture. But presumably you won’t find that very satisfactory?

    • The short answer to your question is no, personal experience does not supersede the authority of Scripture. But I don’t believe that what the biblical writers assume or simply take for granted is always to be taken as the authoritative teaching of Scripture–assumptions are not to be equated with what the Biblical writers are actually teaching or intending to teach. The biblical writers assumed that the world was flat, and that the sun revolved around the earth. They assumed the existence of the institution of slavery. But most Christians today don’t take these assumptions as authoritative for Christian faith and life today, but simply as some of the assumptions of the ancient world. Scripture is authoritative in what it intends to teach, not in what it assumes or takes for granted.

  6. Paul,

    Should I continually be surprised that when one tries to have a conversation about what Scripture says with another who disagrees, the Pharisee card is played? I wonder what our conversations would look like if people didn’t try to resort to ad hominem references and actually engaged the thought at hand. I suspect the RCA might have a healthy space that truly allowed room for all. But alas, that is not the case and people put down others rather than address the question. Your response is a simple example of this. I asked Jim a question and used his repeated language of a “simple question”…but apparently it is acceptable sometimes to make a point using such language of entrapment, as you claim, but only sometimes.

    To answer your question, I would have been perfectly happy with a simple yes and no. But as you can see, that was not what I received.


    It has been a number of years now since I took symbolic logic but as I recall, to make an assumption about someone’s assumption to prove a point is is even more dangerous and certainly not credible scholarship.

    What basis do you have for the fact that the biblical authors took for granted that the earth was flat? All of the passages that I can think of that speak of the shape of the earth do so in its relationship to its Creator and the point being made is metaphorical about that relationship of created/creator. And while the institution of slavery was “taken for granted” by the early Christians they certainly did not assume that was the norm (consider Galatians 3.28, Ephesians 6.5-9).

    Scripture definitely has some very strongly intends to teach a specific message on human sexuality. That is most definitely still applicable today. I’m glad you and I agree that personal experience does not supersede the authority of Scripture.

    • Hi Nathan,

      Fair enough re: pharisee reference – not necessary or helpful, or fair probably.
      But fear not I’m not RCA myself ; )


    • Not sure if this makes things sound even murkier, but I found this a helpful passage in the book (p.10):

      “[T]he dynamics of the discussion leading up to Acts 15 make it clear that this leading was not simply a supernatural “voice from the blue,” but that it involved history, experience, wisdom, debate, and judicious assessment of a variety of forms of evidence, stories, and experiences. When the apostle James declared, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us,” he was not elevating human wisdom to an equivalent status with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but instead underscoring the way the Spirit works through these complex human processes of constructing patterns of discernment, meaning, and vision.”

      Recognise that this doesn’t explicitly point to your question about the authority of scripture, but perhaps does speak to a part of what Jim is suggesting about the interface between human experience and inherited / handed-down wisdom – that even whilst there may be (and I think Jim affirms this in the book) a great deal of fairly unambiguous and unchanging teaching in scripture, our understanding of the truth we receive directly from God, creation, Scripture, is fallen and we can’t and shouldn’t assume it should always remain static. We must though let the trajectory of our dynamic relationship with scripture be spirit-led.

      You’d be right to say of course that this can sound like a very slippery way of saying that we just decide for ourselves what scripture says (which sounds very much like elevating human wisdom/experience over scripture), but unfortunately all understanding of scripture is in some way interpretive, and all of it is human/limited/broken.

      Similarly, my reading of Jim’s book is itself interpretive and unavoidably coloured by my own experience and pre-existent assumptions about the world and society, but I feel very strongly from reading it that a desire to place some contemporary human experience or insight OVER that of the underlying message of scripture doesn’t drive his writing, even if his conclusions or exegesis may (in yours and I’m sure many others’ opinions) be misguided. I would be hard-pressed to think of a book I’ve read which is a more honest attempt to ascertain biblical truth. Like I said, that of course doesn’t mean the conclusions or arguments hold up, but I do hope the author can be given the benefit of the doubt as to his motivations (which are not, I believe, elevating contemporary wisdom over scriptural teaching OR opting for comfort over truth).

      • Paul, If I may enter here for a moment, the book of Acts is one of the toughest books of the New Testament to interpret because it is referring to the lives of the Apostles–those initially sent out by Jesus in human form (with the exception of Paul, who had a dramatic experience) for the foundation of the Body of Christ and for the writing of the foundational documents. It was not written as an ideal model for every Christian since then. Any decent Intro to the New Testament, whether that be a book or a class, will tell you that Acts is historically descriptive, not prescriptive. So I guess I’m saying that Brownson is missing the target on his interpretation of Acts.

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