Is homosexuality condemned by the Bible?
The question is at the heart of a debate in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which is struggling over whether to lift its ban on gay clergy. Now a conservative scholar has mounted a defense of existing church policy, based on a close reading of Scripture.
Robert A.J. Gagnon, of the Presbyterians' Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, started to write an article on the subject and ended up producing "The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics."
The new 520-page tome may be the most comprehensive assessment of the Bible texts related to homosexuality since the issue began roiling several of America's major Protestant denominations three decades ago.
In June, delegates to the Presbyterians' national assembly voted to abolish the church's ban on actively homosexual clergy and lay officers.
In the coming months, 173 presbyteries, or regional legislatures, will vote on whether to follow the delegates' action and repeal the ban. Church policy will be set by whatever the majority of presbyteries decide.
They could lift the ban with solid scholarly support. An open letter urging the delegates to lift the ban was signed by a majority among Bible professors at Presbyterian seminaries 33 out of 58.
One of those professors, the Rev. Brian Blount of Princeton Theological Seminary, told a meeting of Presbyterians fighting the ban that the New Testament obviously condemns gay behavior.
But, he said, "they are words out of a particular context. Our context is so significantly different that I don't think the words are any longer living, but dead words if we try to read them without contextually understanding them."
Gagnon's book is appearing in ample time for people attending the regional meetings to ponder whether his rebuttal to the 33 professors has merit.
The liberal professors summed up the arguments for lifting the gay ban in their letter:
Bible passages about homosexuality should be understood for "their meaning in their own time." On careful reading, they "seem to be advocating values such as hospitality to strangers, ritual purity or the sinfulness of all human beings before God."
"The concept of homosexuality as now understood" is probably not something the ancient biblical writers could have known.
The church should honor "the rule of love" rather than "pronouncing judgment upon a specific behavior of a whole category of persons," because the Bible's overarching principles are inclusion and justice.
Gagnon, however, thinks the strictly heterosexual view of gender and sexuality in the creation (Genesis 1 and 2) is fundamental. Assessing ancient Jewish thought apart from the Bible, he says heterosexuality was seen as God's design built into human anatomy.
Of about 20 biblical texts with some bearing, Gagnon focuses on the Old Testament's Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:26-27 in the New Testament.
Gagnon translates the Leviticus command as: "With a male you shall not lie as though lying with a woman; it is an abomination." (Leviticus 20:13 is similar, with the death penalty added).
Liberals note that this verse is embedded in a code of Jewish ritual purity laws, most of which Christians disregard. But Gagnon argues that Christians have always upheld sexual prohibitions in the same chapter against adultery (verse 20), incest (6-18) and bestiality (23).
Jesus Christ never condemned same-sex behavior, liberals further contend. Gagnon responds that there's no reason to suppose Jesus disagreed with Jewish sexual morals, since he "was not shy about expressing his disapproval of the conventions of his day."
And in Mark 10:6-9 and Matthew 19:3-6, Gagnon says, Jesus endorsed the exclusive heterosexuality of Genesis 1 and 2. In those passages, while answering a question about divorce, Jesus says that "from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female." He also says "the two shall become one."
The fear factor
This book was no project to undertake lightly, Gagnon said.
"The political climate in academia is very much in favor of affirming homosexual relationships, so the fear factor is considerable among those who disagree," he said.
But he wrote the book because he's convinced that wider acceptance of same-sex activity will harm society including homosexuals themselves.
He also thinks endorsement of gay and lesbian activity "will shake to the core the church's fidelity toward Scripture." If such a "pervasive, severe and absolute" biblical prohibition can be overturned, he believes, no teaching of Scripture is safe.