Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships,
by James V. bible gender sexualityBrownson

A book review by Tricia Dykers Koenig

One of the resources suggested for further reading in the study of “Christian Marriage in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” prepared by the Office of Theology and Worship is  a recent book by James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, published by Eerdmans in 2013.  [See the Covenant Network’s Supplemental Resources for the Marriage Study.]

Dr. Brownson is a Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and was ordained by the Reformed Church in America.  Like many Christians, his “moderate, traditionalist position” on homosexuality was challenged when his teenage son came out:

I wish I could say that, since I had always been such a thoughtful and empathic scholar, when I was faced with this case in my own family, I would simply find the conclusions I had already arrived at in my prior study on this subject to be adequate. But I must confess — to my regret and embarrassment — that this was not the case. I realized, in fact, that my former work had stayed at a level of abstraction that wasn’t helpful when it came to the concrete and specific questions I faced with my son. Indeed, the answers that I thought I had found seemed neither helpful nor relevant in the case of my son.

For example, I had made a sharp distinction in my earlier thinking between homosexual orientation (which my denomination had declared was not necessarily sinful) and homosexual behavior (which, I had believed, was forbidden by Scripture).  But in my son’s case, the issue was not sexual activity; he was simply trying to understand his own emotional makeup and disposition. The traditionalist treatment of sexual orientation seemed shallow and unhelpful to my wife and me when we looked at our son…

…Then slowly, over several years, along with many conversations with my son, my wife, and many others, I returned to the literature to try to sort out the issues more deeply, to determine how we could best support and encourage our son — and to discover how I might better serve the church as a biblical theologian. I decided, from the beginning, that I wanted to discern, as deeply as I could, what the most central and truest message of Scripture was for my son. If my study brought me to the conclusion that my son should remain celibate, I was prepared to make that my prayer. But if my study led me to different conclusions, I was also prepared to follow those lines of inquiry as clearly and as consistently as I could. The goal was not to justify a certain conclusion; rather, it was to discern, as best I could, the truth. This book is one of the results of that effort.

But here is the point I want to make from this personal story: that dramatic shock to my life forced me to reimagine how Scripture speaks about homosexuality. The texts had not changed, but my assumptions about what they were self-evidently saying was put to the test. My core Reformed commitment to the centrality of Scripture had not changed; but I needed to confront the equally Reformed conviction that the church must always be reforming itself according to the Word of God. This principle assumes that what Scripture seems to say is not always identical to how it truly should inform Christian faith and practice. I have been forced to dig more deeply, to reread texts that seemed clear, and those that have always seemed puzzling, in an effort to find new patterns and configurations in which both the texts themselves, and a range of human experience, might cohere more fully…   (pp. 11-13*)

Brownson’s book is aimed at “determining the moral logic that shapes biblical prohibitions or commands — discerning why a text says what it does and clarifying its underlying values and assumptions.”  (p. 15)  He gives considerable attention to his observation that “what traditionalists find most fundamentally wrong with same-sex intimate relationships is that they violate divinely intended gender complementarity,” although there is no broad agreement about “the deep meaning of gender complementarity” – does it imply hierarchy, or is it primarily “the anatomical or biological complementarity of male and female” in which “[t]he physical union of male and female… represents the overcoming of the incompleteness of the male on his own or the female on her own”?

In an exegesis of Genesis 1 and 2, Brownson concludes that

° The focus in Genesis 2 is not on the complementarity of male and female but on the similarity of male and female.

° The fact that male and female are both created in the divine image (Gen. 1:27) is intended to convey the value, dominion, and relationality that is shared by both men and women, but not the idea that the complementarity of the genders is somehow necessary to fully express or embody the divine image.

° The one-flesh union spoken of in Genesis 2:24 connotes not physical complementarity but a kinship bond.  (p. 38)

Brownson notes “the presence throughout Scripture of contrasting patriarchal and egalitarian streams,” and finds that gender hierarchy is not God’s will for humanity:

These tensions are best resolved by the eschatological vision of the New Testament, which holds in tension the ways in which we “already” have entered into the new life of the world to come (and thus have left patriarchy behind) and the ways in which we still live in this world, and have “not yet” fully entered into the life of the world to come (and thus are still bound, in some ways, by the structures of society, including — in the ancient world — patriarchal structures). But the canonical witness as a whole portrays the egalitarian vision as the eschatological destiny of human life, and invites people to live into that destiny, as long as such life does not disrupt the everyday functioning of the Christian community. (p. 84)

If Scripture does not insist that marriage is inherently a hierarchy (man over woman), and if “the one-flesh bond spoken of in Genesis 2: 24 is essentially a lifelong kinship bond” rather than the complementarian “completion” of a man and a woman by each other, there is no moral logic that excludes same-gender couples:

Therefore, what is normal in the biblical witness may not necessarily be normative in different cultural settings that are not envisioned by the biblical writers. (p. 109)

Brownson explores biblical attitudes toward procreation and celibacy, ideas about purity and impurity,  the concept of honor and shame that informed the biblical writers, and their understandings of what is “contrary to nature.”  He considers all the “clobber texts” often cited by those who would prohibit all same-gender relationships, and deals at length with Romans 1, perhaps the most significant of those passages.  His work points to the conclusion many Christians have come to: taken in context, the moral logic of Scripture does not prohibit the type of committed, mutual, loving same-gender partnerships that we know today, and the same values that Scripture lifts up for heterosexual marriage apply to LGBTQ partnerships as well.

I commend Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships to those who are continuing in dialogue about the morality of same-gender relationships, particularly in the context of the marriage equality conversation that is engaging both church and society.

Brownson is responding to critiques of his book on his blog at

*Page numbers are from the Kindle edition of the book.