Robert A. J. Gagnon joined the faculty at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in the Fall of 1994 as an Associate Professor of New Testament. He received a B.A. degree from Dartmouth College, an M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School, and a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. His main fields of interest are Pauline theology and sexual issues in the Bible. He is the author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Abingdon, 2001). He is currently completing two other books: Jesus and the Capernaum Official: Trajectories in Tradition History and The Limited Advantage of the Jew: Diatribe, Syllogisms, Universal Sin, and the Layered Trap of Romans 3:1-9. He is the author of a dozen scholarly articles which have appeared in journals such as the Journal of Biblical Literature, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Novum Testamentum, and New Testament Studies. He is also co-editor of the journal Horizons in Biblical Theology.
Let me say by way of preface what this debate on sexuality is about. It is not about us. It is about God. We have lost our way because we have converted the theocentric posture of Scripture into an anthropocentric posture. We have made the satisfaction of human desires and aspirations paramount. Yet when we look at Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find that the first crescendo reached in the letter couches everything in terms of God’s righteousness:
But now...God’s righteousness has been brought to light,...that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ..., whom God set before himself as an offering that makes amends by means of his blood, through faith, serving as a demonstration of his righteousness,...with a view to the demonstration of his righteousness in the present critical time, in order that he himself might be righteous and the one who makes righteous the person whose life is based on faith in Jesus. (Rom 3:21-26; cf. 1:16-17)
Here Paul proclaims that God is showing himself to be in the right, definitively and at long last, in the way that God chooses to be right, on the basis of saving people through Jesus Christ and through no other. The only way that message can ever be heard properly is if the preceding material in Romans is also heard (1:18-3:20, especially 3:19-20), which brings people ultimately to one appropriate position, which is face on the floor, open to whatever way God chooses to redeem us because we have nothing to bring with us. With that overwhelming gratitude—in a sort of theophanic experience, like Job had—we receive what God has for us. Make no mistake about it: God insists that God will be in the right and God alone. And no one has any right to question that, because we are but dust. Much of the sexuality debate revolves around human demands about what God allegedly must do if God is to be considered loving and just, rather than accepting with open hearts the singular way God has provided for acceptable sexual expression.
That God would allow his own Son to die for us is the greatest possible testimony of his love for us, and at the same time of the sole efficacy of Christ’s atoning death (Rom 5:5-11). For if God could have done it any other way, surely God would have taken another approach. Indeed, the greatest theodicy question of our time does not have to do with cataclysmic events such as the September 11th tragedy, as bad as such events are. No, the greatest theodicy question of our time is how a just God could allow his own Son to die for us. The answer to that question is resolved only in that boundless depth of God’s love for us that we spend the rest of eternity unraveling.
Yet that boundless love is expressed in a profound and, for us, often frustrating way. For God is not the Great Rubber Stamp in the sky that puts the seal of approval on all our inner desires. A better metaphor is to view God as the great plastic surgeon, with the caveat that God is not interested in mere cosmetic surgery. God is interested in deep-tissue surgery. God intends "by any means necessary" (to borrow a phrase from Malcolm X) to form Jesus in us. Our whole destiny moves toward the goal of being "conformed to the image of his Son" (Rom 8:29), like Christ being dead with respect to carrying out sinful urges but alive with respect to obeying God (Rom 6:1-14). It is this that explains Paul’s exasperated yearning for the Galatians that "Christ be formed in you" (Gal 4:19); that they, like himself, should learn to "no longer live" so that Christ may "live in" them (Gal 2:20). Or, as Paul could say to the Corinthians about himself and his associates, we are "always carrying around in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies" (2 Cor 4:10). Or, as he could say about himself to the Philippians, "I suffered the loss of all things, and regard them as excrement, in order that I may gain Christ...that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the partnership in his sufferings, being conformed to his death" (Phil 3:8, 10).
That is ultimately what this whole sexuality debate is about. It is about whether or not we have the right to define for ourselves what we can do on the basis of desires that we experience in life, or whether God has the right to transform us into the image of Jesus as God sees fit. That is the alternative before each and every one of us, "my way"—as Frank Sinatra once said but no longer says—or God’s way. God "who did not spare even his very Son but handed him over to death for us all, how can he not also graciously grant us all [good] things with Jesus?," Paul asks rhetorically in Romans 8:32. And is it not also true by the same token that, even sometimes when it is painful for us and contrary to our personal desires, God will require of us what is ultimately in our best interest? That denial of the urges of the flesh will sometimes be tantamount to a death of sorts? God is utterly in earnest to make us look like Jesus. Grace and a demanding ethic, including sexual ethic, go hand in hand. They are not in conflict as stereo-typical presentations of an "accepting God" or "accepting Jesus" would have us believe. At the forefront is always "grace to become what God wants us to be" (so the center section of the first 11 chapters of Romans: 6:1-8:17), never "grace to free me up to do what I want to do." The latter is a truncated gospel; or, more to the point, no gospel at all.
I love the opening chapter of the Gospel of John—in fact the whole of the Gospel of John if you press me. But we’ll confine ourselves for the moment to the first chapter. Remember how Jesus meets Nathanael and he knows immediately who Nathanael is from a distance. Nathanael is just thrilled by this. Yet this is a sort of equivalent of a "David Letterman stupid pet trick" in relation to what John is really getting at in the Gospel. Jesus adds: If you think that is something, "you will see . . . the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (1:51). Now already Jesus had said with respect to Nathanael, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit" (1:47)—a play on words with Jacob’s alternate name "Israel," the one who is the stereotypical trickster in the Old Testament. When Jesus speaks at the end of John 1 about the ascent and descent of angels he once more recalls the Jacob cycle, in what is called in contemporary parlance an intertextual echo. Jacob had a dream at Bethel (Gen 28:10-22; Jacob did not yet know it was "Beth-El"; only later would he refer to the place as "the House of God"). Jacob dreamed about a ladder of God on which the angels of God were ascending and descending. Jesus says: You will see something greater, you will see the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Who or what is Jesus comparing himself to? The ladder. That is an astounding text. The Jesus of John’s Gospel is basically searching for metaphors in the Scriptures with which he could be compared. Not Jacob. Who is Jacob that Jesus should be compared with Jacob?
Throughout the Gospel of John one finds a rejection of strict comparisons between Jesus and the great human figures of Israel’s past. Instead we find comparisons with objects in the Old Testament that symbolize life itself. Why the ladder? Because the ladder symbolizes a link between heaven and earth. And if you want to encounter heaven on earth it has to be through Jesus. Moreover, as an instrument made of wood it beautifully symbolizes the wood of the cross. Jesus becomes the link between heaven and earth most profoundly at the point of his death (hence: "for you will see..."). Likewise, Jesus is likened in John 4 not to Jacob but to Jacob’s well because flowing from Jesus’ glorification at his death and departure is the living water that consists of the Spirit of Jesus (cf. 7:38-39). So too Moses is not the mold to which Jesus must conform. Compare Jesus not with Moses but with the bronze serpent that Moses "lifted up" in the desert and by which people bitten by poisonous snakes lived; for nobody ever looked on Moses and lived (John 3:14-15; cf. Num 21:6-9). Yet when people look on (i.e., believe in) Jesus "lifted up" on the cross, they live forever. Compare Jesus not with Moses but with the "bread from heaven" associated with Moses’ desert sojourn (John 6:32-51; cf. Exodus 16). Nobody ever ate Moses and lived; but the manna was the "bread from heaven" (Ps 78:24) by which people were delivered from death. Similarly, when people believe that Jesus’ flesh was given for the life of the world (i.e., accept him as Savior by virtue of his atoning death), they live forever (6:51).
But that is not all. Jesus intensifies that offence by talking about "eating my flesh and drinking my blood" (6:53-58). For a Jew in antiquity, to speak about drinking blood—which is reserved for God—is the height of blasphemy. It is intensely scandalous; it is intensely offensive. That overlay of offensiveness and scandal is there by design. It is there to say: If you think you can do an end run around Jesus in some way, you are sadly mistaken. This is the one and the one alone through whom life is achieved and not just at any moment but at the moment of the cross when Jesus makes amends for human iniquity. By virtue of his sacrificial death on the cross Jesus becomes the sole, indispensable soteriological medium for the cosmos. Period. The offensiveness of this exclusive claim is underscored when the narrator notes that "From this point on many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him" (6:67)—quite understandably. If one had any queasiness about the centrality of Jesus in God’s plan, that would be the time to bow out. So Jesus turned to his disciples and said, "Do you also wish to go away?" Peter in effect responds, "Well, this is really strange stuff, but you have the words of eternal life. Where else are we to go? Now if there were some other alternative, and somebody else had the words of eternal life, I would be there. But that looks not to be the case, so we are staying with you, the Holy One of God" (cf. 6:67-69).
What we are now being asked to do in the current amendment A is to carve out a segment of our life—sexuality—and say in effect, "I will be the master of my domain. I will dictate to God what I need in life to make me happy." That cannot be allowed in the church. Is it any wonder that the metaphor of dying with Christ is used by Paul (and implied by John’s image of being "born from above," 3:3, 7)? When have we ever known death to be painless? Death is not an easy experience, and the metaphor is there to remind us that the human flesh does not go quietly. We hear the gospel: "Jesus is Lord" (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3; 2 Cor 4:5; Phil 2:11; Col 2:6). The flesh says, "Oh, thank you very much, that resonates exactly with my personal interest." Not exactly. That certainly was not the way it worked in my case. I am sure it probably was not in yours, and still is not in ours. The flesh goes only kicking and screaming; it constantly opposes the will of God because it sets its own will in place of God’s (Rom 8:5-8). It insists: "I want to do what I want to do, when I want to do it, and with whom I want to do it."
The gospel is there to tell us: You may think you want this or that thing outside of Jesus, but it is not what you really want. What you really want is Jesus, not even something that Jesus gives. Consider the other totalistic metaphors about Jesus in John’s Gospel, in addition to the Ladder and Well of Jacob and the Bronze Serpent and Manna of Moses. Jesus is not only the Good Shepherd but also the Gate itself by whom alone one enters the sheepfold of God’s redeemed community (John 10). He is the Glory of God that appeared on Mount Sinai (2:1-12; cf. Exod 19:16-20), the Temple (2:19-22), the Vine of Israel (15:1-11), the Resurrection (11:25), and the Light of the world (8:12; 9:5). And he is the Way or Road (the Greek word hodos carries both meanings). "How can we know the way or road" to the place you are going, asks Thomas (14:5). Jesus responds, "I am the Way (or Road), and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me" (14:6). Ultimately, Jesus is nothing less than the "I am" (8:58; 18:6; cf. Exod 3:14), the Word or Mind of God made flesh (John 1:14).
It is as if you drove up to a McDonalds and said, "I’d like a cheeseburger and a coke, please"; and the person at the counter responded, "I am a cheeseburger." Now that would probably be the last time you would see that person working behind the counter. But odd as it may sound, in effect, that is what Jesus is saying—although bread sounds better than cheeseburger as a staple of life. What Jesus is saying is: "Your deepest yearnings are satisfied in me. Every human quest is stilled in me. You may think you want something else, but what you really want is...me. You may think you want sex as you would like it, but what you really want is...me." That is what we are fighting for with respect to the church in the sexuality debate.
Because sex is neither a god to be worshipped nor an essential component of authentic human existence, God is able to restrict access to sexual intercourse in a host of ways—to relationships that are monogamous, non-incestuous, adult, non-commercial, non-bestial, lifelong, and heterosexual. The only absolutely essential thing in life is Jesus himself. A church that attempts to supplant a consistently and strongly held sexual norm in Scripture is a church that has given up hope that Jesus is Answer enough. It is a church that refuses to accept the word from God that "My grace is sufficient for you, for [my] power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 11:9). It is a church that views self-fulfillment as more basic to the Christian life than denying oneself and taking up one’s cross (Mark 8:34). It is a church, in short, that no longer believes that God can bring life out of a dying to self. Therefore it stands incredulous at the notion that Scripture could actually, and rightly, close off one whole form of sexual expression to people with strong proclivities to only that one form.
The homosexuality issue is very difficult, and the reason why the issue is very difficult is its very personal nature. It involves, for example, people’s children. But I think what often gets left out of the discussion is that it is not just a question of feeling compassion for people who have homosexual passions. It is also a question of whether culture can impact the incidence both of self-identifying homosexuality and of homosexual behavior in the population. As I will attempt to show, cultural influences can have an enormous impact on those numbers. And an increase in homosexual self-identification and homosexual practice in the population will, in turn, increase in the population the host of ancillary problems that typically arise from such behavior (see pp. 452-60, 471-79 of my book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice). We should feel as much for children who, through vigorous societal endorsement of homosexual behavior, are encouraged at a crucial stage of sexual development into cultivating homosexual self-identification and behavior, with its disproportionately high risks to health, relational dynamics, and gender identity. That is, we should feel as much for these children as for children already beset by homosexual urges. Moreover, feeling compassion for those already beset by homoerotic impulses by no means mandates endorsement of homosexual practice. Rather, true compassion for someone engaged in self- and other-harmful sexual behavior—whether it be homosexual behavior, incest, plural unions, serial short-term unions, adultery, commercial sex, adult-youth sex, or bestiality—requires sensitive and caring efforts at helping the participants out of such behavior.
There are three main arguments for endorsing homosexual behavior.
(1) The "Love-Tolerance-Unity" Argument. This argument is usually used as a preemptive first strike to cut off an appeal to Scripture. It simply asserts: "Look, I know what love is; I know what tolerance is; and I know what unity demands: the affirmation of consensual, loving same-sex erotic unions. Case closed, no matter what some Scripture texts espouse on same-sex intercourse" (for a response see pp. 33-35, 210-27, 241-43, 282-84, The Bible and Homosexual Practice).
(2) The "Non-Essential Issue" Argument. This argument contends that sex, and certainly "homosex," do not really matter a great deal. To be sure, one can find a rejection of same-sex intercourse in Scripture, but it is not a core issue or does not address the phenomenon of loving homosexual relationships. This argument can take many specific forms:
a. Only a few isolated texts speak against homosexual intercourse, and nothing from Jesus (for a response see pp. 432-41, 185-228, The Bible and Homosexual Practice).
b. The Bible disapproves of only exploitative forms of homosexual behavior (see the discussion of individual Bible texts in my book).
c. Homosexual intercourse is regarded as sin but a sin no worse than any other sin, indeed less of a sin than judging others (see pp. 69-70, 74-78, 94-97, 113, 117-20, 264-69, 273-84, 305-308, 331).
d. The church over the centuries has departed from Scripture’s position on a number of issues. Given these analogous cases, what’s the big deal about circumventing the Bible’s opposition to homosexual behavior (see pp. 442-51, 460-69)?
(3) The "New Knowledge" Argument. The claim here is that we have acquired some new insight recently that the biblical authors did not have, which puts at jeopardy their viewpoint. This allegedly new knowledge has in view one or more of the following claims:
a. The Levitical prohibitions of male same-sex intercourse are no more relevant today than a host of other discarded purity regulations in the Holiness Code (for a response see pp. 113-28, The Bible and Homosexual Practice).
b. The Bible rejects homosexual practice because it sees the purpose of sex as procreation, not sexual intimacy (pp. 132-34, 270-73).
c. The Bible’s opposition is based on misogynistic biases: homoerotic relationships threaten the heterosexual paradigm of male dominance (pp. 138-42, 361-80).
d. Biblical authors were ignorant of the genetic immutability of homosexual orientation, basing their opposition on the misunderstanding that homoerotic desires arise from overheated or excessive heterosexual passions (pp. 384-432).
These, then, are the three main arguments employed in the church for justifying the acceptance of homosexual behavior despite apparent opposition from biblical texts.
In the following remarks I am going to concentrate on two subset arguments from the list above: first on a subset of the "non-essential issue" argument, namely, the use of alleged analogies for deviating from the clear word of Scripture (2.d.); second on a subset of the "new knowledge" argument, namely, the contention that modern understanding of homosexual attraction as an immutable genetic condition renders the biblical view passé (3.d.).
Beyond that it will have to suffice to assert here (and answering to 2.a-c. above) that the Bible’s opposition to homosexual practice is pervasive (with no dissenting voices in Scripture), absolute (with no exceptions for certain alleged non-exploitative forms), and severe (with no indication that the behavior is anything less than an egregious form of misconduct); moreover, that the rigor of its opposition exceeded anything else that developed in antiquity. The "big picture" of the Bible on the issue of homosexual practice is the complementarity of male-female sexual bonds and the universally strong restriction of acceptable sexual activity to heterosexual marriage.
The particular analogies that are most commonly drawn for circumventing the biblical witness against homosexual practice are four. One has to do with a change to Old Testament Scripture, or its interpretation, already by the first-century church: the analogy of Gentile inclusion. The early church did not initially think Gentiles should be recipients of the message of the gospel, at least not apart from full observance of the Mosaic law. They learned to change their mind about that when they saw the work of the Spirit in the lives of believing (but law-free) Gentiles. Likewise we should also change our minds on the issue of homosexual behavior. Then, in a more contemporary vein, pro-homosex advocates argue that the church has changed its mind about such things as slavery, women’s ordination, and divorce/remarriage.
The main problem with the analogy is that it involves a series of category confusions. Think in terms of two headings here: one for the inclusion of Gentiles, and the other, for inclusion of practicing homosexuals. I’m going to try to point out ways in which they are not analogous.
First of all, ethnic identity is based on an immutable objective condition that is 100 percent heritable: ancestry. For example, if two people of French ancestry have a child, that child, 100 percent of the time, will be of French ancestry. (I’m not a doctor but I believe it works out that way.) Homosexual self-definition, however, is based on mutable subjective desire that is not directly heritable. What this means is that one (ethnicity) is a given of birth, always; while the other (homosexual identity) is not an inevitable product of one’s birth but rather is largely shaped by familial and extra-familial cultural/environmental factors. Practically speaking, church and society cannot do anything about the former but can play an important role in affecting the incidence of the latter.
Secondly, one (being a Gentile) is a self-definition only incidentally linked to sinful behavior, while the other (homosexual behavior) is a self-definition that is directly linked to sinful behavior. While first-century Jews could speak of righteous or God-fearing uncircumcised gentiles, the concept of a righteous participant in same sex intercourse would have been a complete oxymoron. In scriptural terms, same-sex intercourse was by definition sinful, not in some cases but in all cases. Gentiles, however, only typically engaged in sinful practices; a distinction could be made, and often was made, between being a Gentile and engaging in sinful practices.
Thirdly, one (the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles) involves the non-commission of a positive ritual act enjoined by Scripture on Jews. The other (homosexual sex) is more basic still, involving the commission of a negative moral act proscribed to Jews and Gentiles alike.
Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, one has to do with welcoming people (Gentiles); the other has to do with accepting behavior (same-sex intercourse). According to Acts 15, Gentiles were accepted into the church on the basis of faith in Christ without any concomitant acceptance of the behaviors, especially sexual behaviors, that made Gentiles sinful in the eyes of Scripture and in the eyes of first century Jews. Indeed, the Apostolic Decree in Acts 15 specifically enjoined Gentiles not to engage in porneia ("sexual immorality"). And since the Decree as a whole echoes the regulations imposed on Jews and resident aliens alike in Leviticus 17-18, it clearly has the sin of homosexual intercourse in view, among others. There is a clear distinction here between people and behavior.
Fifthly, the one (the expansion of salvation for uncircumcised Gentiles) has some Old Testament precedent (see pp. 466-69 of The Bible and Homosexual Practice), while the other (a positive assessment of same-sex intercourse) has none.
Finally, the one (inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles) has uniform New Testament approval: there is no New Testament author who argues otherwise. The other (acceptance of homosexual practice) has no New Testament support.
Consequently, there are a series of significant category confusions that make any attempt at analogy between the inclusion of Gentiles and acceptance of homosexual practice highly unconvincing.
We are not finished yet, however, with the problems in drawing such an analogy. There is also the problem of sloppy application. If one were to apply pro-homosex arguments consistently, numerous kinds of immoral sexual activity could be justified, so long as:
a) One demonstrates the presence of the Spirit in other areas of one’s life.
b) Indisputable evidence cannot be produced that the behavior in question harms each and every one of the participants under all circumstances and in scientifically measurable ways.
Now these are simply naïve and unreasonable standards. With respect to the first point, is it impossible for a person who solicits sex from prostitutes to give to the poor? No. In fact, humans bifurcate their lives all the time, acting nobly in some areas and ignobly in others. This is endemic to human nature. With respect to the second point, is it true that every single case of plural marriage or incest that we know of involves behavior that can be demonstrated to produce personal distress or scientifically measurable maladaptiveness in each and every one of the participants in all circumstances? No. So basically you can drive a truck through this sloppily applied analogy. For the hermeneutical ground rules employed in the acceptance of homosexual practice you must ignore the following factors:
Regarding the first two points above, early Israel, early Judaism, and Christianity did not naively imbibe at the cultural well on this issue; they were distinctly countercultural. We know of no other cultures in the ancient Near East or in the Greco-Roman world that stood more unequivocally opposed towards same-sex intercourse. Early Israel, early Judaism, and Christianity had to think long and hard about what they were doing to buck the cultural trends elsewhere.
So, if ignores the horrendous category confusions and the problems with a consistent application of the naïve corollaries for justifying homoerotic behavior, then, yes, one could use the Gentile analogy. I wouldn’t. Let us be clear here. There are a lot of other types of sexual behavior right around the corner and a number of which one could make a better case for, including unions involving three or more partners and at least some forms of incest. If the church were to spend thirty years mulling over the potential for such unions, believe me, the church could make a much better case for their acceptance than the one that some have attempted to make for homoerotic unions.
Slavery is a very poor analogue because:
It is time to recognize that slavery is really quite a silly analogue to choose, one that reflects poorly on the hermeneutical acumen of those who apply it to the issue of same-sex intercourse. Simply put, Scripture nowhere expresses a vested interest in preserving slavery, whereas Scripture does express a clear vested interest in the male-female model of sexuality. The homosexuality issue is put on an entirely different footing by Scripture, where there is not the slightest indication anywhere in the canon that same-sex intercourse is anything other than a detested practice, a practice to be utterly eschewed by the people of God, Jew and Gentile believer alike, at all times and in all circumstances.
Divorce and remarriage also are a flawed analogy, because:
What kind of analogy, then, is divorce? Not much of one.
Finally, women in ministry is a bad analogue because:
What then are the best analogues? If it is not women’s ordination, if it is not divorce and remarriage, if it is not slavery, if it is not Gentile inclusion, what is it? And why are these other, better analogues never introduced?
The best analogies to the Bible’s opposition are—obviously—those that most closely match the most salient features of the biblical view of same-sex intercourse:
That is where one is going to find the best analogues for what we do with respect to homosexual behavior. The strongest parallels are not Gentile inclusion, slavery, divorce, or women in ministry, but rather incest, bestiality, adultery, prostitution and soliciting prostitutes. Of course, all of these remain prohibited in the church today.
Incest provides a particularly good parallel. Both incestuous relationships and homosexual relationships are:
It cannot be demonstrated that incest, conducted between two consenting and committed adults, produces scientifically measurable harm and/or personal distress to the each and every participant in all circumstances. Yet the church does not validate any types of incestuous unions, no matter how "well" such unions are done; and it certainly would not ordain a person involved in a committed and consensual incestuous union. Why, then, should we validate certain types of homosexual unions and ordain self-affirming participants in homosexual intercourse?
If the church follows Scripture in treating a host of sexual behaviors as significant violations of the moral life even when personal distress and/or harm cannot be proven in all cases; and if too Scripture itself invites a closer comparison between these proscriptions and the proscription of homosexual practice, then how credible is the appeal to Gentile inclusion, slavery, divorce/remarriage, and women’s roles? Not very credible. The argument from analogies refutes rather than confirms the notion that same-sex intercourse should be treated as a non-essential matter.
From here we segue to one of the "new knowledge" claims.
Many claim that Scripture’s opposition to same-sex intercourse is grounded in an obsolete notion about the origin of homoerotic passion; namely, that all who engage in sex with members of the same sex do so as bored heterosexuals looking for additional novel sexual adventures. Since we now allegedly know that homosexual passions constitute a distinct "orientation" that is given at birth, often exclusive, and generally immutable, we can disregard Scripture’s opposition. This view thus banks on the assumption that Scripture opposes same-sex intercourse solely because it believes homoerotic passions to be manufactured in participants who have other options for sexual fulfillment.
We will first examine Paul’s thinking on the subject in his historical context, then delve into socio-scientific data.
1) A number of Greco-Roman sources suggest at least a partial congenital basis for homoerotic attraction—and some of these same sources still argued that same-sex intercourse was contrary to nature. We are not the first culture to theorize this view of causation (see pp. 384-85, 392-95, The Bible and Homosexual Practice).
2) It is improbable that Paul was unaware of the existence of men whose sexual desire was oriented exclusively toward other males. For example, there existed in the first-century Roman world people called cinaedi (Latin plural; singular cinaedus; derived from Greek kinaidos, pl. kinaidoi, "butt-shaker"). These were adult males who perpetuated an effeminate appearance in order to attract male sex partners. Moreover, they were exclusively attracted to other males. Philo, a first-century Jew, was quite aware of their existence. Since the cinaedi appear frequently in the literature of the period, it is highly unlikely that Paul was unaware of their existence.
3) In antiquity "excess passion" never constituted an independent critique of same-sex intercourse. Passion was judged as excessive (e.g., the passion for sex with animals) on the basis of other criteria about behavioral limits. Otherwise, how could one determine which passions were in excess? There has to be some prior determination that something is wrong with the behavior in question in order to determine that it constitutes excess passion. Paul likely viewed any transgression of God-ordained boundaries to be—by definition—an overheating or excess of desire, in the sense of desiring something that God did not ordain humans to desire by virtue of creation intent and design.
4) It is not possible to deduce from Paul’s remarks in Rom 1:24-27 that Paul believed that every single individual who engaged in same-sex intercourse also experienced heterosexual desire at one time (much less that idol worship was a necessary prerequisite for homoerotic behavior!). Paul was referring to collective entities, not individuals, and to widespread effect, not origin.
5) It is illogical to think that Paul only condemned participation in homosexual acts by those "naturally" attracted to the opposite sex. For, if we were to draw that conclusion, we would have to draw that same conclusion for other sexual behaviors that Scripture opposes. In that event we would have to assert that Scripture expresses opposition only to acts of incest, bestiality, and adultery by those not constitutionally predisposed to committing such sins. Incidentally, it is worth pondering that the overwhelming majority of men are constitutionally predisposed to have multiple sex partners. It may be true of many women as well but it is especially a problem for men (the off-the-charts promiscuity of homosexual men, even in relation to homosexual women, is stark testimony to this reality). In a world that sanctioned and provided cultural incentives for high numbers of sex partners, men generally would have little problem with having sex with large numbers of women. But that is not what God calls us to do because it is self-destructive and other-destructive behavior, even when it is consensual.
6) In terms of Paul’s understanding of nature, Paul distinguished between innate passions perverted by the Fall and exacerbated by idol worship on the one hand—and, by the way, one does not have to create a statue to worship idols—and material creation that was left relatively intact despite human sin on the other hand. There is a whole series of behaviors and passions listed in Rom 1:29-31, following the reference to same-sex intercourse in 1:24-27, that certainly have some innate basis. People do not choose to be covetous or envious, for example. They are simply born with an innate proclivity to feel bad when others have attractive things or persons that they do not have. That does not mean that covetousness and envy are natural or in accordance with nature in the Pauline sense. So the innateness of homosexual passions would not subvert Paul’s view of them as contrary to nature since by nature Paul meant God’s intended design for creation untouched by the introduction of sin into the world (i.e., the anatomical, procreative, and interpersonal complementarity of male-female sexual bonds as more secure heuristic clues than innate passions).
7) Current theories of homosexual development are essentially compatible with Paul’s own view of sin. In Romans 5 and 7 Paul speaks of sin as an innate impulse operating in the human body, transmitted by an ancestor human, and never entirely within the control of human will. This is precisely how homosex-affirming advocates describe homosexual orientation. And Rom 1:24-27 itself talks about God "giving over" people to pre-existing passions for members of the same sex, passions which, apart from God’s help, are beyond control. If Paul could be transported into the twenty-first century and told that homoerotic desires have (at most) a partial and indirect connection to innate causation factors, he doubtless would have said either "I could have told you that" or at very least "That fits well into my own understanding of sin."
Here we will focus on four main areas in which socio-scientific data impacts on the question of whether homosexual desires are congenital and immutable: (1) the alleged existence of a distinct homosexual brain; (2) the alleged existence of a special homosexual gene; (3) indications of childhood factors in sexual development; (4) indications of the cultural malleability of homosexual desire.
Despite the rush to judgment by the media in the past decade, there is no conclusive evidence that male homosexual brains differ from male heterosexual brains, much less that such alleged differences are present at birth or that they mechanistically determine sexual orientation.
There are a number of problems with concluding that male homosexual brains differ from male heterosexual brains. Simon LeVay’s 1991 study of an area of the hypothalamus known as INAH3 in 41 cadavers contended that INAH3 was two times larger in the heterosexual males than in the females and homosexual males. However, his study was inconclusive at numerous points:
Even if brain differences between male homosexuals and male heterosexuals were to exist, it would not establish that these differences arose prior to birth rather than subsequent to birth. Plastic structures in the hypothalamus might be altered by any one of a number of post-natal factors:
Any one of these, or a combination thereof, might affect the size of INAH3. In this case, differences could be assigned to distinctive environmental and behavioral patterns after birth, perhaps even well into adulthood, rather than to conditions before birth. The notion of someone being born into some immutable condition impervious to the effects of environment and personal behavior would be (to mix metaphors) dead in the water.
More important has been the attention given to the homosexual gene issue. Studies testing for genetic influence have to date demonstrated, at most, only an indirect and subordinate role of genes in the development of homosexual orientation. Here there are two types of studies of note: (a) those that look for a particular gene sequence in homosexuals; and (b) those that check for sexual orientation concordance in identical twins.
(a) As regards two so-called "gay gene" studies by Dean Hamer (like LeVay, a scientist who also happens to be homosexual), one published in 1993 and the other in 1995, the following caveats need to be kept in mind:
(b) The information from identical twin studies is even more revealing. Most people have probably heard about a series of identical twin studies that were done in the early 1990’s, which indicated that when one identical twin self-identified as non-heterosexual the co-twin did likewise roughly 50% of the time. The studies were hailed by the media as proof of the dominant genetic basis for homosexual behavior. The conclusion was premature.
So while not discounting altogether genetic influence in the development of a homosexual identity, the studies to date suggest that the influence is not major.
What factors, then, are likely to play major roles in the development of homosexual identity and behavior? Two factors are likely to play pivotal roles: societal microstructures (i.e., influences from the child’s immediate network of relationships, sometimes in combination with indirect innate factors) and societal macrostructures (i.e., influences from the larger cultural environment in terms of expectations and sanctions). For both factors individual choices and decisions can significantly affect the origin and intensity of homoerotic impulses. With respect to an ultimate outcome of homosexual self-identification, such choices and decisions may be direct and conscious, or they may be incremental, indirect, and largely unconscious.
A number of individual life circumstances in childhood may contribute to the development of a homosexual identity:
The last point underscores that fact that individual life experiences do not occur in a vacuum but rather are shaped and even precipitated by broader cultural influences. It is to that concern that we now turn.
Both sociological and psychological data confirm at least some cultural malleability in the manifestation of homosexual desire. For example:
The years some homosexuals spend trying without success to conform to conventional expectations regarding gender and sexual orientation tell against the most extreme claims of sexual plasticity. However, in the absence of any evidence linking the peculiar sexual practices of Melanesia with genetic difference, it is reasonable to suppose that if a bunch of Melanesian infants were to be transported in infancy to the United States and adopted, few would seek out the pederastic relationships into which they are inducted in New Guinea, or take younger homosexual partners when they reached maturity. Similarly, American children raised in New Guinea would accommodate themselves to the Melanesian practices. Where social definitions of appropriate and inappropriate behavior are clear and consistent, with positive sanctions for conformity and negative ones for nonconformity, virtually everyone will conform irrespective of genetic inheritance and, to a considerable extent, irrespective of personal psychodynamics. (p. 487)
In making the above points, I do not contend that self-identified homosexuals can be easily rid of homoerotic desires. Disordered sexual "orientations" of any stripe, not just homosexual ones, do not change easily. This includes orientations toward multiple sex partners, sex with members of the inner family circle, sex with children or adolescents, sex with animals, commercial sex, sadomasochistic sex, and coercive sex. Patterns of sexual arousal wired in the brain by life’s experiences are usually not easily removed, even after years of therapeutic intervention. Ironically, those who argue that homosexual behavior should not be disavowed precisely because it is resistant to change would—to be consistent—have to contend that non-monogamous relationships be accepted for male homosexual relationships. For statistical evidence to date strongly suggests that male homosexuals have extraordinary difficulty, relative even to lesbians, in forming monogamous unions.
No, my point is more basic: homoerotic desire is not like race or anatomical sex. It is not a fixed, immutable birthright. It is closer to an entrenched (but not irrevocable) taste than to physical differences impervious to cultural shifts. This can be perceived by reviewing (a) the different levels of change that are possible for homosexual tastes and (b) the different mechanisms for inducing change.
(a) It is erroneous to restrict the meaning of change in this context to the complete eradication of homosexual desire. As we have seen above, change can include:
Ultimately, in terms of Christian self-definition, the true ex-homosexual is not only someone who never experiences homosexual impulses, just as the ex-adulterer is not only someone who never experiences a desire for sex with women other than his wife. The true ex-homosexual (or, more precisely, ex-"homosexer") is someone who, by God’s grace and the power of the Spirit, no longer acquiesces to homosexual impulses.
(b) Both the level of incidence of homosexual desire and fluctuations in its intensity and degree of exclusivity can be affected by:
The different types of change possible and the existence of various external mechanisms for producing change combine to put homosexual proclivities on an entirely different footing than race or sex. Furthermore, the behavior arising from homosexual desire is associated with a disproportionately high rate of health problems (sexually transmitted diseases, mental health issues) and of non-monogamous and short-term relationships, as well as with an annihilation of basic societal gender norms. These negative effects cannot be explained away by one-sided appeals to societal homophobia (for which see pp. 452-60, 471-89). So, since church and society can play a significant role in reducing the incidence of homosexual behavior in the population, they can and should do so.
We may now summarize the main points of this article.
First, we looked at texts from both Paul and John to show that arguments favoring homosexual behavior overturn not only Scripture’s explicit teaching on such but also other basic principles enshrined in Scripture. In insisting that God and Christ could not possibly deny one whole form of consensual sexual expression, pro-homosex arguments not only ignore parallel instances where the church denies consensual sexual activity but also give only subordinate weight to the theocentric posture of Scripture, the basic Christian paradigm of grace amidst cruciformity, and the image of Jesus as the sufficient Answer to all life’s desires.
Second, we analyzed the appeal made to a set of analogies for disregarding Scripture’s stance on homosexual behavior: the analogies of Gentile inclusion, slavery, divorce and remarriage, and women in ministry. We found such analogies to suffer from significant category confusions and sloppy hermeneutical application. We argued, too, that the Bible’s stance on bestiality, adultery, prostitution and soliciting prostitutes, and especially incest constitute much closer and more reliable analogues.
Third, we addressed the claim that the Bible’s alleged ignorance of the innate and immutable character of homoerotic desire renders its stance on homosexual practice irrelevant for our own times. We noted that the notion of homoerotic passion having perhaps a partial congenital basis is entirely consistent with Paul’s understanding of sin; furthermore, that socio-scientific evidence to date indicates that congenital factors in the development of homosexual desire and identity are largely indirect and subordinate to cultural factors. There is little basis for contending that homosexual desire is to be likened to race and sex. The church’s stance can exercise a marked effect on the incidence of homosexuality.
We offer the following concluding thoughts:
The enormous burden of proof incumbent on those who would circumvent the clear biblical witness has not been met. Approval of homosexual behavior would not be an act of love and tolerance but a harmful and intolerant disregard of God’s loving guidance for abundant life.
In words taken from, and inspired by, Ephesians 4:1-5:20:
Lord, may we walk in a manner worthy of our calling, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love. May we earnestly endeavor to keep the oneness of the Spirit and of the faith by means of the bond of peace and common adherence to the apostolic teaching on sexual holiness, as on other matters. May we as Your body arrive at an adult knowledge of Christ, no longer being blown about by teachings that depart from Your word. May we put off the old humanity, deluded into approving forms of sexual desire that You have rejected, and clothe ourselves with the new humanity, embracing with a renewed mind the standard for sexual wholeness that you have established for our benefit. For, as You have warned us, no one who engages unrepentantly and repeatedly in a form of sexual intercourse deemed immoral by apostolic teaching will have any inheritance in Your kingdom of light. Help us, Lord, to expose to the light of Your word the lie that diversity in types of sexual unions is an absolute good, remembering our own sin and need for daily repentance. May your church quickly restore the penitent, thereby maximizing salvation to the many. Amen.
Dr. Gagnon's comprehensive treatment of the subject of the Bible and homosexuality (through 1999) is: The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001). 520 pages.
Since that time Dr. Gagnon has published the following articles:
Dr. Gagnon has no two new resources due to be published in Fall 2003:
This 60-page essay can be regarded as a companion piece to Dr. Gagnon's essay in Homosexuality and the Bible. This paper has three main sections: (1) Dr. Gagnon's most significant discussion of the import of the creation stories and "structural compatibility" for the homosexuality debate; (2) a focused argument for why the Bible's prohibition of homosexual behavior does not allow exceptions; and (3) a discussion of why a modern-day appeal to "homosexual orientation" does not justify deviation from the biblical witness against homosexual behavior. This third section includes Dr. Gagnon's most extensive discussion of ancient theories regarding a biological predisposition for some forms of homoerotic behavior. It was intended for Homosexuality and the Bible but could not be included there because of space considerations. As with Dr. Gagnon's essay in Homosexuality and the Bible, this essay is keyed to online lines that will appear on Dr. Gagnon's webpage when the book is released.
Copyright © 2001. Used by permission.