Response to Gagnon in First Things

In a recent online article in First Things, Robert Gagnon wrote a piece entitled “WHY SAN FRANCISCO’S CITY CHURCH IS WRONG ABOUT SEX.”  I write this response, not in order to defend City Church (I don’t know the details of their position, and they can defend themselves quite well without my help), but in order to shed some light on important aspects of the debate over LGBT inclusion that are obscured or unclear in Gagnon’s article.  Gagnon sometimes writes with a tone of finality and clarity, when the facts are less clear or more multi-faceted than his writing may suggest.

For example, early in the piece, he writes, “In fact, adult-committed relationships in the ancient world were widely known, with early Christians and rabbis forbidding even adult-consensual marriages between persons of the same sex as abhorrent acts.”  What Gagnon’s comment obscures is the fact that the dominant pattern of same-sex eroticism in the ancient world is pederasty—men with boys or men with slaves.  There is a lively debate about whether this was the only form of same-sex eroticism that was known, but almost everyone will agree that, if “adult-consensual marriages between persons of the same sex” existed at all, they were extremely rare, and did not constitute the most common form in which same-sex erotic relationships took place.  Moreover, I find absolutely no evidence that first-century Christians or Jews ever spoke of “adult-consensual marriages between persons of the same sex.”  I would welcome Gagnon’s pointing to evidence to the contrary, but I know of none.  Debates over LGBT inclusion are not assisted by distortions of the relevant facts.

Gagnon proceeds in the next paragraph of his article to argue his case in more detail.  But note how the ground shifts.  He now argues, not that Paul is directly condemning “adult-consensual marriages between persons of the same sex,” but rather that Paul’s condemnation of “homosexual practice” is absolute and not subject to any sorts of restrictions.  Therefore, by implication, even “adult-consensual marriages between persons of the same sex” are forbidden.  So now the ground has shifted.  We are no longer talking about a direct prohibition, but rather a prohibition by implication of the nature of Paul’s argument.  This leaves considerably more room for debate.

And in fact, there is room for debate on many fronts.  Gagnon says nothing of the fact that three times in Rom 1:24-27, Paul characterizes the same-sex eroticism he speaks of as marked by excessive lust.  In 1:24 he speaks of how God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity.  Later, he speaks of how this activity is marked by “degrading passions” (1:26) and as “consumed with passion” (1:28).  The intensity of Paul’s argument seems appropriate to promiscuous and abusive encounters, but it seems less relevant to those who want to live together in life-long bonds of committed love, “for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until we are parted by death.”

Paul’s focus on lust and passion here is consistent with what we know about ancient Jewish and Christian attitudes toward same-sex eroticism generally.  They viewed this behavior as arising, not from a relatively fixed same-sex sexual orientation, but rather from desire which was inflated to excess, not content with more “normal” means of gratification, and driven to increasingly bizarre and exotic forms of stimulation.

We see this perspective commonly in the ancient world, in both Roman and Jewish authors.  The Roman orator Dio Chrysostom, for example, who wrote shortly after Paul’s time, speaks of same-sex eroticism as the manifestation of insatiable lust:

The man whose appetite is insatiate in such things, when he finds there is no scarcity, no resistance, in this field, will have contempt for the easy conquest and scorn for a woman’s love, as a thing too readily given—in fact, too utterly feminine—and will turn his assault against the male quarters, eager to befoul the youth who will very soon be magistrates and judges and generals, believing that in them he will find a kind of pleasure difficult and hard to procure.  His state is like that of men who are addicted to drinking and wine-bibbing, who after long and steady drinking of unmixed wine, often lose their taste for it and create an artificial thirst by the stimulus of sweating, salted foods, and condiments.[1]

The early Jewish philosopher/theologian Philo, writing a bit earlier than Paul, makes a similar equation between same-sex eroticism and self-centered lust which refuses any boundaries.  He comments on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah:

The land of the Sodomites, a part of the land of Canaan afterwards called Palestinian Syria, was brimful of innumerable iniquities, particularly such as arise from gluttony and lewdness, and multiplied and enlarged every other possible pleasure with so formidable a menace that it had at last been condemned by the Judge of All.  The inhabitants owed this extreme license to the never-failing lavishness of their sources of wealth, for, deep-soiled and well-watered as it was, the land had every year a prolific harvest of all manner of fruits, and the chief beginning of evils, as one has aptly said, is goods in excess.  Incapable of bearing such satiety, plunging like cattle, they threw off from their necks the law of nature and applied themselves to deep drinking of strong liquor and dainty feeding and forbidden forms of intercourse.[2]

It is particularly interesting how Philo, like Paul, equates this excess of lust with the abandonment of the “law of nature.”  “Nature” here is not focused on creational design as much as it concerns the sort of moderation that is commonly assumed as “natural” in philosophical circles of the day.

When we confront this distance between the perspective of ancient writers on same-sex attraction, and the experience of LGBT folks today, we face some important questions.  The vast majority of gay and lesbian persons do not experience sexual attraction to those of the opposite sex.  Their interest in those of the same sex is not driven by a thirst for the exotic; it is simply the only form of sexual desire that they have ever known.  It may be strong or weak, insistent or occasional, but though its intensity may vary, its orientation does not.  In short, the experience of gay and lesbian persons today does not match the perspective that underlies the rhetoric of ancient Jews and Christians toward same-sex behavior.

As Christians, we can all agree that self-centered eroticism that is driven by a thirst for the exotic should not be embraced by any sort of Christian perspective.  When we encounter erotic desire of the sort that Paul, or Chrysostom, or Philo speak of, we should also raise substantial moral questions about its propriety.  But to equate all same-sex behavior to the lustful excesses that Paul and other ancient writers have in mind is to make equations where they do not exist, and to subject contemporary gay and lesbian Christians to unfair and inaccurate accusations.  Paul is speaking about lust and excessive passion; he is not speaking about loving, self-sacrificing, committed, mutual relationships.  To equate the two is to ignore the specifics of Paul’s language in its context, and the specifics of the experience of gay and lesbian persons today.

Of course, there are other dimensions of Paul’s argument that Gagnon speaks of, and which I address in my book on this topic,[3] but space does not permit a complete response here.  In general, one of the major disagreements between Gagnon and me in our interpretation of Romans 1 is the extent to which we believe that Paul is basing his argument explicitly on Genesis 1-2.  Gagnon frames his argument in this manner, speaking of the “strong intertextual echoes to Genesis 1–2,” but I am more cautious.  My caution arises from the fact that Paul is arguing in the first chapter of Romans for the reality of Gentile sinfulness, and the inescapability of their guilt.  But the Gentiles have not received the book of Genesis as a revelation from God.  If Paul’s argument is dependent on Genesis, then the Gentiles have an excuse—they have not received the revelation that Paul allegedly speaks of in Genesis.  But Paul explicitly argues against such a position in Rom 1:20—the Gentiles are “without excuse.”  Paul is not arguing from special revelation in Romans 1, but from general revelation, and his argument flows from an assumption that he shares with Greeks and Romans—that excessive passion is one of the clearest signs of human brokenness and weakness.  So this problem of excessive lust is not peripheral, but is central to his argument.

And there are further issues to argue about as well.  Gagnon writes, “The best biblical scholars who have studied extensively the issue of homosexual practice, including advocates for homosexual unions (such as William Loader and Bernadette Brooten), know that the scriptural indictment of homosexual practice includes a rejection of committed homosexual unions.”  Of course Gagnon singles out these particular writers as “the best” because they agree with him.  But if one surveys in general the biblical scholars who advocate for same-sex unions of one sort or another (including myself), the vast majority do not reflect the assumption that Gagnon associates with those that he terms “the best,”  that “the scriptural indictment of homosexual practice includes a rejection of committed homosexual unions.” Such rhetoric is powerful, but deceptive.

Gagnon also critiques rather heavily Ken Wilson, whose book[4] is commended by City Church, San Franciso.  Wilson has formulated his own response to Gagnon’s critique, which you can review here. I will let him speak for himself.

Finally, I want to say a few words about Gagnon’s argument regarding the parallels between incest and same-sex relationships.  In his article, he states, “The same scriptural justification City Church offers to treat as permissible homosexual sex in the context of what City Church deems a marriage could be used to say that incest is acceptable so long as it occurs in the context of a “marriage” between consenting adults.”  One might observe, first of all, that the vast majority of cases of incest do not involve “consenting adults” but rather the abuse of children, and are thus both irrelevant to this discussion, and are clearly wrong on multiple grounds.  But Paul, in 1 Corinthians 5, speaks to an issue of incest which was apparently consensual between adults, and roundly condemns it.  I believe, with Gagnon, that Christians today should reject all incestuous relationships, even if they are mutually consenting relationships between adults.  But I disagree with Gagnon about why such relationships are wrong.  Gagnon believes that they are wrong because the participants are “too much alike.”[5]  But if one reads the incest prohibitions of Leviticus 18 & 20 carefully, it is clear that the issue is not “too much sameness” but rather the involvement of persons in incompatible roles:  one can’t be both mother and wife, or father and husband, or brother and spouse, or son and husband.  Such role conflicts create innumerable problems that have been recognized in all cultures and almost universally rejected.  But it is hard to see how such role conflicts speak to committed same-sex unions that do not involve persons from the same original household.  So yes, incest is always wrong, even between consenting adults, but this doesn’t really speak to the question of same-sex unions composed of those who are not from the same household.

In short, I agree with Gagnon that the church must stand against all forms of sexual immorality, and refuse to condone such behavior under any circumstances.  However, when Gagnon insists that all same-sex relationships must necessarily be characterized as sexually immoral, he fails to recognize the context and underlying rationale regarding biblical sexual ethics, and obscures, rather than aids the current conversation.

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[1] Dio Chrysostom, Dio Chrysostom, trans. J. W. Cohoon, Crosby, H. Lamar, The Loeb Classical Library.  (London, New York: W. Heinemann. G.P. Putnam’s Son’s, 1932), 7:152, vol. 1, p. 373.

[2]de Abr. 133-135. Cited from Philo, Philo, trans. F. H. Colson, 9 vols., vol. VI, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press, Heinemann, 1935), 69f.

[3] Bible, Gender, Sexuality:  Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2013).

[4] A Letter to My Congregation: An evangelical pastor’s path to embracing people who are gay, lesbian and transgender in the company of Jesus, (Crumm, 2014).

[5] Homosexuality and the Bible:  Two Views, (Minneapolis:  Fortress, 2003), 49.

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12 thoughts on “Response to Gagnon in First Things

  1. Much of the argument presented here is based on the assumption that committed “until death do us part” same sex relationships exist and are even the norm in the homosexual community. Has this ever been established? It seems the norm is having multiple partners over a lifetime?

    • I’m as little interested in the practice of faithfulness in the secular gay and lesbian community as I am in the practice of faithfulness in the secular heterosexual community. The question is not whether any form of sexuality is inherently holy (all our sexualities are impacted by the Fall). The question is whether they are redeemable, capable of reflecting divine love and faithfulness. So the practice of the secular community is not that relevant. What matters is gay or lesbian couples who want to sanctify their relationships in light of the gospel.

      • Precisely! And that’s exactly what this monogamous, gay Christian is seeking in his relationship with his husband. Bob, I presume you woudn’t want us to define marriages based upon that fact that divorce has become a norm in society, so why base gay marriage on non-monogamous norms? The real issue is whether or not there can be such a thing as a same-sex lifelong commitment. And I suspect that if you engaged gay Christians more, you would find indeed that there are plenty of examples of such.

  2. You might consider comparing the Romans 1 passage to the Wisdom of Solomon chapters 13 and 14. Placed side by side there are some comparable themes. The question was whether people who confused the moon and stars with God were without excuse or not. The conclusion was that they had no excuse for this and should have recognized God. Instead they pursued idols and sexual immorality. Paul’s likely major purpose here was to get his Jewish readers to respond with judgement on the idolatry thus showing that they knew the law and were without excuse for failing to follow it (See Romans 2 the first few verses). This leads to his ultimate conclusion in Romans 3 that all have sinned both Jew and Gentile and thus need Christ.

    It appears that Paul’s main purpose in the Romans 1 passage is to prove his point that the Jews, even with the law, still sin … thus leading to the need for Christ. He is using what they already know and believe to prove his point. This IMHO leaves open the question of whether Paul’s use of a cultural vice list in Romans 1 is for all time or not…. similar to the New Testament references to slavery … the position of women … and so forth. A simple proof text reading IMHO is not going to solve the question any more than it did these other issues.

  3. All very true, Mr Earp, but the fact that idolatry causes same-sex attraction is ancient Hebrew nonsense.

    • The issue is not whether idolatry causes same-sex attraction; Paul’s argument appears to be that idolatry is symptomatic of a sort of self-centered excess that also expresses itself in out-of-control lust.

      • Not so sure, the text seems to say that ‘because’ they worshipped idols ‘therefore’ God delivered them etc. Causation seems implied. There’s also quite a bit of ancient Jewish literature assuming that Jews were not to be suspected of this sin, only Pagans.

  4. Dear brother Jim, my Peniel Bible teacher of 1975 or so. Can you add me to your blog email list? Ir instruct me how to do so. Gods blessings and protection of His presence upon you and family !

    • Hi, John,
      There is a way to subscribe on this site, but I’m not sure of the details. I also tweet whenever a new blog post comes out @Jim_Brownson so you can follow me there, as well.

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