James V. Brownson. Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church's Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013. 312 pp. $29.00.
I am acquainted with this book's author, James Brownson, and I like him. He’s always been kind and gracious to me. Among other things, he’s a leading theological voice on issues of sexuality in the denomination in which I pastor (Reformed Church of America); to say I was interested in what he’d have to say about homosexuality is an understatement. I read Bible, Gender, Sexuality thoroughly and carefully. I was touched by Brownson’s personal family story and thankful for his thoughtful writing. But his book deeply saddened me, and I believe it should sadden all others who follow Jesus. At the end of the book, Brownson writes:
Can we imagine a world in which the divine pronouncement at the beginning of creation, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18), might find a range of deeply satisfying resolutions, from heterosexual marriage, to celibate communities, to gay and lesbian committed unions?. . . . For some Christians, this vision is imaginable as a form of “accommodation” in a broken world. . . . Other Christians may be more ready to acknowledge that, throughout the natural order, same-sex attraction is a naturally recurring “minority” experience. These Christians may celebrate the way in which, by the providence of God, such “queer” folk can naturally deconstruct the pervasive tendencies of majority voices to become oppressive and exclusionary. In this vision, the inclusion of committed gay and lesbian unions represents . . . [a] rather offbeat redemptive purpose in the new creation. (252, 253)
Brownson gets to this point via a complete reconstruction of the biblical narrative concerning sexuality. Unfortunately, however, he builds his biblical narrative on a shaky foundation. Below I have identified several problems with Brownson’s vision of sexuality. Though by no means exhaustive, I think they will grieve your heart like they did mine.
One of my foundational concerns is Brownson’s complete disregard for the complementarian vision for sexuality. He writes, “Despite the fact that such gender complementarity, allegedly taught in the creation narratives, is the most commonly cited reason why commentators believe Scripture teaches that same-sex erotic relations are wrong, the text themselves do not support this claim” (35). Even Robert Gagnon’s “anatomical complementarity” is thrown out as not “directly addressing the interpretation of biblical texts” (21). To get to his vision of sexuality, Brownson must first dismantle a complementarian view. The problem, however, is that he ignores the logic of Genesis 1:26-28. Whatever else one can say about the text (not even considering how gender is an important component of how humans bear God’s image), it’s clear we are gendered beings—male and female. At the core of our gender is our God-ordained biological sexuality. Whatever else it means to be male and female in Genesis 1, then, it certainly means we’re sexually different and intended to come together in heterosexual relating. This is God’s intent for sexual beings; this is the logic of the text. His intent for sexuality—what is “normative,” to use Brownson’s language—is that a man and woman unite sexually in the bounds of marriage for life. And this coming together is one of the basic meanings of what it means to be male and female. A simple reading of the words of Jesus in Matthew 19 confirms this reality. We have gendered bodies, deliberately different from the opposite sex. All homosexual activity, therefore, is immoral—a distortion of the divine intent. Brownson gets this wrong and, in so doing, misses out on a fundamental component of God’s beautiful intent for men and women.
Another problem I have is Brownson’s conviction that sexual orientation, as discussed in popular culture today, is something unknown to the biblical writers. This allows him to reconsider the biblical commands in light of this purported “new information”:
It is clear that Paul is not operating with the modern sense of sexual orientation here. Rather, he speaks of those who “leave behind” what he regards as their own true nature, which should direct them to relationships with those of the opposite sex. It would probably be inscrutable to him to speak of people who were “naturally” attracted to others of the same sex. . . . If this analysis is correct, however, it also suggests that the whole modern concept of sexual orientation and the contemporary evidence of its deeply rooted persistence . . . represent an important range of empirical data about the natural world that was not considered by the ancient Jewish or Christian writers. (229, 230)
This is important. If modern notions of sexual orientation are true and foreign to the biblical writers, then perhaps some homosexual activity is morally conceivable. At least this is where Brownson wants to go. But I see at the argument’s core an assertion that Paul (and the biblical witness) gets the root of homosexuality wrong. For Brownson, when the apostle is writing about homosexuality, his writing cannot be applied to contemporary circumstances. There are three fundamental problems with this assertion:
(1) Robert Gagnon and others convincingly demonstrate that something close to the idea of sexual orientation was a category ancient writers and Paul were likely aware of. (See The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 393ff.)
(2) Brownson’s argument is an assertion that psychological insights can change/modify the biblical vision of human sexuality and sin. But here’s the problem: the Bible and human insights aren’t equal sources. And the entire Bible, including Paul, paints a negative view of homosexuality. There isn’t one exception. What’s tragic is that Brownson is willing to change his vision of human sexuality because of a cultural shift.
(3) The jury is still out on what sexual orientation is and whether it’s immutable or changeable. Compelling research suggests orientation is something of an unfixed spectrum. (See Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation.) It is deeply troublesome to use research about sexual orientation as a path to change the biblical witness concerning sexuality.
What is sad about Bible, Gender, Sexuality is Brownson’s glaring lack of exploration of what Scripture teaches about what it means to be human. We’re image bearers, deeply sinful, fractured in our sexuality and in need of a savior. We don’t need more psychological insights that confuse the issue; we need atonement for our sins. Dietrich Bonheoffer is right: “In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother I can dare to be a sinner.” Let’s call sin “sin,” for only then can we be bold enough to offer grace to sinners—whoever they may be.
The third problem I have with Bible, Gender, Sexuality is Brownson’s definition of lust:
When Paul describes same-sex eroticism as “consumed with passion” (Romans 1:27) and as an expression of the “lust of their hearts” (Romans 1:24), he has in view an expression of intense or excessive desire, which he regards also as “unnatural” and thus misdirected. It is because lust is inherently and centrally excessive, driven by self-seeking will to power that it also manifests itself in misdirected desire, as unrestrained desire burns itself out in destructive patterns. . . . The focus is not on objective behavior but on passions that are running out of control and threaten to consume one’s better judgment. (168, 169)
This is, at least in part, the reason Paul is against homosexuality, according to Brownson. Thus Paul might think differently about “a gay couple who wish to enter a marriage or marriage-like relationship in order to discipline their desire by the restraints of mutual commitment” (168). But the problem with this line of reasoning is that Brownson forgets an important, inherent dimension of lust: breaking God’s boundaries. In his excellent book The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Gagnon writes:
Paul (like most in antiquity) probably viewed any infraction of God-ordained boundaries of any sort (including sexual) to be an overheating of desire simply because transgression of God’s will invariably entailed a victory of passions of the flesh over the rational mind or Spirit. If one craved anything that God had forbidden . . . and acted on that craving, then logically one was mastered by one’s passion. (388)
In other words, homosexuality is lustful not just because it has to do with excessive desire. It is lustful because by participating in homosexual behavior a person dismantles one of God’s most important sexual boundaries. Even in committed homosexual relationships, then, homosexual activity is lustful and consequently sinful. To say otherwise is unfaithful to the biblical witness. And this is what’s so sad about Brownson’s book: there often seems to be a lack of honest dealing with the biblical witness. This might be helpful in winning an argument, but it isn’t faithful to Scripture.
Further, Brownson contends that churches espousing a traditional evangelical view on homosexuality are harmful to those who consider themselves gay or lesbian:
Moreover, it is in the area of shame that the traditionalist approach to gay and lesbian persons become fraught with deep problems. The typical slogans clearly express the ambivalence: “Welcoming but not affirming”; “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.” On the surface, the gay or lesbian person is welcomed into the traditionalist fellowship; but the desires and emotional orientation or disposition of the person’s sexuality are shunned. Ironically, in this context, the more deeply the gay or lesbian person is welcomed and loved by the fellowship, the more profound the problem of shame becomes. The internalized message becomes something like this: “these people love me so much, they must be right. . . . I must resist this part of myself all the more insistently.” Sometimes such a process is effective in helping a person who is confused about his or her sexual orientation to move towards embracing the wider norms of society in his or her sexuality. But research show that such change happens only in a small minority of relevant cases. And when this attempt to embrace the dominant society’s perspective on sexuality is unsuccessful, when desires for others of the same-sex persist, the result is a deeply internalized sense of shame, frustration, and self-loathing. (216)
Evangelical churches seeking to walk alongside men and women who identify as gay or lesbian and calling them to a biblical vision of life through Jesus are, Brownson avers, acting destructively. To be sure, some churches are hateful and bigoted, perhaps more than we like to admit. And I’m sure some churches care more for the sin than the sinner. But make no mistake: Scripture calls all who would follow Jesus to come and die to their sin, their lust, and their desire—no matter how innate it might feel.
I’ve dealt personally with homosexual desire most of my life. When Jesus rescued me, he demanded all of me. And I’m thankful for churches that gave me a biblical vision for my life—including my sexuality. I’m more like Jesus today because of their call for me to die to the deepest desires of my broken humanity.
In Bible, Gender, Sexuality, however, Brownson elevates caricature over substance. He uses a low homosexual-to-healthy-heterosexual change rate to argue God doesn't call gays and lesbians to repentance and purity. Really? Jesus is the one who said, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:14).
Gospel change is hard work that happens in those who actually decide to follow Jesus, which many don’t do precisely because of the high cost. This is true for all sinners, including those fighting homosexual sin. As a pastor, I know many people sitting in my pews are still battling besetting sins after decades of being in church. Should we accommodate for them as well?
Brownson’s words sound compassionate, but they aren’t compassionate enough, since they’re not the gospel. It’s time to reassert what’s always been true: the gospel of Jesus is the hope for sexual sinners. Whether gospel change happens through celibacy, marriage, transformation of innermost desires, or faithful purity in suffering, Jesus is the only way to live out our purposes as sexual beings. Instead of cowering behind statistics, we must declare the gospel and walk with others so they can experience its costly joy. It’s time to more fully live into our calling as the church of Jesus.
So I am sad today. Jim Brownson has given up on the biblical vision of sexuality, opting instead for one that’s palatable for himself and many others. Sadly, Bible, Gender, Sexuality is going to deceive many. I pray God will raise up others who will declare his intentions to his church and his love to a lost and dying world.