A Place at His Table: A Biblical Exploration of Faith, Sexuality, and the Kingdom of GodWritten by Joel Hollier Reviewed By David Peterson
Joel Hollier identifies himself as an evangelical pastor, chaplain, and writer living in Sydney, who has degrees in social work and theology and is doing doctoral research on the experiences of LGBT people of faith. He spent over a decade advocating for a traditional view of sexuality before changing his mind about the Bible’s teaching in this regard. As a practicing homosexual, who has recently married his partner, he is concerned for those “who are marginalized, whose voices are sidelined and whose lives too often play out as wounded soldiers in a barren no man’s land of the culture war in which we find ourselves” (p. 6). I too am grieved by the failure of many churches to care for same-sex attracted Christians and engage in healthy debate about their needs, but I am equally disturbed by the direction that Joel’s life has taken and the way he justifies same-sex marriage in his handling of the Bible.
His book moves from historical overview to biblical texts and finally to theological and pastoral reflection. The chapter on “Where are we and how did we get here?” begins with a summary of the development of community thought about homosexuality from the Kinsey reports (1948, 1953) to the present. In this context, he discusses the rise and fall of “ex-gay” movements in Christian circles and briefly notes the current emphasis on developing celibate friendships by writers such as Wesley Hill and Sam Allberry. In his pursuit of the ideal of monogamy, Hollier narrowly defines homosexual orientation as an enduring attraction to a person of the same sex, involving erotic arousal, emotional and/or romantic attachment. He uses the word “gay” as a synonym, though he acknowledges that it has social, political, and cultural connotations with which some same-sex attracted Christians would not wish to identify. The nature/nurture debate about the causation of homosexual orientation is briefly reviewed and the evidence for a change of orientation is discussed. He concludes that nailing down these issues is of little moral significance, “for the Christian only has the jurisdiction to bless that which God blesses and condemn that which God condemns” (p. 39).
The major portion of this book is devoted to reviewing traditional interpretations of key biblical passages concerning sex and marriage. Hollier draws heavily on the arguments of others in making his case and says little that is new. A preliminary chapter discusses basic hermeneutical principles such as contextualization and the application of ancient texts to our world today. Genesis 1–2 broadly tells us what it means to be human. The traditionalist reading of these chapters asserts a complementarity between male and female, but Hollier argues that there is no consensus as to what constitutes the gender difference. He rightly challenges attempts to define the difference in terms of “temperament, psychological otherness, and gendered skill sets.” Specifically, hierarchical complementarity is said to provide “no grounded rationale for why male-female union is the only permutation that a one-flesh relationship can take” (p. 61). But the assertion of sex difference in Genesis 1:27 is immediately followed by the blessing and mandate of God to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (1:28). In narrative order, procreation through sexual union is the primary purpose of the one-flesh relationship articulated in 2:24. This link is side-stepped by raising the question of infertility. In Hollier’s view, Genesis 2 simply asserts the primacy of meaningful human relationships and emphasizes the sameness of Eve to Adam in meeting his need for “a helper suitable for him.” Rather than a sexual union between people of different genders, the one-flesh relationship describes “indissoluble kinship (family) ties” (p. 64). Consequently, marriage must be open to people of the same sex.
This argument is a mixture of truth and special pleading. Genesis 2 certainly highlights our fundamental need for human companionship and love, and these themes are developed elsewhere in the Bible. But the specific context is a heterosexual relationship for the purpose of procreation. Only a man and a woman are present in this chapter, and a family emerges from their sexual union in subsequent chapters. Hollier conveniently removes the gender references in his final assessment of verses 24–25. He is right to challenge the view that “those who never enter a heterosexual marriage union will never fully be made in the image of God” (p. 69), as he is to question which parts of these narratives are descriptive, and which are prescriptive. In a sense, the rest of Scripture must determine that for us. But it is not honest to conclude that Genesis 1–2 “place no gendered requisites on these unions but rather require that they are the outcome of two people forming a kinship bond of powerful unity, what we would call ‘family’” (p. 70).
Turning to Genesis 19, Hollier has no doubt that “the men of Sodom sought to have sex with the two men who were Lot’s visitors, engaging in homoerotic behaviour” (p. 76). This was a violent, attempted gang-rape of two angelic visitors, designed to humiliate and exercise power over them. Hollier correctly points out that the biblical prophets condemn Sodom for arrogance and apathy towards the poor, a disregard for the alien and stranger in their midst, but not specifically for their sexual behavior. He rightly concludes that “violence, humiliation, sexual license, and wickedness play no part in God’s kingdom” (p. 83), but he asserts that this narrative does not address the issue of loving, self-giving homosexual relationships. Contrary to his own criticism of proof-texting, Hollier attempts to use the silence of this passage to prove his point! In so doing, he fails to grapple with its significance in the trajectory of sexual abuse narratives in the OT and their relation to the Fall narrative in Genesis 3.
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are located in the holiness code that sets out the way Israel is to live in distinction from the nations surrounding it. The term rendered “abomination” (ESV) or “detestable thing” (NIV) has many applications in the OT, suggesting that in Leviticus the term may convey, at least in some measure, undertones of idolatrous behavior as a corollary of the cultural activities of those nations. Hollier relates the simple words “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman” to either cultic idolatrous worship or patriarchal notions of power and shame. Although it is true that practices associated with idolatry are mentioned in 18:21, 23, the remaining practices in vv. 6–20 are clearly concerned with the preservation of appropriate heterosexual relations amongst God’s people. Consequently, it is a rhetorical overreach to allow two prohibitions with cultic connotations (child sacrifice and bestiality) to be the interpretive key to the other sixteen prohibitions. Are we to suppose that God was only concerned with the avoidance of cult prostitution or with the avoidance of shame (a man being penetrated by another man)? Hollier contends that Leviticus 18:22 could not embrace all same-sex unions, despite the simplicity of the prohibition itself. He exposes some untenable interpretations, but effectively removes this text from having any contemporary application by relegating it to a context that no longer applies to us. At the same time, he misses the opportunity to explore the wider issues of kinship and appropriate sexual relationships raised by the preceding injunctions. His consideration of the way the law of Moses is applied to Christians in the NT is equally superficial.
The vice list in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 contains two Greek words, one of which means “men who have sex with men” (ἀρσενοκοῖται). This rare term, which occurs again in 1 Timothy 1:10, may have been coined to reflect the LXX wording of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, and the broad condemnation of homosexual behavior they express. The other term (μαλακοί) is more controversial because it is widely used in Greek literature with a range of meanings. While Hollier allows for these terms together to refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual activity, he argues that they most likely describe the specific sort of pederast relationships between men and boys that were common in Greco-Roman culture. Looking at the Pauline lists and later uses of the first term, he concludes that the focus is on exploitative sex, rather than “faithful, monogamous, self-giving gay relationships” (p. 116). He thinks it is “highly unlikely that Paul, Timothy, or the Corinthian church at large had a concept of homosexuality that included a lifelong experience of a gay orientation” (p. 118). This is an amazing supposition, considering his opening reflection on the early emergence and life-long persistence of a gay orientation. Why would this not have been the experience of people in the first century and beyond? Was all gay sex in the ancient world exploitative? Hollier disregards the sizable body of historical research into the nature of same-sex peer relationships by scholars (e.g., Thomas K. Hubbard, “Peer Homosexuality,” in A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities, ed. T. K. Hubbard [Oxford: Blackwell, 2014], 128–49).
Romans 1:24 is taken to mean “when God ‘gave them up to the lusts of their hearts’ in retribution for their idolatrous ways, their endpoint was destructive homoerotic activity.” In other words, Hollier contends that Paul is condemning “self-seeking, exploitative, and lust-driven … homoerotic activity,” not “monogamous, faithful gay relationships” (p. 129). In fact, once again, the apostle is said to have had no knowledge of a gay orientation that issued in a loving, life-long commitment to a person of the same sex. Hollier correctly relates Paul’s narrative in Romans 1:18–32 to the post-Fall decline of humanity into idolatry and its consequences. Paul is undoubtedly reflecting on the extraordinary licentiousness of Greco-Roman culture, though the Bible records earlier examples of this in other cultures. However, this understanding of the passage does not justify restricting the phrase “against nature” (1:26, “unnatural” [παρὰ φύσιν]) to a culturally-bound, Stoic view of what is appropriate in sexual behavior. It is the direction of the lust that Paul considers “dishonorable” and “unnatural” (women with women, men with men), not simply the intensity of it. Is it really likely that Paul has put his biblical theology aside at this point and is not reflecting on God’s creative purpose for men and women, as expressed in Genesis 1–2 (especially given his specific use of ἄρσην [“male”] and θῆλυς [“female”]—the very terms that appear in the LXX of Genesis 1:27)? Furthermore, Hollier does not consider the implications of Genesis 3 for human sexuality in all its post-Fall manifestations.
This is an emotive work, in which Joel appeals to fellow Christians for a compassionate and careful reconsideration of biblical texts and their application to same-sex attracted believers like himself. He is critical of the theological approach that traditionalists take to the relevant texts, but he fails to expound a wholistic biblical theology of sexuality as he proceeds (see, however, pp. 178–81), opting to give key terms and passages a limited socio-cultural application. He points to the difficulty of applying Old Testament legal material to Christians, but he fails to explore the way Paul does this elsewhere, or more broadly expresses the teaching of Leviticus 18 in a passage like 1 Thessalonians 4:3–8.
The final chapters of this book deal with the negative aspects of celibacy, the possibility of gay marriage fulfilling the biblical ideals of marriage, changing our theology in the light of historic precedents, and a consideration of possible ways forward in the care of gay people in our churches. These issues call for more careful consideration than this review can begin to offer. Sadly, it is hard to respond to Joel’s genuine cries on behalf of the sexually marginalized, when he offers such a limited and tendentious view of the Bible’s teaching on human sexuality. He is right that at many times churches have drawn lines of exclusion in ways that are destructive, bullying, and not pastorally nuanced. But to begin the book by claiming to have little agenda and end it by charging that a “huge portion of God’s people have idolized a traditional interpretation of sexual ethics” (p. 200) is disingenuous and plays by the very rules he seeks to condemn.
Moore Theological College,
Newtown, New South Wales, Australia
Other Articles in this Issue
In 1 Timothy 2:15, Paul asserts “the woman will be saved through the childbirth...