Response to Robert Gagnon,
The Bible and Homosexual Practice
Holly E. Hearon
Assistant Professor of New Testament
Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis
I have been invited to respond to Robert Gagnon’s book by the Covenant Network. I want to acknowledge that I am a member of the Network. There should be no illusion that I come to this task as an “objective” reader any more than Gagnon comes to his task as an “objective” reader. However, neither do I come as a hostile reader. My goal in responding to Gagnon’s book is to suggest some alternative ways of reflecting on some of the issues and texts that he addresses. I will by no means touch on every point that he raises; time and space do not allow it. I have chosen to confine my remarks to some of the assumptions that he brings to his reading of the text, the creation narratives, and his chapter on Jesus.
Gagnon’s argument is rooted in his belief in “gender complementarity.” Every passage that he discusses is read in relation to this value; thus if a text refers to sexual relationship between male and female, it is said to uphold the value of gender complementarity. The question is: Does the text actually advocate for “gender complementarity” as a norm for all creation, or does Gagnon read “gender complementarity” into the text? Everyone reads the Bible from a particular ideological perspective. It appears to me that Gagnon assumes that “gender complementarity” is God’s norm for creation and reads the text with a view to demonstrating that this is the case.
Gagnon presents himself as offering a “plain” and obvious (“common sense”) reading of the text. Yet Gagnon’s reading of the text does not appear, to me, to be “obvious.” I do not read and hear the text in the same way that he does. For example, Gagnon argues (p. 58) that in creating male and female, the union of male and female represents the fullness of God’s image. If one follows Gagnon’s argument to its logical conclusion, then single persons who do not marry (indeed, Paul himself) never fully embody the image of God, lacking a sexual partner of the opposite sex. Yet there is nothing in the text itself to suggest this. In contrast to Gagnon, I understand the text to say that male and female are each created wholly in the image of God. Ephesians describes this “likeness of God” as righteousness and holiness (4:24). John Kselman, in the Harper’s Bible Commentary, states that the context suggests that the image of God is reflected in humankind’s dominion over creation (p. 87). Neither of these readings leads to the conclusion that God’s image is most fully expressed in “gender complementarity.”
Similarly, Gagnon argues (p. 60) that the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 supports the idea of “gender complementarity.” Yet, as I read the text, Adam does not rejoice at Eve’s creation because he now has a sexual partner; he rejoices because he has a companion who is of the same species: “Bone of my bone; flesh of my flesh.” I do not believe this passage speaks to complementarity but to the goodness of human companionship.
I am also troubled by Gagnon’s assertion that creation supports the idea of “gender complementarity.” I look at God’s creation and see people who are born with both male and female physical sexual characteristics and find myself forced to ask, “are these people God’s mistakes?” (Even among the early rabbis it was recognized that humans cannot be exclusively divided into two gender groups: e.g., m. Arakhin 1:1 recognizes four “gender” groups: masculine, feminine, androgyne, and persons of indeterminate gender.) I visit the aquarium and learn about Sheephead fish, all of which begin life “female,” a few later becoming “male” for the sake of procreation, then most reverting to a “female” state. This amazing transformation reminds me of Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 (there is “no longer male and female” a text Gagnon does not consider in relation to the idea of “gender complementarity”). I cannot conclude, as Gagnon does, that “gender complementarity” is normative to the degree that all other expressions of gender are excluded.
Gagnon attempts to construct a “sexual ethic” that is rooted in scripture. A difficulty with this task is that the Bible is not primarily a book about sex or sexual behavior. This subject is, at best, tangential. He lifts out approximately 20 brief texts and verses that he believes point to this ethic, but these, in fact, represent a mere handful in relation to the 66 books that make up the Bible. Further, in order to construct his ethic, he pulls selected texts out of their literary context. His ethic, then, is cobbled together from myth, narrative, legislation, and epistolary polemic under the assumption that they are all addressing the larger issue of “normative sexuality.” In the process, he ignores a number of texts which could as easily be said to reflect a “biblical ethic” of sexual behavior: for example, the acceptability of Lot offering his daughters for gang rape instead of the male guests whom he seeks to protect (Gagnon seems to condemn a similar action in Judges 19:22-30, but does not mention it in connection with the Sodom story; in his discussion of the Judges texts he states that the writer seems to view the rape of the concubine as heinous, but Gagnon does not address the additional question of why it was, nonetheless, acceptable to offer her as well as the man’s “virgin daughter” to the men. In fact, this is a significant omission in Gagnon’s whole discussion: the role and place of women.), polygamy (Abraham, Jacob and David all had more than one wife; none is condemned for this behavior nor is there any legislation against it with the possible exception of a two verses in 1 Timothy [3:2,12]; however, these verses refer only to bishops and deacons); the permissibility of taking a concubine (as Abraham did; the passage in 1 Timothy 3:12 does not address this issue; thus one might argue that such behavior would be considered acceptable); and Paul’s expressed preference for celibacy (1 Corinthians 7:7) for all concerned. It is not clear how these would fit into Gagnon’s “sexual ethic.”
In discussing the Gospels, Gagnon gives weight to sayings he believes can be ascribed to “the historical Jesus.” Gagnon assumes that his audience shares the assumptions and methods by which sayings are granted “historical” status (since he does not identify these assumptions and methods), yet many scholars take a much more cautious view towards this process. By giving added weight to what Gagnon describes as “historical sayings” he opens the way to a discussion about where the “authority” of scripture rests: if sayings of the historical Jesus become the “norm,” can we do away with the rest of the canon? If not, how do we evaluate the testimony of the larger canon? This is not is an issue Gagnon takes up.
In chapter 3 of his book, Gagnon responds to those who observe that Jesus was silent on the subject of homosexuality by claiming that “Jesus’ silence on the subject . . .makes Jesus’ opposition to same-sex intercourse historically probable (p. 187).” This claim is rooted in four assumptions:
1. Gagnon says it is unlikely that Jesus would have adopted a different stance toward same-sex intercourse from that of first-century Judaism. (p. 187) One of the criteria used to determine whether a statement or perspective expressed by Jesus is authentic or not is called the “Criterion of Dissimilarity.” According to this Criterion, if a statement by Jesus fits easily within the context of early Judaism, we cannot, with certainty, claim that it is authentic to Jesus. This criterion is not water tight. One would expect Jesus to fit within his social context to some degree. Nonetheless, this criterion does lessen the force of Gagnon’s “argument from silence” that Jesus’ silence on this topic allows us to assume he would have condemned same sex intercourse. Jesus silence does not allow us to make a claim one way or another.
Gagnon also claims that Jesus did not abrogate the law to any degree. This claim is based on a single text: Matthew 5:17-18 (the literary context of a parallel passage in Luke 16:16-17 makes it highly uncertain whether Luke is making the same claim for the law as Matthew). Gagnon argues that this statement likely goes back to the historical Jesus. However, this statement also reflects the interests of the author of Matthew (in contrast to Mark, Luke, and John who do not share Matthew’s view of the law). Thus it is difficult to determine whether this statement actually reflects the view of the historical Jesus or the author of Matthew who is writing for a largely Jewish community. If it goes back to the historical Jesus, then we are faced with the question of how to read Paul in relation to Jesus since Paul proclaimed that we no longer live according to the law (Galatians 3). (Gagnon, however, believes that Paul maintains the Levitical laws when it comes to sexual ethics [p. 121].)
Gagnon further claims that Jesus implicitly condemns same-sex intercourse in Mark 7:21-23 where there is a list of behaviors that “defile a person.” Included in this list is porneia, generally translated as sexual immorality. Gagnon admits that it is unlikely this saying is an “authentic” saying of Jesus, but believes it reflects a genuine attitude of Jesus in other words, even though Jesus probably didn’t say this, he probably agreed with it. The reason given for making this claim is that since Jesus upheld the law, he would condemn sexual immorality (a very general notion), and consequently same-sex intercourse. A contemporary example of this kind of logic would be to claim that since I fit into the context of the USA, and in general uphold and support US law, that I agree that presidents should only be elected for two consecutive terms (when, in fact, I may believe that presidents should be elected for only one six-year term, or should be allowed to be elected for as many terms as the American people decide to elect him or her).
2. Gagnon says Jesus’ appeal to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 in his discussion of divorce (Mark 10:1-12) confirms his embrace of an exclusively heterosexual model of monogamy (p. 187). This seems to me to be an expansive claim. Jesus is answering a specific question posed by some Pharisees regarding whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. To generalize a sexual ethic from an answer to a specific question is, I believe, asking the text to bear more than the evidence allows. Here, Jesus is responding to a question about divorce, not general sexual behavior. At most one can claim that Jesus supports marriage and condemns divorce.
3. Gagnon says Jesus’ positions on other matters having to do with sexual ethics were generally more not less rigorous than those of his surrounding culture (p. 187). In three of the gospels, Jesus makes statements which condemned divorce. In respect to this issue, he shares the perspective of those who hold a more rigorous view. As noted above, to generalize a sexual ethic from a single teaching on divorce is questionable. Gagnon also points to Mathew 5:27-28 where Jesus says that by even looking at a woman one commits adultery. On the basis of this saying, along with the teaching on divorce, Gagnon claims that sexual activity outside of lifelong marriage to one person of the opposite sex threatens one’s entrance into the kingdom of God (p. 209). I believe this is an extravagant claim to make on the basis of the texts cited above.
4. Gagnon says the ways in which Jesus integrated demands for mercy and righteous conduct in his teaching and ministry do not lend support for the view that Jesus might have taken a positive or neutral approach to same-sex intercourse. Gagnon emphasizes that Jesus called sinners to repentance: he did not tolerate sinful behavior (that is, allow it to go on unchallenged), but pointed sinners towards transformation.
I do not disagree with Gagnon on this point. However, I am not persuaded by Gagnon’s arguments that Jesus condemned same-sex intercourse. I believe that the evidence leads us to the conclusion that Jesus had very little to say about sexual relations. Rather, Jesus was far more concerned that we should love God with all our heart, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves, extending mercy towards one another even as God extends mercy towards us. In view of what I believe is our still uncertain grasp of gender identity and how it is constructed, the multiple ways in which gender is manifested in the whole of creation, the variety of ways in which human beings express themselves in terms of sexual behavior (some of which I would condemn as immoral), and the ambiguous evidence of scripture in relation to sexual behavior, I am persuaded that we should exercise caution in arriving at too hasty a conclusion.
The story of the early church as described in the book of Acts is one in which the “ethical” standards of the church are consistently challenged by the Holy Spirit and, ultimately, broken down. I believe this is a time for us to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit, speaking to us in scripture and leading us to new understandings about what it means to be the inclusive church of God.