A Debate About Homosexuality image

A Debate About Homosexuality

One of the hardest things to do, when speaking publicly about any controversial issue, is to get the tone right. You're speaking to many different types of people, and you have specific things to say to each of them - and it may be impossible to sympathise, confront, encourage, rebuke, lament, defend, grieve and explain, all at once. Sometimes, you will sound robust or even fierce; sometimes, gentle to the point of being apologetic. Sometimes you need to listen carefully to the charge that you are wrong (Peter in Galatians 2); sometimes you need to stand your ground, and point out how ridiculous something is (Paul in Galatians 3). I take comfort from the fact that 1 Corinthians, which I've been researching for the last few years, goes from pastoral encouragement to correction to reminder to warning to mockery to disbelief to reassurance, and does so without either condemning the Corinthians or condoning their behaviour. That's a difficult high-wire act.

Not only that, but most of us simply don’t have the time to read every article, discuss every book and debate every opponent. I’ve done a fair bit of public debate on Scripture and sexuality, with Rob Bell, Steve Chalke and Brian McLaren, among others, but there are still relevant ancient sources and modern texts that I haven’t read (and I imagine that if that’s true for me, it’s true for most of us). I am also wary of getting embroiled in endless “conversations” or “dialogues”, the chief goal of which, as often as not, is to present all views as equally valid, which rather begs the question. What I need, and don’t have the capacity to generate myself, is an extended discussion between two leading voices, conducted in a gracious and helpful tone, with no punches pulled about areas of disagreement, and a spirit of love for both gay people and the church of Jesus Christ.

That’s why this debate between Preston Sprinkle and Jeff Cook is so helpful. I’ve quoted both Jeff and Preston here before, they are both articulate spokesmen for their particular views (Jeff is “affirming” and Preston is “non-affirming”), and they get on really well. On top of that, Preston is one of the most qualified evangelicals anywhere on this subject; he has presented papers on it, he’s written journal articles on it, he’s publishing a book about it, and he routinely points out the ways in which other evangelicals have failed to engage with the opposing arguments in their strongest form. All told, you should probably listen to what he, and they, have to say.

Jeff’s opening post makes the case that the New Testament does not tell us how to live by giving us moral rules to follow (a deontological ethic), but rather focus on the kind of character we have (a virtue ethic), and then goes on to argue that “nothing about monogamous same-sex relationships by necessity contradicts a life of virtue.” Preston’s response is that, from a New Testament perspective, this is a whopping false dichotomy: “they target both what you do and who you are, because who you are and what you do are not at odds; the latter will flow from the former ... I can’t imagine Jesus, Paul, or any other Jew placing such a thick wedge between a virtuous character and the rules that help shape it.” In Jeff’s reply, he insists that deontological ethics and virtue ethics are mutually exclusive, and that “the virtues [the NT] upholds as central (namely faith, hope, love, justice, perseverance, gentleness, self-control, etc) do not by their nature seem to outlaw monogamous same sex relationships.” Reading the exchange, I was surprised how weak Jeff’s argument was here, and how alien to first century Jewish thinking (not to mention the Gospels and Paul) this dichotomy was, and I kept thinking that Preston’s question, “doesn’t the New Testament itself get to define what is ‘the virtuous life?’”, had gone unanswered. Having said that, my guess is that this is central to the “affirming” position, because if moral requirements are included within New Testament ethics, then the affirming case is on very thin ice indeed.

Probably the key article in the debate comes next, from Preston. It begins with a challenge to evangelicals to repent of their sins towards gay people, and then gives five reasons why the Bible prohibits same-sex sexual behaviour: (1) the Bible only affirms and celebrates heterosexual marriage and sexual behavior therein, (2) Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 explicitly forbids same-sex behaviour with no indication that a specific form of it is in view, (3) Judaism from 300 B.C. to 500 A.D. unanimously and unambiguously maintained the Levitical prohibitions against all forms of same-sex relations, (4) Romans 1:26-27 agrees with both the Old Testament and Jewish (as well as Stoic) standards for sexual conduct, which rule out all forms of same-sex relations, and (5) 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 include same-sex sexual relations among the list of sins of which people need to repent. He gives plenty of evidence for each of these points, and his reasons for reading Romans 1 the way he does are especially helpful.

Jeff’s next post is rather odd: instead of responding to these five arguments on exegetical grounds, he essentially concedes the first three and the fifth, and disagrees with the fourth but without engaging with Preston’s reasons, reverting instead to his polarity between deontological and virtue ethics, and claiming that Jesus taught that Moses got it wrong on divorce. In a curious case of the pastoral tail wagging the theological dog, he concludes (on 1 Cor 6:9-10 and 1 Tim 1:9-10): “excommunication seems unnecessary and extreme when we think of a monogamous gay couple. Because the punishment is too severe we have good reason to think monogamous same-sex relationships are not the target of these two passages.” Preston’s next piece simply replies to the point about the application of Torah, and points out what a strange approach this is: “I think we’d all agree that this would be quite odd: Determining the virtuous nature of a behavior while muzzling the clearest Scriptural witness to that behavior?” Quite. The final post, written together, calls for civility in the conversation on all sides.

For someone who holds to the traditional Christian position on the issue, as I do, the exchange is enormously encouraging. But interestingly, this is not because the dialogue provides good arguments on both sides; it is because the arguments on the traditional side are so much stronger than the arguments on the revisionist side - exegetically, theologically, historically and ethically - that it is hard to believe a neutral observer (which, of course, I do not claim to be!) would conclude Jeff’s case was at all persuasive. For all of Preston’s personal praise for him, and insistence that evangelicals take the “affirming” position seriously, Jeff’s argument is so unconvincing, if one starts with an evangelical view of Scripture and a reasonably open mind as to what it teaches, that there is not much to take seriously here: he assumes what he sets out to prove (there is nothing unvirtuous about same-sex sexual relations), and offers no reasons to refute the obvious objection (that both Old and New Testaments say that there is). On the basis that Jeff is, presumably, one of the most serious, thoughtful “affirming” writers out there, this is very strange, but also strangely encouraging. Unless I have missed something, which is always possible (!), there is not much here that has not already been said by Rob Bell, Steve Chalke or Brian McLaren.

None of this should take away from both Preston and Jeff’s appeals to show love to gay people, or to conduct the conversation with civility and kindness. I have the privilege of being good friends with, and pastoring, plenty of gay people, with all sorts of backgrounds and stories, and I care deeply about both the people and the issue. (I’ve also been sharing my own story of same-sex attraction, and appealing to churches to do much better at including and welcoming gay people, for nearly ten years.) But when it comes to the arguments for an “affirming” position, it’s all a bit one-sided. If this exchange is anything to go by, there is not much there.

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